Volume 20 - Issue 3
The fallacy of contextualismBy William A. Dembski
In the last several decades both philosophy and theology have increasingly taken a ‘contextual turn’. The contextual turn begins with the observation that all of human enquiry occurs within contexts. By itself this observation is perfectly innocuous. It is patently obvious that each of us thinks and moves within certain social, linguistic and epistemic contexts. We are not disembodied spirits living in a Platonic heaven, but flesh and blood people living at certain concrete times and places.
The observation that all human enquiry occurs within contexts (and is thereby constrained by contexts) is uncontroversial. Nevertheless, controversy does arise when we move beyond this simple observation, and embrace the dogma that all human enquiry is inescapably imprisoned within and thereby incorrigibly skewed by contexts. It is one thing to admit that enquiry occurs within contexts and is thereby constrained by contexts. It is quite another to assert that contexts so bias enquiry that our beliefs about the world are invariably warped.
Thus we see the contextual turn taking two forms, one moderate, the other hard-core. Of these I am entirely in sympathy with the moderate turn. Indeed, I regard human enquiry as functioning essentially within contexts, and thus regard the recent elevation of the epistemic status of contexts as salutary for the field of epistemology. In particular, moderate contextualism, as we may call it, uncovers the pretensions of positivism, which in line with the Enlightenment vision of reason, claims the ability to settle all our questions at the bar of Reason writ large. Against this inflated view of human reason, moderate contextualism affirms that all instances of human enquiry occur within contexts and must therefore acknowledge the role of contexts in shaping how we view the world. Reason functions within context and cannot be divorced from context. According to moderate contextualism, reason is to context as soul is to body. Objectivity is not lost by acknowledging the role that background information, or equivalently contexts, play in shaping how we acquire new information and thereby learn about the world. Moderate contextualism, while acknowledging the obvious, does not open the door to unbridled scepticism or relativism.
Moderate contextualism as the view that all human enquiry occurs within and is constrained by contexts is unproblematic. Even what Christians regard as humankind’s chief truth, that God in Christ assumed human form to redeem the world, cannot be divorced from the time, place, history and culture within which Jesus moved. Jesus was not a Platonic ideal being, but a Jew. If we fail to understand Jesus’ Jewish roots, we fail to understand the gospel. The problem with the contextual turn, however, occurs when this moderate contextualism is transformed into hard-core contextualism by being universalized and absolutized in the same way that reason was itself absolutized in the Enlightenment. It is the absolutization of contextualism that constitutes hard-core contextualism and results in what I call the ‘fallacy of contextualism’. It is against this absolutized form of contextualism that I am arguing in this essay.
With hard-core contextualism far more is at stake than the unproblematic claim that enquiry occurs within and is constrained by contexts. By adding that inquiry is always imprisoned within and thereby incorrigibly skewed by contexts, hard-core contextualism entails that we are irremediably barred from obtaining accurate, univocal knowledge of the world. Thus according to hard-core contextualism, our knowledge is always biased, skewed, and theory-laden. Alternatively, our knowledge of the world is always a fictive construction to which we must ever add the disclaimer ‘but of course we don’t really know what’s going on’.
Now there is a problem with adding to all our assertions the disclaimer ‘but of course we don’t really know what’s going on’. For if we don’t really know what’s going on, then we don’t really know that we don’t really know what’s going on. G.K. Chesterton put it this way: ‘We don’t know enough about the unknown to know that it’s unknowable.’ Here then in a nutshell is the fallacy of contextualism. It is the fallacy that results from asserting with too much confidence that there is nothing about which we can legitimately have confidence. It is the fallacy of knowing too much about the very thing that’s supposed to be an object of ignorance. It is the fallacy of trying to have your cake and eat it too.
The fallacy of contextualism is a fallacy of self-referential incoherence. Hard-core contextualism makes a universal claim, and therefore can be applied to itself. Nevertheless, when applied to itself, hard-core contextualism strips itself of any claims to universality. Is all of our thinking irremediably biased by context? Then what about the very claim that all our thinking is irremediably biased by context? And in what context is this claim being made? As hard-core contextualists are we not all too biased in making such claims about contexts, and if so, might we not simply be committing a conceptual error, having made the claim simply because we are part of a secular culture (= context) that has bought into unbridled scepticism and relativism?
When cast in this light, the fallacy inherent in hard-core contextualism becomes immediately apparent. Still it is amazing the different forms this fallacy takes and the vast number of reputed thinkers who continue to take it seriously. The next thing I want to do therefore is present a few concrete examples of this fallacy in action. Having presented these examples, I then want to draw several conclusions both about the proper place of moderate contextualism in theology and philosophy, and the proper way to safeguard theology and philosophy from the fallacy inherent in hard-core contextualism.
