Context Is the Key to Flourishing

Today, another long and complicated entry, but, for me, one in which many disparate ideas that have made my writing difficult seem to be coming together. I am beginning to see an orderly, explicable development of the ideas central to understanding flourishing, its critical importance, and its absence from today’s modern world.


I note the subject of context has started to appear with some regularity in this blog. And rightly so. It is a subject that is not directly addressed in my books, but should be. Our modern institutions are build on a foundation of acontextual or decontextualized knowledge; a huge inter-meshed set of data, formula, and rules that has been created and accumulated by taking some object or collection of objects out of its worldly context and applying the methods of science to discover these law-like “relationships.” I put relationships in quotes because I want to distinguish its use as the way we typically characterize cause and effect among these objectified objects from the kind of meaningful relationships we develop in the course of living within the experiential context of the world.

The single-most defining characteristic of our species is consciousness. Other species are aware of and react to the outside world, but are not conscious of it. Consciousness is our ability to focus on portions of the external phenomenal world and ascribe meaning to it. Meaning shows up in the stories we tell to express that consciousness. Meaning is expressed through language and always is contextual. The same objects that produce a particular story in one context may (and usually do) have a different story within a different context. Meaningfulness is, like consciousness, a central characteristic of human existence. Without it, we lose our uniqueness and wander the earth like other animals.

Context has two dimensions, time and space. The same set of objects take on different meanings at different historical moments because the way we interpret phenomena depends on the present horizon of past meanings, which horizon has changed since the last time we encountered that same phenomenal world. What might have been an effective set of actions earlier no longer produces what our intentions called for. This is the basis for Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Repetition of some abstract, acontextual rule-based actions is likely to have the same results even when the context and the intention has changed because something about the context is involved, but has been left out.

Modern life rests on a foundation of abstract knowledge. To the extent that abstractions can be generalized to apply in different spatial and temporal settings, they make reproducible cultural activities possible. Imagine how life would be if we had to stop and figure out what to do next at every turn. Most of our daily life shows up as actions based on acontextual rules we have acquired during our existence from early childhood to the present moment. There is a form of meaning in these rules since we can tell a story like, “I am conscious of (recognize) the outside moment as “telling” me a particular story, but without and end. The end is stored in that part of my memory that completes such stories in the form of intentional actions. I “know” how I want the future to turn out and act accordingly.

And, indeed, it does turn out that way much of the time. If we associate thinking with this process, it consists of recognizing (giving meaning to) the present, as whatever I am conscious of, and searching for and activating the matching ending stored in my memory. I wrote about this process in a previous blog post that seems worth repeating.

Awareness (consciousness of something), selection of a future state that involves what I have just focused on (intention), appropriate steps to get there, declaration (conscious or unconscious) that I have done it. And, then, one goes on to the next intentional act, indefinitely. Here’s the quote from Husserl I used in one of my earlier blogs.

In every action we know the goal in advance in the form of an anticipation that is “empty,” in the sense of vague, and lacking its proper “filling-in,” which will come with fulfillment. Nevertheless we strive toward such a goal and seek by our action to bring it step by step to concrete realization. (Husserl, E., Formale und tranzendentale Logik, Halle, Niemeyer, 1929.)

That which has become culturally routine behavior lacks an image of the future and is based on behavioral norms that perhaps once worked in bringing society closer to its implicit vision, but now are producing more and more negative unintended consequences and less and less movement towards the underlying ends.

Similarly, the process as conceived by another philosopher, Alfred Schutz, is paraphrased as:

Action, then, can be conceived of as a dialectical relationship between the present and the future. While it is grounded and to a degree constrained by experience and the past, it is still open to alternative possibilities; there are still elements of choice of actions. Perhaps there is not the complete unrestrained freedom of the existentialist, but simultaneously there is not the complete determinism suggested by ‘naturalistic’ social science. The major point is that the purpose of action is change: it is formulated to negate in some sense that which is existing.” (My emphasis)

Another great thinker, Gregory Bateson, connected these phenomenological ideas to what he saw as the primary reason human beings haven’t been able to put their big problems behind them. He wrote, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” I never quite understood this before, but now I see it as making the same argument I am making here. Relying only on acontextual bases for human action—the primary way that modern humans think/act— fails to capture the contextuality of the world.

