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date: 26 September 2017

Contextualism in Normative Political Theory

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.

Keywords: context, contextualism, contextualization, justification, methodology, political argument, political philosophy, political theory

The topic of the present article is contextualism in normative political theory and philosophy. Contextualism denotes a set of ideas about the importance of attention to context. The focus is only on contextualism in political theory, not in relation to other parts of the study of politics (cf. Lawson, 2008), and only in relation to the part of political theory concerned with normative political argument.

This delimits the discussion from one prominent articulation of contextualism, namely contextualism as a methodological approach to the history of political thought, as most prominently represented by proponents of the so-called “Cambridge School,” such as Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock (Floyd & Stears, 2011). This approach concerns the understanding of political concepts from the history of political ideas. Here contextualism is the idea that we must understand political concepts, such as state sovereignty, in their historical context, not through narrow textual studies of, say, the works of one single author. Skinner understands historical works in political thought as speech acts whose meaning is not purely textual but depends on the context in which they were uttered. Here, the context is constituted mainly by the other historical works, most of which are less well known than the canonical classics of political thought, that a given author responded to or was in dialogue with.

This is a clear and important sense of contextualism, since the claim is that attention to context is crucial for the proper interpretation of historical works in political thought. But where historical contextualism is concerned with descriptive claims, here about the meaning of specific historical concepts, the present discussion will focus on contextualism as the different, but analogous, claim that attention to context is crucial for normative claims. Much political theory is concerned with such claims, like 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.

This article first considers what can count as context. It then identifies different ways of characterizing contextualism. The article concentrates on characterizations of contextualism focusing on methodology and justification and proceeds to discuss different views about what role context can play in political argument. In the course of doing this, attention is drawn to some problems facing the different views and ways of avoiding these problems, including the problem of delimiting the relevant context.

What Is Context?

Contextualism denotes views that political theory should take context into account. The context is proposed as relevant for the purpose of discussion of an act, law, policy, institution, practice, or some other possible object of political evaluation, criticism, or prescription. We can distinguish between an object of political argument, such as a specific piece of legislation like the U.K. Racial and Religious Hatred Act, and the context, such as the Salman Rushdie affair or the “war on terror” following 9/11, that might be introduced in relation to this object for the purpose of political argument about it. The account of the relation between object and context establishes a contextualization of the object. In a political argument, the conclusion will be a normative judgement about the object and the context will frame or enter into the argument as part of the premises for the justification of this judgment. But there are different proposals about what kind of context political theory should take into account.

One form of contextualization involves attention to history. The historical background is often crucial in understanding the meaning and significance of specific practices—for example, the history of slavery and racial segregation in the United States cannot be ignored in American debates about discrimination and social inequality (Anderson, 2010); the legacy of imperialism still figures in understanding the position of many immigrant groups to the United Kingdom and France; and the fact of involuntary incorporation due to colonialism and establishment of nation-states is crucial for debates about indigenous peoples and national minorities (e.g., Kymlicka, 1995). History is also an important element of contextualization when the shape and functioning of institutions is path-dependent, and in understanding prevalent cultural forms that shape public discourses and identities.

Other elements that can enter into contextualization are social meanings and traditions (Walzer, 1983). These are always historical products, but they continue and develop what happened in the past into the present and future. So, whereas historical contextualization in itself requires only historical knowledge, attention to social meanings and traditions also requires an understanding of how people now appropriate, re-enact, and re-interpret what they take to be their history.

Whereas social meanings and traditions pertain to the beliefs and behavior of people, contextualisation can also concern the institutional structures that shape people’s lives, often without this being something that is entirely intended or known by the people in question (Sangiovanni, 2008). Institutions can be anything from quite concrete and specific organizations, such as the United Nations or the Church of England, to very pervasive but immaterial systems, like the regime of property rights in a society or in international law.

Institutions, rules, and laws often have a superstructure in the form of more or less articulated conceptions, aims, and principles that function both as rationalizations and justifications of the policies and practices. Examples of this include the “conceptions of citizenship” or “philosophies of integration” that separate different European countries in terms of how citizenship, social membership, and the role of the state in regulating access and enforcing compliance is understood (e.g., Favell, 2014).

Contextualization can also involve attention to background inequalities of all kinds, such as socio-economic distributions, differences in social and cultural capital, ownership over and access to media or political decision makers, general discursive formations or more specific ways of articulating particular groups or problems etc.—all of which can affect the relations between people.

In all of these cases, context denotes certain facts holding in relation to the object of political argument and contextualization is accordingly a factual relationship that can be established empirically. This way of putting it is likely to provoke many contextualists, who often reject what they take to be simplistic separations of facts and values. Some might say that the point of contextualism is that context is not only a matter of facts but also has normative aspects, which is why contextualists claims that political theorists can and should appeal to the context as part of normative political argument.

