Context is a word I use a lot in discussing my academic work; I use it, for example, in the context of the Wittgensteinian slogan “Meaning is use in context”. But what is context?
I think of it as the stuff around something which helps you make sense of it. I might also use words like ‘setting’, ‘surroundings’, or ‘connotations’. The context of an event is the other stuff happening before and around that event: the Second World War needs to be understood in the context of the economic situation in the 1930s, for example. The context of a word is the other language – and maybe other actions or events – which surround it: the word ‘queer’, for example, comes over very differently in the context of someone yelling “you dirty queer” compared with someone talking about “queer theory”. Sometimes the context contains important clues: the context of a picture in an art gallery, for example, might include a notice with the title and the name of the artist, and maybe some other comments, which help you to contextualise that image. In particular, the date of the painting and the identity of the artist might help you to connect it to other, related, paintings, and put it into a broader context of art history.
Contexts, as that last remark reveals, can be narrower or broader. The context of a word in a particular book, on a particular page, in a particular sentence, gets narrower and narrower, and it can be very informative to look at this context in a tightly focussed way. In a poem, for example, we might find that the juxtaposition of two specific words – which alliterate, to give a simple example – might be very important. In other cases, it’s helpful to broaden our search to a much wider view of the context – to put a Biblical passage, for example, in the context of the whole book which contains it, and then into the genre (is it from a gospel? Psalms? A letter?) to which it belongs. We might find it contains allusions to other texts and want to put those into their original contexts, too.
Words, objects, and people move between contexts, too, of course. Have you ever met someone in the street, whom you would know and recognise in a particular meeting or in another city, and completely failed to recognise them? Many people have highly contextual memories – we often link information to other information relating to a specific context, and struggle to retrieve it outside that context. An object in a museum is obviously not in the original context, and it can seem weirdly alien (have you ever seen one of your childhood toys in a museum?). Similarly, when words cross between contexts – if someone uses technical computer terminology in a casual conversation, or Buddhist words in a Quaker setting – they can come over very differently. This experience is heightened if the audience don’t have the speaker’s background with a word: if the Quakers aren’t familiar with the term ‘Sangha’, if the participants in the casual conversion aren’t sure what a Chrome app is, if your friend has spotted her favourite childhood toy in the museum display but you never owned one. In this case, the previous contexts in which the speaker has encountered a word – which may be more or less visible to the audience – can be vital to understanding not just what is meant at the straightforward level but the emotional resonances which it carries for the speaker.