Contextualism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Contextualism comes in stronger and weaker versions. What these versions all have in common is the idea that the context, the situation, or the particularities are taken to be of outmost importance. Contextualism is a reaction against the strong emphasis on universality and common human reason characteristic of the Enlightenment tradition and modernity. The catchwords are "Whose truth, rationality, science, religion, ethics, or gender?" For instance, there are titles of book that read Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (by Alasdair MacIntyre) and Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? (by Sandra Harding). The idea is that it makes a crucial difference for the issues discussed whether one succeeds or fails to take the "whose" aspect or the contextual aspect into account.
Exactly what it is that could or should be contextualized in this way (whether it is, for example, theology, rationality, justice, or gender) varies from contextualist to contextualist. What also differs is the degree or depth of this contextualization. For instance, is the argument that one cannot determine what it is rational to believe without specifying who the agent is, including his or her particular historical and social context? Or is it that the standards of rationality (and not merely the particular application of them) or even truth is context-determined? If the latter, but not the former, is it the case then that rationality or truth would vary from one context (that is, culture, religion, gender, etc.) to another?
In the science-religion dialogue there are those who maintain that one cannot sensibly talk about science and religion in some abstract, universal, ahistorical, or gender-unrelated way. Instead one must be specific about, for instance, which religion (or what religious tradition within that religion), which science (or part of science), which historical period, which cultural setting, and the like, one is dealing with. For instance, John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor argue that neither religion nor science is reducible to some timeless essence, but must be understood in their historical particularities. Science and religion are inextricable from the times in which they arise. But there are also those who make different and perhaps more radical contextual claims. D. Z. Phillips, Peter Winch, and others who have followed the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889951) maintain that there are no practice-transcending standards of rationality, that is, science and religion do not have any standard of rationality or criteria of intelligibility in common. Therefore, it makes no sense to compare or relate them. Science and religion are two autonomous practices with totally different languages, functions, and standards of rationality.
Contextualism in many of its forms is a healthy reaction against the tendency in Western tradition to talk about, for example, "man," "human nature," "science," "religion," "reason," and "rationality" as if these are universal categories unsullied by the particularities of history, culture, traditions, gender, and the like. It is an open question, however, whether the strong emphasis of many contextualists on the local, the contextual, or the particular is just as questionablef it is in fact to go from one ditch of the road to the other.
See also CONSTRUCTIVISM; NONFOUNDATIONALISM; PRAGMATISM
Brooke, John and Geoffrey Cantor. Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Harding, Sandra. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
Phillips, D. Z. Religion without Explanation. Oxford: Blackwell, 1976.
Stenmark, Mikael. Rationality in Science, Religion, and Everyday Life: A Critical Evaluation of Four Models of Rationality. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.
Winch, Peter. The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy (1958). 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 1990.