1. The complexity of context.
Context is difficult to analyse scientifically and his strictly related to another problematic notion, meaning. Thus Bateson (1979:15): “without context, words and actions have no meaning at all. This is true not only of human communication in words but also of all communication whatsoever, of all mental process, of all mind, including that which tells the sea anemore how to grow and the amoeba what he should do next.” If its complexity makes context a powerful device both in knowledge and cognition, the same complexity and dynamism make context difficult to define and study formally.
2. Various approaches
The notion of context has gained significance, and is more often resorted to not only in disciplines where it has always played a central role (linguistics, pragmatics or philosophy of language).
Human being are very good at using context without thinking about it. However, problems arise when one tries to model an average behaviour, or when one tries to cope with a different cultural context that asks for different behaviours. The analysis of components which are requested in these cases makes necessary a better understanding of what context is, how it is structured, how it changes, etc. In other words, context appears to be crucial both on the theoretical and on the applied levels.
In linguistics (mainly in textual linguistics), the following distinction is made:
linguistic context (more properly, cotext);
Though the extra-linguistic context has not been individuated in detail in this perspective, the notion of cotext has turned out to be useful, for it helps in studying both anaphora and topic development— in other words, not only strictly textual phenomena but also argumentative ones. As Walton argued to the context of dialogue “ ... the evaluation of a particular case should depend on how the argument was used at some stage of a conversation to contribute to the goals of the conversation at that stage”.
In pragmatics, Givon (1989) subdivides context into three major foci:
the generic focus: shared world and culture;
the deitic focus: shared speech situation, which includes overt and covert propositions, and meta- propositional modalities.
3. Definition and relevant parameters
If we adopt a prototype model, we could better individuate two points of attraction around which the various notions of context seem to converge:
a local point, which is related to the structural environment. It is activated and constructed in the ongoing interaction as it becomes relevant (Sperber and Wilson, 1986), and is eventually shared by interactants;
a global point, which refers to the given external components of the context. It includes knowledge and beliefs, and the general experience resulting from the interplay of culture and social community.
A local notion of context has recently gained the upper hand especially in the conversationalist approach, where its flexibility and its resilience have been repeatedly stressed: “contrary to the monolithic and unidirectional notion of context which was often used in the early (post) structuralist approach to context, the notion of contextualization suggests a flexible notion, a context that is continually reshaped in time” (Auer, 1992: 21).
While we undoubtedly need a local notion of context, a global notion of context must not be neglected either. Context is viewed as a unification of several established parameters which plays a role in the selection of language activities and in the apprehension of meaning. The two levels, local and global, combine in providing a background for establishing reference to the external world and for understanding intended meaning (Grice, 1989): in other words, in taking both explicit and implicit knowledge ( inferential processes, implicatures, presuppositions) into account. More specifically:
the global level corresponds to a priori features and to sociolinguistic parameters such as age, status, the social roles of participants, the type of interaction, time and space localization. This information is independent of the ongoing conversational interaction.
the local level corresponds to parameters that are selected because of their relevance and activated by the ongoing interaction itself ( the kind of action being performed, gestural deixis, focusing). This information closely depends on the ongoing conversational interaction. On a linguistic level, an adequate coding of context on both the global and the local levels – a coding which takes multi-modal features into account–may be useful in:
delimiting inferential games
disambiguating a wide range of deictic expressions;
solving the problem of the indeterminacy of spoken language.
Actually, a well-defined and articulated notion of context is required not only to provide for the indeterminacy and implicitness of spoken language in the process of comprehension and production, but also in other domain, e.g. Perception, which presupposes context in deriving meaning from experience