Putting Things in Context - RPG bloggers vs. the Cambridge School intellectual historians
Little says more about the soul of America than the fact that one of its greatest painters was briefly an anarcho-McCarthyist
Sometime towards the beginning of the year, I came across an interesting counterpoint to some of the reconsiderations of lore and its functions that bloggers had been posting about in an anonymous blog comment. It was a little more elaborate (and a lot more insulting) but the heart of the argument went something like this: things like conventional gazetteers are useful for providing the same contextualizing depth that historians rely upon when studying or writing, without this you can't have a truly grounded world of play. The actual argument being made is not interesting imo - it's already been dealt with by Sandro's post above. What makes this idea worth exploring to me is that historians themselves are often unclear or weird or both about what they mean when they say "historical context." Maybe even unclear or weird in ways that some of the anti-canon approaches to lore in games can help us navigate!! A lot of this blog is about doing the opposite, thinking about games using ideas stolen from work in history or anthropology, so this feels fun and even a little transgressive somehow? Fair warning, there's a lot of historiography at the beginning but it's important for framing the question.
Skinner's Long Shadow
One of the most common rhetorical strategies employed by historians is an insistence on considering a person, text, or phenomenon within its "historical context." You've probably done this yourself. The belief that explaining history requires contextualization has become so deeply ingrained in the reflexes of historians that it's often accepted without question. Everybody kinda knows what it means to invoke context - it has something to do with shifting the comprehension of a phenomenon from abstract, formal, and rationalist perspectives to concrete, specific, and historical understanding. Rather than imagining a person, event, or idea to be autonomous, defined solely by some inherent meaning, historians invoking context are trying to anchor these things in a broader historical structure. This contextualizing lens is so integral to the practice of history that it's prob one of the main ways we recognize written history when encountered. Despite its ubiquity, you'd be incredibly hard-pressed to find consistent understandings of what context means from either historians or philosophers of history. The surprising (almost creepy) slipperiness of such a key concept is, imo, mostly a result of the way that modern discussions of context entered historiography.
The ordinary language philosophers in Britain - a label that includes people like Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, and Paul Grice who tended to view language as a tool for use in speech acts, rather than a structured system of oppositions à la Sassurean post/structuralism - played a v v important role in shaping the Cambridge School of Political Thought, which included influential figures like J. G. A. Pocock, Peter Laslett, John Dunn, and most notably, Quentin Skinner. In 1969, Skinner published a paper titled Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas, utilizing ordinary language philosophy to articulate a new methodological and theoretical approach to the history of political thought. This essay has since become one of the most frequently referenced works in the field of intellectual history and maybe fucked everything up. The misunderstanding surrounding context is, in part, due to terminological nuances and old-fashioned polemics rooted in this one paper. Although Skinner's primary concern was with an ahistorical method applied to political thought, and his main disagreements were with scholars in political theory, he framed his intervention as addressing historians of ideas more broadly. Skinner's Meaning and Understanding was an attempt at producing a comprehensive critique of what he labeled "the history of ideas," but his characterization of this field was insanely broad and tended to conflate distinct schools of thought and intellectual approaches. Folks like Leo Strauss, C. B. MacPherson, Carl Becker, Ernst Cassirer, and Arthur Lovejoy were grouped together with literary scholars like F. R. Leavis and R. S. Crane, despite their widely differing views on how to approach ideas. According to Skinner, the history of ideas as a field was committed to a misguided quest for intellectual coherence in past thought, the imposition of abstract universal typologies on historical specifics, and the reduction of texts to mere expressions of social and economic conditions. He contended that only the method he advocated for - speech act analysis - provided a truly historical account of the past, contrasting it with what he labeled the "prevailing orthodoxies" of the history of ideas. Despite Skinner acknowledging scholars like MacPherson's commitment to understanding ideas in terms of their social and economic "contexts," he argued that their form of contextualism shared certain idealisms with those who believed texts could be read in terms of their internal logic. Both, in his view, sought to solidify an understanding of the text's meaning and content independent of the author's intentions. Frex, Marxist-derived categories - such as "bourgeois ideology" - utilized social and economic contexts to interpret ideas historically but envisioned some transhistorical force at play in producing ideas.