While it is true that many contexts contain normative elements, e.g. the prevalence of a social ethos of equal treatment in a society or the inherent normativity of the human rights system, this is not incompatible with my claim that context denotes facts. Recall that context here is what is taken into account as part of political argument. This means that, for the purpose of political theory, context is something that can be captured in propositions, i.e. in statements about the context. Many of these statements will register the presence in the context of norms, value commitments and ideals. But for the purpose of political theory, these will be captured in descriptive statements, i.e. statements saying that, as a matter of fact, people do not accept overt discrimination of women or that the European Court of Human Rights in practice defers to members states in cases concerning religion etc.

So the normative aspects of contexts are captured in statements, where the normative content is embedded within descriptive claims of the form “people in society S believe that action A is wrong” or “institution I operates according to norm N.” Such claims register the presence of beliefs about rightness and wrongness or the operation of a norm as a matter of fact but do not themselves make normative claims that, e.g., “A is wrong” or that N is an appropriate norm. If contextualism did this, it would simply be a form of status quo apology or advocacy for partial political views that happen to be found in the context. All forms of contextualism in political theory have some sort of critical ambition, so there is a general question facing contextualists about how one takes account of context while retaining critical distance to the context. Contextual norms and values cannot be affirmed, at least not immediately, and not merely on the basis that they are found in the context, but should be taken into account as facts, the normative significance of which has to emerge through systematic political argument.

The possibilities noted above are just some possible answers to what context can be. The different answers to this question cut across different views about what contextualism contrasts to and about what role context plays in political theory, to which I now turn.

Contextualism and Its Others

Debates about contextualism are often framed by contrasts between contextualism and some other view. This may be instructive, since it helps to see what is at stake. But it also shows that there are, in fact, quite different senses of contextualism, since the invoked contrasts are often quite different. To show this, this section sketches a number of proposed contrasts to contextualism and thereby draws out the implied senses of contextualism.

Justificatory Contextualism

One characterization of contextualism contrasts it to foundationalism as a distinctive theory of justification (Herzog, 1985). Foundationalism claims that justification, in this case of normative political judgments, ultimately depends on a class of privileged propositions, which are self-evident, undeniable, or otherwise do not depend in turn on other propositions for their justification. To deserve this privileged status, such foundational propositions (if there are any) must be of a special kind, such as articulate facts about human nature or rationality, and must not pertain to contingent social or political facts. Therefore, justifications that appeal to contextual facts (without in turn deriving the justification for this appeal from foundational principles in the class of privileged propositions) fail according to foundationalist theories of justification.

The contrast to foundationalism implies that contextualism is itself a theory of justification. It also suggests a very broad notion of contextualism, since the contrast merely implies that justification of normative judgments does not require appeal to foundational propositions. To warrant the label contextualism, non-foundationalist views of justification must therefore arguably fulfill a further condition, namely that contextual facts either can or must be among the non-foundational propositions that normative judgments are justified with reference to. This of course requires specification of what counts as a contextual fact (see below). So the first sense of contextualism is this:

Justificatory contextualism

Any view of justification, according to which a) justification does not require appeal to a class of foundational propositions, and b) contextual facts can (or must) figure as part of the justification of normative judgments.

(e.g., Musschenga, 2005; Dees, 1994)

Substantive Contextualism

Another characterization of contextualism contrasts it to universalism, the view that political theory should identify principles of justice that apply universally (Miller, 2013, p. 43). Contextualism now is a description of principles rather than theories of justification, and it is a view about the scope of such principles. This way of understanding contextualism is substantive, since it says something about the content of theories rather than how they are justified. So the second sense of contextualism is this:

Substantive contextualism

Any theory consisting of contextually specific principles, which are not merely applied versions of universally valid principles.

This notion of contextualism is prominent in debates about global justice, where contextualism describes a variety of criticisms of cosmopolitan extensions of principles of distributive justice beyond the nation-state (e.g., Miller, 2007; cf. Bader, 2008; Buckley, 2012).

Metaphysical Contextualism

A third characterization of contextualism is as a view about what political theory is. Rather than a view about the structure of justification or the substance of a political theory, contextualism here is a view about the kind of activity that political theorists are engaged in. Michael Walzer proposes one form of such a view in his typology of forms of social criticism. He distinguishes between modes of discovery (e.g., natural law theories), invention (e.g., forms of constructivism), and interpretation of existing social understandings, where the latter captures a sense of contextualism (Walzer, 1987).

Walzer’s typology actually incorporates several different contrasts. One is between different ontological views about the metaphysical status of the views political theorists put forward. Walzer’s notion of discovery reflects a strong notion of realism, according to which political theory aims at capturing independent facts about right and wrong. Political theories can accordingly be true in a strong realist sense.

The notion of invention suggests that right and wrong is something we construct,. an anti-realist idea. But it is usually combined with various ideas about rational constraints on such procedures of construction, like Rawls’s original position (Rawls, 1999a), Habermas’s ideal speech situation (Habermas, 1996), or public reason constraints (Rawls, 1999b). The resulting normative claims, while not true or false of some independently existing order of right and wrong, can nevertheless be supported by reasons that have claims on us as rational agents.

