Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Skepticism About Facts: The Case of Strawson

So far in this series on facts, I have argued that the object-property-relation model of facts is untenable at its core. Lastly, I have offered a reason to think that granularity considerations apply to our carving up of facts as well as to our carving up of meanings, although not always in a way which yields a one-to-one correspondence between true proposition-meanings and facts.

All of this may give rise to worries about what facts are, and whether they can be held to be the real, mind-independent things we generally think of them as. Relatedly, there is the idea that facts are a fiction invented by thinkers caught in the grip of a “correspondence theory of truth” for the sake of having something for true propositions to correspond to.

The object-property-relation model may have some of its appeal in appearing to stave off these worries to some extent, by giving a uniform, extensional way of picturing things – but that's a desperate game when it comes to our ordinary conception of facts, as we have seen.

Surmounting these worries is no mere defensive exercise, but will afford us insight into the concept of facts, the use of 'fact'.

I will begin in this post by examining Strawson's discussion of facts in his famous article 'Truth', attempting to diagnose and avoid certain confusions (at his expense). (I got quite carried away with this, and my tone gets a bit harsh, especially considering that the poor bugger wrote his paper over 60 years ago. But I like Strawson very much. Much more than Quine.) I will then discuss, in a future post, a well-known and striking passage in Quine, purportedly showing facts to be 'fictions'.

Following that, I will try to sharpen up one aspect of the Strawson-Quine worries by taking the concept of 'projection' used by Quine (in his claim that facts are fictions projected from true sentences for the sake of the correspondence theory) and turning it against him (and Strawson); it is they, not the person who speaks of facts and declines to call them fictions (Quine) or pseudo-entities (Strawson), who are guilty (in a subtle way) of projecting features of language and thought onto reality. (This is a different use of the concept of projection than in the notion of 'external projective relations' used in the characterization of propositions.)

I will then conclude this series on facts with a brief look at residual worries about the 'shadowiness' of facts, and the idea (which comes through very clearly in Russell's Atomism Lectures) that there is something incredible about the idea that certain kinds of facts exist.

Strawson on Facts

Strawon's discussion of facts in his much-discussed paper 'Truth' (a reply to Austin's paper of the same name) seems to me to embody certain confusions which, at our present dialectical point, we are particularly liable to. We have examined the object-property-relation model of facts and found it wanting, and have noticed some striking features to do with the individuation of facts, namely: that concepts of modes of presentation come into their individuation in some way, that they can be individuated at different granularities, but that this does not go hand-in-hand with the individuation of true proposition-meanings.

Strawson's paper is positively tortured with scruples about 'fact' talk. One gets the feeling that, if he's right, then with fact talk, if you so much as blink, you might find yourself making up fictions and talking nonsense.

He is arguing against the correspondence theory of truth, particularly Austin's purportedly cleaned-up and clarified version.

Strawson's idea seems to be that fact-talk is assigned a role in the correspondence theory of truth which it is not fit to play – and that nothing else is fit to play the role either. He urges this in part by drawing our attention to the grammar of 'fact', and its close relationship with 'that'-clauses. That is, he has noticed, at least in part, what Wittgenstein was pointing out in the quotations from the 'Complex and Fact' given here.

So, correspondence theorists, in Strawson's view as I understand it, are trading on a misconstrual of facts, of the grammar of 'fact', in order to create (for themselves as much as for others) the appearance of a theory which accounts for the truth of propositions in terms of (to take, rather than Austin's difficult remarks, the full-blown early-analytic object-property-relation 'complex' view) a correspondence between elements of the proposition and elements of a fact. (Austin's view retains enough of this approach for Strawson to object that the correspondence theory requires 'not purification, but elimination'.)

There might be something in this as a criticism of the correspondence theory of truth qua explanatory theory. I will not pursue this here. What I want to do is vouchsafe the idea of facts from Strawson's attacks on it, and understand the pathology of these attacks – not for the sake, necessarily, of explaining what truth consists in, but for broader reasons: fact-talk is important in all kinds of connections besides philosophical theorizing about the nature of truth.

