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ISSN: 2332-0761
Journal of Political Sciences & Public Affairs
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Significance of Context in Theorizing Politics

Divyendu Jha* and Sharma T

University of Delhi, RZ-S/6 Nanda Block Mahavir Enclave, Palam, New Delhi, India

*Corresponding Author:
Divyendu Jha
Masters in Political Science
University of Delhi, RZ-S/6 Nanda Block Mahavir Enclave
Palam, New Delhi, India
Tel: 8826905704
E-mail: [email protected]

Received Date: October 18, 2015; Accepted Date: November 07, 2015; Published Date: November 17, 2015

Citation: Jha D, Sharma T (2015) Significance of Context in Theorizing Politics. J Pol Sci Pub Aff 3:181. doi:10.4172/2332-0761.1000181

Copyright: © 2015 Jha D, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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The following paper seeks to understand the nature of theory/theorization and its interface with context. What significance does the context holds in theorizing politics, if it at all does? Context seems to play an important role when deciding about the matters of society, however the ethical normativity which is said to provide a ground for theorization cannot be completely side lined in reflecting upon the problems of society at large which brings us to the forefront of tussle between context dependent principles and ultimate context independent principles. Author shall stand by the relevance of context, if not absolutely then at least relatively, in theorizing politics drawing support largely from analytical political philosophy. A contextual; approach to political theory by Joseph H Carens and Political philosophy for earthlings by David Miller. Author intend to highlight the dominance of context in the relationship of facts and principles


Moral-reasoning; Context; Facts; Ultimate principle; Philosophy; Politics


At the level of human mind; thoughts, sense-experiences, intuitions and reasoning are the features from which we cannot escape. All these characteristics construct and (re) constructs the world in which we live. In order to understand the nature of things, phenomenon and processes we as humans perceive and reason which eventually creates the grounds for different ways of conceptualization. What theory does is that it provides a systematic framework in which we could explain and justify the phenomenon; what meaning and significance a particular incidence have? Why is it important to explain and justify? The things that are happening why are they happening and if we need to rectify some problem then on what basis? Does context have a role in determination of both process and outcome of theorization particularly theorizing about politics? Author argue, indeed theorization about politics is intimately linked with the context without considering the context politics cannot be theorized in sense of theory as such. Politics often interchangeably used with political has multiple meanings. In brief it is (a) the collective power to take decisions about every aspect of the good life in the community which means politics/political refers both to power and ethical values; (b) The power of some groups to control or subordinate others in order not to realize the good of the community but their own narrow interests (power struggle in the society); (c) state power to realize the common good/values (also to mediate conflicts in society) (d) state power to exercise domination of one group over other. Take any dimension of politics and context will be inevitable to be employed while theorization. Let us ask ourselves a simple question; if we are to theorize that what constitutes a good life for human beings/citizens and how state out to act for promoting and protecting those then theories of good life and instrumentality of state must have to recognize the context on which it is to be applied. In other words, theorization must first pass the test of certain degree of ‘social reflectivity’ so that theory could explain the present conditions reflectively and systematically as fundamental ground to build further general principles. In a way, general principles are contingent on the context. Politics is a domain which must take into account context because if politics is about managing the affairs of community/people then context-independent theorization of politics would be a theoretical mistake. Theory/ theorization is a form of systematic reflection which is conceptually sensitive in the sense that it carefully takes into account the various interpretations of a word. In other words, theory needs understand and explain the concepts and what meaning concepts bear.

One would say, the nature of concept is universal, however, this not the case even the principles of concepts and its nature comes out from a context. For a large part of the history, Continental political philosophy deliberated in an atmosphere of Enlightenment which contextually provided a ground over which different concepts like equality, justice and freedom was deliberated and outcome of the process was different like externalization/rationalization which largely bears a utilitarian ideal of these concepts. However, on the other side, the other ways of philosophy like Eastern deliberated those concepts in quite different manner which usually internalizes these concepts like Philosophy of Advaita, Confucian values etc. All these differences are primarily because of the context in which theorization and imagination occurred that influenced the thoughts and reasoning process of the initiator. Theory is a rational enterprise which means any theory when makes any assertion, it does it with a reason. But, what reason demands? Reason cannot make itself insensitive towards context; in fact context provides the facts which supplement the reasoning process on which theory is to be build. It is more objective than speculative. Theory cannot be speculative; it must objectively interpret or explain the processes and phenomenon. A speculation is what that does not take into account the context and in fact cannot be systematically predicted at any moment. If theory needs to escape speculation then it has to consider the context in which and for which it is providing explanation. Lastly ‘context’ to put it simply means social, economic, cultural and historical conditions across space and time. In light of above stated meanings, this question can be reframed as what is the importance of prevailing socio-economic and cultural conditions in systematically reflecting what is happening in the society? Should the facts arriving out these conditions decide upon fundamental principles for building political theory or should one turn blind towards context?