Consider the following blurb on the back cover of Ronald Thiemann’s recent book Constructing a Public Theology (the blurb is by William Placher and serves as an endorsement for the book):
In a pluralistic society … no set of theological or philosophical first principles provides a starting point on which everyone can agree.… Thoughtful Christians in particular want to make their voices heard in public debate without opening themselves up to charges of trying to impose their agenda on everyone else.1
Prima facie, this statement appears innocuous—nay, even tolerant and generous. In our pluralistic society we have grown accustomed to the notion that everything is up for grabs. Indeed, for any claim made, someone else seems ever ready to advance a counterclaim. Cicero’s dictum has, as it were, come home to us with a vengeance, to wit, ‘there is nothing so absurd but that some philosopher has said it’. And in our day, everyone is a philosopher.
Now while it is perfectly true that our society no longer adheres to any common first principles on which a consensus exists, it does not follow that society should adjure the search for a common set of first principles or consider it somehow progressive that first principles are now regarded as passé. Let me stress that a society’s search for or adherence to first principles does not entail a return to classical foundationalism in epistemology, to positivism in science, or to the glorification of reason à la the Enlightenment. Presumably our society itself constitutes a context within which common purposes and goals can be worked out. For this reason it seems artificial to proscribe, prior to any discussion or analysis, the search for such principles by the society. Without such a discussion and analysis, we simply don’t know whether a society’s search for first principles is doomed to fail.
In this light let us reconsider Placher’s claim that ‘in a pluralistic society … no set of theological orphilosophical first principles provides a starting point on which everyone can agree’. Placher is making more than a simple statement of fact. Indeed, he is not just claiming that the members of our pluralistic society do not agree on any theological or philosophical first principles. The latter claim is certainly true, but holds little philosophical interest since our society contains many criminals and mentally deranged individuals to whom philosophers and theologians will not, at least in their academic writing, give the time of day.
At issue is not the obvious fact that the members of our society don’t agree on anything. Rather, it is the claim that we are in principle barred from reaching agreement. In this way our inability to agree is itself elevated to a first principle. If you will, this becomes a first principle: societies are properly speaking pluralistic and therefore cannot have first principles. Such a first principle is of course self-referentially incoherent. If a society accepts that ‘no set of theological or philosophical first principles provides a starting point on which everyone can agree’, then that society does indeed have such a first principle. If an individual claims that any search for first principles is doomed to failure, then this individual has already found such a first principle (the claim itself becomes a first principle).
Self-referential incoherence is typically greeted with amusement once it is exposed. Nevertheless, we need to recognize that whenever an argument founders on self-referential incoherence, there is a serious problem with that argument. Indeed, whole schools of philosophy have crumbled under the weight of self-referential incoherence. Among these I would point out the failure of Frege’s logicism for mathematics as a result of the Russell paradox, the failure of Hilbert’s programme for showing that every mathematical claim is decidable as a result of Gödel’s theorems, and the failure of logical positivism as a result of the self-refuting nature of its verificationist theory of meaning.
If Placher is asserting that the search for theological or philosophical first principles is a doomed enterprise, then Placher is guilty of self-referential incoherence. His claim therefore has no logically compelling force, and any conclusions he draws from this claim become unsupportable and suspect. Thus when Placher concludes, ‘Thoughtful Christians in particular want to make their voices heard in public debate without opening themselves up to charges of trying to impose their agenda on everyone else’, this conclusion must be evaluated on its own merits, and not as a consequence of a self-referentially incoherent first principle that by fiat bars first principles tout court. On its own merits, however, Placher’s conclusion carries little weight. The references to ‘thoughtful Christians’ and ‘impose their agenda’ are rhetorical moves designed to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, i.e., those who embrace Placher’s pluralism and those who, like myself, eschew it. Thus if we are to take Placher seriously, the evangelization of the Roman empire by the early Christians (to whom the epithet ‘thoughtful Christians’ certainly cannot be denied) would have involved the ‘imposition of an agenda’.
Perhaps I’m being a bit obsessive, working to death a mere blurb of endorsement on the back of a book cover. Nevertheless, as a blurb of endorsement it indicates to what extent the theological community is prepared to accept the fallacy of contextualism, and with it the relativism and radical scepticism entailed by hard-core contextualism. After all, it is the content of a book, not the blurb endorsing it, that is supposed to issue in controversy.
