Conceptualizing situations and contexts

It is crucial to delineate what we depict as a situation and what we create as a mental context for meaningful interpretation. Both situations (as physical entities) and contexts (as mental constructs) get represented in the mind. However, the two entail different ontologies. A situation is perceived and, consequently, conceived of as a state of affairs in the world that is best represented by a proposition or a set of propositions. This is how, for example, an event structure can be represented in language: a series of propositions (i.e. true or false assertions) will function as a description of an event. A context, on the other hand, consists of selected properties that create a plausible background for evaluating the meaningfulness of particular arrangements in linguistic structure. (Hence the success of the term “contextual appropriateness” as witnessed in the literature.) Linguistic structure in itself is not sufficient to determine contextual meaning. I will make an attempt at exploring the conditions of contextual interpretation, with special attention paid to the techniques of meaning creation and the nature of inter-subjective meanings manifest in our discourse practices.

Let us examine the possible uses of the term context. The linguistic environment, i.e. the linguistic context, is the basis for any language-based and text-based interpretation. However, language provides us with verbal descriptions that need to be confronted and compared with conceptual structures residing in the mind. Linguistic structure and the architecture of the mental lexicon jointly have to be aligned with the conceptual structures underlying any linguistic interpretation process.

As stated above, situations are represented as descriptions of states of affairs in the world and event representations as composite descriptions with the help of variably selected sets of propositions. It goes without saying that a description itself is a mental construct of a cognizing agent, who is free to apply selection, construal, perspectivization, choice of particular frames of reference and different types of projections in constructing a linguistic context. Such descriptions are based on perceived states of affairs and can justly claim to represent those states of affairs in a faithful way. However, for the interlocutors, it is not the states of affairs that get perceived, it is the descriptions thereof (i.e. texts created out of linguistic structures). Thus we have to acknowledge that linguistic structure is the vehicle and the medium with the help of which blueprints for interpretation are secured. My analysis assumes that texts as verbal constructs constitute and exert a decisive ontological commitment in the process of meaning creation.

Based on the fact that situations get described by propositions and event representations by variably selected sets of propositions, we are justified to posit event-ontology as the solid basis for situative knowledge supporting descriptions by language, thus creating linguistic context. With the help of linguistic contexts, however, we bring about new realities that acknowledge language-ontology in turn. This is a meta-level of realities. Linguistic contexts exert both an epistemological character and an ontological status. Further, linguistic structure has to be matched with conceptual structure which is fed and enriched both by pragmatic context (licensing pragmatic inferences) and intentional context (licensing intentional inferences). What we are to observe here is that we have brought about a meta-meta-level of realities: a conceptual context is based on context-ontology.

Thus from an ontological point of view, we can talk about three types of contexts. One is situational context in which we engage in faithful representations and descriptions of states of affairs. The next one is linguistic context serving as a medium in representing and describing states of affairs, and the third one is mental context which is constructed by the interlocutors to facilitate meaning creation and interpretation. The first type is based on observing situation or event structures, the second one constitutes an interface between the perceived world and linguistic structure, and the third type constitutes an interface between linguistic structure and conceptual structure, the latter being mental contents contextualized. It is the latter type of context that is subject to bidirectional, reciprocal adaptation in view of the linguistic structure presented and the mental states of the interpreters engaged in a given discourse.

A mental context is constructed out of selected properties of mental contents, thus serving as background for evaluating the meaningfulness of particular arrangements in linguistic structure. Linguistic structure in itself is not sufficient to determine contextual meaning. A mental context yields added value with which linguistic meaning is to be complemented.

I will make an attempt to highlight the reciprocity of epistemological content and ontological status: for any mental context to be applicable in interpretation, a new ontological status has to be acquired by being grounded in a particular situational context. I will call this procedure situated language use. The reconstruction of the procedure explaining our interpretational techniques and interpretational practices acknowledges an interplay between and reciprocal support of epistemological constructs and ontological commitments. Epistemic states are assumed to be drawing on particular settings associated with discernible ontologies.

