Saturday, June 13, 2015

Fact-Opinion 6, more data on the changing sense of 'fact'

It was standard for textbooks on critical thinking in the 19th- and early 20th-Century to devote some space to a fact-opinion distinction. As was noted in my last post, this distinction was typically presented in connection with the topic of testimony as a source of evidence.

What I'm calling critical thinking textbooks were referred to at the time either as textbooks on philosophical rhetoric or as logic texts, where the logic was of the sort that would be eclipsed by the new formal logic. Much of the subject matter of these old texts (fallacies, Mill's methods, etc.) is now generally presented to students in critical thinking courses.

One difference between these old textbooks and today's post-secondary, critical thinking texts is that the latter volumes seldom include material about a fact-opinion distinction. Why? I conjecture that the change is due, in part at least, to shifts in the  meanings of the key terms.

I've posted some notes on an older interpretation of 'fact', on which only particular, observable occurrences (or conditions) were said to be facts. General laws of nature, mathematical truths, etc. weren't. This older reading of 'fact' was evident in some of the textbook passages quoted in my last post. It's even more in evidence in John Grier Hibben's 1905 textbook, when Hibben calls
attention to the difference between the terms, a 'truth' and a 'fact'. A fact carries with it only the special and individual character of the particular occurrence in which it is manifested. A truth, however, is always universal in its very nature, admitting of universal application, and capable of illustration in an indefinite number of different facts which embody its essence. (Hibben, Logic: Deductive and Inductive [1905], pp. 171-2)
Clearly, Hibben (who went on to become President of Princeton University) did not equate facts with truths, not even with objective truths.

It's interesting, though, that back in 1849, George Cornewall Lewis acknowledged another reading of 'fact', one that sounds more modern. Recall what Lewis wrote:
A fact, as so defined, must be limited to individual sensible objects, and not extended to general expressions or formulas, descriptive of classes of facts, or sequences of phenomena, such as that the blood circulates, the sun attracts the planets, and the like. Propositions of this sort, though descriptive of realities, and therefore, in one sense, of matters of fact, relate to large classes of phenomena, which cannot be grasped by a single sensation, which can only be determined by a long series of observations, and are established by a process of intricate reasoning. (Lewis, 'Essay on the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion', 1849, pp. 1-2 [Emphasis added]) 
Lewis here allows for a broader reading of 'fact', one on which the term applies to any reality.

The ambiguity of 'fact' is explicitly noted by Father George Hayward Joyce, a Jesuit whose textbook, Principles of Logic, first appeared in 1908. He wrote:
The Fact is sometimes restricted to signify the particular concrete facts of experience. Sometimes it is extended to include whatever has been proved to be real, and in this sense can be used of a theory whose truth has been established. (Joyce, Principles of Logic, 2nd edition [1916; 1st ed. 1908], p. 362 [Emphasis in original])
Perhaps, by the early 20th Century 'fact' was being used often in its more general, modern sense (at least in the UK and Ireland). Authors of textbooks (such as Hibben) may have been fighting a rear-guard battle, insisting on the word's older, proper use -- much as writers of critical thinking texts now insist on the old meaning of 'begging the question' even though that reading has largely been abandoned in the wider culture.

By the 1950s, philosophers seem to have given up and adopted the more popular interpretation of 'facts' as being equivalent in meaning to 'truths'. Some scientists, though, stuck to the old meaning of 'fact'. At least, such divergent uses are indicated by Henry Siggins Leonard in his 1957 text, Principles of reasoning: an introduction to logic, methodology, and the theory of signs. After defining 'facts' as true propositions (p. 47), Leonard adds that 'some scientists use the word "fact" in a somewhat narrower sense, perhaps to refer to those true propositions whose truth can be directly confirmed by observation.'(Leonard, Principles of reasoning [Dover, 1967, 1st published in 1957], p. 47, n. 3)

This state of play is partly confirmed by Stuart Chase in his Guide to Straight Thinking, with thirteen common fallacies (1956). When it comes to facts, says Chase, he'll rely on the definition adopted by scientists rather than that of the philosophers. His definition is as follows:
A fact is an event in space-time which remains the same from different viewpoints -- or, more technically, is invariant under a transformation of axes. In ordinary discussion a fact is invariant as seen by competent observers. (Chase, Guide to Straight Thinking [Phoenix House, 1959, 1st published in 1956 by Harper's], p. 47)
This conception of facts preserves part of the old meaning by including in the category of facts all the objective, observable occurrences. It diverges from the old meaning by not explicitly requiring that all facts be observable (e.g., facts will include micro-events that are too small to be seen even via our best microscopes); and it diverges from the old reading by not including the inner mental events that can be detected by means of introspection.

So, again, the old fact-opinion distinction that was a mainstay in old critical-thinking textbooks relied on a different (and much narrower) understanding of 'fact', according to which the facts did not include all the objective truths. As a result, it was a very different distinction from the one that is so often conveyed today to high-school students.