Another way of making the same claim is to say that we act as if the world was nothing more than a context-free set of rules we have generated by our reductionist scientific methods. The world is, importantly, complex and behaves in ways that are not captured by these kinds of rules. Every situation is unique because the context is ever changing. As I wrote in the last blog, “Plato wrote. ‘You could not step twice in the same river (attributed to Heraclitus).’” If asked, we couch our expectations of the outcomes of our normal actions in probabilistic terms or simply as a matter of luck. Such statements are a tacit recognition that our models do not correspond to the world.

I have argued in all of my work that the persistent, growing problems that have shown up in modern cultures are the result of the disparity between how modern societies “think” and the way the world works, just as Bateson wrote. While we can characterize the differences in many ways, the single most critical, as I have been developing here, is the absence of context from the modern way of thinking.

Context, itself, is a word that reflects the process of consciousness, focusing on something within a larger body of sensory phenomena. Our focus, however, lacks the discriminating fineness of reductionist methods; we also capture a sense of parts of the world out there in which the parts we have focused on are embedded. The main players are always accompanied by the setting, not unlike the situation we observe while watching a play or movie. Context also has a historical dimension; we add a sense of what happened in similar situations in the past. The meaning of any such encounter with the world is much richer that the decontextualized story related only to the focal players. The story we would tell if asked to explain what is going on would be much richer.

Human action is always an interaction with the world, and the outcome always reflects that interaction. The success of our actions over time would be higher if our cognitive bases are more closely matched to the way that world works. This seems obvious to me, but is certainly arguable. Obvious or not, this assertion is the central grounding for my writings about sustainability (in the conventional sense) and flourishing. Other new ideas that follow are derivative of this argument. Contextuality remains a central concept in replacing the structure of modernity.

The importance of thinking in terms of a complex world follows. A complex system is any assemblage of elements for which predicting the future state requires information about its historical behavior, that is, understanding the context. Such systems can also be described in technical terms as behaving non-linearly, showing emergent and self-organizing behavior, flipping into new regimes, and so on. But how are we to create practical understanding of the messy, real systems connected to the problems we care about solving? The key is to use methods that are capable of creating context.

I have argued for a broad use of pragmatic methods, replacing the conventional use of scientific or rational methods. Following the above discussion, these methods are built to gather contextual as well as rule-like information about the system being studied. This is easier said than done, which fact makes patience an essential feature of any pragmatic investigation.

Another central feature of my work is the notion of Being as the proper model for human behavior against the modern model of Homo economicus. Here, too, I see context looming large. The idea of Being came from philosophers like Martin Heidegger and is exceedingly difficult to describe in everyday language. I, now, think that context can offer a way to understand it.

The modern way of living is largely decontextualized. Most of our actions, particularly in a society that is predominantly structured around markets, involve people interacting through transactions, that is, rule-based actions. The results of transactions, in general, are that you end having acquired something, hence the association with the “having’ mode of living. Being involves entering into relationships, interactions that possess contextual meaning, that occur in a context of a meaningful past. Relationships have a temporal sense tied to the entire duration of previous interactions. Context is created, in part, in the conversations that usually accompany a relationship.

Relational context is created in moments of no action, in the interruptions that can occur in the continuous flow of action between related actors. In these moments, reflection enables the latest part of the story (context) of that particular relationship to be added. Like pragmatic methods for collective context building, reflection is a critical process for individual context-building. In the rush that many describe as the typical behavioral pattern in the United States, little or no reflection is possible, so relationships fail to be created even in protracted periods of engagement. The use of technological devices to intermediate conversations interferes with context-building and becomes more transactional than relation-building.

In my last few blogs, I have written about caring, another word to describe actions that occur within a contextual horizon. Being, as a distinct mode of life, is one in which most actions occur within such a context. I will be writing more about these distinctions, critical for a world in which flourishing is a possibility. Today, what is important to take away is the centrality of context for such a world. Instead of focusing on Being and caring, you will be just as, perhaps even more, successful simply to think about how to introduce context into everyday living.