However, perhaps I should say a couple of things about (my view of) the proposition 'Truth is correspondence with the facts', in case this helps to avoid some possible misunderstandings. This proposition can be used legitimately, but it can be also be misunderstood and misused (in ways connected with the object-property-relation model of facts we considered above, but also in others, such as by making all truth look like it has to be empirical, through a narrow conception of 'correspondence with the facts'). You can say it, it is true as far as it goes, but some (who you might call 'correspondence theorists') have imagined it to go further than it does. It can be a useful consideration against certain confused views in the directions of coherentism, relativism and pragmatism (not to say that all views in those directions are confused), although by itself it cannot be expected to have any effect on seasoned theorists. More humbly, it might in some connections be able to assist someone to learn to speak correctly, and with more expressive power.

Correspondence theory of truth aside, Strawson's rejection of it so far leaves a proper understanding of the notion of facts as an open problem: how does fact-talk work, and what's it doing in our language and thought? This is where Strawson is weak. He doesn't seem prepared for what a subtle and difficult matter this may be. His view of the matter is formed in reaction to the correspondence theory of truth, and it leads him to say some strange things of his own about facts, things which could be said to be out of touch with the real grammar of 'fact' – and the grammars of the certain other words in the things he says – every bit as much as much as the explanatory or pseudo-explanatory use of 'fact' by the correspondence theorists. (This dogs Strawson's negative arguments about the correspondence theory, which more-or-less make up the whole paper, too – it is not a simple matter of a good negative story and a bad positive one).

He doesn't seem to realize what a subtle and difficult matter this may still be once you reject the correspondence theory. The correspondence theory is the root of all evil – get rid of that, and there is no difficulty. His view of the matter is reactionary, and it leads him to say some strange things of his own about facts, things which could be said to be every bit as out of touch with the real grammar of 'fact' – and the grammars of the certain other words in the things he says – as the explanatory or pseudo-explanatory use of 'fact' made by some correspondence theorists.

Strawson is probably not aptly characterized as a 'skeptic about facts' (a phrase Quine must wear), although many of the things he says sound like skepticism about facts. His position at the time of this paper was probably essentially confused and unstable. We can only describe as best we can the pickle he is in.

Strawson has, we might say, become paranoid about fact-talk: he sees the correspondence theory – with its attendant misuse of fact talk - everywhere he looks. He sees it in certain linguistic forms which in themselves need not be used in a correspondence-theoretic way at all: they admit of perfectly harmless use, and more than that, their use is important from our general point of view as speakers and thinking people, and their working is non-trivial from the point of view of the investigator of language and thought. This paranoia leads him to denials and counter-prescriptions of his own which are every bit as objectionable as correspondence-talk.

I will now briefly discuss some important passages from Strawson's paper, to illustrate the above charge. We will then move on to Quine on facts, who can be seen as resolutely maintaining something which Strawson seems to suggest at his most objectionable moments. The discussion of Strawson's we are focussing on presently is complex and ambiguous and many-sided – this makes it rich but difficult material to discuss. The passage from Quine we will look at, by contrast, is utterly forthright, and this will enable us in a later post to give a sharp diagnosis of one particular skeptical confusion about facts.
That (person, thing, etc.) to which the referring part of the statement refers, and which the describing part of the statement fits or fails to fit, is that which the statement is about. It is evident that there is nothing else in the world for the statement itself to be related to either in some further way of its own or in either of the different ways in which these different parts of the statement are related to what the statement is about. And it is evident that the demand that there should be such a relatum is logically absurd: a logically fundamental type-mistake. But the demand for something in the world which makes the statement true (Mr. Austin's phrase), or to which the statement corresponds when it is true, is just this demand.

