Tuesday 20 May 2014

Quine on Facts: A Case-Study in Projective Fallacies

Quine was famously skeptical about facts. As I said in the last post, Quine can be seen as resolutely maintaining something which Strawson seems to suggest at his most objectionable moments. This will enable us to give a sharp diagnosis of one particular skeptical confusion about facts.

What on the part of true sentences is meant to correspond to what on the part of reality? If we seek a correspondence word by word, we find ourselves eking reality out with a complement of abstract objects fabricated for the sake of the correspondence. Or perhaps we settle for a correspondence of whole sentences with facts: a sentence is true if it reports a fact. But here again we have fabricated substance for an empty doctrine. The world is full of things, variously related, but what, in addition to all that, are facts? They are projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence.

But let us ponder this last maneuver for a moment. The truth of 'Snow is white' is due, we are told, to the fact that snow is white. The true sentence 'Snow is white' corresponds to the fact that snow is white. The sentence 'Snow is white' is true if and only if it is a fact that snow is white. Now we have worked the fact, factitious fiction that it is, into a corner where we can deal it the coup de grace. The combination 'it is a fact that' is vacuous and can be dropped; 'It is a fact that snow is white' reduces to 'Snow is white'. Our account of the truth of 'Snow is white' in terms of facts has now come down to this: 'Snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white.

This nicely illustrates the attitude about fact-talk we were arguing Strawson had, and which Quine shares. All but the thinnest, most eliminable uses of fact-talk, such as prefacing propositions with 'It is a fact that', are cast out as bad philosophy. But this doesn't at all follow from the explanatory failure, if such there be, of attempting to account for truth in terms of correspondence with facts; why would dubious theories of truth be the only other thing you can do with fact talk, besides these most eliminable uses? We haven't been given a shred of evidence to suggest that they are.

Consider the argument in the second paragraph. It can be resisted from the point of view of the correspondence theory. Furthermore, we can put the correspondence theory to one side and show that, in any case, it does not even begin to show facts to be 'fictions'.

First of all, consider the point of view of a fact-based correspondence theory: the truth of propositions can be explained in terms of a relation of correspondence and certain relata, facts. Quine's transformation, which he just blandly performs without a word of explanation or justification, of the 'corresponds to the fact that' formulation into the 'if and only if it is a fact that' formulation, from this point of view, could justly be said to rather obscure the explanation. And the next step, of declaring 'it is a fact that' to be vacuous and dropping it, is completely indefensible. One thing is the fact that you can drop that phrase in many ordinary contexts – it does not at all follow that you can further mutilate the philosophical explanation in question in the same way.

In Strawson's case, the “elimination” was of a different sort, effected by imagining a counterfactual scenario in which we speak a language consisting only of simple commands. In the present case, the "elimination" is effected by transforming sentences of our language so that reference to facts disappears. It fails triply:

Firstly, the transformations are unjustified from the point of view of the correspondence theory.

Secondly: no evidence has been given that there are not other occurrences of fact talk which Quine cannot eliminate.

Thirdly: even if fact-talk were always eliminable, that doesn't eliminate facts, doesn't show them not to exist – that would be a use-mention confusion. (This point was made by my former teacher Adrian Heathcote.)

(Quine, or a good Quinean, however, may object that this third objection misses the point, and that there is something lying behind this argument: Quine's conception of ontology. I will not get into that possibility here.)

These three problems with Quine's “elimination” aside, we still have the contention in the first paragraph that facts are 'projected from true sentences'. This suggestive idea, particularly in light of our considerations about the role of concepts (or internal meanings, or modes of presentation) in the individuation of facts, could give independent support to the idea that facts are fiction, so it requires separate treatment. To this end, we shall now consider the idea of a projective fallacy in general, and go on to show that it is Quine, not the person who speaks of facts, who is guilty of one here.

Projective Fallacies (or Confusions) in General

There is a general idea, which seems to me to be important and useful in philosophy, that we sometimes get led into error or confusion by reading features of our language or thought into the world – or alternatively, projecting them onto the world.

Before considering some (hopefully relatively uncontentious) examples of such confusions or errors, let us review some classic philosophical expressions of the general idea.

Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature: “The mind has a great propensity to spread itself on objects.” [Book 1, Part 3, §XIV]

Russell, in his Logical Atomism lectures: 'There is a good deal of importance to philosophy in the theory of symbolism, a good deal more than one time I thought. I think the importance is almost entirely negative, i.e., the importance lies in the fact that unless you are fairly self-conscious about symbols, unless you are fairly aware of the relation of the symbol to what it symbolizes, you will find yourself attributing to the thing properties which only belong to the symbol. That, of course, is especially likely in very abstract studies such as philosophical logic, because the subject-matter that you are supposed to be thinking of is so exceedingly difficult and elusive that any person who has ever tried to think about it knows you do not think about it except perhaps once in six months for half a minute.'

Wittgenstein, in the Investigations 104: 'We predicate of the thing what lies in the method of representing it.'

I will speak of 'projective fallacies' to refer to instances of this sort of thing, with the caveat that 'confusion' may be more appropriate in many cases, since there need not be any definite fallacious inference drawn, in the sense of a transition from proposition to proposition forming part of a chain of reasoning.

Examples of Projective Fallacies

Here I will try to give some examples of projective fallacies which aren't very philosophically loaded, in order to give a better idea of what they are.

Bands in the rainbow: looking at rainbows in relative scientific ignorance, it would be natural to think that the bands of colour we perceive in them correspond to intrinsic structural features of them. We might expect that bits of the rainbow near the end (width-wise) of band are more intrinsically different from those near the same blurry boundary on the other side, than are two equally distant bits which fall within one band. But this would be a projective fallacy.

Illusory failures of homophony: Taking two words with the same pronunciation but different spellings in isolation, and saying them one after the other by themselves, we might persuade ourselves that we ordinarily pronounce them very slightly differently, when this is not in fact the case. A difference which lies only in our mode of representing speech has been projected into our speech.

Taking an “operator” for a representative: An extra-terrestrial who had correctly concluded that road signs sometimes depict objects to be found in their vicinity (such as speed-bump signs, signs indicating the presence of wildlife, etc.), might see a sign disallowing dogs and mistakenly infer that there are creatures nearby with large crosses attached to their bodies.

Incidental features of models: A boy makes a model of a boat he admires, and uses a piece of wood in which he had made, at another time and for some other purpose, a regular series of indentations. Years later, as a grown man, he finds the model he made, notices and remembers deliberately making the indentations, and forms the erroneous idea that the boat he admired bore indentations in the corresponding place.

Projection-Based Skepticism about Facts

Let us return now to Quine's formulation of projection-based skepticism about facts. He said:

The world is full of things, variously related, but what, in addition to all that, are facts? They are projected from true sentences for the sake of correspondence.

In other words, the idea that there are facts involves a projective fallacy. In the following two sections I want to show that this is completely wrong, and ironically so: it is Quine who is guilty of a projective fallacy here, in thinking that the believer of facts is guilty of a projective fallacy.

Something Which Is True: A Genetic Point about Ideas of Facts

We talk of particular facts – we have concepts, or ideas, of particular facts. How do we arrive at these? I think it is plausible to say that we derive them, in some sense, from true propositions. Think of how we form our ideas of particular propositions: first we formulate the propositions, then we produce an idea of that proposition. We might say these ideas of propositions are projected from the propositions themselves. Likewise with ideas of facts, although the projection is different.

This may be called a genetic point about ideas of particular facts, since it is not a piece of semantics or analysis, but rather a hypothesis about how certain cognitive structures come about.

It seems plausible, does it not, that in order to have an idea of a particular fact, you need to have some true propositions under your belt? The reason for this, we may say, is that our ideas of particular facts are – in some, if not all cases – derived from our representations that such-and-such is the case, when it is the case – that is, from true propositions.

The Irony of Projection-Based Skepticism About Facts

We are now in a position to see that Quine, in painting the idea that there are facts as guilty of a projective fallacy, is himself guilty of a projective fallacy: he has projected a property of our ideas of facts – namely, their being derived, or projected, from our true propositions – onto facts themselves, and concluded that, since facts are also meant to be mind- and language-independent, the whole idea of facts is bankrupt; facts are impossible fictions. But that is a mistake.


Quine, W. V. (1987). Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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