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Re: [ontolog-forum] Scheduling a Discussion [was: CL, CG, IKL and the re

To: "[ontolog-forum] " <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Pat Hayes <phayes@xxxxxxx>
Date: Wed, 16 Jan 2008 13:29:24 -0600
Message-id: <p06230908c3b406430641@[]>
Allow me try to make my position on "context" clear.

I'm not wanting to deny that the word is useful, perhaps essential. I use it myself.

I'm not wanting to deny that many useful notions exist, all of which can be justifiably referred to by the term "context" in some, er, context.

I'm not wanting to say, of anyone's particular notion of 'context', that is useless or should not be discussed (though see the last paragraph below).

My point is only that the various things called "context" vary so widely that they have nothing in common. Hence, I do want to make a stand against any claim that there is any useful general theory of contexts. or generally useful (single) 'logic' of contexts, or that calling something a context is saying anything much beyond the informal English meaning of the word. Put another way, contexts are not a natural kind. Put another way, there is no science of contexts, or single useful definition of contexts. Nor should we expect that a group of any size is likely to agree on a single definition acceptable to all its members.

Since what various people mean by, and are thinking of when they use, the word "context" are almost as various as the people themselves, there is in such discussions a greatly increased danger of mutual misunderstanding; and this is why I always ask people who use the word, to indicate as clearly as they can what they mean by it, if possible to give us a definition of what they mean by it. This at least should enable discussions to get to a useful level of focus, instead of repeating the (now often repeated) history of extended discussions turning into debates turning, in some cases, into intellectual warfare; all of which, it is eventually discovered, has been a complete waste of time since what one side meant by the word was nothing at all to do with what the other side meant.

My own view is that we would all do a lot better to avoid using the word altogether in any technical discussion, since such usage will only accurately model a restricted class of the 'natural' usages of the term, and so will always be misleading to many users: and moreover, in every case I have seen, there is already a more precise and accurate term for that particular case. Calling time-intervals "temporal contexts" and beliefs "psychological contexts" and common grounds "conversational contexts" and so on does not advance our understanding or our science, and serves only to create muddle and misunderstanding where we once had the beginnings of clarity. Hence I have a tendency, when folk insist on using the 'context' word, to constantly ask why it would be incorrect to call these by their more mundane (and, in several senses, context-free) names.


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