What is the/a definition for the term 'context'?

The term is used everywhere, and the dictionaries only give a description of it's meaning.
Definitions for other terms such as concept, perspective, etc, should be derivable from such a definition of 'context'.

To make my question clearer, this question about alternative logics contains the following phrase: "it is rational for anybody that if P is correct then P or Q is correct too": my contention is that this statement is entirely incorrect since the context in which P is correct or not, is not evident, and therefor nothing can be said about "P or Q". I would assume that somehow a context is included tacitly (for the rational bit at least), but for any such tacit context I would be able to propose a context in which P is incorrect or does not apply at all. I would think for any form logic the "context" in which it's statements applies should be well defined, and this brings me to my question: what is a "context"?

Just a bit more on the P/Q-thing since answers seems to focus on that: if P is the statement "the sky is blue" and Q is "it is a starry night" then the 'wrongness' due to the lack of context is clear. The context must give a definition-space in which the relationship between P and Q exists (going into epistemology here).

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    This question might be better suited for English.SE.
    – Lauren
    Commented Nov 8, 2011 at 20:29
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    @Lauren: my question stems from the idea that context has a real function of greater applicability than a communication device, and I'm inquiring if others investigated this angle and what their conclusions were.
    – slashmais
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 5:01

4 Answers 4


The whole idea of logical validity is to divorce form from content; I think what the poster was highlighting is that in formal logic, context is irrelevant. If P, then P; this is true irregardless of context. Since that is true, then "If P, then P or Q" must also be logically true, because we already know P is true, thus it doesn't matter if Q is or not.

What you seem to be getting at, however, is the notion known as philosophical contextualism.

Contextualism describes a collection of views in philosophy which emphasize the context in which an action, utterance, or expression occurs, and argues that, in some important respect, the action, utterance, or expression can only be understood relative to that context. Contextualist views hold that philosophically controversial concepts, such as "meaning P," "knowing that P," "having a reason to A," and possibly even "being true" or "being right" only have meaning relative to a specified context. Some philosophers hold that context-dependence may lead to relativism; nevertheless, contextualist views are increasingly popular within philosophy.

  • See my comment to Michael Dorfman. I don't see how context can ever be irrelevant, if P then Pintrinsically defines it's own context. As you have quoted: "... only have meaning relative to a specified context", and I've looked far and wide for a 'universal' definition of context ...
    – slashmais
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 6:17
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    Context is irrelevant insofar as you don't need to know what it is, only that it's consistent. If P, and the context is the same, then P. So in a sense, yes, context does matter, but it's not exactly what the content of the context is that matters but rather that it does not change.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 19:45

I would suggest you take a look at Jacques Derrida's article "Signature Event Context", which delves into this issue. The key takeaway, for your purposes: there is no rigorous way to define (or limit) context.

As for your example case: when we write "If P if correct, then P or Q is correct", we are tacitly assuming that the context is the same on both sides of the comma. In other words, we are actually saying "If P is correct in a given context, then in that same context P or Q is correct." For example: let us assign "The sky is blue" to P, and "London is the capital of France" to Q. If P is true, then P or Q is true. Arguing that P is true during the day, but not true at night is completely irrelevant; the point is that if P is true at a given point in time (i.e., for a given context), then P or Q must necessarily be true at that same point in time.

  • The statement P is correct concerns the content of the statement P directly: in the tacit context of "on a cloudless day on earth the sky is blue", from your example; same goes for Q in a context of "capitals of countries"; my point is that both statements is judged directly on their contextualized content. On the other hand "P or Q" is a construct about P and Q, a meta-description regardless of the content of either, it is a judgment on previous judgments; there is a disconnect here where the contexts of both statements are lost, replaced by the judgment-context. It is uncomfortable.
    – slashmais
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 5:47
  • (continued) It appears to be a confusion of content and construct that seems to result in a sensible statement. To understand how these disparate contexts are relat(ed/able), I need to know what a context is.
    – slashmais
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 6:07
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    @slashmais: I agree that it would be useful for you to know what a context is, and I suggest the Derrida essay for that; it is far too dense for me to summarize here. However, the critical point for your example case is that "P or Q" shares the same context as P and Q. If P is true on the left hand side of the comma, it is true on the right hand side. If it is not, it is not. There is no way to construe "if P, then P or Q" to have differing contexts for the two instances of P-- the same judgment would necessarily apply to both. Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 7:50
  • i found this: egs.edu/faculty/jacques-derrida/articles/… - you are doing the text a kindness by referring to it as "far too dense" ;) Prolixity comes to mind
    – slashmais
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 8:54