But then again, Placher is not saying anything that Thiemann does not espouse and develop in the body of his book. For instance, on the question of pluralism, Thiemann comments:
Political and cultural diversity is a gift to be nurtured and celebrated. The freedom upon which such diversity is based is particularly precious and must be preserved and extended to those who have been excluded from full participation in a free society.2
In elevating pluralism to a first principle, Thiemann is guilty of the worst sort of special pleading. Thiemann’s pluralism has no room for intolerant chaps like myself who think Christianity makes exclusive truth claims that are binding on the world at large. And yet, Thiemann’s pluralism is to be accorded sacrosanct status as a guiding principle of society. Woe to anyone who opposes it. Call it pluralism, but I call it imperialism.
Next, let us consider a contextual fallacy that occurs all too frequently in contemporary literary theory. Once again Ronald Thiemann lays out the fallacy, though this time without giving his assent to it. Thus he describes the following views that have become commonplace in literary circles:
- Literary texts are indeterminable and thus inevitably yield multiple, irreducibly diverse interpretations.
- There can be no criteria for preferring one reading to another and [thus we are] cast into the darkest of hermeneutical nights in which all readings are indistinguishably gray.3
I find it helpful to set claims like this apart in the way I have done here. Indeed, if one reads claims like this within the flow of a paragraph, their self-referential incoherence is likely to be lost. But set apart as they are here, their self-referential incoherence becomes strikingly evident.
Although (2) is supposed to make a more radical claim than (1), both quickly run into difficulties when we turn the hermeneutic questions they raise back on themselves. Is the hermeneuticist who asserts either (1) or (2) ready to admit that what he or she is asserting is itself indeterminate? Do (1) and (2) admit no semantic boundaries? In all likelihood a hermeneuticist who asserts claims like (1) and (2) wants to be taken seriously and wants the semantic range of (1) and (2) narrowly constrained. Thus for a philosophical subversive like myself to come along and interpret these claims differently from their plain sense would be deemed unacceptable. But what if I choose to interpret claims (1) and (2) as saying respectively the following:
- Literary texts are determinable and thus yield a single, univocal interpretation corresponding to the original intention of the author.
- There are sharp criteria for preferring one reading to another and thus we can always avoid the darkest of hermeneutical nights. All readings are either black or white.
Let me emphasize that I’m not endorsing (1′) or (2′). My point is simply that if one starts out by taking (1) and (2) seriously, then (1) and (2′) become legitimate readings of (1) and (2) respectively, with the result that it becomes impossible to take (1) and (2) seriously. In this way deconstruction becomes a tool not just for deconstructing texts but also for deconstructing itself.
And this is why deconstruction is at base an intellectual subterfuge. The key theoretical problem facing the literary theorist is to characterize the relation that obtains between the reader of a text and the text itself. In the classical conception meanings inhere in texts and the reader’s job is to dig out the meaning from the text, the meaning of the text typically being identified with the intention of the author. Deconstructionists, on the other hand, start by assuming that any meaning associated with texts is so under-determined as to issue in ‘endless labyrinths of possible meanings’.4 Deconstruction therefore ‘invites readers to approach texts creatively and to appreciate their ability to generate an unlimited plurality of meaningful effects’.5
The key word in the last sentence is ‘creatively’. Because the meaning of the text is so unconstrained, the reader must create the meaning rather than discover it. And yet the writings of deconstructionists do themselves constitute texts which can be read deconstructively. But of course Derrida and his disciples do not want the texts they write deconstructed in the way they are advocating that other texts be deconstructed (i.e., something like what I was doing above when I reinterpreted sentence (1) as sentence (1′)). Rather they want their texts taken seriously and read non-destructively. Only after their own work is taken seriously and read using a classical hermeneutic do they enjoin the reader to read everything else deconstructively. This is not so much a logical fallacy as sheer hypocrisy.6
The fallacy of contextualism is frequently tied to a faulty view of language. This faulty view of language comes up repeatedly in feminist theology, where it is used as a tool for systematically transforming traditional God-talk. Let us therefore turn to a particularly apt expression of this faulty view of language as enunciated by the feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson:
There has been no timeless speech about God in the Jewish or Christian tradition. Rather, words about God are cultural creatures, entwined with the mores and adventures of the faith community that uses them. As cultures shift, so too does the specificity of God-talk.7
Certainly languages are evolving, living entities—one has only to compare the King James version of the Bible with more recent translations into English to see how much our language has changed in the last 400 years. Words change their meanings over time. Grammar changes over time. Even logic and rhetoric change over time. What’s more, language itself is thoroughly conventional. What a word means depends on convention and can be changed by convention. For instance, there is nothing intrinsic about the word ‘automobile’ that demands the word denote a car. If we go with its Latin etymology, we might just as well have applied ‘automobile’ to human beings, who are after all ‘self-propelling’ also. There is nothing sacred about the form a word assumes. For instance, ‘gift’ in English means a present, in German it means poison, and in French it means nothing at all. And of course, words only make sense within the context of broader units of discourse like whole narratives.