I am suggesting a range of different settings responsible for shaping epistemic states and ontological commitments:

  • 1. Situations and faithful mappings of situations
  • 2. Contextualized situations (selective mental representations of situations)
  • 3. The linguistic context (texts and discourse depicting contextualized situations)
  • 4. The pragmatic contexts (constructed contexts based on users’ perspectives)
  • 5. The context of social interaction and culture (social reality, knowledge of others)
  • 6. The context of the self (figuring in individual and social cognitive situations)
  • 7. Instantiated mental contexts (situated language use)
  • 8. The context of the web-experience (cognition in virtual reality)

On the basis of my arguments presented above, I propose a readymade, all-purpose definition for contextualization. As stated above, I delineate three contexts, all of which share common properties. The three contexts are (i) the situational context [see 1-2 above], (ii) the linguistic context [see 3 above] and (iii) the mental context [see 4-8 above].

Contextualization is the process of assigning and facilitating meaning, either by providing a linguistic meaning or providing means for interpretation, especially means for interpreting the environment within which an expression or action is executed. An adjoining notion seems to be relevant here: social cognition. Social cognition is the study of how people process social information with special respect to its encoding, retrieval and application to social situations. The latter concerns the production of appropriate interpretational contexts applied to social situations.

The term situation is relatively straightforward when we intuitively accept that a situation is to be perceived as a substantive (i.e. authentic and faithful) representation of an event, a set of relations, a constellation or even an arrangement of properties. In fact, it seems to have a direct connection to the literal meaning of situatedness or being situated or being positioned in a certain way. The representation of situations involves a substantive element, namely the act of mapping, based on experiencing a direct relation to a physical-spatial arrangement. Hence, straightforward here refers to the mode of projection. I want to claim that even if we use the term (or concept) situation metaphorically (e.g. in intentional or counter-factual contexts), we are still on solid grounds as far as the channel of the projection is concerned: we are mapping material from a source domain to a target domain in a faithful way.

Considerable problems are generated, however, when the terms situative meaning and contextual meaning are used in an indiscriminative way in the literature. The attributes situative and contextual are derived from very different conceptual sources and carry with them distinct ontologies in the respective compounds. It has to be emphasized that these different ontologies are inherited in complex conceptual structures underlying pragmatic contextualization (cf. perspectivization, foregrounding, salience, focusing, construal, etc.).

Context is a term (a concept) that is metaphorical from the outset. Let alone the etymology of context, its lexical-conceptual structure is worth a look. Context is something that offers linkages between the core and its surroundings, its environment. It is something that is built from a fabric or a texture and consists of threads. The threads in the fabric serve as possible connections (even connexions) between elements that our conceptualization is bound to link together. An enlightening example here would be the working of our imagery in interpreting literary texts. (See the notions Gestalt and Leitpfade der Vorstellungen [threads of imagery] in a conceptual analysis of Georg Trakl’s poetry in Komlosi and Knipf 2009).

The mental processes that underlie imagery are much more common than one would think at the first glance. Imagery might seem to be very liberal, interpretations (especially interpretations of situations) need to be realistic, or at least they should comply with a reality (however well forged it might be) in order to experience the force of the mind which is able to avoid cognitive dissonance. In this way, I will argue as a result of my analysis that context construction ought to be seen as a purposeful mental activity that facilitates conceptual coherence. (It is a fascinating issue to see gestalts as mental construals affecting our perceptual ontologies. However, pursuing this topic further would lead our present train of thought astray.)

My observation is that no text-however well formulated and articulated-can be expected to provide the intended and plausibly constructed possible meanings in itself. Interlocutors will fill in anything there is a prompt or clue for. This all lies in the logic of cognition and social interaction, which in not necessarily the logic of textbooks per se.

At this point I can put forward a bold claim: “Texts are crying for contexts generated in people’s minds, and contexts get imposed on texts in return.” To what extent and with what content contexts can be generated in people’s minds is certainly not primarily a question for linguistics. However, I am suggesting that there are well attested links between a linguistic context and a mental context (a pragmatic context with its epistemic, logical, situational, deictic, modal parameters and an intentional context with its mental state attribution to others included). It is plausible to assume that much of the information about situations, events, acts and social-interpersonal relations will be conceptualized (type meanings) and contextualized (token meanings) in the individual minds.