In contrast, Walzer’s idea of interpretation suggests that political theories are neither reflections of independent normative reality nor pure intellectual constructions, but are attempts at drawing out already existing norms and understandings about right and wrong embedded in forms of life, traditions, or shared understandings (Walzer, 1983). This is a contextualist view in a third sense:

Metaphysical contextualism

Any theory that aims at articulating existing norms and values embedded in specific traditions and ways of life.

Methodological Contextualism

Walzer’s typology also involves a different contrast, namely one between different methodological views about how to do political theory. According to both the pictures of political theory as discovery and interpretation, political theories aim to capture something that is already there, whereas invention gives a much more creative role to theorists in coming up with something new. This requires theorists to do quite different things. The mode of interpretation requires political theorists to reconstruct the meaning of the shared understandings or traditions of the community in question—so the methodological approach of the political theorist is one of interpretation of the context.

Other characterizations of contextualism also focus on methodological issues. Joseph Carens provides one prominent formulation of methodological contextualism as an approach to political theory where the political theorist moves “back and forth between theory and context, articulating intuitive judgements about cases in terms of theoretical principles, and critically assessing theoretical formulations in light of their implications for particular cases” (Carens, 2000, p. 2; see also Carens, 2004; Lægaard, 2015). Here, the idea is that political theory attends to context both as part of the articulation of theories and in the way in which theories are subsequently discussed and refined. The implied notion of context is quite broad since it includes everything that can qualify as a “particular case” (although Carens subsequently qualifies this further by recommending that the cases should be actual, i.e., non-hypothetical, and that theorists should attend to a broad range of cases, cf. Carens, 2004, p. 118). This is contextualism in a fourth sense:

Methodological contextualism

Any involvement of facts about specific cases during the articulation or subsequent development and testing of theories.

The sketched contrasts used to characterize contextualism are evidently quite different. There is no reason to think that the different contrasts map neatly on to each other. One can reject justificatory foundationalism without thereby committing oneself to the rejection of universalism. All of the noted views about justification and scope of principles can be given either realistic or anti-realistic readings etc. So the different senses of contextualism do not imply each other although they may, of course, be connected more loosely.

Arguments for contextualism sometimes hinge on the putative implausibility of views to which contextualism is contrasted. But there are several problems with this. First, as suggested by the fact that different theorists contrast contextualism with different views, it is not clear what the right contrast is—which indicates that people have different things in mind. Second, such contrasts can often be overdrawn. If one characterizes contextualism as the opposite of a sufficiently radical view, then contextualism will seem plausible merely by default. Rather than an either/or opposition, the relation between contextualism and its contrasts might be one of degree, in which case one cannot infer from the implausibility of the view characterized as one extreme to the truth of the opposite view (Miller, 2013). Finally, even if contextualism contrasts with an implausible or problematic view, there might also be problems facing contextualism itself. The contrast does not expose these or show whether or how contextualism can overcome them.

The following discussion therefore does not focus on the contrasts but rather tries to offer a positive characterization of contextualism and then considers what challenges contextualism thus construed must face. The discussion focuses on what contextualism actually tells political theorists to do with respect to context and which role it assigns to context in the political arguments of political theorists. The focus accordingly is primarily on methodological and justificational contextualism, and not directly on substantive or metaphysical contextualism.

Roles of Context in Political Theory

If we couple methodological contextualism with the conception of political theory noted in the introduction, according to which political theory provides systematic arguments for normative political claims, then we need to specify (a) what the normative claims involved are; (b) what role context plays in the political argument supposed to justify these normative claims; (c) what the notion of context covers here; and (d) what the problems facing the resulting forms of contextualism might be (for different overviews, see e.g., Levy, 2007). This section discusses two common views about the role of context, namely as a source of problems and as a condition for meaning, which are argued to be correct but fairly uncontroversial. The next section turns to the more interesting and controversial roles for context in the justification of political arguments.

Before proceeding to specify different views about the role of context in political argument, a brief remark about the kind of normative claims will suffice: Much political theory focuses on justice. Contextualism is therefore often formulated as a view about how to discuss claims about justice. But there are also other normative types of claims than claims of justice, such as claims about legitimacy and claims about the common good, which can be objects of political argument in the same way as justice. Political theorists also produce and employ theories of legitimacy and of the good as part of normative arguments. There is, therefore, no reason to restrict discussions of contextualism to normative arguments concerned with justice, since the same issues that contextualists raise concerning arguments about justice can be raised with respect to normative arguments about legitimacy and the good. For the remainder of the article, I will therefore generally speak of normative political argument and normative political claims, rather than only arguments and claims about justice.

Context as Source of Political Problems

Proponents of contextualism have many quite different roles for context in mind. This section and the next distinguish and discuss the most important of these, but the following is not an exhaustive summary.

A natural place to begin is with the questions that political theory is trying to answer and the reasons for doing political theory. Here, some contextualists conceive of political theory as problem-oriented or problem-driven. So one role for context is this:

Context as source of problems

Political theory aims at addressing problems that arise in specific political and social contexts.

