In Defense of Taking Things Out of Context

Lately, I’ve had the feeling that the push to contextualize and historicize in the humanities and some of the social sciences has become a stumbling block to thought itself, to new ideas and original thinking.

This is on my mind, I suppose, because next year, I’ll be giving the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society for US Intellectual History; I’m thinking of titling it “Against Context, Against History” or perhaps just “In Defense of Taking Things Out of Context.”

That needn’t be the case: ideally, historicism and contextualism should alienate us from a familiar past, should push us beyond conventional interpretations. They should force us to grasp the past in its pastness, and thereby render our present strange.

But things don’t always work out that way. Some of the historical impulse that seems so alive in academia today works against surprise, dulls our receptivity to the unexpected, makes both past and present unremarkable. I’ll admit this is an odd thought for me, since I’ve always considered myself a historicist. Yet…

Anyway, this March 10, 1948 entry from Alfred Kazin’s Journals crystallized some of my concerns about historicism and contextualism:

The primary type of originator, like Marx and Freud, who isolates a cause or phenomenon from the context of custom and analyzes it to the point where it gives us a new illumination of life. It does not matter how they may exaggerate this, how ungenerously they will denounce their opponents, or refuse to concede any qualifications of their thought from the outside. They have created a key image of ourselves which we can never lose. Their own enemies know it, too, for they continually pay tribute by draping their criticisms on the structure already provided here for them.

I never quite felt the urgency in Arendt’s famous discussion of the pearl diver in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. But I’m finding that the impulses at the heart of that essay are becoming increasingly felt in my work, as I try to think, for example, about economic theory as a mode of political thought, as I try to wrench that theory from its context and put it in dialogue with something outside the conversation of which it partakes.

So, some more Arendt (who was, incidentally, a close friend of Kazin) on Kafka and Benjamin, and a way of thinking about history that doesn’t make us slaves to context:

…he [Kafka] knew, on the other hand, that there is no more effective way to break the spell of tradition than to cut out the “rich and strange,” coral and pearls, from what had been handed down in one solid piece.

Thus the heir and preserver unexpectedly turns into a destroyer. “The true, greatly misunderstood passion of the collector is always anarchistic, destructive. For this is its dialectics: to combine with loyalty to an object, to individual items, to things sheltered in his care, a stubborn subversive protest against the typical, the classifiable.” [Benjamin] The collector destroys the context in which his object once was only part of a greater, living entity, and since only the uniquely genuine will do for him he must cleanse the chosen object of everything that is typical about it.

Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the corals in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living—as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene.


  1. lightbringer777909 December 13, 2014 at 9:05 pm | #

    in my humble opinion:
    the way i had always thought of things like this, is that we tend to come up things like this all the time….but every viewpoint has its uses: after proper moderation.

    even if one set of ideas doesn’t fit on the individual level that same set might be used to do amazing things even if you don’t use the lessons the way they were intended.

    i wonder if the way to come up with new ideas… to give people near total educational freedom rather than to try to close them around a specialized view

    time will end up teaching that person ( or groups of people) that there is only so much knowledge that can be used according to their abilities.

    but because they aren’t so focused on a small set of ideas, they will always feel the need to grow. and in enough time, the set of ideas that didn’t make sense, might have a greater impact

  2. Dean C. Rowan December 14, 2014 at 3:47 am | #

    Seems to me that “taking something out of context” is a shortcut way of referring to taking something from one context and framing it in another. “Liberty” is often treated this way. Genuinely taking something out of context is more technically a way to explore its “plain” meaning. The problem is that history doesn’t proceed plainly, but in context. That’s why we try to be careful to consider context.

  3. Roquentin December 14, 2014 at 8:22 am | #

    I fully support this project of yours to take economic theory and rethink it as a mode of political thought.

    Also, Deleuze and Guattari have similar views to this. Specifically, in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition one of the defining theses is that “Repetition is not regularity.” He spends so much of the book defining repetition, because it is a very different version of the concept than most people are comfortable with, not unlike Heidegger’s peculiar use of the word “being.” The point is that repetition itself is the production of difference, and that in repeating something you are also creating something new. This makes Nietzsche’s ideas about “Eternal Return” into something else entirely, that while events will repeat and reoccur they will do so in ways that defy any sense of order, a kind of repetition which will only be legible retroactively.