In the next post in this series, I'll document changes in the use of 'opinion'.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Fact-Opinion 5, 19th-Century distinctions and a rough hypothesis

One can find fact-opinion distinctions in several 19th-Century university textbooks. Some of these sources are logic texts while others are rhetoric manuals. In the 1800s, in an echo of the medieval trivium, students in many universities in the English-speaking world were expected to complete a rhetoric course early in their undergraduate studies. (These rhetoric courses seem to have been largely replaced in the USA by the English departments' composition classes.) 

In a couple of earlier posts in this series, I've said that a distinction between matters of fact and matters of opinion is treated in Bishop Whately's Elements of Rhetoric. He doesn't devote space to this distinction in his logic textbook (Elements of Logic), though he does have some things to say about matters of fact (pp. 218-34). His brief discussion there again treats matters of fact as pertaining to particular, observable phenomena. In fact, he speaks of matters of fact as constituting the 'data' (p. 222) on which reason operates. (Today, it looks like 'facts' in its old sense has largely been replaced by the term 'data'.)

Whately was a major presence at Oxford, where he and his books influenced many students, including John Henry Newman. Whately's rhetoric text was used for many years at Harvard, where Thoreau was required to master the book. According to one author, Elements of Rhetoric was one of the two 'most widely used rhetoric texts in American colleges between 1835 and 1865, going through at least fifty-one American printings'.(Robert Connors, Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy, 1997, p. 61) So, Whately's way of distinguishing between matters of fact and matters of opinion must have been widely known in the 1800s.

Other 19th-Century textbooks took up the fact-opinion distinction primarily (or exclusively) in connection with testimony as a source of evidence. For example, here's a passage from John Bascom's Philosophy of Rhetoric (1866):
An easy fallacy of testimony is confounding facts with conclusions drawn from them. For competent testimony to the first, actual observation is all that is requisite. Men, though by no means equal in their power to observe or report events, are so relatively. The value of an opinion, on the other hand, depends almost exclusively on him who gives it. False conclusions, therefore, disguised under the facts, and stated as a portion of them, may readily embarrass testimony and mislead the judgment. A man is said to be insolent, to be proud, to be angry, to be drunk. It is a question, not purely of facts, but of inference from words and actions. (Bascom, Philosophy of Rhetoric, p. 74, 1870, 1st published 1866)
On p. 75, Bascom adds this example: 'A patient testifies to the effect of medicine as if his statement were the explicit delivery of facts, and not the most uncertain of all opinions.' 

Henry Philip Tappan's brief discussion of the fact-opinion distinction appears on pp. 426-9 of his Elements of Logic (1844):
By opinion we mean a judgment of the mind, respecting a proposition as true or false. Opinion is to be distinguished from absolute knowledge, as implying that the proposition which is its object, is still debateable. Testimony cannot establish the truth of opinions or judgments. Their truth can be established only on some necessary principle of the Intelligence. Testimony, as evidence, relates merely to matters of fact. All, therefore, that a witness can testify to, in relation to opinions, is the fact that he or some other person entertains such and such opinions. But the truth or falsity of the opinions must be determined on other grounds, and wholly independently of testimony. A man may be of the highest integrity, and of sane mind, and may sacrifice reputation and possessions, and life itself, in maintaining his opinions, without affording any evidence of their truth. His testimony only goes to establish the fact that he believes the proposition in question, and that he believes it ardently and firmly. (Tappan, Elements of Logic, 1844, p. 426)
Here's Tappan on facts:
By fact, we mean phenomena [sic], — something which we know by observation merely. Facts are of two kinds: 1. Facts of the Senses, or external observation. 2. Facts of the Consciousness, or internal observation. By truth, we mean that which is arrived at by the pure Reason. We always assume observation as conditional to the exercise of Reason. But while observation supplies facts, Reason supplies the principles under which the facts are to be reduced. Now, whatever the Reason supplies, whether in intuition or in deduction, we call truth. From this comparison of truth and fact, it must still more clearly appear that testimony cannot prove truths or doctrines. Testimony is only an attestation of what has been observed. Truths or doctrines can be proved by reasoning alone. (Tappan, Elements of Logic, 1844, p. 427)
Adams Sherman Hill offered a more critical treatment in his Principles of Rhetoric (1878). Just before quoting a legal text's definition of 'matters of fact', Hill writes:
[T]oo much stress is often laid on the distinction between matters of fact and matters of opinion, — since opinion enters into almost all statements with regard to matters of fact; since the instant an individual fact is doubted upon reasonable grounds its existence becomes matter of opinion; and since doubtful matters are those with which argumentative composition chiefly deals. (Hill, Principles of Rhetoric, 1878, p. 201)
Hill then adds:
The real distinction is between matters into which fact most largely enters, and those into which opinion most largely enters; for, though the honesty of a witness is hardly ever the only thing to be considered in determining the value of his testimony, yet in some classes of questions his intellectual character tells for much more than in others. (Hill, Principles of Rhetoric, 1878, p. 202)
So, in the 1800s, university students in English-speaking universities were likely to have had some acquaintance with a fact-opinion distinction. Still, as I noted in the penultimate paragraph of an earlier post, and as the above quotations confirm (and as at least one other blogger has noticed), labeling something as an opinion was not tantamount to exempting it from rational support or critique or from the sphere of true or false claims. Indeed, as Bascom suggests (above), to call something an opinion implied that the holder of the opinion should, if anything, be held to a higher standard of intelligence and skill in reasoning (compared to a witness testifying about a matter of fact) if her/his opinion was to be taken seriously. This connotation is preserved in one of today's uses of 'opinion'; specifically, it's preserved in our speaking of an expert's opinion (e.g., a medical opinion).

