Context is the Enemy
Derek & Laura Cabrera
Derek Cabrera (Ph.D., Cornell) is an internationally known systems scientist and serves on the faculty of Cornell University where he teaches systems thinking, systems leadership, and systems mapping and is Program Director for the Graduate Certification Program in Systems Thinking, Modeling, and Leadership (STML). He is a senior scientist at Cabrera Research Lab. Laura Cabrera (B.S., M.P.A, & PhD, Cornell) currently teaches Systems Thinking and Modeling and Systems Leadership at Cornell University at the Institute for Policy Affairs. She is also a senior researcher at the Cabrera Research Lab. Over the past decade, Cabrera has applied her expertise in research methods and translational research to increase public understanding, practical application, and dissemination of sophisticated systems science and systems thinking models.
More posts by Derek & Laura Cabrera
I really like this, its simplicity is its power, and is a useful reminder for anyone or any team tackling complex problems. But I wonder whether there is a sixth question which is: in what environment do these parts and relationships exist?
Cabrera, D.; Cabrera, L.; Cabrera, E.; Distinctions Organize Information in Mind and Nature: Empirical Findings of Identity-Other Distinctions (D) in Cognitive and Material Complexity. Systems 2022, 10, 41. https://doi.org/10.3390/ systems10020041
Figure 5: The two orange dots are the same size, but their 'context' makes them look like they are different sizes.
Much like the circles, text and context have a similar relationship, as the meaning of a word or phrase is dependent on its context (or surrounding text). In other words, text gets its meaning internally from how it is defined (in a dictionary, for example) but also externally from its context (literally together with text). Yet, this context is not an amorphous cloud of meaning generating ether. The context itself is just more text. This can be seen in the imaginary text passages below in Table 6. In this example, blue is the text being defined (i.e., the identity) and the yellow is the contextualizing text (i.e., the other). Note that the text in Passage B is merely part of the context in Passage A and vice versa (shown in green). In the second row of Table 6 you see a specific example using a homonym "rose" which can have different meanings depending on its context.
Table 6: Example of identity and other in textual context.
Indeed, by analyzing the relationship between text and context (in a literary sense), it gives us a better understanding of what we mean when using the term context beyond the literary domain. It is often said that, "it depends on the context." But what we see here is simply that context isn't some mysterious cloud that surrounds a thing. Context is the other things: other text, other people, other organisms, other things in the environment, etc.
Whether the identity is visual, linguistic, even self-identity or otherwise, a thing gets its identity not merely from itself or its existential qualities, but also from its relationship to others. We are reminded of the Zulu greeting, "Sawubona'' which means "I see you" and the response "Ngikhona'' which means "I am here." As always when translating from one language to another, crucial subtleties are lost. Inherent in the Zulu greeting and grateful response is the sense that until you saw me, I didn't exist. By recognizing me, you brought me into existence. A Zulu folk saying clarifies this, "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu," meaning "A person is a person because of other people.” This reinforces the notion that identity and other mutually define one another. Additionally, the i/o structure of Distinctions exists across all of our sensory inputs in which we receive information: visually, aurally, linguistically, orally, and olfactorally. And while we know that Distinctions are made across all of our senses, the extent to which we are aware of the distinctions we make is equally relevant to explore. In other words, it is simply not enough to make distinctions in numerous ways, it also matters whether or not we are aware that we are making them.
The theoretical construct of identity-other Distinctions (D) is not merely accounting for all the identities and others that take place in mind and nature. Instead, it pushes our theoretical boundary from the bivalent to the multivalent. From the static to the dynamical. In so doing, it treads not merely on synthetic and analytical realms, but seeps into the ethical. Recognizing that an other exists whenever an identity forms—a theoretical prediction of DSRP Theory—is part and parcel of ethical behavior and the prosocial perspective taking that undergirds compassion and empathy for others.