(e.g., Bauböck, 2008; Daskal, 2012; cf. “issue contextualism” in Lægaard, 2015)

Problem-oriented political theory is not in itself novel or controversial; even the most abstract forms of political theory, such as discussions of state sovereignty, political obligation, religious toleration, or distributive justice, have responded to live political problems, but can be non-contextualist in almost all other respects. So the relevant difference concerns the specificity of the context in which the problems are formulated—not state sovereignty in general, but the relation between member states and the European Union; not civic duties in general, but what can be expected of immigrants to countries with a specific history and immigration regime; and not abstract principles of distributive justice, but the applicability of considerations of equality to the World Trade Organization.

Even if one considers context as a source of problems independent from any further claims about how these problems should then be addressed in political argument, there are some challenges to this contextualist claim. While it is the rule rather than the exception that the problems of concern to political theory have their origin in specific political and social contexts, it is not obviously true that this is always the case—or that it should be. Important parts of political theory are concerned with developing radical new perspectives and articulating new concepts for categorizing politics as alternatives to how politics are understood and conceptualized at any given time. Notions of world citizenship, rejections of political authority in favor of anarchic forms of social organization, or radical conceptions of democracy are all ideas that play important roles within political theory, but were developed as ways of transcending immediate social and political contexts and the understandings prevalent herein.

Contextualists might respond that ideas such as these, while radical departures from political reality at a given time, are articulated in response to perceived problems with this political reality, and usually by way of a re-thinking of concepts already present in the context, such as citizenship or democracy. But this response shows how relatively modest is the claim about context as a source of problems. If this is compatible with radical departures from the actual context and complete re-working of existing political categories, then the claim about problem-driven political theory is a claim about inspiration, not about content.

The claim about context as a source of problems only becomes controversial if strengthened, if it is supplemented by a further claim that what counts as a problem somehow depends on the context. The identification of problems is not only a descriptive exercise; a constellation of contextual facts only constitutes a problem if there is some tension, dilemma, or otherwise something wrong with it. These constitutive aspects of problems involve evaluative attitudes to the facts in question. The facts only constitute a problem together with such evaluative attitudes, and only if these attitudes are either in conflict (the problem is then a dilemma) or are frustrated due to the facts (if the world does not live up to our principles). A strong form of contextualism could here say that the evaluative attitudes that partly constitute the problem must themselves be context-dependent, that they express norms that are already operative in the context.

This claim faces a two-fold difficulty. If taken in a strict sense, that something only qualifies as a problem if the participants in a social context actually consider it a problem, then contextualism is a form of status quo bias and involves blindness to pervasive ideologies, adaptive preferences, and similar phenomena. This would imply, for instance, that political theory could not criticize patriarchal gender roles if people have internalized them and therefore do not consider them oppressive.

If, on the other hand, something qualifies as a problem simply if anyone, including the political theorist, articulates an evaluative attitude in relation to a set of contextual facts, then the claim is again emptied of any controversial content and rules almost nothing out. So, while context clearly is a source of problems, this is not in itself a basis for an interesting sense of contextualism.

Context as Precondition of Meaning

A different role for context is as a precondition for meaning. Carens remarks that “we do not really understand what general principles and theoretical formulations mean until we see them interpreted and applied in a variety of specific contexts” (Carens, 2000, p. 3). We might call this:

Semantic contextualism

Political principles and concepts only have meaning relative to a specified context.

This implies that we do not really understand a principle or concept before we know how it applies to a specific context. What might seem to be similar principles or concepts when formulated in the abstract actually are different principles or concepts if they have different implications when applied.

This is really a version of an old idea in philosophical semantics, according to which the meaning of a proposition is its truth conditions, the conditions under which the proposition is true. So for instance, one only knows the meaning of democracy if one knows under which conditions it is correct to say that something (for instance, a state, or a decision-making procedure) is democratic. While there has been plenty of debate about and criticism of such semantic theories, such views about the role of context are not novel. Furthermore, it is not really a form of contextualism in the sense usually employed within philosophical semantics, where contextualism is a label for views according to which the meaning of an utterance depends on the conditions under which it is uttered.

Why do contextualists within political theory nevertheless think it important to stress this uncontroversial role of context as precondition for understanding of meaning? One explanation is that much political theory, especially certain parts of Rawlsian political philosophy, has been quite abstract and has debated political principles and concepts at a purely theoretical level without consideration of actual cases. Contextualists are critical of such abstract political theory for several reasons (e.g., Bauböck, 2008; Carens, 2000). One is that it risks detaching itself from the concrete political problems faced by actual people; another is that it tends to base political argument on appeals to intuitions that are only shared by political theorists or that may be unreliable because articulated in relation to hypothetical (or imaginary) cases far removed from real life. The appeal to semantic contextualism is yet another reason for thinking such purely abstract political theory problematic, and might be invoked as a justification for rejecting it altogether; “we need consider only views advanced in a context making them intelligible” (Herzog, 1985, p. 231).

