False to Facts

False to Facts

We have grown accustomed to a philosophical use of the word “fact”, mainly from the writings of Wittgenstein and Russell in their logical atomism period. Roughly, this is the idea of a fact as a “combination of objects”—a sort of complex of objects, properties, and relations. This conception is what allows Wittgenstein to write, “The world is the totality of facts, not things” and “The world divides into facts”. Call this an “ontological use” of “fact”: facts are entities belonging to ontology in that they are constituents of reality existing independently of human knowledge. This use has become entrenched, even though there has always been difficulty explaining what a fact in this sense is (it’s certainly not a “combination of objects”). Some have thought that facts are just true propositions: this is still an ontological use (allegedly) though it rejects the idea of a separate realm of facts alongside propositions. The concept is then used in a variety of areas to formulate philosophical doctrines, or to reject them (see below). But it is not at all clear that the notion can bear this kind of weight, or that it is even coherent. Is there an ontological sense to the word “fact”? What does the word really mean? Is this what it means in ordinary speech? As always, the dictionary provides a salutary starting point: the Concise OED gives us “a thing that is indisputably the case” and “information used as evidence or as part of a report”; the Shorter OED has “A thing known for certain to have occurred or known to be true; a datum of experience”. These definitions are clearly epistemic not ontological: a fact is something indisputable, evidential, certainly known, a datum of experience. In this sense a fact is opposed to an interpretation, a theory, a hypothesis—not a falsehood. Interpretations, theories, and hypotheses can be true and yet not facts, i.e., things indisputable, evidential, datum-like. If we ask “What are the facts of the case?” we mean to be asking after the evidence, the known information—not the truth-value of theories about the case. It would be quite wrong to say that the world is the totality of facts in this sense, since reality contains more than what we indisputably know. We could say that the world is the totality of objects and their properties and relations, but that goes well beyond what is known to have occurred etc. In the dictionary definition, then, logical atomism is simply false, even bizarre. So, is there another sense? Or has the word been snatched from ordinary language and stretched beyond endurance, giving an illusion of intelligibility? I fear the latter is the case. A fact is a truth that is known, to put it simply—and nothing else. That is why all attempts to explain the ontological sense have failed miserably: facts are not a type a type of entity; they are just truths that stand in a certain relation to knowledge. We could say they are known truths, known events, known states of affairs, known instances of objects having properties. But they are not a category of being that exists independently of any reference to knowledge: that is a philosophical fiction. True, we sometimes speak of “unknown facts”, but this odd locution appears to mean either “unknown to a certain person or group” or “unknown truth”. In general, talk of facts is always talk of what is known or perceived or otherwise registered by the mind—as opposed to what is objectively real. The theory of evolution, say, was not a fact until it was placed beyond serious doubt, not when it was merely a theory awaiting confirmation (though perfectly true then). The words “fact” and “true” are not coextensive or correlative, let alone synonymous. One way to see this is to note that “true” is redundant in a way that “fact” is not: compare “The heliocentric theory of the universe is true” and “The heliocentric theory of the universe is a fact”, said at the time of Copernicus; the latter is not equivalent to “The sun is the center of the universe” but the former is. To state a fact, a proposition has to be both true and beyond dispute. It is distinctly odd to say “The facts might never be known by anyone” (for how can facts be so hidden?), but perfectly okay to say “The truth might never be known by anyone”. The former is like saying “The evidence might never be known by anyone”—or the information, data, signs, clues, and indications. For all these words suggest availability to knowledge, whereas “true” does not. And to say that someone believes it’s a fact that p is not at all like saying that someone believes that p. What has happened is that philosophers have slid from the legitimate epistemic use of “fact” to an ill-defined ontological use.[1] This slide has a bearing on three philosophical issues in which the word “fact” has been theoretically deployed. The first is the correspondence theory of truth: a statement is true if and only if it corresponds to the facts. But this has to be wrong given that facts are always known, since there are many truths that are not known. And what might true statements correspond to if not to facts? If facts won’t do, there is nothing for truths (whole propositions) to correspond to, and hence there is no correspondence. The theory sounds plausible when we know what the facts are (e.g., the fact that snow is white), but it founders when we don’t know. Second, people ask whether ethical statements are “fact-stating” as a way of asking whether ethics is concerned with objective truth. But if we hear the phrase “fact-stating” as implying “indisputably the case”, we will be biased against ethical objectivism, because ethics is an area of frequent dispute. What is really intended is the idea that ethical propositions state objective truths (whether disputed or not) not whether they say things that no one will dispute. Many kinds of statements can be objectively true without stating facts in the dictionary sense, so the “fact-stating” formulation is wide of the mark. Third, the positivists tended to view meaningfulness as equivalent to being fact-stating, but this makes verifiability sound like a decent criterion for meaningfulness only if you take “fact” in the ontological sense. Otherwise, you are merely saying that a statement states something known only if it is verifiable—a straight tautology. But if you interpret “fact” in the ontological sense, it looks as if failure to state a fact really is tantamount to lack of meaning. Once it is admitted that “fact” can only mean something known it looks hopelessly procrustean to insist that all meaningful statements must be verifiable. Tying meaning to facts in the (alleged) ontological sense doesn’t seem so arbitrarily exclusive, but tying meaning to facts in the epistemic sense looks preposterously narrow—the only meaningful statements will be ones already verified. So, the concept of a fact can lead us astray once we try to detach it from the sense it ordinarily has. It should really be banned from philosophical discourse when used in the way initiated by Wittgenstein and Russell. The only facts there are are facts that are known to be so—and they are only facts in relation to what is known. It is a kind of category mistake to speak of facts as if they are things that can exist independently of human knowledge, as objects, events, and properties can. Facts don’t constitute the world; they are what we indisputably know of the world, as opposed to speculate about or are ignorant of. For the description of reality, we must stick with the concepts of truth, proposition, object and property, event and process; there are no facts out there in addition to these.[2]

