Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The cults of facts

I  am not tempted by the notion of "alternative facts." By the same token, there is something naive about the view, common in anglophone countries, that there are some easily detected nuggets of truth, called facts, that require no nuance or qualification. 

By contrast, in the Kantian tradition facts are always enveloped in a penumbra of expectation and interpretation. This does not mean that one should reject the finding that some assertions have a greater truth value than competing ones, but in many instances this superiority is less easily established than the cult of facts would suggest.

Outright lies should always be exposed as such. What I am questioning is whether, in combatting them, we may rely on on an indisputable body of facts. My early studies with Karl Popper taught me that there is a spectrum ranging from mathematical propositions, which have the highest truth value - on the one hand - and outright lies of the Goebbels type - on the other. My view is that in our society liberals are too quick to congratulate themselves with the claim that they adhere only to facts. 

With experience most politicians (of whatever stripe) learn to cultivate techniques of evasion, such as dancing around an issue, answering a question that was not asked, semantic quibbling ("it depends on what "is" means"), and so forth. Deployment of these techniques does not, in my view, reflect a strict adherence to facts, Yet to survive in politics it seems mandatory to acquire proficiency in the gray area populated by these verbal devices.

In her important monograph A Culture of Fact, England 1550-1720, Barbara J. Shapiro shows how our peculiar devotion to fact arose in England in the early modern period, when it became intertwined with empiricist philosophy. She traces the origins of this emphasis not to natural science but to legal discourse. Shapiro follows the concept's evolution and diffusion across a variety of disciplines in early modern England, examining how the emerging "culture of fact" shaped the epistemological assumptions undergirding each intellectual enterprise. In her view, the crucial first step in this transition occurred in the sixteenth century when the English common law established a definition of fact relying on eyewitnesses and testimony. Shapiro also recounts how England's preoccupation with fact permeated historiography, religion, and literature―which saw the rise of a fact-oriented fictional genre, the novel. I would add that, among academics at least, the prestige of fact only began to erode in the 1960s when the ideal of historical objectivity came under attack.


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