Contextuality and arbitrariness

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  • Introduction
  • Applicable and foundational theories
  • Contextuality and its implications for empirical research
  • Conclusion


We have already touched upon the value of ethics, intersubjective and interobjective relations as well as the extrinsicness of meaning. To continue on this line of thought we will now address the overarching epistemological theme of these issues, in an attempt to draw clear delineations between contextuality and arbitrariness.

Arguments for philosophical contextuality do not translate into arguments for phenomenal arbitrariness. The examination of phenomena for the purposes of determining the underlying source of their regularities therein may lead to conclusions of them being contextual, contingent on the constitution of the case. This is an epistemological venture. It does not necessarily support [pro]positions on arbitrariness of the phenomena and regularities thereof.

We will elaborate on this view by fleshing out the distinction between applicable and foundational theories and the consequent difference between philosophical or epistemological contextuality and empirical research on regularities. The task is two-fold: (i) to stress the importance of recognising the granular structure of effective theories, distinguishing between the applicable and the foundational, and (ii) to argue that what may be considered as philosophically contextual is in no direct way implied as empirically arbitrary.

Applicable and foundational theories

An applicable theory is a corpus of knowledge as well as a method of thinking and researching that offers adequate and sufficient explanatory and predictive arguments for a certain range of phenomena. A theory that fails to describe the specifics of a certain phenomenon and is unable to consistently furnish reliable, accurate predictions regarding its possible [range of] outcomes cannot qualify as applicable.

Applicable theories have a scope of application, within which they do perform their desired and expected function. Phenomena that fall outside a given applicable theory’s purview are best studied by other theories with a different degree of focus.

From this derives a hierarchy, within which one theory is reducible to the other, from the narrower to the broader, depending on the constitution of the case. For instance, the study of the division of labour can be a subject for macroeconomics, more generally for behavioural psychology, even more generally for sociology, biology and so on.

Provided that applicable theories differ in their scope, only one may be best suited for the comprehension of a certain phenomenon. Not all can be equally effective in describing/predicting the regularities in the phenomena of the case at hand. To put in perspective, the event whereby nominal prices for assets are subject to upward/downward pressures cannot be described and/or predicted by, say, biology to same degree and with the same effect it can by monetary economics.

Applicability is contingent on the case’s constitution. A false reading of the situation can lead to the use of a theory that is not optimal for delivering the most accurate results. Sometimes it may be readily apparent what theory best suits the study, yet there can be instances where the selection is more demanding.

The criterion for choosing, to the extent that it is not implied by the totality of applicable theories, derives from foundational analysis; from the research of the applicable theory as such, of what it does and can study, which are its most effective methods and what may be added to them to drive the research forward, to which theories it is reducible to and if so, etc.

Whether such study goes by the name of “methodology”, “philosophy of science” and the like, is of little relevance to our point. We are still referring to the introspective study that explores the foundations of an applicable theory and/or the applicable theory as such.

Contextuality and its implications for empirical research

By “contextuality” we may refer to the extrinsic qualitative aspects of an object or set thereof, those that depend on — and are discernible in — the specific interoperation(s) of the given group of factors that constitute that very case. Contextuality encompasses any parameter, property, value that is not substantive to the object; that is contingent, stemming from the context, the milieu in which the object is immersed in.

This is a philosophical or foundational claim. The reason for that is that empirical analysis in itself may not be in a position to distinguish between intrinsic or extrinsic features, substantive or phenomenal qualities, if its subject matter is always examined in the very same regularities that render objects and their properties thereof in the way they always appear to be. For example, if all empirical evidence concerning economic valuation were limited to a certain range of phenomena that would reinforce the labour theory of value, it would not be possible or at least plausible to propound an extrinsic/intersubjective theory of economic value based on that observational data alone.

The proposition of there possibly being contextuality to the actual status of an object entails a subtle reminder to the researcher to remain certain of their findings _within the boundaries _of their evidence, resisting the temptation to generalise and to expound on some presumed transcendental feature of their findings. It is a call for continuing to be dubitative and  inquisitive about the very facts that ground one’s certainty in lieu of the possible alteration of all those contingent parameters that delivered them.

Furthermore, such claims impose a constraint on the foundational theory to remain as such, not to dismiss the [findings of the] applicable theory and seek to substitute it. Put simply and to continue on the previous examples, to make the philosophical argument of economic value being extrinsic/intersubjective does not imply that the regularities substantiating, say, the laws of supply and demand are relative or even arbitrary in themselves. It is a mere recognition of the context, the complex array of interwoven factors that deliver said results and a tacit acceptance of there possibly being a different sort of valuation and, hence, a different kind of regularities in the case where that context undergoes noticeable, perhaps radical change.

That the case as such may have been contingently formed does not suggest that the regularities therein do not stand qua constant. There are patterns that may be fully quantifiable, describable and predictable within it, which are such for as long as _and _to the extent that the factors in [inter]operation do not undergo transformative change to the point where they fundamentally alter the constitution of that case.

Therefore and to recapitulate, arguments for contextuality are a call for vigilance against any possible [quasi-]dogmatism that can spring from evidence-based research, while also being tacit statements to withhold final judgement, to abstain from making any foundational claim(s) a substitute for the applicable theory and/or a catalyst for unfounded dismissiveness and/or a vector for [pro]positions of phenomenal arbitrariness.


In this blog post we begun by presenting arguments for avoiding the conflation between applicable and foundational theories and proceeded to emphasise that claims on the contingent quality of a case are in no direct and necessary way supportive of phenomenal arbitrariness within the case.

The perceived need for such an article derives from the present author’s willingness to delineate the boundaries of their own claims for philosophical contextuality and, thus, to put an end to any potential misinterpretation concerning the ramifications such views may have for empirical research.

The gist of the argument being that while the case may be contingent, the regularities therein are not random, relative and arbitrary in themselves. They hold true and are in the way they are for as long as — and to the extent that — the case remains largely constant.

Any didactic value this view may have is primarily epistemological. What may be empirically sound in a certain case, might require adaptations in the possible alteration of said case. The evidence can be context-specific. That the case may be alterable does not mean its observed phenomena are untrue for as long as they are and that they feature no discernible, describable and predictable patterns/regularities whatsoever. They are not arbitrary in themselves.

The overarching theme or else the philosophical disposition permeating the aforementioned is that of skepticism, of remaining inquisitive and dubitative wherever that is justified and/or needed, without such approach becoming the ultimate telos of its presence, a pointless attitude of doubting for the sake of it.

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