Expanded Notes on Context Evaluation

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What counts as context is a vexed philosophical question, and it seems likely that there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for delimiting it. The relevant frame for conducting this sort of argument analysis will change given the subject matter, the participants, the location of the argument, the surrounding political climate, etc. etc. We are quite adept at recognizing what is relevant and what is not in specific circumstances, and there are a couple common contextual dimensions that recur regularly and warrant mention here. They correspond to elements in a typical argument episode, and are listed here in connection with those.

  1. Intentional Context: An argument is advanced by an arguer, and the arguer usually does this with some goal in mind. However, it isnít always the case that the argument fits with the goalóthe arguer may be somewhat confused, or perhaps misled about what is required to achieve that goal. In such a case, there is dissonance or perhaps inconsistency between the argument taken individually and the broader argumentative plan of which it is a part. As a result, a perfectly good argument might fail in its context because it isnít relevant to the goals of arguer.  

  2. Practical Context: Even if an argument fits into the plan of the arguer responsible for it, that may not be enough if the plan itself fails to fit the overall discourse in which the argument fits. One very important practical context is the Discourse Context. Arguments are typically supplied in a discourse, where that could be a conversation or a temporally extended dialogue that takes place in scholarly journals, among many other things. In fact, a given argument might have a place in a number of overlapping discourses, and it may be evaluated differentially according to its different place and function in these discourses. The other arguments that figure into these discourses will influence how one regards the argument under scrutiny.

There are other dimensions, but these two stand out as more or less general and, where they are found, critical. An argument that runs the gauntlet of analysis, avoiding pitfalls of form, content, and context, will stand out as compelling and will have a deserved claim on the beliefs of those who value rational consistency.

For more on context, see Chapter Six, Section V, of the UI Critical Thinking Handbook