Here's a rough hypothesis: today's fact-opinion distinction (esp. as taught in secondary schools) blurs elements of the 19th-Century rhetorical distinction with the fact-value distinction that would later be emphasized in social sciences. Two other factors are at play. First, there's the legitimacy of a fact-opinion distinction in the context of journalistic ethics (where both terms are given sharper, more technical interpretations). Second, there's the frequent use of 'opinion' as a translation of the ancient Greek term 'doxa'. I'm no master of ancient Greek, but from what I understand, 'doxa' differed significantly in meaning from the English word 'opinion'.* Crucially, doxa was often set in opposition to 'epistemê' (knowledge, or science), and doxa sometimes took on a very negative value, especially in works by Parmenides, in some of Plato's writing, and in Hippocrates' 'Law'. That last ancient source includes a claim that has been translated as follows:
There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance. (Hippocrates, Vol. 2, trans. W. H. S. Jones [New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1923])
Those lines from Hippocrates (in assorted translations) are repeated all over the place, on syllabi, motivational sites, critiques of psychiatry, Royal Society publications, an opinion piece by a Congresswoman in an academic journal, young-adult fiction, an IEA conference site, etc. The sentiment behind uses of the quoted lines is admirable. Still, we shouldn't forget that while 'opinion' is there used to render 'doxa', the translated term was an exotic creature with a far stranger life and range of associations than 'opinion'. We shouldn't try to shoe-horn 'opinion' into the role of the old Greek term by pretending that opinion is somehow antithetical to knowledge or (even more of a stretch) to modern science.

(I say 'even more of a stretch' because 'doxa' was sometimes applied by the ancients to beliefs derived from sense experience, the source of empirical data.)

*I recommend the entry on 'doxa' by Barbara Cassin and Charles Baladier in Dictionary of Untranslatables: a Philosophical Lexicon, ed. Barbara Cassin, trans. Rendall, Hubert, Mehlman, Stein, and Syrotinski, trans. ed. Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood (Princeton University Press, 2014 [first published in French in 2004]), pp.228-30.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Fact-Opinion 4, Alfred Sidgwick

In my previous post, it looked like the old fact-opinion distinction presupposed some privileged set of data, facts, which were assimilated to pristine and pure observation, untainted by theorizing (or by opinions or beliefs more generally). This leaves proponents of the distinction open to the sorts of objection that were directed at logical positivism. To wit, any attempt to present or articulate the facts implicates them (or perhaps shows that they were already implicated) in a conceptual framework, thereby taking them up into the theories that breathe life (or meaning) into the concepts. The so-called observation statements, which purported to give 'just the facts', are theory-saturated. They already involve interpretation (via the applied concepts), so that the facts are inextricably bound up with fallible opinion right from the get-go.

Something like this point was suggested by a quotation of George Cornewall Lewis that I posted a while ago. Among the older logic textbooks, one finds similar points being made by Alfred Sidgwick (cousin of Henry). Here's Douglas Walton's list of Sidgwick's books:

Sidgwick, Alfred: 1884, Fallacies: A View of Logic from the Practical Side, D. Appleton
Co., New York.
Sidgwick, Alfred: 1892, Distinction and Criticism of Beliefs, Longmans Green and Co.,
Sidgwick, Alfred: 1893, The Process of Argument: A Contribution to Logic, Adam and
Charles Black, London.
Sidgwick, Alfred: 1901, The Use of Words in Reasoning, Adam and Charles Black, London.
Sidgwick, Alfred: 1910, The Application of Logic, Macmillan, London.
Sidgwick, Alfred: 1914, Elementary Logic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

The books are available on-line. Here are just a couple of quotations from Alfred Sidgwick's books to illustrate the above point:
As soon as a fact is named, or described, or conceived in this or that way, it is seen in the light of theory, and the theory may be mistaken. (Sidgwick, The Process of Argument, 1893, p. 15) 
[F]acts are supposed to have a solidity and a certainty which statements of fact have not; and it is only a short step from this to the notion that some facts exactly as presented to us are beyond the reach of criticism. For the most part this belief is not a result of any definite theory about the relation of facts to our recipient minds, but rather of a comfortable absence of theory in the matter, and a hazy remembrance of some convenient metaphorical expressions in common use. Our minds are conceived as "bombarded" by facts, or as "taking them in"; we are supposed to be passive recipients of something that comes to us from outside, something that remains unaltered when it reaches us, though our opinions may be altered by it. One way of correcting this view is by showing that the distinction between conceiving a fact and describing it (i.e. stating it) turns upon nothing more important than the question whether we keep the fact to ourselves or try to impart it to someone else. In either case what we call the 'fact' is only our opinion about the fact. (Sidgwick, Elementary Logic, 1914, p. 237 [Emphasis added])
In short, seeing is believing, opining, which involves interpretation.

