Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Facts and Granularity

We have already noted that (it is natural to say that) the fact that Clark Kent is Superman is distinct from the fact that Clark Kent is Clark Kent. And this seems to reflect, in some way, the fact that our proposition 'Clark Kent is Superman' involves two different concepts, modes of presentation, name-uses or internal meanings, whereas 'Clark Kent is Clark Kent' just involves the one.

As we have argued, these things (let's call them concepts for now) can be individuated at different granularities. This raises the question: should we say that facts can be individuated at different granularities as well?

We will now consider a case which strongly suggests an affirmative answer. We will then consider the further question: does the individuation of facts go hand-in-hand with that of propositions? Consideration of a familiar case will be seen to suggest that it does not: there are contexts where we can naturally distinguish two true propositions which we might count as the same at a coarser granularity, but where it is unnatural to distinguish two facts corresponding to the propositions so distinguished.

Here is the case which suggests that facts can be individuated at different granularities. An untravelled German called Pieter who is, like Kripke's Pierre in France, ignorant of English, uses the name 'Uebermensch' for the hero we know as 'Superman'. He has never heard the term 'Superman', but is privy to the fact that the hero has two guises, and knows that he is called 'Clark Kent' in the non-hero guise. So he assents to 'Clark Kent ist Uebermensch'. He knows, from reading and testimony, quite a bit about the hero, but doesn't know much about his appearance in his hero guise – has never seen a picture, heard or read a detailed description, etc. Let us suppose further that he assumes correctly there must be some name, unknown to him, which is used for the hero in his hero guise, but has no idea what this might be.

In a Pierre-like development, Pieter comes to America and comes into regular contact with Superman. He learns the name 'Superman', and uses it to refer to Superman. But he doesn't realize that this is the hero with two guises, the hero he already knew about in Germany. He just assumes this hero whom he knows as 'Superman' only appears as a hero. He has learnt some English, including the words 'super' and 'man', but just hasn't put two-and-two together.

When Pieter is talking one day with someone privy to the business of Superman having two guises, this person makes some remark, intended to be quite trivial, beginning: 'Even though I realize that Clark Kent is Superman, when ever he wears that suit, I…'. The penny drops. Pieter bursts out with 'Clark Kent is Superman?!', and thinks to himself ('Superman ist Uebermensch!'). The person looks at him, and says 'I didn't realize you weren't aware of that fact'.

I will now explain why I think this case shows that it is natural to individuate facts at different granularities, given different descriptive needs. Before the Pierre-like development, when Pieter was in Germany, we would, on the basis of what we have supposed about him, find it natural to say that he knows who Superman is (although he doesn't know the name he is called by in America, and doesn't know what he looks like), and that he is aware of the fact that Clark Kent is Superman. Nevertheless, as the story develops above, someone has the opportunity to, apparently quite properly, say 'I didn't realize you weren't aware of that fact' right after his outburst, which was 'Clark Kent is Superman?!'. Here, it is natural to say that he became aware of the fact that Clark Kent is Superman, and also of the fact that Superman is the hero he knew as 'Uebermensch'. In this latter connection, he might say: 'I am very surprised at the fact that Superman is Uebermensch – I never even considered the possibility, although I should have worked it out!'.

I submit that the best way of making sense of this situation is to embrace the idea that we carve up facts at different granularities. If we consider Pieter in Germany, without any inkling of what is to take place later, we find it expedient to use a granularity coarser than the one we will end up at, and we take Pieter's sentence 'Clark Kent ist Uebermensch' to state the same fact we state with 'Clark Kent is Superman'. (Although, if we so much as consider speaking of 'the fact that Uebermensch is Superman', we will begin to want to shift to a finer granularity.) Then, once Pieter goes to America, it becomes expedient to shift to a finer granularity and distinguish more facts: there is the fact that Pieter stated in Germany with 'Clark Kent ist Uebermensch', which we might call the fact that Clark Kent is Uebermensch, and there is the fact which now surprises Pieter in America, which we might call the fact that Clark Kent is Superman. It also seems natural to say that Pieter puts knowledge of these two facts together and immediately comes to know a third, which we might call the fact that Superman is Uebermensch.

If we do individuate facts at different granularities, the question arises whether this goes hand-in-hand with the individuation of proposition-meanings. There are really two questions here. It is expedient to operate at different granularities under different circumstances. One thing we can ask is: is it the case that, in any given circumstance, if it is expedient to distinguish two true proposition-meanings, is it also expedient to distinguish two facts, and vice versa? Another thing we can ask is: is it the case that, if it is expedient in some circumstance to distinguish two true propositions meanings, it is expedient in some (possibly distinct) circumstance to distinguish two facts, and vice versa?

It seems to me that the answer to the first question is 'no'. I do not know what to think about the second question, and remain agnostic. I think the 'vice versa' parts hold in both cases; if ever it is expedient in some situation to distinguish two facts (and provided these facts are expressible by propositions at all), it will be expedient to distinguish two corresponding true propositions, and expedient in the very same circumstance at that.

The answer to the first question is 'no', I argue, because, while the vice versa part holds (granted the expressibility of the facts), the first condition doesn't – i.e. it is not the case that, in any given circumstance where it is expedient to distinguish two true propositions, it is expedient to distinguish two corresponding facts. Kripke's original Pierre case gives us an opportunity to see this.

Suppose that London is pretty. (Worries about the subjectivity or indeterminacy of London's prettiness – in short, about there being no fact of the matter, can be easily avoided with a simple alteration of the case.) Now, as we saw in 'Kripke's Puzzle and Semantic Granularity', once Pierre comes to London and forms a second, unconnected conception of it, it becomes expedient to distinguish the proposition he expresses with 'Londres est jolie' from the proposition he would understand by 'London is pretty' – he believes the first, and disbelieves the second. But in this case, as it stands, there is no pressure to distinguish two facts – on the contrary, this is not natural at all. There is just one fact which makes these two propositions true: the fact that London is pretty. Pierre, we might say, is aware of this fact via one mode of presentation (or concept), via one belief-content, but also has another belief-content, involving another mode of presentation, which directly contradicts (or is made false by) this fact.

So, to sum up the preceding discussion: we have reason to think that facts can be carved up at different granularities (the Pieter case), but that their carving up does not go hand-in-hand with that of true propositions (the Pierre case).


In future posts I will discuss skeptical worries about facts, beginning with Strawson's pronouncements on the matter in his famous article 'Truth'.

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