[1] One symptom of this is the problem of individuating facts: when are facts the same and when different? Does “The morning star is bright” report the same fact as “The evening star is bright”? Also: can facts be perceived (seen, touched)? Can they be referred to by singular terms? Can they cause anything? Are there general facts, negative facts, disjunctive facts? Do they weigh anything (objects do)? Do they have the same constituents as propositions? Are they denoted by sentences? Are there fictional facts? Are there possible facts or are all facts actual? Can facts be quantified over? Are there facts about facts? Were there facts before the world was created, such as the fact that the world does not yet exist?

[2] Use of the word “fact” in an ontological sense encourages idealism, because it suggests the idea, always tempting, that unknown reality is necessarily like known reality. We know what known facts are like and then we project this conception onto reality as a whole, but then we are thinking of the unknown by analogy with the known. If the world consists of facts and facts are epistemically defined, then so is the world—hence idealism. The cure is not to contrive a non-epistemic notion of fact (a hopeless task) but to abandon the idea that reality consists of facts many of which transcend our knowledge. Reality does not consist of data, information, evidence, etc.

4 replies
  1. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    According to one ontological definition, facts are (obtaining) states of affairs (or “thick particulars”—D. M. Armstrong); and “state of affairs” lacks the epistemic connotation of “fact”, which, by the way, seems stronger in English than in German with the corresponding word “Tatsache”. (German is my mother tongue.)
    Interestingly, Russell writes:

    “Everything that there is in the world I call a ‘fact’. The sun is a fact; Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon was a fact; if I have toothache, my toothache is a fact.

    I mean by a ‘fact’ something which is there, whether anybody thinks so or not.”

    (Russell, Bertrand. Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits. 1948. Reprint, Abingdon: Routledge, 2009. pp. 130-1)

    Here, he doesn’t only call states of affairs such as Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon facts, but also events such as toothaches and objects (in the narrow ontological sense of the term) such as the sun. When I read that, I thought Armstrong may have made a mistake by equating thick particulars with states of affairs (as a basic, irreducible ontological category) rather than with “thick things” = propertied objects (“qua-objects” in Kit Fine’s sense). For instance, we would then have the superhot sun (“the sun qua superhot”) as a knowledge-independent fact rather than the sun’s being superhot; and the superhot sun is surely “something which is there, whether anybody thinks so or not.”

  2. Oliver S.
    Oliver S. says:

    “Facts don’t constitute the world; they are what we indisputably know of the world, as opposed to speculate about or are ignorant of.” – C. McGinn

    In this sense, a fact is a certainty (in the epistemological, non-psychological sense of this term, viz. an objective certainty). One definition of “certainty” in the OED is “fact or thing certain or sure”.

    “For the description of reality, we must stick with the concepts of truth, proposition, object and property, event and process; there are no facts out there in addition to these.” – C. McGinn

    We can have an intelligible ontological concept of facts as knowledge-independent entities “out there” by identifying them with (not necessarily presently) existing propertied or related objects (“qua-objects”: a qua F / a&b&… qua R)—and by also identifying events or processes with /dynamically/ propertied or related objects, i.e. with objects in motion, (inter)action, or passion. Then, for example, the object that is the sinking Titanic is an event/process (due to sinking being a dynamic property) and a fact (due to the sinking Titanic having existed, or existing in the tenseless sense of “to exist”).

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      Yes, we can have a non-epistemic notion of objects and properties, but we don’t need a non-epistemic notion of fact over and above these (as Wittgenstein thought we did). We can also have a non-epistemic notion of true proposition.


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