It's hard to find much info about Alfred Sidgwick. There's an entry on him in the German Wikipedia but not the English one. He seems to have been overshadowed by two of his first-cousins (Henry and Arthur). According to Peter Radcliff, Alfred Sidgwick published many pieces in Mind between 1878 and 1941. That journal ran a brief note upon Alfred's demise, noting that he graduated from Oxford 'with a 4th class in Jurisprudence' and that 'Sidgwick's books attracted little attention at the time of publication and were never used for teaching'. (H. Sturt, 'Alfred Sidgwick, 1850-1943', Mind 53 [1944]: 379-380) His wife, Cecily Sidgwick, wrote novels and non-fiction.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Fact-Opinion 3, the shifting sense of 'fact'

In his 'Unfair to Facts' (1954), J. L. Austin consulted the OED about the history of the word 'fact'. He said that the modern usage of this word 'is just what it was in the eighteenth century' (Philosophical Papers, ed. Urmson & Warnock, p. 113, p. 165 in the 3rd ed. [1979]). Not so. In this post, I'll summarize some research by historians of science (in the past 35 years) which highlights the different use of 'fact' in the 17th Century. This old use survived well into the 19th Century. It can be found in some widely used textbooks from that era (though I'll mention only one of these books in this post). Echoes of this older sense are evident in some modern versions of the fact-opinion distinction.

Facere, the Latin root of 'fact', means to make or to do; hence, factory, manufacture, and artifact.

Here's the open-access edition of the OED on the origin of the English word 'fact':
Late 15th century: from Latin factum, neuter past participle of facere 'do'. The original sense was 'an act', later 'a crime', surviving in the phrase before (or after) the fact. The earliest of the current senses ( 'truth, reality') dates from the late 16th century.
[At the above link, the OED defines 'fact', as that term is used today, in an epistemological fashion, defining it as 'a thing that is known (or proved) to be true' (Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford University Press. )].

In Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary, 'fact' is still defined as an act, but now in opposition to supposition and speculation. Johnson's first definition is, 'A thing done; an effect produced; something not barely supposed or suspected, but really done.' His second definition of 'fact' reads as follows: 'Reality; not supposition; not speculation' (Johnson "Fact." A Dictionary of the English Language: A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson, ed. Brandi Besalke). These two definitions don't explicitly give an epistemological rendering of 'fact'; the 'thing done' or 'reality' can remain unknown. Still, in view of some of Johnson's samples of the word's usage, it looks like he had in mind an epistemological interpretation for at least some uses of 'fact'; for him, 'fact' at least sometimes means known or (at least) evident fact.

Notice that a fact was a particular action or 'thing done'. This is crucial, for it conditions the sorts of evidence that are to be sought when determining the facts. To use Whately's example (from an earlier post), if we want to know whether someone is in the process of killing Alexander, we should look and see whether this is happening. Direct observation is the best way to settle the matter. If the killing is alleged to have already happened, then we should seek witnesses and request their testimony. Did they observe the killing? Of course, it's better to have several witnesses independently corroborating each others' testimony. If we can't reach the witnesses, we'll look for any documentation (signed statements, etc.) that they might have left behind concerning Alexander's demise.

These kinds of support are very like the types of evidence that are considered in jury trials, in which jurors are called upon to make determinations concerning matters of fact. Barbara J. Shapiro describes the evolution of the rules of evidence for such trials in late 15th-Century and early 16th-Century England.(Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England: A Study of the Relationships Between Natural Science, Religion, History, Law, and Literature [Princeton University Press, 1983], Ch. 5) . Shapiro argues that after the advent of these rules, the phrase 'matter of fact' migrated from law, where it pertained to observable human actions, to the natural sciences, where it took within its ambit the observable natural phenomena. Shapiro writes that the phrase 'matter of fact'
had traditionally been associated with the human facts of the historian or the law court. During the seventeenth century, 'matter of fact', like 'experience', would be assimilated into natural science. (Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 20)
As Shapiro says, prior to the 17th Century matters of fact were central not only in legal inquiries but in historical studies, too. This old use of the phrase is evident in the following remark by Francis Bacon:
This facility of credit and accepting or admitting things weakly authorised or warranted, is of two kinds according to the subject: for it is either a belief of history (as the lawyers speak, matter of fact); or else of matter of art and opinion. (Bacon, 'The Advancement of Learning', Book I, iv, paragraph 9, 1605)
Bacon here expands the range of history to take in not only human but, also, natural history. According to Shapiro,
Bacon's combination of the historico-legal 'fact' of human action with the natural fact established by observation and experiment made it possible for his successors to apply a familiar legal technique of verifying events in the human world to natural phenomena. (Shapiro, Culture of Fact: England, 1550–1720 [Cornell University Press, 2000], p. 109)
While other historians of science (e.g., Lorraine Daston and Steven Shapin) may not attach as much influence to Bacon as Shapiro does, I take it that they generally agree about the meaning of 'matter of fact' in the 17th Century. At that time, matters of fact were particular, observable occurrences, for which the best evidence was observation. If one could not, oneself, observe the event in question, then one ought to rely on the testimony of those who had witnessed the event. One should seek corroboration by multiple witnesses. Matters of fact did not include the physical laws of nature. They did not include well-grounded theories about the underlying causes of the observed phenomena. They did not include dispositions or causal powers. Nor did they include any religious truths or truths about moral and aesthetic values that there might be. It's in that light that we should read this bit from John Donne:
Contemplative and bookish men must of necessity be more quarrelsome than others, because they contend not about matter of fact, nor can determine their controversies by any certain witnesses, nor judges. But as long as they go towards peace, that is Truth, it is no matter which way. (Donne, Biothanatos,'Preface', 1608)
In denying that the disputes among bookish characters were disagreements over matters of fact, Donne did not mean that the the disputes were mere emotional venting contests with no truths at stake. There were truths at stake, so that some of the disputants were right and some were wrong. Some held true beliefs and others had false ones. Donne meant only that the kinds of truths at stake were not of the relatively straightforward sort that could be settled just by looking (or by relying on witness' testimony).