While contextualists are critical of too abstract political theory, it is nevertheless not obvious that the political theory they distance themselves from actually fails to live up to the noted conditions for meaning. Most political theorists who discuss hypothetical examples and abstract principles would nevertheless accept that the semantic content of the principles and concepts they discuss partly depends on their implications in practice. Rawlsians, as well as other political theorists subscribing to reflective equilibrium methodology (Rawls, 1999a), think that theory cannot be divorced from practice, since theories should be tested and revised in light of our considered judgments about practice. While this is usually formulated as a view about methodology or justification, it also suggests that a theorist’s understanding of a principle partly consists in his or her grasp of the principle’s implications for practice that are part of the reasons for accepting it. So the insistence on semantic contextualism is arguably more an expression of disagreement with a certain style of discussing political theory than a fundamental disagreement about the meaning.

Appeals to Context in Normative Political Arguments

If political theory is concerned with offering systematic arguments for normative political judgments, the most interesting role for context is if contextual facts are invoked as premises of such political arguments. But there are several different ways in which this can be done, only some of which are contextualist in an interesting sense. This section therefore first notes two relatively uncontroversial ways in which context might figure in premises of political arguments and then proceeds to consider the interesting forms of contextualism that go beyond these.

Context as Condition of Application and Feasibility

A standard form of political argument applies general principles to specific contexts (see Lægaard, 2015). Facts about context thus play a role as empirical premises in such arguments, the conclusions of which are normative judgments about the specific context. But this is an uncontroversial role for context, since the normative force of purely applied arguments comes entirely from more general principles.

A more interesting and sometimes controversial role for context is when context is invoked among the premises of an applied argument, not only as a necessary precondition of finding out what a general principle implies for a specific case, but as a constraint on the normative implications. The most common version of this is when facts are invoked to limit a prescriptive conclusion because the facts limit the feasibility of certain courses of action that would otherwise be recommended on the basis of the normative principles invoked. One version of this is Rawls’s idea that a theory of justice should specify a “realistic utopia” (Rawls, 1999b). Such invocations of feasibility constraints are relatively uncontroversial insofar as they are versions of the idea that “ought” implies “can” (Wiens, 2014; though see Cohen, 2008, pp. 248–254 for an opposing view). But many such appeals are not forms of contextualism, since the facts in question are not context-specific but of a very general nature (in Rawls’s case, laws of nature and persons’ moral and psychological natures).

Contextualist versions of feasibility constraints, where the facts that constrain the normative implications are specific to a given context, can also be relatively uncontroversial—another Rawlsian example concerns the so-called “circumstances of justice” according to which principles of justice only apply once certain material conditions are met (Rawls, 1999a). But contextualist feasibility constraints become problematic to the extent that the facts are not only context specific but also contingent in the sense that they could themselves be objects of political assessment and reform (Lægaard, 2006). If a normative political argument takes contextual facts as feasibility constraints without considering whether these facts should themselves be changed, the argument is incomplete, at best, and ideological in the pejorative sense, at worst.

The use of contextual facts as feasibility constraints is a relatively modest form of contextualism, since it only limits the normative output of political arguments. This role of context only constrains normative judgments; it does not contribute any of the normative force of political arguments or positively determine normative conclusions within the limits set by feasibility. The most interesting and controversial forms of contextualism precisely go beyond this limited role and claim that contextual facts can be invoked as part of or justifications for the normative premises of political arguments.

Particularist Contextualism

There are more and less radical ways in which to invoke context as part of normative justifications. One difference among these forms of contextualism concerns whether they accept the need for normative principles of some generality or rather reject appeals to general theories altogether. The latter is the most radical form of contextualism, according to which the context not only provides the problems for political theory but also rejects appeal to more general principles that get their content and justification independently from the context as part of the answers to these problems. This is:

Particularist contextualism

Normative arguments should be made only with reference to the context and should not take the form of applying more general principles to the case.

Particularists believe in the holism or variability of reasons doctrine, according to which something may be a reason in one case but not in another (Dancy, 2004). According to particularism, reasons are features of a given case. These function as reasons on a case-by-case basis, not in virtue of more general principles. The motivation for particularism is that there are simply no invariant reasons—there seem to be exceptions and counterexamples to all putatively general reasons. Therefore particularists reject generalism.

Contextualism follows from particularism, since the reasons invoked in a particularist political argument will appeal to contextual facts. Particularists like Dancy will not say, for instance, that a case of differential treatment, as in a case of racial profiling by the police, is wrong because it is a form of discrimination, which is always wrong. They will rather say that this particular case is a case of racial profiling and that, in this case, this makes it wrong. Particularists do not attempt to infer the normative conclusion from a set of premises; they rather point to the presence of a reason and state what normative judgment they take it to be a reason for.

Particularist contextualism is the clearest form of contextualism, since it focuses political argument entirely on specific cases in their particular context. But this means that particularism may be at odds with the aim of political theory to articulate justifications for normative views in a way that allows us to discuss them in a systematic way. According to particularism, the justification of normative claims simply consists in an appeal to others to see that this is what we should think about a given case (“this is a case of racial profiling, and it is wrong”). The problem with this is that people often disagree about what to think about specific cases. It is precisely because people disagree about normative judgments that we need political theory, which is one way to analyze and critically assess the justifications for them.

