Sorting Through Sophistries:
Context Is King

By Gabriel Blanchard

And this king actually does have a divine right to rule.

This post is part of a series. You can find the introduction, “What Is a Fallacy?”, at this link.

We’ve covered a variety of fallacies at this point: tricks of language based on ambiguities, misinterpreting figures of speech, the general nature of ad hominem attacks and three common subtypes, the misuse of authorities and technical terms, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and certain misuses of the square of opposition.

We now pass to a kind of sophistry for which “figure of speech” isn’t quite on the nose, and “ambiguity” is only sort of correct. It is, in fact, the reason that our other current series, Texts in Context, is being run: namely, understanding what any word or idea means (and thus, the significance and implications of any book) always requires placing it in its original context. Fallacies like cherry-picking and suppressing evidence are examples of treating context in a dishonest or sophistical way.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein devoted a great deal of his career to this; in a way, he was forced to, as he had spent the earliest phase of his career—including his first book, and the only one published during his lifetime—trying to get rid of the “problem” of context! One of his famous examples is the word water. This can be a verb, denoting something one does to potted plants. It can be a noun, describing what the floor is covered in. It can be a password, to get into a secret society or unlock a laptop; it can be an ingredient in a recipe, or the final result of a distillation process; it can be a point of comparison for some other thing’s color, or its texture, or the noise it makes. Everything depends on the context.

This isn’t to say that new words, new ideas, and new meanings are never created; they are, all the time. That shows up against the background of context too. To put it in terms of the metaphor in this post’s title, context is king, but its monarchy is constitutional rather than absolute. The past contributes to the present and thus to the future, but it does not totally control either, because there are always new people being introduced to the present human situation and old ones being taken out of it (or at least, being taken out of its ordinary and perceptible dimension).

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing … a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another …

But what is this fallacy of context, or un-context as the case may be? A few examples may be of use. Consider the following arguments:

And Jehu gathered all the people together, and said unto them, “Ahab served Baal a little; but Jehu shall serve him much. Now therefore call unto me all the prophets of Baal, all his servants, and all his priests; let none be wanting: for I have a great sacrifice to do to Baal; whosoever shall be wanting, he shall not live.” —II Kings 10.18-19a
⇒ From this we may conclude that Jehu was a devout worshiper of Baal.

“To fold hands, while friends die unjustly: let men live in blind peace, until the ravisher is at the gate? What then will they do: match naked hands against iron and die in vain, or flee leaving the cries of women behind them? Will they say to Eru*: At least I spilled no blood?” —“Aldarion and Erendis,” Unfinished Tales (p. 201), J. R. R. Tolkien
⇒ From this we may conclude that Tolkien supported resorting to war, and likely would not have approved of conscientious objectors.

On the face of them, these conclusions seem reasonable enough (though the second could perhaps be criticized as an overstatement). However, both of them have left out key parts of the texts they quote from:

“… whosoever shall be wanting, he shall not live.” But Jehu did it in subtlety, to the intent that he might destroy the worshipers of Baal. … And it came to pass, as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, that Jehu said to the guard and to the captains, “Go in, and slay them; let none come forth.” And they smote them with the edge of the sword; and the guard and the captains cast them out, and went to the city of the house of Baal. And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them. —II Kings 10.19b, 25-26

“I am in too great doubt to rule. To prepare or to let be? To prepare for war, which is yet only guessed: train craftsmen and tillers in the midst of peace for bloodspilling and battle: put iron into the hands of greedy captains who will love only conquest, and count the slain as their glory? Will they say to Eru: At least your enemies were amongst them? Or to fold hands, while friends die unjustly …” [etc. as above] —“Aldarion and Erendis,” Unfinished Tales (p. 201), J. R. R. Tolkien

In the first example, Jehu proves to be not just different from, but exactly the opposite of, what the initial selection from the text appeared to suggest. In the second, it turns out that, far from being presumptively committed to war and putting that presumptive commitment in the mouth of one of his characters,** the point of the passage is the horrible dilemma of the decision to wage war or refrain from doing so—that it is in fact a complex and fraught question, rather than a simple one, and may have no good answer.

Have you ever wondered why it is that not only citing sources, but citing them down to the page, is treated in formal academic contexts as so important? This is a big part of the reason. When verifying assertions and arguments that are dependent on sources outside the text you’re currently reading, being able to look up exactly what the original source says is not just a form of fun for pedantic types; it can be a vital way of confirming whether the person who used those sources is a competent, honest reasoner.

In a lesser degree, the same goes for understanding the broader historical context of terms, arguments, and even whole books. As C. S. Lewis put it in his excellent essay On the Reading of Old Books (itself originally penned as the introduction to a book by St. Athanasius), “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point.” Books written to address a specific situation may be applicable to other situations; but they may instead be irrelevant, if not positively meaningless, outside of their original context (and that’s to say nothing of the vexed question of translation, when dealing with books not written in our native tongue). Sometimes,† the historical context of a work can suggest ways of reading it that might not have occurred to us otherwise: for example, The Trojan Women, a play by the great Athenian tragedian Euripides, depicts the lamentations of characters who survived the city’s destruction, like Hecuba, Cassandra, and Andromache; yet it becomes even darker and more ominous when we consider that it was first performed in 416 BC—the same year that Athens sacked the island of Melos, killing the male inhabitants and enslaving the women.

Lastly, on how to deal with fallacious uses of context. As so often, the remedy for this fallacy has the drawback of being a bit dull, but the advantage of being quite simple and clear: Look it up.

*Eru (“the One”), sometimes Eru Ilúvatar (“the One, the All-father”) or simply Ilúvatar, are names for God in Tolkien’s legendarium.
**The story in question is set on the island of Númenor, whose people were the ancestors of the Rangers and the men of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings. The speaker is a king of Númenor (and thus a distant relative of Aragorn): he has just received word from the Elves that they believe Sauron, who had been defeated and gone into hiding centuries before, is stirring again in Middle-earth. All this takes place about six hundred years before the forging of the One Ring.
†Speaking of Tolkien, he would surely emphasize “and sometimes not,” or at least, not directly.

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large, and a proud uncle of seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other content here at the Journal, like our author profiles of Æschylus, St. Thomas à Kempis, John Bunyan, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or our intros to the ideas of eternity, human habits, piety, and signs and symbols. Thanks for reading the CLT Journal.

Published on 14th March, 2024. Page image of the beginning of the Book of Matthew from the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated evangeliary believed to have been produced ca. 715 at the monastery on Lindisfarne (a small island off the northeastern coast of England, near the border with Scotland).

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