    There’s also “Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature,” which probably pertains more directly to this blog post, but I have not read that so it is best to leave that alone for the time being.

  4. ron bruno December 14, 2014 at 8:56 am | #

    “The true, greatly misunderstood passion of the collector is always anarchistic, destructive. For this is its dialectics: to combine with loyalty to an object, to individual items, to things sheltered in his care, a stubborn subversive protest against the typical, the classifiable.”


    In a sense, the historian is a collector of tradition and heritage. If the historian is a collector in this sense and if Benjamin is correct, then the historian’s passion is nihilistic to a degree, continually upending the “typical and the classifiable.” I am immediately reminded of Nietzsche’s analysis of ascetic ideals in the Genealogy of Morals. The historian has a certain faith in truth, or at least the truth of his historical interpretation, but in Nietzsche’s conception that truth is subjective rather than absolute and demands continual revision. Nietzsche also interpreted the scientific vocation as the possibility of replacing one error with another.

    I am quite interested in Corey’s attempt to place “economic theory as a mode of political thought” into a broader dialogue. I am inclined to interpret economic theory as a morality play. The concept of utility may appear to be detached from moral sense but every price valuation is a moral valuation to some extent. Every economic choice, including supply and demand, opportunity costs, marginal utility, etc., might be measured in terms of price, but moral valuations influence the price of every commodity. Diamonds have very little marginal utility for example, but high demand and relative scarcity contribute to a high price. The demand in this case is largely an aesthetic, or moral judgment. Price subjectivity is inherent. Wages also represent a price valuation determined by moral valuations. Wide variations in wages are barely connected to objective valuations of skill and utility. Economic theory avoids the discussion of morality because it is considered the realm of the priest or the shaman and disdains the mystical because it negates the rational validity of scientific theory. Ironically, economic theory is often elevated to the status of articles of faith by its adherents. Even the quest for data contains an element of faith that the data can ever be complete and represents the truth, as subjective as that truth will always be.

  5. Michael Morse December 14, 2014 at 10:18 am | #

    Monsieur Roquentin,
    You’re right; _Towards a Minor Literature_ is very germane to Corey’s suggestions (and highly recommended). D&G make an elegant case for the unity of Kafka’s life, work, and context. It’s exactly the opposite of the kind of forced contextualization of which Corey complains. Since Livy, moralistic history insists it can expose patterns and regularities that make sense, once you have the upright character and interpretive genius of *moi*. Even Marx is guilty in 18th Brumaire and the Civil War in France. The folks who have taught me most in the last few decades–the author of _the Arcades Project_, Robert Darnton, Bloch & Braudel, the author of _The Order of Things_, even Shelby Foote, and, hell yeah, the author of _Fear_, have in common that they abjure proceeding from any faith in that kind of access to a hidden pattern..

  6. eric brandom December 14, 2014 at 10:53 am | #

    I wonder if the opposition isn’t context/tradition as much as anything else. Contextualization *ought* to be disruptive, at least at some moment. which isn’t to say that it always is–in any case, I would be interested to hear more about specific instances in which too much contextualizing/historicizing is getting in the way of true thinking.

    But: this reminds me a little of the argument that Marty Jay made a few years ago (Jay, Martin. “Historical Explanation and the Event: Reflections on the Limits of Contextualization.” New Literary History 42, no. 4 (2011): 557-71.)–using some of the same resources, but also Badiou et al, I think trying to return to or recover a sense of the text as an event in a strong sense, something the true meaning of which can only be elaborated slowly, contentiously, and in retrospect.

  7. kathybjones December 14, 2014 at 12:43 pm | #

    There’s taking out of context…and then there’s taking out of context. The pearl-diving approach of Benjamin and Arendt aims to illuminate by decontextualizing, while some of the decontextualizing of Arendt’s own work actually takes fragments of a sentence of hers to misprepresent some of her central ideas. I can see your working toward the first mode of decontextualization, which is provocatively illuminating instead of provocatively obfuscating.

    These passages, of Kazin’s, Benjamin’s and Arendt’s. were the inspiration for my own book’s title, by the way, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt.