No one who reflects on the matter thinks language is in any way fixed or ossified. But then again this is not Elizabeth Johnson’s point. Her aim is to develop a feminist theology in which she can be justified referring to God in the ferminine, i.e., as ‘she’. The very title of her book leaves no doubt on this point: She Who Is. But how does Johnson justify such a change in our language about God? It certainly isn’t enough to say that language evolves, that words are conventional, and that the meaning of language depends on context. Rather, Johnson needs the much stronger notion that language is incapable of conveying enduring senses which are expressible over time and translatable from the past into the present.
Where then is the fallacy of contextualism in all this? In denying that there is ‘timeless speech about God in the Jewish or Christian tradition’, Johnson certainly does not mean that her own pronouncements about the nature of language and the impossibility of timeless speech about God are not to be taken in a timeless sense. The problem is that if language is incapable of expressing ‘timeless senses’, then any claim about language which claims language cannot express timeless senses becomes uninterpretable and meaningless. Language is evolving. The publication date of Johnson’s book is 1992. It is now 1994. At least two years have elapsed since Johnson wrote the above passage which denies such a thing as timeless speech. How then can I know what Johnson meant two years ago if language cannot convey timeless senses?
But that was only two years ago, you say. Then please explain to me what distinguishes the two years since the publication of Johnson’s She Who Is from the 2,000 years since the publication of the gospel. Why should we not attach the same disclaimer to Johnson’s writings which she seems to attach to the Scriptures, namely, that her writings have no timeless sense? Is it because Johnson and we are part of the same culture? But she is a feminist theologian and I am an evangelical mathematician. What then does it mean to say we are part of the same culture? Indeed, theologically I view myself as much closer to Paul and the NT than I do to Johnson and her form of feminist theology. I submit therefore that Johnson’s denial that language can convey timeless senses is incoherent. If language cannot express timeless senses, then speech occurring two seconds ago or two millennia ago is equally inaccessible to our cognitive faculties.
Having now described the fallacy of contextualism in some detail and given a few concrete examples showing how this fallacy operates in practice, I want in this final portion of the essay to turn to a somewhat different question, namely, What is it that keeps this fallacy alive? As a strictly logical matter, the fallacy of contextualism represents an egregious blunder which once noted can be duly dismissed. Nevertheless, the persistence with which this fallacy rears its head, and the multiplicity of guises which it assumes, should lead us to ponder why it is that this fallacy keeps being reincarnated.
Once Aristotle formulated his logic, there was no longer any question about whether a given syllogism was valid or invalid. Moreover, anyone who proposed an invalid syllogism was henceforth laughed to scorn and considered an uneducated boor. Not so the purveyors of the contextual fallacy. They remain some of the brightest lights on the literary, philosophical and theological landscape. How is it that they manage to keep their reputations intact despite committing what on closer examination is an inexcusable error?
To be sure, the error is often concealed, being cloaked in a morass of terminology and notation. Yet at other times the contextual fallacy is not so much concealed as proclaimed and celebrated. This is likely to occur in those theologies that revel in contradiction and think faith cannot be faith unless it embraces the absurd, as though logical clarity and precision were somehow inimical to faith.
A thoroughgoing pragmatism often underlies the fallacy of contextualism. If all that is interesting is happening in my own little context, and if no one outside my context is entitled to rebuke or correct me, then the fallacy of contextualism serves to affirm my way of life and give me the autonomy to do as I please. Autonomy and self-determination are watchwords of our age. They are the principal goals of self-realization. They are psychological desiderata to which the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations give their seal of approval. Pragmatism as it were tells us, ‘Yes, it is a logical fallacy, but it feels so good. It lets me do what I want. It is liberating. How can something that feels so right be so logically wrong?’ And so we are encouraged not to take the fallacy too seriously. It does useful work. It encourages pluralism and diversity. It keeps us in step with the times.