The phrase 'in the world' is doing a good deal of work here, but what does it really mean? Are facts in the world or not in it? Isn't this precisely the sort of unclear, grammatically out-of-touch talk which Strawson is supposed to be so fastidious about? Having noticed fundamental grammatical differences between, e.g. 'fact' on the one hand and 'table' and 'complex' (and 'proposition' for that matter) on the other, he tries to mark them by saying there is nothing in the world which could be called a fact and which could be said to make propositions true, and which propositions could be said to fit or correspond to. But this is crude in the extreme. There is simply no reason to think there is a single, clear-enough idea of what it is for something to be 'in the world', which Strawson can use here. So the impressive-sounding phrase 'a logically fundamental type-mistake' is quite unjustified. That makes it sound almost as if this were an instance of some fallacy well-known to experts. It is nothing of the kind. I think it is fair to say that there is an element of hocus pocus here with this talk of a 'logically fundamental type-mistake'.

The only plausible candidate for the position of what (in the world) makes the statement true is the fact it states; but the fact it states is not something in the world. It is not an object: not even (as some have supposed) a complex object consisting of one or more particular elements (constituents, parts) and a universal element (constituent, part).

Here, after a rehearsal of the opaque 'in the world' line, we get a further heady-sounding claim – facts aren't objects! As if this too followed from the rejection of the correspondence theory, and the realization that 'fact' behaves very differently not just from 'proposition', but also from 'table' and 'complex'! But to me, this sounds like further unexplained metaphysics, or at best, hopelessly crude, hand-wavy grammar. (Are facts things, if not objects? May we say that, officer?) More to come.

Mr. Austin seems to ignore the complete difference of type between, e.g., "fact" and "thing"; to talk as if "fact" were just a very general word (with, unfortunately, some misleading features) for “event,” “thing,” etc., instead of being (as it is) both wholly different from these, and yet the only possible candidate for the desired non-linguistic correlate of “statement.” 

This passage is shot through with use-mention confusion. What would it mean for 'fact' to be a word for other words ('event', 'thing')? (None of 'fact', 'event' and 'thing' is synonymous with another, and Austin never implies otherwise, as far as I've been able to tell.) Secondly, how could the word 'fact' be a candidate for a non-linguistic correlate of anything? And why would the word 'statement' have a non-linguistic correlate?

'Thing' is indeed very different from 'fact' – it is a lot more general, and often functions like a variable. But does that mean we can't speak of facts, that we can't use the word 'thing' in connection with them (as in 'Facts are her favourite things', 'Something I didn't appreciate was the fact that …')? (But why not, officer, when there's no harm in it?)

These points are, of course, reflected in the behaviour of the word "fact" in ordinary language; behaviour which Mr. Austin notes, but by which he is insufficiently warned. "Fact," like "true," "states" and "statement" is wedded to "that"-clauses; and there is nothing unholy about this union.

It is interesting to note that Strawson says 'there is nothing unholy about this union'. It is easy enough to comprehend, because we know Strawson allows that fact-talk is not always entirely spurious, with the caveat its use is quite specific and narrow, and cannot be exploited for a correspondence theory of truth. Compare what is said in this description of a form of skeptical position about facts, given the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for 'Facts':
3.F2: All facts, even the most simple ones, are disreputable. Fact-talk, being wedded to that-clauses, is entirely parasitic on truth-talk. Facts are too much like truthbearers. Facts are fictions, spurious sentence-like slices of reality, “projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence” (Quine 1987, p. 213; cf. Strawson 1950)

The second citation is to the paper we are now considering! (The first is to the passage in Quine which we will discuss in the next post, and that is where the quoted phrase 'projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence' is taken from.) Contrast 'disreputable' with Strawson's 'there is nothing unholy about this union'. This is a testament to how ambiguous and difficult Strawson's position is.

This citation may seem from the narrow point of view of this passage to betray an incompetent misreading, but that would be completely unfair to its author. Recall Strawson above saying that the 'demand' for facts as things 'in the world' for truths to correspond to rests on a mistake, and his curious claim that facts are not 'objects'. And furthermore, following the above-quoted talk about the not-unholy union, as a continuation of this theme of the close relationship between 'fact', 'statement' and 'that'-clauses, we find:

Of course, statements and facts fit. They were made for each other. If you prise the statements off the world you prise the facts off it too; but the world would be none the poorer. (You don't also prise off the world what the statements are about – for this you would need a different kind of lever.)

