Most people appreciate importance of context when they try to understand how verbal communication can be possible. Verbal context is particularly important when meaning relies on establishing relationships between pieces of discourse. After closer scrutiny, however, it becomes apparent that the putative role of context, far from providing an explanation of verbal communication, actually creates a problem. Thus, language is an excellent way to start our discussion of context. Language, of course, can be either written text or spoken discourse. For simplicity, I will focus here on the first case. Text acquires meaning through well-established rules, which in turn are based on the workings of faster, automatic, lower level perceptual processes. The notion of context derives from the apparent fact that, in the world as well as in our experience, things usually work together. It is extremely rare that objects or events stand alone. For this to happen, a
person must perform a deliberate cognitive operation to isolate the object from its surroundings. This is similar to what happens when we draw a lone tree, person, or word on a blank sheet of paper. In this case, the meaning of the object or word encompasses a much larger set of possible meanings; it is much more ambiguous than a situation in which the object is part of a scene or the word is part of discourse. In a dictionary, because each word is presented without a context, one finds not a single meaning, but a list of many (possibly all) meanings that the word can take. When instead a word is part of a complete sentence, the number of its possible meanings shrinks, usually to one possible meaning. An interaction occurs between the target word and the other words in the sentence. This interaction has the effect of restricting the semantic area of the target word. The connection between the words, as they form a meaningful sentence, allows for only a few of the target’s meanings to surface. Thus, if I say “the lawyer sued the board,” few people would think that legal action was taken against a piece of wood, even though the word could have that meaning.