The 17th-Century use of 'matter of fact' is also exhibited in this passage from Locke's Essay:
Probability is either of sensible matter of fact, capable of human testimony, or of what is beyond the evidence of our senses. But to return to the grounds of assent, and the several degrees of it, we are to take notice, that the propositions we receive upon inducements of probability are of two sorts: either concerning some particular existence, or, as it is usually termed, matter of fact, which, falling under observation, is capable of human testimony; or else concerning things, which, being beyond the discovery of our senses, are not capable of any such testimony. (Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, ch. xvi, paragraph 5, 1689 [Emphases added])
The 17th-Century sense of 'matter of fact' survived at least till the middle of the 19th Century, where we find its exclusion of many scientific truths being emphasized by Sir George Cornewall Lewis in his 'Essay on the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion' (1849):
By a matter of fact, I understand anything of which we obtain a conviction from our internal consciousness or any individual event or phenomenon which is the object of sensation. ... A fact, as so defined, must be limited to individual sensible objects, and not extended to general expressions or formulas, descriptive of classes of facts, or sequences of phenomena, such as that the blood circulates, the sun attracts the planets, and the like. Propositions of this sort, though descriptive of realities, and therefore, in one sense, of matters of fact, relate to large classes of phenomena, which cannot be grasped by a single sensation, which can only be determined by a long series of observations, and are established by a process of intricate reasoning. (Lewis, 'Essay on the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion', 1849, pp. 1-2)
Here, matters of fact end where reasoning begins, and facts are the data or raw material on which reason operates. In short, matters of fact were just those questions that could be settled by eyewitness testimony, without requiring any expert witnesses (that is, without requiring the witness to be especially adept at physics or medicine, etc.). A similar conception of matters of fact is evident in the 7th, revised edition of Bishop Whately's Elements of Rhetoric (1846), where Whately wrote:
If, for instance, a person ... states, that in the East Indies he saw a number of persons who had been sleeping exposed to the moon's rays, afflicted with certain symptoms, and that after taking a certain medicine they recovered, he is bearing testimony to simple matters of fact: but if he declares ... that the patients in question were so affected in consequence of the moon's rays, that such is the general effect of them in that climate, and that that medicine is a cure for such symptoms, it is evident that his testimony ... is borne to a different kind of conclusion; namely, not an individual, but a general conclusion, and one which must rest, not solely on the veracity, but also on the judgment, of the witness.(Whately, Elements of Rhetoric, 7th edition, ch. II, sec. 4, 1846, pp. 53-4 [p. 61 in the English Fellowes edition] [Emphases in the original])
Clearly, Lewis and Whately did not mean to limit the domains of inquiry in which we may legitimately seek a truth of the matter to just the domain of matters of fact. Like Donne, they would take there to be a truth of the matter in disputes about causal claims and in disputes over moral values. They would regard some people as holding false beliefs about causal relations and moral values. They would also allow for the use of reason in trying settle such disputes or in trying to arrive at the truth in such inquiries. All of this is compatible with their denying that these areas of inquiry concern matters of fact; for in their day, 'matters of fact' pertained only to those questions that could be settled by observation (or by the testimony of someone who had made the relevant observations).

I think that, nowadays, we're more likely to take 'matters of fact' as being co-extensive with topics for which there is a truth of the matter, topics about which we may hold true or false beliefs (and about which we can make progress by reasoned inquiry). If we combine this more recent interpretation of 'matters of fact' with the old idea that matters of fact are just those that can be settled by a single observation, then we'll arrive at a naive kind of positivism, one which regards disagreements about value as so much hot air, or emotional venting, mere seeming disputes for which there is no truth of the matter. Perhaps such a move led to some of the flawed, modern versions of the fact-opinion distinction that are being taught in some public schools. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Fact-Opinion, 2: R. W. Sellars on fact vs. theory

Like others, I'm perplexed by the claim that evolution is a theory and therefore isn't a fact. 'Well-confirmed theories may be taken as fact,' I want to reply. Theories, like opinions, are beliefs, human constructs which can accurately reflect the facts, in which case they're theories that are true (or factual).