Skinner's conclusion was that social and economic conditions not recognized as such by historical actors could not be considered relevant contexts for understanding their ideas historically. This is worth explaining a little more, since it's what most of his work in the history of ideas is defending. Within their communities, individuals had/have access to specific sets of concepts. According to Skinner, the history of ideas executed properly would be histories of how these concepts were employed in arguments. Reconstructing this usage would involve understanding the author's intentions within the linguistic conventions available to them in their contemporary world, sure, but Skinner deemed it inappropriate to position an author or text within a broader intellectual tradition of which they were unaware bc imposing these frameworks could only hinder or distort historical comprehension of speech acts. For instance, attributing the development of liberalism to John Locke involves the application of categories Locke wouldn't have understood and intentions he couldn't have held. Skinner called this the "mythology of prolepsis," the tendency of historians of ideas to find later meanings in earlier texts in a process he compared to early modern biblical scholars seeking "anticipations" of later figures in the Old Testament. He even went so far as to suggest that those who wrote the history of intellectual traditions evolving over time were essentially engaging in the same practice as those constructing abstract and universal models of political theory applied universally. Long story short, thinking in terms of established traditions such as liberalism, Marxism, idealism, or empiricism is an anti-contextual practice because it swapped in historians' categories for the historically specific contexts that existed.
Statements of Purpose
Worthier champions than I have written detailed criticisms of Skinnerian contextualism from every conceivable angle*. It's also worth noting that there's genuinely good work done in the og paper. In the realm of political theory and philosophy, which Skinner came out of, a clear division really did exist between those who approached the subject historically and those who sought to treat it as a field centered around a set of timeless concerns. Skinner's intervention in the field of political theory, where the Cambridge School was part of a weird culture war thing around historicism, proved beneficial. Besides that, there are prob instances in contemporary academia where real + significant debates unfold between contextualists and anticontextualists (maybe philosophy? who knows what happens there.) I just don't think history is one of them. And that's the trick, right? - the long and acrimonious debate centered around Skinner's 1969 article was widely framed as a clash between Cambridge school "contextualists" and their critics, labeled as "anti-contextualists." The proponents of Skinner's approach adopted the term "contextualism" for themselves, suggesting that historians of ideas not aligning with their specific linguistic concerns and methodological commitments - those who did not prioritize "use" and authorial intention in their reconstructions, and who did not embark on uncovering the linguistic conventions of a particular time and place - were adversaries of contextual understanding. To be fair, Skinner did not explicitly argue this point. However, within the broader scholarly culture of intellectual historians, this interpretation emerged, and "context" evolved into a kind of shorthand for the specific method associated with Skinner. Because Skinner had differentiated his approach from a set of orthodoxies he portrayed as representative of the rest of the field, it became easy to conflate those genuinely opposed to methods of historical and contextual analysis with contextualists who simply did not adhere to Skinner's particular version of historical context. If the landscape is limited to these two camps - those advocating for contextualization and those dedicated to formalist or intrinsic methods of understanding - then the Cambridge school's claim to ownership of contextualism obscures diverse forms of context that may not align with each other.
The issues with this are pretty clear: historians almost universally recognize the necessity of some form of contextual understanding to comprehend thinking and thought as historical phenomena. However, not all historians believe that the specific methods advocated by Skinner and like-minded individuals constitute the sole approach to understanding the historical dimensions of ideas. While acknowledging the legitimacy and efficacy of the Skinnerian approach, most folks interested in intellectual history (tbh almost anyone period) understand that there are fundamentally different forms of contextual understanding than those presented by Skinner.