Particularism does provide a sort of justification, since it points to reasons constituted by features of a given case. This does advance the debate if the presence of these features were not recognized at all. But if the disagreement concerns not the features of a case, but their normative importance, then particularist justifications merely repeat the normative judgment people disagree about; the judgment that “this case of racial profiling is wrong” is justified with reference to the fact that “this is a case of racial profiling” and a claim that, in this case, this fact is a reason for thinking that it is wrong. Since this is precisely what people are likely to disagree about, the particularist justification leaves us with only the options of agreeing or disagreeing—it does not provide the dialectical resources for a critical discussion of the justification that ordinary political arguments do, such as whether the premises in fact support the conclusion or whether the principle supposed to justify the conclusion is really plausible in other cases.

Particularism may provide a plausible phenomenology of some normative responses. But it’s rejection of appeals to general considerations, that is, considerations applying to more than a particular case and which, accordingly, can be formulated and discussed independently of the specific case, undermines the aim of political theory to provide systematic justifications for normative judgments. The motivation for particularism was a rejection of the idea that there are invariant reasons that can be expressed in the form of general principles, and accordingly a denial that justification must consist in inferring normative judgments from general principles. The question is: does this leave any room for systematic justification at all?

The answer is affirmative, since the counterexamples to invariant reasons motivating particularism do not rule out the possibility of normative considerations, which are more general than reasons specific to single cases. Normative premises of some generality is all that is needed to get systematic justification and the attendant dialectics going. Political theorists merely have to remember that principles may not be completely exceptionless (this is exactly what substantive contextualism is claiming).

So a plausible form of contextualism that appeals to contextual facts as part of the justification of normative judgments can and should take the form of arguments where the normative conclusion is inferred from more general principles (together with contextual facts)—but the principles themselves should then be justified at least partly with reference to the context. The next sections turn to different ways in which context can play this justificatory role.

Internal Criticism

There are different ways in which one can do political argument on the basis of contextually justified principles. The most well-known version of this is so-called immanent or internal criticism, criticism based on identification of contradictions in a given set of rules, an institution, or some other existing social system (Ferrara, 2015). Internal critique first identifies and explicates some norm, principle, or ideal that is already operative or invoked in a given context, by a specific society or institution. It then shows the societal or institutional contradictions that arise when the actual operation of the institution is measured against the identified standard. So the normative premises for the critique are not imposed by the political theorist from outside the context, but are found in the context. The normative theorist does not necessarily agree with the norms or principles on which the criticism is based but merely measures the system or institution against their own norms and exposes its failures to live up to them.

Effective internal critique depends on a correct identification and explication of the internal principles. If this condition is fulfilled, it is in itself an unproblematic form of critique that is a central part of much political theory. It nevertheless has its limits: the contradictions exposed by internal critique do not themselves tell us whether it is the norms or the behavior of an institution that should be changed. Internal critique only reveals contradictions, but does not tell us what to do about them. So if political theory is to be action guiding in the sense of specifying how to change practice to avoid contradictions, it needs to go beyond internal criticism.

There are three desiderata for a contextualist political theory: (1) to be contextualist, political theory has to be able to come up with contextually justified principles; (2) to be critical, these principles cannot merely repeat the self-conception of an institution or society; (3) to be action guiding, the criticism cannot just consist in identifying internal contradictions but must prescribe how they should be resolved. Internal criticism lives up to the two first desiderata, but rarely to the third. To live up to the third desideratum while remaining critical, political theory has to invoke normative resources other than the proclaimed standards of the context it seeks to evaluate since these are part of the object of evaluation. But this threatens to undermine the contextualist aim of basing normative claims on normative resources fund within the context. This looks like a dilemma: either political theory can be critical and contextualist, but then it cannot be action guiding, or it can be action guiding and critical, but then it cannot be contextualist (for a related but different dilemma, see Thaler, 2012).

Widening Contextualism

There are ways of avoiding this apparent dilemma, however. The different ways at the same time take the notion of contextualism in directions that might not retain all of the features often associated with it. Since contextualism needs to be able to find more normative resources in the context, one way of mapping out the different possibilities for avoiding the threatening dilemma is to conceptualise different dimensions of contexts. Strategies for avoiding the dilemma must be more inclusive along one or several of these dimensions, thereby enriching the context in a way that might make additional normative resources accessible. For the moment the dimensions of context are purely analytical categories that can subsequently be applied to any material case.

One dimension along which the context can be expanded is by literally widening it, to include more than one institution, or a broader set of practices, or more parts of a society. Instead of focusing narrowly on one practice or institution, say the nuclear family or the established church, one might widen the context to include, say, the labor market and popular culture, or forms of state regulation of religious organizations in the society in question. Once the political theorist attends to a wider context in this way, more norms and principles are likely to appear. These can then be brought to bear on the norms and ideals found the more narrowly construed context, which generates further normative tensions and thus provides the political theorist with ways in which to question and criticize a given practice that go beyond narrow internal criticism. Since societies are bound to encompass conflicting values and standards, there will always be resources for this kind of contextualist criticism if the context is drawn sufficiently widely.