With the help of the following examples, I intend to show the obvious difference between situation and context. Whereas a situation (any situation identifiable by mapping) remains local and concrete [cf. extensional meaning of an arrangement)], a context (to be recollected and interpreted) will be generic and abstract [cf. intensional meaning of an arrangement]. I would even venture to claim that the nature of the distinction in case is comparable to the distinction between utterance meaning (concrete and local, given the identifiable illocutionary force to pin it down) and sentence meaning (abstract and generic). Further, one could argue, that the interpretation of an utterance meaning has to involve ontological commitment, while the interpretation of a sentence meaning is conditioned by epistemological parameters.

Below I am proposing the analysis of two episodes that witness the interplay of situations and contexts. With the help of these examples I intend to show the obvious difference between situation and context. I also intend to find answers to the questions such as: How good are we in (i) using conventional meanings and (ii) in creating non-conventional meanings? What role does experience have in meaning creation? How do we conceptualize situations as opposed to contexts? How faithful are we to our experiences (direct or bodily experience) and how venturing are we in experimenting for conceptualization? What is the relationship between mapping, mental space building and context building from the point of view of our interpretation processes?

Episode 1

A young journalist in New York City decided to take an interview with Cary Grant in his late 70ies, who by that time was living in the country, retired from the screen-world but still active in business. The interview proceeded in a very friendly atmosphere. However, when the journalist returned to New York City, she realized she had forgotten to ask about his age. She quickly sent a telegram to Cary Grant with the following text:

- How old Cary Grant?

The answer came with no delay:

- Old Cary Grant fine. How you?

The ambiguity underlying the interpretation of the piece of discourse above is of a syntactic nature (ambiguity concerning the decision about immediate constituents). It is considered to be a language-internal ambiguity. However, other types of ambiguity may need to engage and utilize language-external properties of meaning construction.

Let us examine another telegraphic text.

Episode 2

When the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia, was in full progress in 1968, one of the most important historic events shaping the Soviet-Czechoslovak relations was an ice-hockey match between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak team beat the Soviet team in a heroic fight. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev immediately sent a telegram to Alexander Dubcek in Prague, with the following text:

Congratulations STOP - Heroic Achievement STOP - Magnificent play


Electricity STOP - Gas STOP

Needless to say that telegrams used to represent a special genre (involving a telegraphic style) with particular restriction on their syntax and, therefore, their grammaticality. The structural ambiguity in Episode 1 becomes obvious when the response of Cary Grant becomes known. Otherwise, there is a well-founded contextual clue in the text (“She had forgotten to ask about his age”) that practically disambiguates the utterance “How old Cary Grant?” at the outset. The on-line processing of this piece of discourse requires the construction of a context which results in expecting information about the protagonist’s age. Here a situation (and a depiction of a situation) is created by the discourse: visit of a young person to a senior citizen, journalists need to have precise information about their subjects, etc. Simultaneously, a mental context is created as well that is compatible with the depicted situation. The surprise in Episode 1 is the unexpected (but realistic) possibility of addressing Cary Grant informally in the telegram (“Old Cary Grant”).

Episode 2 is somewhat different in its interpretational mechanism. The initial linguistic context is overwhelmingly forceful and dominant (with the syntactic dummy element STOP functioning as part of the telegraphic style and technique), thus no situation other than the sheer listing of items in the telegram gets depicted by the initial discourse of the episode. A relevant context is created “post-factum”, however, to support the intended interpretation of the episode. When the utterance “Electricity STOP” has been uttered, all the relevant conditions fall into place: the sporting fight becomes a power fight, fair play becomes dirty play, etc. The situation depicted is compatible with the extremes of “appraisal” versus “punishment”, given the knowledge about the historical times and the nature of dictatorship. However, a mental context has to be constructed retrospectively (changing the scenario of a sporting competition to power competition) to satisfy the need for creating a mental context that is devoid of cognitive dissonance.

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