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In response to a parenthetical remark that I posted in answer to another question (link), a commenter asked:

I am fascinated by the statement that awareness of context is, in fact, the essence of free will. Can you expand on this please?

I'm posting this as a new question, since a proper answer goes beyond the scope of the original question in which my parenthetical remark appeared. My full remark was:

... rationality in general always depends on context. All knowledge is contextual. At the most basic level, awareness of context is, in fact, the essence of free will.

My elaboration is posted below.

asked Aug 28 '12 at 15:29

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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edited Jan 16 '13 at 10:19

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦
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"Awareness of context" is my own way of integrating several different issues in Objectivist epistemology, including:

  • The logical fallacy of context-dropping, and its opposite, described as "holding the context."
  • Objectivism's distinctive method of thinking, emphasizing knowing where one's concepts come from and what they depend on.
  • The logical fallacy of "the stolen concept."
  • The meaning of conceptual "focus."

An excellent overview of the concept of "context" can be found in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Context." There is also a helpful Lexicon entry on "Context-Dropping," along with entries on "'Stolen Concept,' Fallaciy of," and "Free Will." OPAR contains an entire subsection on "Knowledge as Contextual" in Chapter 4, "Objectivity."

I describe "awareness of context" loosely as knowing or finding out, as fully as possible, where you are, what you are doing (especially mentally), how you came to be doing it, what is happening around you, and why. It is the opposite of being "spaced out" or "wandering around in a daze." I have long understood that awareness of context is the principle underlying the fallacy of the "stolen concept," which arises when one uses concepts without maintaining conscious awareness of where one's concepts come from and what they depend on.

In a letter to a philosopher, Ayn Rand wrote that this method -- knowing the roots of one's concepts -- ought to be one's "constant [and exclusive] approach to all thinking and all problems.... Do you think that the main tenets of modern philosophy could withstand the test, if you examined them by this epistemological method, with the same rigorous precision, with the same observance of the full context, the genetic roots and the exact definition of every concept involved?" [From Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 511.] In another work, she observed that some children (the most rational ones) learn new words "by treating words as concepts, by requiring a clear first-hand understanding (within the context of their knowledge) of the exact meaning of every word they learn, never allowing a break in the chain linking their concepts to the facts of reality." [From Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Ed., pp. 20-21.]

There is also a classic line in Atlas Shrugged that dramatizes this issue brilliantly. Francisco is talking about his principal aim in life -- making money and making D'Anconia copper richer during his reign -- and the grand moral stature of it. James Taggart then says:

"Any grafter can make money."

Francisco replies:

"James, you ought to discover some day that words have an exact meaning."

In other words, what is "graft," and how does it differ from making money? (Quoted from Atlas Shrugged, Part I, Chapter V.)

Now consider free will in relation to awareness of context.

The connection between context and free will becomes readily evident when the Objectivist view of free will is understood. One of Ayn Rand's key descriptions of free will appears in TOE and is excerpted in the Lexicon topic of "Free Will":

The act of focusing one's consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality -- or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

OPAR puts it as follows (Chapter 2, subsection titled "The Primary Choice as the Choice to Focus or Not," pp. 56-58):

"Focus" (in the conceptual realm) names a quality of purposeful alertness in a man's mental state. "Focus" is the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality.

[...] For example, you may be walking down the street looking at passersby and shops, with no question preoccupying you. This qualifies as an instance of full focus if you are carrying out wide awake a mental purpose you have set yourself (even a simple one, such as observing the sights). It qualifies as focus if you know what your mind is doing and why, and if you are ready to begin a process of thought should some occurrence make it advisable.

At the most basic level, "context" essentially means reality. Awareness of reality means (or includes) awareness of context. Reality is the more general, all-encompassing term, of course; "context" emphasizes the interconnectedness of everything in reality, connections which man's conceptual faculty proceeds to identify.

answered Aug 28 '12 at 15:33

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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edited Aug 28 '12 at 15:38

I agree, though I'd define "context" as more distinct from "reality". Context emphasizes those specific aspects of reality which are directly related to a specific item of knowledge.

That is context is reality as it relates to a specific idea.

But I do agree that keeping focus means integrating your knowledge, which means keeping each piece of knowledge in its context.

(Aug 29 '12 at 09:20) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

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Asked: Aug 28 '12 at 15:29

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Last updated: Jan 16 '13 at 10:19