Why think there's any tension between calling something a theory and calling it factual?

Well, it turns out that some proficient users of English (philosophers, even) have drawn a sharp contrast between theory and fact.

Roy Wood Sellars (Wilfrid's father) was a prominent American philosopher (Ontario-born) at the University of Michigan. He was elected President of the American Philosophical Association's Western Division in 1923. He taught a logic course at Michigan and wrote a textbook based on the course. The text, Essentials of Logic, was first published in 1917. Sellars released a revised edition in 1925. I can find only the 1917 edition on-line but the following quotation is from the 1925 edition.

Just after characterizing the percept-concept distinction as a psychological one, Sellars says that for logic,
the more distinctive contrast is between fact and theory, between what we accept and what we dispute. ... [W]e should constantly seek to separate the facts of the case from theory which is added as an interpretation. Confusion and disputation arise where fact and theory are not sharply distinguished. ... Now, fact is that which is granted on the basis of good evidence; it is that which is considered indisputable. ... [F]act in this sense may be either concrete or abstract. The Law of Gravitation is a fact because it is an assertion which is not questioned. For some, evolution is another such fact; for others, it is not. A theory, on the other hand, is that which is tentative, but which would, if accepted, solve the problem. (Sellars, Essentials of Logic [Revised edition, 1925], pp. 28-29)
So, where some would say that our physicists have a correct theory of gravitation, a theory that has been shown by the facts to be true, Sellars would say, instead, that the relevant physical formulations are fact, not theory. For me, evolution is fact, not theory, but it might, for you, be theory and not fact; I could try to change your mind by showing you good evidence for evolution, but that evidence better not support an interpretation (since that's just theory). I don't like this way of using the word 'theory', but I guess it can't be dismissed as a recent abuse of the term. (The 1917 edition of Sellars' book has a shorter statement of the fact-theory contrast [pp. 24-5], one that does not include evolution as an example.)

Back to opinion. As Sellars uses the word, theory can of course be distinguished from opinion; e.g., perhaps he would say that theories are more elaborate and are more geared towards solving specific problems than opinions need to be. Still, on Sellars' way of speaking, theories resemble opinions (as defined by Reid and Locke in the previous post) in at least one respect, since they, too, are more 'tentative', or less certain, beliefs; in Reid's terms, they're judgments with 'some mixture of doubt' (Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Essay VI 'Of Judgment', Ch. I ['Of Judgment in General'], sec. iii, 1785).

Finally, note that in the above passage, Sellars puts forth an epistemological conception of fact. For him, facts aren't just truths; rather, they're truths 'granted [or believed] on the basis of good evidence' (Sellars, 1925, p. 28). That's par for the course with fact-opinion distinctions, where 'fact' typically  means some sort of knowledge.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Fact-Opinion, 1

I hope to make some progress in explaining how today's fact-opinion distinction arose. Philosophers don't take well to this distinction, which has come in for much criticism of late. Perhaps some of the disagreement about the distinction stems from diverse interpretations of the key terms. Here's a quick and dirty summary of a naive and plausible interpretation of 'opinion' and 'fact', one that I take many philosophers to adopt (even if they go on to develop more sophisticated accounts of the terms):
Opinions are in the mind. They're beliefs about how things are in the world. That is, they're beliefs, or judgments, about what the facts are. The facts are objective states of affairs that exist regardless of our opinions (unless they're facts about opinions). The facts are facts regardless of whether we're aware of them. An opinion is true (or factual) if it accurately reflects the facts; otherwise, an opinion is false.
Since opinions are beliefs, and since beliefs that are true and that are rationally justified in the right way (or, perhaps, that were brought about in the right way) count as knowledge, some opinions can become knowledge. Take an opinion, add truth and enough justification (of the right sort) and, voila, you've got knowledge.

This interpretation of the key terms is consistent with some historical evidence concerning their use. For instance, via the Oxford English Dictionary (OED; not the open-access edition), I found the following nugget from John Milton:
Opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making. (Milton, Areopagitica, 1644)
What they now opine, they may some day know. Once they've acquired the knowledge, we may say that their old opinion is not just an opinion but, also, genuine knowledge. Or, if we prefer to treat knowledge and opinion as mutually exclusive categories, we may say that their old opinion is no longer an opinion but is, instead, knowledge. We'll incline towards this latter approach if we use 'opinion' as short for mere opinion or if we're enamoured of the ancient Greek distinction between doxa and episteme. Regardless, we may then contrast opinion with knowledge in something like the way that Thomas Reid does in this passage:
Knowledge, I think, sometimes signifies things known; sometimes that act of the mind by which we know them. And in like manner opinion sometimes signifies things believed; sometimes the act of the mind by which we believe them. ... In knowledge, we judge without doubting; in opinion, with some mixture of doubt. (Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Essay VI 'Of Judgment', Ch. I ['Of Judgment in General'], sec. iii, 1785)
Reid isn't using the terms exactly as I did in my quick and dirty account, for here (at least) he puts the knowledge-opinion distinction chiefly in psychological terms; opinion sounds like a more tentatively held belief.* Still, the contrast is between opinion and knowledge, not between opinion and fact. What would be the point of opting for the latter juxtaposition? After all, opinions are mental states, but facts are what those states purport to be about and are not, themselves, mental states. 

