Summary and Keywords
Contextualism denotes a set of ideas about the importance of attention to context. The topic of the article is contextualism in normative political theory/philosophy, in relation to the part of political theory concerned with systematic political argument for normative claims—evaluative claims about the legitimacy, justice, or relative goodness of acts, policies or institutions, and prescriptive claims about what we should do, which decision procedures we should follow, or how institutions should be reformed.
In terms of what counts as context, it denotes facts concerning particular cases that can be invoked to contextualize a specific object of political discussion such as a law, an institution, or the like.
Contextualism denotes any view that political theory should take context into account, but there are many different views about what this means. Contextualism can be characterized by way of different contrasts, which imply that the resulting conceptions of contextualism are views about different things, such as justification, the nature of political theory, or methodology.
Here the focus is on characterizations of contextualism in terms of methodology and justification that provide different views about what role context can play in political argument. In the course of doing this, a number of problems facing the different versions of contextualism are identified, including problems of reification and status quo bias, problems of securing that political theory is both critical and action guiding while still being contextualist, and the problem of delimiting the relevant context. Different ways of avoiding these problems are sketched. It is argued that there are forms of contextualism that can avoid the problems, but that these might not be as distinctive as some contextualists think. This also means that contextualism might, in fact, be a more common approach to political theory than sometimes suggested.
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