Moral Reasoning and the Context

The question is important in the sense that it creates a problem of differentiating political philosophy from political theory wherein the former is concerned with ‘ought’ and the latter is concerned with ‘is’. Daniel McDermott expresses exactly the same concern while deciding about the test of the theory “ the philosopher’s method is to build theories based on his normative beliefs the oughts’ as he sees them and when it comes time to test that theory what does he test it against? more of his normative beliefs? Similarly (political) scientists build theories based on their beliefs about the empirical world that are ultimately grounded in the evidence of their senses. When it comes to test those theories what do they test them against? More of their empirical beliefs?” however context stands out to be dominant in the relationship between the two, “a political philosopher mentions ‘our’ intuitions, the problem is that an intuition without a target is nonsense As for harmonizing intuitions across political community, harmonizing nothing with nothing will yield exactly nothing.”[1] Context is framework which possesses certain beliefs, values, principles, facts which in turn provide necessary tools to the theorist to theorize different phenomenon and he/she can judge the theory by applying it on the context. Harmonization of context and theory is a task not only of a political theorist but also of Political Philosophers because in the end of the day, both theorist and philosopher have to create principles for people living in certain context. In a way, Philosophy needs to socialize rather than other way round. Going by this argument author would like to quote a rudimentary example on dworkinian lines to explain my stand point. Author have 100 bugs and I have to distribute it between five children so that they can buy candies from a shop at a distance of 2 km. this is a situation where all children have equal money and all are fit to run/ or walk/ up to 2 km and buy candies worth 20 bugs each now let us make some changes in this situation and suppose one of the children is handicap and can’t walk or run like other kids and hence will require a rickshaw or auto to cover the distance of 2 km which would cost him nearly half or more than half of the share he has got for buying the candies. How will he now buy the candies worth 20 bugs to be at par with other children? In this situation is the distribution of money just? If author had to theorize this situation to make a just distribution of money between children ignoring the incapability of the handicapped child then would that have resulted in equality with 4 children having more candies and one child is having less candies? Here my theory would not reflect the actual condition. So here consideration of context becomes important. However it would be incorrect to underestimate the importance of normativity which is based on our intuitions because even if the theory is based on facts, the facts are not enough as some sort of individual judgment because it also involves, whether to take into account facts that support the theory or facts that are against it, here intuitive thinking comes into play i.e., choosing a theory on the basis of its normativity [1] but then context is also important because keeping the ultimate principles into consideration if any, it is only the context that can determine the mechanisms that would pursue those principles in the best possible manner.

Are Ultimate Principles Really ‘Ultimate’?

According to the G.A Cohen context is not really important and that there are some fact independent principles out of which the context dependent principles arrive. For example, when we say that representative democracy is the best form of system (factdependent principle) for a country like india which is so diverse (factual justification). Cohen would respond to this by arguing that this representative form of democracy is normatively accepted only because the general theory of democracy treats everyone with equal moral worth, to be free, rational being (Ultimate principle) and that the former is valid only because of the latter. But there is still a confusion that author find with Cohen, that if we consider that there are some ultimate fact independent principles, can they really be applied without taking context into consideration for example: If a man finds a person lying on a road in miserable condition and as he steps down to help that person he immediately receives a phone call that one of his parents are ill, here the immediate moral obligation of that man is to save the person lying on the road but he might choose to save his parent because he values them more here his moral intuitions are altered due to a particular context when he stepped down to save the person lying on the road got affected as soon as he received the call. In a way, we can loosely say that intuitions can be as much affected by the situations/conditions we are in. Author infer from this that even if such ultimate fact independent principles exist, their applicability is affected by context. If we consider the utilitarian principles where we have to make choice ultimate principles would in either way hindered an example that can help situate this statement suppose you are a tram driver and you have to choose either road A or road B and there is no third road. The breaks of tram have failed and there are five workers working on road A and one worker working on road B which way would you choose? The ultimate principle that we should not kill anybody since everyone has equal moral worth would break in either case. It means that context in any way cannot be escaped in situations of moral dilemma. In fact context provides grounds for validity, justification, predictability, conformity of human actions. Another difficulty with fact independent principles which Cohen argues are generally applicable, is that how should we arrive at such principles that are generally applicable because people might differ what kind of life they value.

If the general moral principle says, we should not treat others as ends then what was the justificatory ground for the exploitation of blacks by whites? Why they did not consider it immoral to treat blacks like that for large part of the history? It is here that the context becomes important in which whites had been conditioned in such a way that impacted upon their intuitive thinking as well that whites did not felt immoral to have slaves. In a way, society goes through cultural stages where it generates and regenerates its ideas/knowledge of moral and immoral.

Unfolding the Grounds of Theory: Applicability Theses

As far as the general applicability of theory is concerned, many of the theories originated in west claims to be generally applicable or rather say largely applicable, if it is so then a theory can be generally applicable only if it is built independent of conditions prevailing at that time when it was built. In the theory of democracy, homogeneity is the underlying pre-requisite that itself creates a context for this theory of democracy to be applicable and when this theory is applied in a different context such as that of India, it might not apply in exactly the same manner as it could be had the society been homogeneous. It is here caren’s argument holds true that context might familiarize us with such unfamiliar or unknown presuppositions which were not undertaken while building up the theory. The way a theorist makes presuppositions, assumptions, are itself influenced by the prevailing context a theorist is in [2]. Substantially, means that a theorist’s mind and his tools cannot simply ignore the context in which she is writing. Similarly, theory of secularism originated in west fails to apply on India and on South-Asia because of the difference in social cultural and economic conditions. So it has to be modified as theory of secularism “as principled distance”. This highlights that context is a sort of litmus test for the theories because if theories are about ‘systematic reflections’ then this should reflect the actualities of context for which theorization is sought. This debate of ‘theory and context’ is one of importance because it unfolds the nature of theorization particularly of political theorization. And, rawls interestingly gives it a new turn by inventing the idea of ‘reflective equilibrium’. Essentially, a theorist/philosopher goes back and forth with regard to his principles until and unless principles come in a greater congruence with the context. The Rawlsian methodology shows us the importance of context in theorization because ultimately theory cannot be abstract and out of this world. At certain level, context has to be acknowledged as Rawls does, even if we want to create general principles.


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