So, my quick and dirty interpretation is roughly in sync with the above excerpts from Reid and Milton. In addition, it  accords with the following quotation of John Locke, who also contrasts opinion with knowledge:
It is therefore worth while to search out the bounds between opinion and knowledge; and examine by what measures, in things whereof we have no certain knowledge, we ought to regulate our assent and moderate our persuasion. ... I shall make some inquiry into the nature and grounds of faith or opinion: whereby I mean that assent which we give to any proposition as true, of whose truth yet we have no certain knowledge. (Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book I, ch. i, paragraph 3, 1689)
Here, to hold an opinion is to take something to be true; and this taking, while not 'yet' certain, is at least  susceptible of rational support (and critique). All three of the above-quoted authors use 'opinion' in this fashion.

It looks like somewhere along the way, 'opinion' took on another interpretation, one that exempted the opinion-holder from rational accountability. This conjecture is suggested by a 19th-Century article in the Spectator about Lord John Russell (Bertrand Russell's grandfather). The article, called 'Odd Habit in a Leading Statesman' (Feb. 17, 1849), quotes Lord John as saying,
I am told, 'you then [in 1846] opposed coercion, and you now propose it yourself.' It is quite true that I am liable to that charge. All I can say is, that I thought that bill was not adapted to the circumstances of the time .... But that, again, is entirely a matter of opinion. Those who differ from me may hold the reverse view. (Spectator, Feb. 17, 1849, p. 10)
Russell's critics then opine:
It may almost be said that Lord John Russell never gives a reason in support of his 'opinion'; for he uses that word in the vulgar sense, to mean an impression which is not to be accounted for beyond its bare enunciation. ... How is it that Lord John cannot state the elements of his opinion and the grounds of his judgment,—describe the circumstances in 1846, and show in what the bill of that year failed to fit them...?  We do not say that Lord John has not elements for his opinion or grounds for his reason; but it is not 'condensation' of oratory to omit all statement of them, any more than an impression unsupported by distinctly explained reasons is to be accepted as a well-grounded and matured, a 'wise' opinion. Lord John, as a man, has a right to his own opinion, or even to his own unexplained impressions; but few men have been allowed to retain offices of trust who have so steadily fallen into the habit of not stating reasons for what they do. (Ibid., [Emphasis added])
Once more, we see that 'opinion', in its established, centuries-old use, was not meant to preempt any call for rational critique. Interestingly, we see also that the word had taken on a 'vulgar', second sense in which it was apparently meant to do just that.

The word 'fact' has undergone more changes in meaning, which I'll examine in subsequent posts. For now, I'll note that I follow Barbara J. Shapiro (in Culture of Fact: England, 1550–1720 [Cornell University Press, 2000]) in saying that the legal use of 'fact' set the course for that term's use beyond the law and especially in the sciences. Shapiro marshals much evidence having to do with Sir Francis Bacon, but I don't know if she adduces the following quotation (from 1605):
This facility of credit and accepting or admitting things weakly authorised or warranted, is of two kinds according to the subject: for it is either a belief of history (as the lawyers speak, matter of fact); or else of matter of art and opinion. (Bacon, 'The Advancement of Learning', Book I, iv, paragraph 9, 1605)
Bacon, lawyer and excogitator on scientific method, here introduces the phrase 'matter of fact' as a technical term from the law. In that domain, it contrasts with matters of law.

Consider the following way of marking the contrast between matters of fact and matters of opinion, which is drawn from an influential, 19th-Century textbook. The book is Elements of Rhetoric by Richard Whately. According to Bishop Whately,
By a 'Matter of Fact' is meant, something which might, conceivably, be submitted to the senses; and about which it is supposed there could be no disagreement among persons who should be present, and to whose senses it should be submitted; and by a 'Matter [or Question] of Opinion' is understood, anything respecting which an exercise of judgment would be called for on the part of those who should have certain objects before them, and who might conceivably disagree in their judgment thereupon. ... [I]t is not meant ... that there is any greater certainty ... in the one case than in the other. [For example,] [t]hat one of Alexander's friends did, or did not, administer poison to him, every one would allow to be a question of fact; though it may be involved in inextricable doubt: while the question, what sort of an act that was, supposing it to have taken place, all would allow to be a question of opinion; though probably all would agree in their opinion thereupon. (Whately, Elements of Rhetoric, 7th edition, ch. II, sec. 4, p. 52 [pp. 58-9 in the English edition published by Fellowes], 1846)
Whately's conception of matters of fact is consonant with the one that one finds in the law. Also, Whately takes one's view on a matter of opinion to be a truth-claim, where there may be more certainty regarding the claim's truth than there is for a belief about a matter of fact. In his example, as long as we lack good evidence, our beliefs about whether Alexander's friend poisoned poor Alex remain mere opinions (about a matter of fact). This use of 'opinion' fits with the above characterizations offered by Reid and Locke -- opinions suffer from doubt or a lack of certainty. But our conviction that it's wrong to poison one's friend is held with more certainty. Indeed, we may feel no doubt on the matter. One who adopts Reid's understanding of the knowledge-opinion divide would, then, conclude that this moral conviction is knowledge of a moral fact, but I think Whately would still classify it as an opinion -- a correct, rational one, but an opinion nonetheless.

