Texts In Context
It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in Italian, French, English, and German, that the term "context" (contesto, contexture, Kontext) began to be used with frequency. From the sentences before and after the passage to be interpreted, "context" came to refer to the coherence of a text, the relation of the parts and the whole. The term was also extended to include the intention (scopus) of the writer.
"Circumstances" remained a key term. Jurists discussed circumstantial evidence. Moralists studied "cases of conscience," the ethical equivalent of case law. Interpretations of the Bible invoked the need to take circumstances into consideration. The sixteenth-century Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini offers an example of contextual thinking in early modern style. Guicciardini's Considerations on the Discourses of his friend Niccolò Machiavelli criticized the generalizations because they were "advanced too absolutely" (posto troppo assolutamente), since human affairs "differ according to the times and the other events" (si varia secondo la condizione de' tempi ed altre occorrenzie).
The thrust of the movements we call the "scientific revolution" and the "Enlightenment" was anticontextual in the sense that participants were concerned with formulating generalizations that would be valid whatever the circumstances. By the late eighteenth century, however, these "enlightened" attitudes were coming to be viewed as part of an intellectual old regime against which a more "historicist" generation revolted around the year 1800, stressing differences between individuals and cultures at the expense of general laws.