Unless we're willing to go full Hayden White and accept that historiography is largely a matter of setting the genre conventions for the fiction of history writing, we need ways to think about "context" that aren't chained to this weird originating debate and is flexible enough to contain a number of different engagements with "contextuality." Yes, I know the one and only Martin "Jenerational Jenius" Jay published a book about partially about new contextualities just two years ago. No, I haven't read it yet. Yes, I'm sure it obliterates whatever cave art tier shit is happening here.
In lieu of a proper working definition, here are a couple of guidelines that build on each other. All the blogposts/discussions about rethinking lore or anti-canon worldbuilding collectively formed the soup I pulled this from + I have no real way of knowing who inspired what, so here's a big general thank you to Ty, Nova, Josh, Warren, Sandro, and Max.
- Contexts are contingent on the questions posed. From the vast array of historical entities, a structured context is crafted by the questions we pose about the past. They don't exist independently, waiting to be uncovered; since it is not a previously existing thing we can unearth in archives or idk a dig site, but something like a cognitive tool, its parameters are inevitably shaped by the direction in which we are pointed by the questions we ask. It isn't productive to indiscriminately include all contemporary elements and hope for a context to materialize. The notion that by contextualizing first, we gain insights into what questions to ask feels more than a little wrongheaded; it suggests that we can establish a context without knowing what might be relevant to our specific concerns.
- If a plurality of contexts arises from the diverse questions we may pose about past objects, with each question generating a distinct context to address it, there is no singular "historical context" for any given object of analysis; rather, every object encompasses multiple relevant contexts.
- Since our questions generate new contexts, context is more like a mode of relationality. When we contextualize an idea, an actor, or a text, we are establishing a relationship between the object and aspects of its environment. Describing something as a context involves establishing a relevant relationship, making it an analytical rather than purely descriptive endeavor. The purpose of outlining a context is to interpret an object by revealing its relationship to aspects of its historical environment. Whether engaged in Geertzian "thick description" to anchor meaning in the environment or setting up a set of causal conditions as context, the goal is to demonstrate the analytical relationship between the object and its historical setting. This relationship again characterizes contexts as tools rather than independent objects in the world. We would not label a historically existing phenomenon as a context unless it aided in making sense of the object being contextualized.
- The last point is a little ehh (and relies most directly on some of the thinking in the blogposts linked up top) but I genuinely think this is the logical endpoint of the earlier guidelines. In the """real""" past, the assemblage of historical phenomena that we will eventually term contexts - after asking the relevant question to conjure it up - isn't inherently separate from the objects, individuals, texts, or ideas they aim to elucidate. Historical reality lacks any kind of differentiation in this regard. Identifying or crafting a context becomes possible only when we have an object to insert into it. Using metaphor, we might envision this process as setting a gem in a necklace...or maybe framing a picture? The point is that contextualization actually begins with an abstracted entity placed in a central relationship with historical phenomena extending beyond the confines of that entity. The layers of artifice are at least twofold to my mind - define and ultimately abstract some kind of bounded object of study, then center it in a newly drawn web of relationships that we call a context.
I'm not sure if this is any easier to work with than Skinner, though I suspect it is just by its thinness (or, more charitably, its openness.) Shocked by how little I hate it. Will give it a week and see how I feel then. I considered doing a little bit here at the end jerking off about how cool it is that blogging can be a useful source for criticism of work outside game studies, but it felt really patronizing on a reread and anyways I never doubted that people who do this produce interesting ideas. I will say thanks again, tho, because I do genuinely feel like I've been made a better scholar(-in-training) by my time reading and responding to all y'all.
Dr. Skinner if you read this i'm just kidding pls give me a job i'll say or do anything for clout i have no honor
* The place to start if you are deranged enough to want more of this is Kari Palonen's overview of Skinner's historical debates (and career more generally) in Quentin Skinner: History, Politics, Rhetoric. One critical paper that I like is Michelle Clark's The Mythologies of Contextualism: Method and Judgment in Skinner’s Visions of Politics.