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Contextualism in Normative Political Theory and the Problem of Critical Distance

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Political theory is contextualist when factual claims about context are part of the justification of normative political judgments. There are different kinds of contextualism depending on whether context is relevant for the formulation and justification of political principles (methodological contextualism), whether principles themselves are contextually specific (theoretical contextualism), or whether context is only relevant for the application of principles. An important challenge to contextualism is the problem of critical distance: how can theories ensure a critical perspective if facts about the context to be evaluated are also part of the justification for the normative judgments? Tariq Modood and Simon Thompson have defended what they call iterative contextualism, which combines elements of all three kinds of contextualism in an attempt to avoid the problem of critical distance. The present paper discusses Modood and Thompson’s iterative contextualism and whether it manages to avoid the problem of critical distance.

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  • 05 November 2019

    The original version of this article unfortunately contained an error. In pages 7 and 8, the reference citation “Lægaard 2016: 13-14” must not be included in the quote.


  1. I take it that the answer to the question about the role of context will have implications for answers to the first question about what the relevant kinds of contextual facts are. I will therefore proceed without attempting to define “context”, although this might seem unsatisfactory. Different contextualist theories include different kinds of factual claims, some focus on facts about actually established laws or institutions, other about existing social structures, other again facts about the history of these. The contextualism proposed by Modood and Thompson, which I focus on below, focuses on contextual norms and values, e.g. as informing established laws. For this reason, factual claims about local norms will be in focus below. But this should not be taken to mean that all forms of contextualism share this focus.

  2. There are other roles for context to play in political theory than these, e.g. as a source of problems. In this paper, however, I focus on the roles related to the justification of normative judgments about cases, since these are the ones potentially giving rise to the problem of critical distance.

  3. Even if a principle is formulated in a way making reference to a particular context or relying on categories that only obtain in particular contexts, it might still be formally universal. This does not matter a lot, however, if the contextual elements limit the material scope. Theoretical contextualists are generally concerned with the material substance of principles rather than whether they can be given a formally universal formulation or not.

  4. Modood and Thompson (2018: 351) understand practices, structures and institutions characterizing a particular context at a particular time as “practical constraints which concern the feasibility of different courses of action”, which should be “borne in mind when seeking to reach an all-things-considered judgement about what should be done in each particular situation”. These formulations suggest that feasibility pertains to output (cf. the focus on “courses of action”). So even though facts about the context are relevant for the feasibility of courses of action which political theorists have to bear in mind when applying their principles, this does not amount to a properly contextualist element of their view. It is rather simply an additional way in which context may limit judgments.

  5. It is not clear from the text what Laborde means by writing that the criterion of civic inclusiveness is “singularly” context-dependent, e.g. whether it is uniquely context-dependent relative to other principles or perhaps rather context-dependent in just one dimension or respect.

  6. Bernard Williams articulates a version of the worry about critical distance in his so-called “critical theory principle” according to which “the acceptance of a justification does not count if the acceptance itself is produced by the coercive power which is supposedly being justified” (Williams 2005: 6).

  7. The target of a principle can further be understood in at least two ways, e.g. as what Abizadeh calls site, which refers to the kinds of objects (actions, rules, or institutions, etc.) appropriately governed by a principles, and scope, which refers to the range of persons who have claims upon and responsibilities to each other arising from a principle (Abizadeh 2007: 323).

  8. There is also a fifth way of understanding Laborde’s theory as contextualist, which is distinct from each of theoretical, applicatory and iterative contextualism. She suggests this reading in a comment about Rawls’s political liberalism, which she takes to exhibit “a dualist structure”:

    On the one hand, it identifies broad conditions of constitutional legitimacy; and on the other, it allows for a high level of context-dependent political inconclusiveness, even about principles of justice (Laborde 2017: 154)

    In accordance with this understanding of Rawls, Laborde draws attention to the range and scope of reasonable disagreement about liberal justice. There is a range of permissible understandings of the basic liberal principles of freedom, equality and respect. These principles are general and universal principles, but they allow for different interpretations in different cases. We can accordingly understand Laborde’s claims about context-dependence as, on the one hand, not a form of theoretical contextualism, since there are general cross-contextual principles, but, on the other hand, as one where general principles are interpreted and specified for each context. Therefore, the same abstract principle can have different specific meanings for different contexts. This is different from iterative contextualism, which assumes that the general principle is specified on the basis of different contexts, but that there is one best specification that is then valid for all contexts. The fifth reading might instead be understood as a form of context-dependence reminiscent of Andrea Sangiovanni’s notion of “mediated deduction”, according to which an interpretation of an institution or practice co-determines what higher order normative principles mean in this particular case (Sangiovanni 2016: 20). Such forms of contextualism face other sorts of problems, however (see Lægaard 2019).

  9. Modood and Thompson’s iterative contextualism is a version of the strategy of “Widening Contextualism” as an attempt to answer the problem of critical distance (Lægaard 2016: 17-18), which seeks to secure critical distance by widening the scope of what is included in the context, thereby providing more resources for criticism. This strategy nevertheless does not provide an answer to the question about how to restore equilibrium between norm and principle. It also risks widening the context so much in the direction of universalism that the view loses its contextualist character.


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Earlier versions of this paper have been presented at the panel on “Navigating Contextualism” at the ECPR General Conference in Hamburg, 22-25 August 2018, at the Facts & Norms Workshop III: THE INDETERMINACY BETWEEN FACTUAL AND NORMATIVE JUDGEMENTS, University of Copenhagen, 24-25 August 2017, and at the Nordic Network in Political Theory annual meeting, October 2018. Thanks to Martin Marchmann Andersen, Naima Chahboun, Sebatian Conte, Göran Duus-Otterström, Jakob Elster, Eva Erman, Matteo Gianni, Robert Huseby, Malte Frøslee Ibsen, Alejandra Mancilla, Ole Martin Moen, Margaret Moore, Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic, Nahshon Perez, Thomas Søbirk Petersen, Jesper Ryberg, Theresa Scavenius, Jakob Strandgaard, Frej Klem Thomsen as well as three reviewers for comments.

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The original version of this article was revised due to added data in the quotation found in pages 7 and 8.

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Lægaard, S. Contextualism in Normative Political Theory and the Problem of Critical Distance. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 22, 953–970 (2019).

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