This is the last in a series of posts on facts (the four links are to the earlier members).
There is an inchoate kind of worry about facts which, while closely related to projection-based skepticism (discussed in the last post), is not automatically discredited once we discredit projection-based skepticism. One way of expressing it would be to say that facts – or certain classes of facts, perhaps – seem like shadowy or queer entities. I will try to say something about what is going on here, but it is a large and profound theme which affects a lot of philosophy, so what I say here can do little more than scratch the surface and indicate a broad sort of viewpoint. The line I take on this is broadly Wittgensteinian.
Such an inchoate worry seems to animate the following remarks of Russell's in the Atomism lectures:
I do not suppose there is in the world a single disjunctive fact corresponding to “p or q”. It does not look plausible that in the actual objective world there are facts going about which you could describe as “p or q”, but I would not lay too much stress on what strikes one as plausible: it is not a thing you can rely on altogether. For the present I do not think any difficulties will arise from the supposition that the truth or falsehood of this proposition “p or q” does not depend upon a single objective fact which is disjunctive but depends on the two facts one of which corresponds to p and the other to q: p will have a fact corresponding to it and q will have a fact corresponding to it.
And a bit later:
One has a certain repugnance to negative facts, the same sort of feeling that makes you wish not to have a fact “p or q” going about the world. You have a feeling that there are only positive facts, and that negative propositions have somehow or other got to be expressions of positive facts. When I was lecturing on this subject at Harvard4 I argued that there were negative facts, and it nearly produced a riot: the class would not hear of there being negative facts at all. I am still inclined to think that there are. However, one of the men to whom I was lecturing at Harvard, Mr. Demos, subsequently wrote an article in Mind to explain why there are no negative facts. It is in Mind for April 1917. I think he makes as good a case as can be made for the view that there are no negative facts. It is a difficult question. I really only ask that you should not dogmatize. I do not say positively that there are, but there may be.
There is obviously something weird about this way of talking. It has a certain charm, even, for some – I confess even I find it charming and not just strange. The same holds for much of the Atomism lectures. Nevertheless, I think we need to get beyond this sort of talk, and submit it to philosophical scrutiny. Wittgenstein has done more toward this than anyone else I know of.
It was certain sorts of facts Russell was worried about above – negative and disjunctive facts. But other considerations, such as our considerations above about concepts or modes of presentations getting into the individuation of facts, and granularity considerations' applying to facts, may give rise to similar worries about positive, atomic facts. Others, like Quine, Strawson, and perhaps William James, have been more generally worried about facts.
Also, similar shadowiness and queerness worries come up in other areas: thoughts, meanings, sensations, and mathematical objects. And then there are cases where the very things which worry these worriers are seized upon and embraced, e.g. mystical Pythagoreanism and Platonism.
One of the fundamental things going wrong in these worries, I believe, is that the worriers are making the mistake of passing over the question of sense, and going straight for the question of truth. A similar thing occurs when writers opposed to Platonism about mathematical objects go all autobiographical and tell us that they find the view 'wildly implausible' or the like.
In both sorts of cases – incredulity about facts, or particular sorts of facts, and incredulity about the mind-independent existence of mathematical objects – the worriers are onto something, some problem in their way of looking at things, and perhaps that of others (such as quasi-mysterian metaphysicians embracing facts and numbers with a lot of hocus pocus). But they mistakenly read it into the forms of expression which gave rise to their misunderstandings – forms which in themselves are not guilty. They then make the mistake of, instead of clarifying how these forms really work, what they really mean, casting doubt on the truth of what they may be used to say.
This is very clear in Russell's remarks above. ('I would not lay too much stress on what strikes one as plausible: it is not a thing you can rely on altogether', 'I really only ask that you should not dogmatize. I do not say positively that there are, but there may be.' All of this suggests a difficult factual question - none of it suggests any difficulty with our understanding of what we are saying.)
What I am saying here is reminiscent of the following remarks of Wittgenstein's:
PI: 194. When we do philosophy we are like savages, primitive people, who hear the expressions of civilized men, put a false interpretation on them, and then draw the queerest conclusions from it. (PI.)
Zettel: 450. One who philosophizes often makes the wrong, inappropriate gesture for a verbal expression.
451. (One says the ordinary thing—with the wrong gesture.)
This idea of 'saying the ordinary thing with the wrong gesture' gives us a way of thinking about what is going on when the mysterian metaphysician and the worried doubter alike use the forms which give rise to these worries.
Russell's colourful talk of facts 'going about' in 'the actual, objective world' as it were expresses just such a wrong gesture, putting cues for it into the words themselves, so that the words themselves become more inherently misleading.
The treatment I suggest for these residual worries about facts, then, is the same sort of treatment instanced in this passage in the Investigations (where the topic is not fact-talk, but our inclination to say that, when we have grasped the meaning of an expression, its use is then 'present', or 'determined'):
195. “But I don't mean that what I do now (in grasping a sense) determines the future use causally and as a matter of experience, but that in a queer way, the use itself is in some sense present.”--But of course it is, “in some sense”! Really the only thing wrong with what you say is the expression “in a queer way”. The rest is all right; and the sentence only seems queer when one imagines a different language-game for it from the one in which we actually use it. (Someone once told me that as a child he had been surprised that a tailor could 'sew a dress'--he thought this meant that a dress was produced by sewing alone, by sewing one thread onto another.)
When we fail to look sufficiently closely, in a sufficiently unprejudiced way, at the way fact-talk works, we assimilate its working with that of other talk we know, and it looks funny to us. We sometimes react by doubting that there really are facts, or that there really are certain kinds of facts. But we may also react with an overly thin and superficial deflationism, which doesn't do sufficient justice to the real office of fact-talk.
Bertrand Russell (1985). The Philosophy of Logical Atomism. Open Court.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (2003). Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation. Blackwell.Ludwig Wittgenstein (1967). Zettel. Oxford, Blackwell.