Wide contextualism can, however, often be met by a similar kind of criticism as the one originally directed at internal criticism, namely whether the norms and principles identified in the wider context are correct or not. Wide contextualism has more normative resources available and therefore more ways in which to identify contradictions between both norms and practices and between different norms. But if we want to make prescriptions about how to change the given context to alleviate the contradictions, the theorist can be charged with either uncritically accepting some of the norms found in the context, or alternatively, with merely having identified one way in which the system can avoid internal contradictions, but where no reason have been given for why this way is better than other ways.

An obvious response to this charge is to widen the context still further. On the one hand, this does not really address the objection, which can be reformulated again at every stage. On the other hand, this strategy quickly results in so wide a notion of context that many proclaimed contextualists will not recognize this as a genuine form of contextualism at all.

Deepening Contextualism

Another dimension along which the context can be made more inclusive is to introduce more nuances or levels to the interpretation of the given context. Rather than widening the context, this strategy seeks to avoid the dilemma by adopting a conceptually more fine-grained perspective on what a given institution or practice is. We can call this deepening the context. In addition to identifying and explicating proclaimed norms and principles of an institution or practice, which we might say is a relatively shallow view of the context, deep contextualism goes into more detail and looks at more than merely the proclaimed values or the relatively superficial principles at work in the context.

One example of deep contextualism is the practice-dependence approach, according to which political theorists should engage in social interpretation of given practices or institutions with a view to articulating their point and purpose and the reasons that participants have for going along with the rules (Sangiovanni, 2008, 2016). According to practice-dependence, the normative principles on the basis of which we judge an institution have to reflect the point and purpose of the institution and the specific way in which it shapes and affects the relations between people. This means, for instance, that a practice-dependent theorist disposes over normative resources providing a critical perspective both on how the institution in fact functions and on the principles according to which it claims to operate.

The strategy of deepening the context (which can be combined with a widening) is promising, not only in the way in which it diversifies the normative resources at the disposal of political theory, but also because it requires political theorists to acquire a detailed understanding of the objects of their normative arguments, which might make the arguments more attentive to features that more abstract theory is likely to miss and better able to speak in terms that actually make sense to participants in the context. But the added level of detail also introduces additional problems.

Since practice-dependence (just as Walzer’s interpretative social critic) assigns a crucial role to the interpretation of a given institution, one problem is how to delimit the object of interpretation. If the object of interpretation, for instance, is the practice of political satire, as exemplified, for example, by the magazine Charlie Hebdo in France, it makes a big difference for the interpretation whether one delimits the object in a way that takes historical relations to the Catholic church into account, on the one hand, or contemporary transnational debates about Islamophobia and hate-speech, on the other. One interpretation sees the practice as opposition to power, whereas the other sees it as potentially oppressive. The delimitation of the object of interpretation has implications for the interpretation and thereby, according to practice-dependence, for the appropriate norms of assessment. Any choice between delimitations depends on views about which relations are normatively relevant. But then practice-dependence itself depends on normative considerations prior to the interpretation of the context.

A second problem is that many institutions have unclear and internally inconsistent purposes, and that participants’ reasons to submit to an institution are likely to differ and perhaps be in conflict with the purpose of the institution as well. Interpretation of institutions must, therefore, take sides between different internal purposes and reasons for participating, for it is supposed to result in a statement of the point and purpose that can inform the formulation of appropriate principles on the basis of which the institution can be assessed. If the interpretation results in an internally contradictory statement, although this is great for the purpose of internal criticism, it cannot provide a normative principle that is serviceable in assessing the institution and prescribing the direction of reform. So once again, practice-dependence itself depends on prior normative standards that can direct the interpretation. But this seems to undermine deep contextualism, since these are then imposed from outside the specific context.

Reflective Contextualism

Widening and deepening the context cannot avoid the dilemma between contextualism and action guidance, because both strategies (despite their other commendable features) remain vulnerable to problems that cannot be solved without access to normative standards beyond those identified in the context. But many contextualists help themselves to the required normative resources in a third way. Instead of (or, rather, in addition to) widening the scope or deepening the detail of the context, many contextualists include not only facts about the context but also normative responses to the context.

For example, Carens writes that “My basic strategy throughout is to move back and forth between theory and context, articulating intuitive judgements about cases in terms of theoretical principles and critically assessing theoretical formulations in light of their implications for particular cases” (Carens, 2000, p. 2). This formulation of what a “contextual inquiry” involves makes explicit that, while context is the focal point, it is only one element that enters into a dialectical relation with “theory.” By “theory,” Carens clearly has general principles in mind, since he talks about “the generalization that is essential to theory.” He also talks of “the theoretical views we espouse,” which suggests that theory is something political theorists bring with them and apply to the concrete problems in particular contexts, not necessarily something that is based only on the particular context. But the crucial part of his contextual approach is that the normative resources include “intuitive judgments about cases,” which together with the context and the theory provide the materials for the critical assessment. Intuitive judgments are the normative responses of the theorist, not something that is itself a part of the context. So the resulting critical assessment is based on a broader array of normative resources than those provided by the widening and deepening strategies.