What? (Is that you, officer?) Strawson has been having such a good time that his ordinary-language hat has fallen off entirely, indeed out the window. He is now heading for the stratosphere, where Kant sits waiting; he'll probably exit via the same window.

There is obviously a double-standard at work here. We mustn't say that true propositions correspond to facts, and we mustn't say that facts make true propositions true. But it's perfectly legitimate to say something like: facts are made for statements. It's fine to talk about prising facts off the world.

We can explain this as follows: Strawson has got it into his head that the correspondence theory is the root of all evil when it comes to our understanding of fact-talk, and of language and its connections to the world. As long as we don't say correspondence-theoretic things, we'll be alright. So we can forget all our scruples and say all sorts of colourful, deeply-philosophical sounding things, as long as they aren't correspondence-theoretic in spirit – and if these things might work as propaganda against the correspondence theory, we positively ought to say them.

The question remains: what on Earth is going on in this passage? When we consider Quine on facts in the next post, we will suggest that Quine is, ironically, guilty of a subtle 'projection fallacy' (a term which will be explained) in his contention that facts are 'projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence'. We should then be able to see clearly that this is also what is going on in this astounding passage of Strawson's. And so the SEP citation of Strawson in connection with the idea that facts are 'disreputable' 'projections' is justifiable.

Here is a passage which shows that, not only are facts not objects, they are not even things.
the whole charm of talking of situations, states of affairs or facts as included in, or parts of, the world, consists in thinking of them as things, and groups of things; [...] the temptation to talk of situations, etc., in the idiom appropriate to talking of things and events is, once this first step is taken, overwhelming. Mr. Austin does not withstand it.

What does he mean by this? What does it mean to think of something as a thing, anyway?

The reader will probably agree whole-heartedly that I have protested sufficiently now about the meaningfulness and clarity of what Strawson is saying. I will leave off that now, and conclude this post with a word about a curious argument involving imperatives, which occurs near the end of Strawson's section on facts:
Orders, as well as information, are conventionally communicated. Suppose "orange" always meant what we mean by “Bring me an orange" and "that orange" always meant what we mean by "Bring me that orange," and, in general, our language contained only sentences in some such way imperative. There would be no less need for a conventional correlation between the word and the world. Nor would there be any less to be found in the world. But those pseudo-entities which make statements true would not figure among the non-linguistic correlates. They would no more be found; (they never were found, and never did figure among the non-linguistic correlates).

The argument seems to be, in essence: if our language consisted only of simple commands, these would have to be correlated with the world, but we wouldn't correlate them or any of their constituents with facts, and so facts would 'no more be found'. But why does that entitle Strawson to call facts 'pseudo-entities'? And how can he say, on the basis of considering this primitive sort of language, say that 'they [the relevant “pseudo-entities”, facts] never were found'? He can't – that's a completely different, and completely unsupported, claim.

The following analogy, though rough, seems to bring out the unsoundness of Strawson's semi-implicit reasoning here. Suppose we spoke a language with no word for acceleration. In a sense, acceleration would then no longer be a correlate of our language. And perhaps, in a sense, acceleration would not be 'found', by us. But that doesn't mean there is no acceleration, and that we do not 'find' it as a correlate of something in the language we actually speak. To conlude that would be to perpetrate a use-mention confusion: eliminate the signs, and you haven't thereby eliminated what they represent. (We will have occasion to note a similar confusion in Quine in the next post. The point is due to my former teacher Adrian Heathcote, who applied it to Quine.) We can also see it as a projection fallacy: what is gotten rid of in Strawson's imagined case is language, concepts, but this absence is projected onto reality, i.e. onto what the language and concepts were about.


J. L. Austin , P. F. Strawson & D. R. Cousin (1950). Symposium: Truth. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 24:111 - 172. 

Further background:

- A video of Strawson and Gareth Evans discussing truth in the early 1970s.
- Section 3 of the SEP article on Strawson.

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