What is a Context? Is it like a scope in C? Does it have a start and an end? Can contexts contain other contexts?

I see Contexts being used in lambda calculi type system rules, but I don't understand concretely what they are and why they are necessary. If they are too abstract, then is there some visual or metaphorical description?

Update: I am referring to "contexts" as what is to the left of ⊢ in typing calculi.

  • $\begingroup$ A context is just a dictionary/hashmap/association-list consisting of name-type pairs: Given a name, if it is in the context, then it is associated a type. That is all ^_^ In some sense, this is the notion of scope in C ;-) $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2020 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ Do you mean contexts as in what's to the left of $\vdash$ in typed calculi (which is what the current answer and comment are about), or contexts as in $[]$ in reduction rules (with or without types)? They are different concepts. $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2020 at 11:50

1 Answer 1


Typing contexts are the way to remember previously declared variables when type-checking a program/term. The rule for term abstraction usually is something like $$\dfrac{\Gamma,x:A\vdash e : B}{\Gamma\vdash \lambda x.e : A\to B}$$ In the conclusion, $x$ is not in $\Gamma$ yet. At this point, $x$ is declared to be the variable of the function $\lambda x.e$ and this variable appears in $e$. So, $x$ is a free variable in $e$. The typing rule above expresses that $\lambda x.e$ is of type $A\to B$ under context $\Gamma$ iff $e$ is of type $B$ under context $\Gamma,x:A$. So in the premise of the rule, we are type-checking the body of $\lambda x.e$ (which is $e$), but we need to remember that $x$ (which appears free in $e$) is a variable of type $A$.


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