I perceive 2 different questions which I think I can answer both.

1: The meaning of context

2: Why "if P is true then P or Q is true" is true

I will start with the second one: In boolean logic, the inclusive or operation (also called OR) evaluates to true if any one of its operands is true. When P is true in an OR operation, the other operands need not be evaluated because OR needs only one true statement. In "P OR Q", whether Q is true or false does not matter because P being true, OR evaluates to true. An alternative case where the value of Q would matter is the exclusive or (XOR), which says "either P or Q but not both". That is not the case, therefore "P OR Q" is true, whatever Q evaluates to (true or false). By the way: "true OR false" is true, just as "true OR true" is...

First question, the meaning of context: The word context has prefix "con", which means "bring together". The "text" is about the syntax, not the semantics. In language, a sentence is a context, consisting of individual words (or pieces of syntax) brought together. When you say "the meaning of something depends on its context", you mean that the semantics vary based on where the piece of logic is situated in the text brought together. In other words, it is situated inside a finite environment composed from its structure, evaluated in that environment, thus yielding a value.

I hope I was clear enough...

  • Boolean algebra IS the context. Context exists outside language as well: a stone can be a weapon, a hammer, a paperweight; if a dog has experience of having stones thrown at it, it will be wary of you if you bend down an pick one up (you could argue that this is a primitive form of communication (lol, I can talk to dogs!), but it is an observed context, like the other uses of a stone, that does not employ language at all.
    – slashmais
    Commented Nov 18, 2011 at 18:27
  • Language was used to demonstrate my theory because, like programming languages or mathematics (or stones and dogs as variables), it all means the same: context is defined in the current environment of an instance. For language, a word is in a sentence that yields its contex or the lexical binding of a sentence (for instance, this text). In our current world, we could generalize it as a current meaning based on where something is in its current environment. Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 4:42

The way to define context is to use the foreground/backgeound distinction. If we define the text as the foreground object — the salient object or concept that is the focus of our perception (observation/discussion) — then context is those aspects of the background that affect our understanding of the text. If we are talking with someone they are the text because our attention is focused on them, but all sorts of extraneous factors — location, occupation, intention, mood, time-of-day, etc — influence the nature of the conversation and constitute the context.

'Context' literally means 'with the text', which points at its supplementary nature.

In the case of logic, please keep in mind that elements of context are often built into the structure. For instance, in the proposition:

if P is correct then P or Q is correct

... the first phrase — if P is correct — creates a context. Any case in which P is incorrect falls out of our view and ceases to influence our further discussion. Or put another way, since we have stipulated that P is correct, and there is no possible context in which P is both correct and incorrect, your contention is impossible. Part of the power of logic is that it creates contexts in which particular statements are universal: e.g. within the context 'P is correct', 'P or Q' is always correct. Logic fails when contexts get confused.

  • Our listener is not the text, the words we say to them are the text. But our internal conception of them is the context. Otherwise a really helpful answer. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 14:45
  • I think you took that phrase too literally. I meant 'talking to' in the communal sense, not the solipsistic sense: i.e. people who are talking to each other... 😀 I'll have to think if there's a better way to rephrase that. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 16:52
  • Yeah another example might be better. Commented Aug 1, 2019 at 23:44
  • Eh, I changed the preposition. let's see how that sits. Commented Aug 2, 2019 at 4:59

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