It seems, however, that there is a deeper issue at stake here, deeper than the rationalizations offered by pragmatists on behalf of the fallacy, and deeper also than the logical critique offered against the fallacy earlier in this essay. The deeper issue concerns both the nature of contexts and the nature of human rationality. Hard-core contextualism and the fallacy of contextualism that it engenders view contexts as essentially bent in on themselves. According to hard-core contextualism, contexts are autonomous little worlds alienated from other contexts and incapable of interacting coherently with them. Hard-core contextualism, as it were, takes the alienation humans experience on account of sin and corruption, and elevates it to a philosophical principle. For Augustine the sin and corruption of the self consisted in the self being bent in on itself. Hard-core contextualism elevates, glorifies and transfigures this corruption, taking the contexts in which humans live, move and have their being, and turning them in on themselves.
This is bad. As Christians we live, move and have our being in God. We are therefore not to have our vision focused on our own little contexts, but rather to open our contexts to God and the world. In short, we are to be in communion with other contexts. The Christian view of contexts and human rationality is therefore quite different from the view advanced by hard-core contextualism. On the Christian view, contexts are not bent in on themselves, but are fundamentally open, embracing the world and seeking to learn from it. Yes, we operate within contexts; but we are able also to reflect on our contexts and broaden the scope of our contexts so as to embrace and enter other contexts. Reinhold Niebuhr referred to this ability of ours as ‘self-transcendence’.8
There is no context which God does not simultaneously inhabit and transcend. At the root of the fallacy of contextualism is the notion that we can have our own little world into which no one else can intrude, not even God. Pride undergirds this thirst for autonomy, this desire to be masters of our own little worlds. Curiously, though this thirst for autonomy is almost always advertised as setting us free, it invariably accomplishes the opposite. For the autonomy that bends contexts in on themselves is an autonomy of isolation and solitary confinement. This sort of autonomy is wholly incompatible with the freedom offered to humanity by God in Christ. Instead of imprisoning us in our contexts, God has created us so that we can interact with and learn from other contexts.
Christianity has never been a religion of the self. The first commandment is a commandment to worship God and God alone. Corrupted as it is by sin, the self, when it turns in on itself, discovers nothing of enduring hope or value. To see this, one has only to consider the logical outworkings of religions which do make the self rather than God the centre of their attentions. In both Hinduism and Buddhism ‘the chief end of man’ (to use a phrase from the Westminster catechism) is not ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever’, but to have the self absorbed into Brahman or annihilated in the void so that it can escape the weary cycle of reincarnation. In either case the goal is to do away with personal identity.
To this the Westminster catechism responds that ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever’. But how is this goal to be accomplished? The eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel begins to answer this question: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’ (Mk. 8:34–35). Our first step then is not to turn in on ourselves, but to turn outward and to God.
But once we have turned outward and to God, where do we go? To this Gregory of Nyssa responds that we go on to perfection—yet a form of perfection that is dynamic and progressive rather than static. For Gregory of Nyssa perfection is identified with ever-increasing growth in the knowledge of God. Indeed, as finite beings perfection is never something we attain once and for all. Rather, perfection is a matter of continuing growth in the knowledge of God. Now this view of Christian perfection is incompatible with any view of contexts which treats them as isolated, mutually inaccessible compartments.
In conclusion, let me offer a few predictions about what we can expect from the fallacy of contextualism in the future. First, I predict that this fallacy will not go away, despite brilliant refutations of it like the one you have just read. The practical benefits of this fallacy are simply too great for people to let mere trifles like logicand truth get in the way and prevent them from enjoying its benefits. Second, we can expect ever more sophisticated versions of this fallacy, which are so richly ornamented in terminology, notation, and all manner of scholarly appurtenances that the job of exposing the fallacy of contextualism will require increasing care and diligence. Third and last, I predict that hard-core contextualism will be employed with increasing vigour as a weapon against traditional Christian thinking. The attack will come chiefly in the name of pluralism, diversity and tolerance, and will challenge Christianity at every point where Christianity stands in opposition to the secularization of culture and society. To put the matter in a by now familiar idiom, the goal will be to transform the Christian context into the secular context. In this respect Romans 12:1–2 provides a decisive corrective.
1 Ronald F. Thiemann, Constructing a Public Theology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), back cover.
2 Ibid., p. 47.
3 Ibid., pp. 45–46.
4 Mark A. Powell, What is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), p. 17.
6 For a general treatment of deconstruction, see Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice(London: Methuen, 1982).
7 Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 6.
8 See Book I, Chapter 1 of Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1949).
William A. Dembski
Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Princeton, New Jersey