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  Context (from Latin contextus, ‘weaving together’) is the setting which can modify our view of an idea, phenomenon or statement. The difference is between placing things in a sequence of logic (in which case they have one identity only, a kind of objective identity as one link in a chain of reasoning), and placing them in a context (in which case contingent meanings spread out from them like ripples in a pool, blurring and enriching the individual significance rather than articulating it). This is the sense in which the significance of a word or note of music is modified by the other words or notes surrounding it, the significance of a find on an archaeological site is modified by the artefacts and structures which surround it, or the significance of a historical event or political act depends on contingent circumstances.

In several disciplines, this basic idea of context is developed. In linguistics, for example, context is the ‘non-linguistic environment of an utterance’—everything about its circumstances, its utterer and its audience, that is every determinant of meaning except the contents of the utterance itself. In lexicography, similarly, contextual definition or implicit definition is a way of showing what words mean, not by using synonyms or giving derivations but by referring (with examples) to the circumstances in which the words are or have been used.

Context, or contextualism, in architecture is an important precept of postmodernism in the late 20th century. It is the understanding of a new building\'s design in its many relative concepts (that is, time, landscape, culture and so on), and refers not only to the design of individual buildings by reference to their surroundings but also to the importance of such context (the existing physical and cultural environment) for town planning.

Contextualism could be said to bear some relation to the principles held by the architects of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century, who, when required to build in a sensitive historic context, might remark, as did Robert Weir Schulz, ‘There is a workable, reasonable, commonsense solution to every problem, and here I would say that it consists in adhering, as near as may be, to the general type of the district and not using materials that will jar’. Perhaps one of the best known examples of self-consciously contextual architecture in Europe is Robert Venturi\'s Sainsbury Wing, an extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London: this attempts to harmonize the demands of a new building placed in a sensitive position against a well-known public building, with a frontage onto an important public space.

In geography and the social sciences, contextuality is a version of the same idea: no phenomenon (for example the mortality rate in a given area) can be considered without studying the whole network of relationships and circumstances contingent on it, however remote or irrelevant they may initially seem. KMcL JM

See also ethnomethodology.Further reading K. Ray, Contextual Architecture: Responding to Existing Style.



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