We might call this reflective contextualism because it includes intuitive judgments and normative responses to the context among the normative resources on the basis of which the normative principles are justified, and because the justification itself takes the form of a reflective process that includes both context and theory, and responses to both. Because this justification of normative principles draws on a set of normative resources that are not limited to the norms and principles found in the context, reflective contextualism is able to avoid the problems facing wide and deep contextualism. It thus seems able to circumvent the dilemma between action guidance and contextualism.

Some might object, however, that reflective contextualism is not really a form of contextualism and actually is impaled on the second horn of the dilemma (Kukathas, 2004). Carens himself notes that his approach, in many respects, is the same as Rawls’s method of reflective equilibrium (Carens, 2000, p. 4; Rawls, 1999a, pp. 18–19, 42–45), which is true. But this in itself does not show that his approach is not contextual in any interesting sense; it only shows that it shares a general mode of arguing with other forms of political theory (and perhaps that Rawlsian political theory can also be contextualist; cf. Lægaard, 2015). Context plays the same role in reflective contextualism as it does in wide and deep contextualism, just as it plays the role of providing problems and conditions of meaning. Reflective contextualism merely adds the normative responses and the reflective methodology to the context as necessary preconditions for being able to provide systematic justifications for normative conclusions that are not vulnerable to the objections directed at wide and deep contextualism.

Specifying the Context

Any form of contextualism has to take a stand on what the relevant context is. Context is taken into account in relation to an object of political argument that is thereby contextualized. Since the way in which the object is contextualized affects the normative judgments about it, so that different contextualizations are likely to lead to different judgments, it is important to find out what the right, or at least a relevant, context is.

One proposal is that the object determines the context in the sense that, once we specify what we want to evaluate, the context is then whatever facts are relevant to the evaluation of this object. But this proposal turns contextualism on its head; the whole point of invoking context is the claim that, in order to understand and assess the object, we need to contextualize it. But the proposal does the opposite; it assumes that we already have an understanding of the object that allows us to determine what the relevant context is. If we indeed have this understanding, there is no need to invoke context. The contextualist claim is that normative judgment requires attention to context, that attention to context is a precondition for normative assessment. Therefore contextualists cannot say that the right context is whatever is relevant to evaluate a given object, for this presupposes knowledge of how to evaluate it. Reflective contextualism as sketched above avoids this problem, but only by softening the contextualist claim in a way that some contextualists might not accept.

Another proposal is that there is no given answer about what the right context is. One version of this is Herzog’s claim that the specification of the context is itself a political issue (Herzog, 1985, p. 240). But this can mean different things. It could mean that it is an issue to be decided in political struggles. The problem with this is that it makes contextualism dependent on the actual relations of political power and undermines its function as political theory providing systematic justifications of normative claims.

But Herzog’s claim can also mean that the specification of the context is itself a normative question of the kind that political theory is concerned with answering. The problem with this is that it activates a regress: According to contextualism, justifications for answers to normative questions require attention to context. But the identification of the right context is a normative question. So any answer to what the right context is will itself have to attend to context (see also Lawson, 2008).

Whether this is a vicious regress depends on one’s broader view of justification. According to coherentist views, which might include reflective equilibrium, it is not necessarily problematic. One element of reflective equilibrium methodology precisely is the denial of “relevance essentialism,” the view that “we can characterize what considerations will be relevant to an inquiry independently of that inquiry” (Walden, 2013, p. 247). So the relevant context is itself part of what we are arguing about in political theory, just as what counts as relevant evidence is part of the argument about what we have reason to believe in any other context. In political argument, we similarly have to argue about what elements of context are relevant and then take account of these elements for the purpose of subsequent argument.

While this defuses the regress criticism, it simultaneously shows that attention to context is only part of the justification and itself dependent on how any specification and interpretation of the context fits with our political views more generally. So this answer to the regress problem arising from the need to specify and delimit the context at the same time commits us to what I call reflective contextualism, which requires us to critically assess the context on the basis of normative standards not themselves found in the context.


I have sketched different ways of characterizing contextualism in normative political theory by way of different contrasts. These show that there are several different conceptions of contextualism that do not necessarily go together. I then focused on methodological and justificatory conceptions according to which context should play a role in political arguments. I have sketched different views about what role context plays here, noting that some roles for context are uncontroversial, whereas others are faced by certain problems, especially problems concerning status quo bias and an apparent dilemma between contextualism and action guidance. This dilemma can be avoided if one adopts what I call reflective contextualism—but the price for this is that political arguments can not appeal only to context but must invoke normative resources outside the context. In considering what can count as context, I finally considered some problems facing all forms of contextualism related to the specification of the context, which leads to regress problems for contextualism. Again, reflective contextualism can avoid this problem. The upshot of this broad discussion is that, if political theory is to provide systematic arguments for prescriptive conclusions, then context can indeed play a central role in these arguments both as condition for application and as part of the justification of normative premises. But the normative premises cannot be derived solely from or otherwise dependent on the context. The resulting form of contextualism furthermore shares many of the defining features of Rawls’s well-known reflective equilibrium methodology.


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