On the scarcity of context

Here is Tyler Cowen's latest and fullest explanation of "Context is that which is scarce."

A way to think about (1) and (2) in Tyler's post is: it's harder to think in terms of an idea than to correctly recite its definition. So, for example, students beginning collegiate math hear that the high school ways of doing things are immature and they need to master definitions and proofs. Then they advance, and discover (often brutally) that:

  1. You can memorize a definition without understanding it or being able to make any real progress on the problem set;
  2. There's often no principled way to decide which properties of a mathematical object (the determinant, the Shapley value, whatever) define it, and which are consequences;
  3. Their teachers spend less and less time discussing the details of proofs and definitions. That time is spent demonstrating the concepts.

Now think about culture. You might learn a slogan, technique, essay, or whatever. Then you see some new cultural artifact related to it and discover (often brutally) that:

  1. You can recite or mimic bits of these without generating any of the production or appreciation of the initiated (think of a poetry student learning metric feet);
  2. There are dependencies--historical, psychological, and conceptual--among the various aspects of a cultural phenomenon, but there's usually no principled way to arrange these into some single order. (I recently tried to teach transformative experience to undergrads. There's Prof. Paul's definition, but also the traditions of Lockean personal identity; decision theory; contemporary feminism, theory of race, trans issues, etc.; logical puzzles a la Frege and Hofstadter; the metaphysics of desire and belief (I can't imagine teaching this without saying something about Socrates and Aristotle); and on and on. It's not just that all this other stuff is somehow relevant to the transformative experience debate. It's that you really don't know what people are talking about until you've grasped some critical mass of it, and the material doesn't arrange itself into any unique linear order.)
  3. As you advance in learning about that culture, your teachers (in the broad sense) will spend less time introducing definitions and more time ostending, demonstrating, or making connections.

When Tyler started repeating this maxim, I found myself wondering, in frustration, whether he meant it as a definition ("what we call context just is the scarce aspect of a situation") or an empirical claim ("context tends to be the scarce or limiting input to various outputs"). I now view this frustration as ironic.

Subscribe to Nate Meyvis

You'll get email when I post new essays and notes.