    Looking forward to your project of taking economic thought as political theory!

  8. jonnybutter December 14, 2014 at 4:40 pm | #

    Some of the historical impulse that seems so alive in academia today works against surprise, dulls our receptivity to the unexpected, makes both past and present unremarkable.

    Oh god, that is so true. I am so glad to hear an academic person say it. It’s as if not just the people with the careers, but – just to really rub it in – the careers themselves are careerist, e.g. ‘mortuary science’ or ‘military science’. Traditional humanities subjects are quite tainted with the conceit that all present fields of inquiry are now ‘science’ or near-to. The implication is that we are at a sort of academic End of History – that we have *all* the answers now. There can hardly *be* a more vain conceit.

  9. jonnybutter December 14, 2014 at 4:41 pm | #

    close tag. sorry

  10. jonnybutter December 14, 2014 at 6:14 pm | #


    The implication in the OP is that what we are doing now tends to be the *opposite* of pearl diving (the line about ‘excavating the bottom’ just slips by). Not very flattering. This smells right, at the very least.


    Anyone can be an idiot – can be raised that way, or have idiocy thrust upon them – but only an academic type can devise a particular, very involved kind of idiocy – an idiocy in double or triple reflection. Voila the beige certainty of the typical college course of study. Only an academic can make history, economics, political science – the world – uninteresting, and it takes some doing! You need some serious credentialing to be that dumb.


    I can see your working toward the first mode of decontextualization

    Isn’t it, strictly speaking, really an intuitive ‘re-contextualization’? I understand that a well cultivated imagination is the key thing here, not context, but strictly speaking there is no such thing as de-contextualiztion. Just being pedantic I guess, but these little things matter sometimes..

  11. Peter Dorman December 14, 2014 at 6:43 pm | #

    I agree with Cory’s main point, which in a sense has been the counterargument against the purely historical/sociological perspective on literature from the outset. Even if my reading of Shakespeare has nothing at all to do with why he wrote it or how it was understood in his time — even if in some sense it’s a “mistake” — it can still be valuable. What makes good literature good (and also good writings in social theory and other domains) is precisely this capacity to engender insights in new contexts.

    But I want to say a few words about the passing reference concerning economics as a mode of political thought. I posted a rather negative response to Cory’s earlier go at Ricardo over at Crooked Timber, but I think I should add a bit more. The sad truth is that one has to work through the formal foundations of economics (the math) in order to identify the core conceptual/political assumptions. This turns out to be quite complicated and has many significant dimensions.

    The assumption of a certain form of rationality has been isolated as one important aspect, which goes back to the eighteenth century, in fact. The behavioral revolution in economics, and especially the analysis of prosocial behavior, is where that is now being worked out.

    My own work centers on two other assumptions. The first is that there is no interaction between individuals outside the market. This is at the heart of assumptions on functional form that result in mono-equilibrium, local/global optimality etc. Sorry to telescope this, but detailed explanation doesn’t fit in a comment. The second is that positive models of predicted behavior, which can in principle be tested or at least calibrated empirically, are simultaneously normative models aiming at social optimality. That’s really what utility is all about. Other than this, you wouldn’t need it. That in turn is a deeply political ambition, or perhaps one should say an anti-political ambition.

    There are also politically relevant assumptions baked into more applied models, as well as the econometrics typically employed by economists. (I’ve posted a bit on that in my own blog and on Andrew Gelman’s blog.) It’s a huge topic.

  12. gstally December 15, 2014 at 10:49 pm | #

    When I first read through this post, my first thoughts on what my comment was to be:

    Dr. Robin, you and I are the context, we are the context; a part of that is the past insomuch as it is our past. Context is not mechanical or fixed, it has a pulse.

    After this I would have a brief addition of a metaphor I came up with about a year ago talking with a friend comparing history to a living fossil, like coral, that we are a part of and thus we have to start with understanding ourselves before we can read new insights into the past (and future). I was going to add to that at most a sentence, until I finished reading the supporting literature you linked.

    That hit home, for many reasons, not least of which is that I’m a clueless fuck-up. I find that it has me needing some time to recover. I’d not yet heard of Mr. Benjamin, Arendt made him sound wonderful. Her essay is very beautiful. Thank you.

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