*[Note Added on June 6: While Reid there pitches the knowledge-opinion distinction in seemingly psychological terms, his more considered formulations put the difference in an epistemological way. E.g., he says that opinion 'stands upon a weaker foundation, and is more liable to be shaken and overturned' than knowledge. In accordance with an epistemological formulation such as this, Reid can say that while one might not actually harbour doubts about a belief, one ought to (owing to its weaker foundation -- of which one might be unaware), and this is what makes it a mere opinion rather than knowledge. On this account, a Reidian (and Lockean) on the knowledge-opinion distinction might say that in Whately's example, one who feels no doubt concerning a belief about morality perhaps ought to feel some doubt, since the belief has a weaker foundation, which would make the belief an opinion only.]

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Positivists vs. Darwin's bull-dog (social-scientism vs. reductionist-scientism, Part II)

Sixteenth in a series of sixteen posts (123456789101112, 13, 14 & 15

In my last post on scientism, I claimed to have excavated distinct uses in that word's history (and in the history of the French scientisme). I labeled the older use social-scientism. This use was directed primarily at Saint-Simon, Comte, and their followers. These philosophers and scientists were not in thrall to reductionism; they did not, for example, prophesy the reduction of other sciences to physics. Nor did they envisage the elimination of special sciences (such as sociology). In fact, Comtean positivists embraced a levels picture, on which the special sciences (such as biology and sociology), while dependent upon lower, more general empirical sciences (such as physics and chemistry), were nonetheless capable of explaining phenomena that could not be accounted for in the terms of the more basic sciences. In short, the special sciences were taken to do distinctive explanatory work that could not, even in principle, be accomplished without them. Still, critics used the word 'scientism' to ridicule the Comteans' vision of sociology as an empirical science that held the key to understanding all human activities in terms of observed uniformities of conduct, a science that could be used to revamp society.

I called the second use of 'scientism' reductionist-scientism. I should, perhaps, have called it eliminative-scientism, for its critics were horrified by the prospect of a physical science, such as biology, putting both the old, humanistic disciplines and the newer, social sciences out of work by giving an exhaustive explanation of these disciplines' putative subject matter. The critics feared that biology would eliminate the social sciences and the humanistic disciplines by answering all the sensible why-questions that could be posed about human beings. For its critics, the impetus behind this type of scientism was Darwinian theory, and its champions were members of the X-Club.

In an old periodical, I found a fierce exchange between a Comtean positivist and the most famous member of the X-Club -- well, fierce by Victorian standards. The positivist was Frederic Harrison, and the X-Clubber was 'Darwin's bulldog', T. H. Huxley.

"TH Huxley" by Carlo Pellegrini - Vanity Fair, 28 January 1871. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

What follows are selections from Harrison's contribution, in which Harrison defends a levels view of the sciences. He wants to police the boundaries between the sciences, ensuring that evolutionary theory does not gobble up the explananda of other scientific fields of inquiry. Harrison writes:
I am quite aware that Prof. Huxley has elsewhere formulated his belief that biology is the science which 'includes man and all his ways and works.' If history, law, politics, morals, and political economy, are merely branches of biology, we shall want new dictionaries indeed. (A Modern Symposium II: the Soul and Future Life, first published in The Nineteenth Century [September, 1877]: 175)
More generally, Harrison ridicules Huxley for 'fancying that one science can do the work of another' (Ibid. 178). Harrison acknowledges that everything in the proprietary domain of the human sciences depends on the phenomena that are described in the more basic physical sciences. Still, he takes Huxley to task for
that hallucination of his about questions of science all becoming questions of molecular physics. The molecular facts are valuable enough; but we are getting molecular-mad, if we forget that molecular facts have only a special part in physiology, and hardly any part at all in sociology, history, morals, and politics; though I quite agree that there is no single fact in social, moral, or mental philosophy, that has not its correspondence in some molecular fact, if we only could know it. (Ibid., 178-9)
Harrison is vague about the nature of the dependence relation in question -- he doesn't say 'emergence' or 'supervenience' -- but he stresses that it does not supply an explanation of the dependent items. Again, in his words:
We both agree that every mental and moral fact is in functional relation with some molecular fact. ... But, then, says Prof. Huxley, if I can trace the molecular facts which are the antecedents of the mental and moral facts, I have explained these mental and moral facts. That I deny; just as much as I should deny that a chemical analysis of the body could ever lead to an explanation of the physical organism. Then, says the professor, when I have traced out the molecular facts, I have built up a physical theory of moral phenomena. ... [T]here is no such thing, or no rational thing, that can be called a physical theory of moral phenomena, any more than there is a moral theory of physical phenomena." (Ibid., 172-3, emphases in original)
"Frederic Harrison" by Carlo Pellegrini - Vanity Fair,23January1886. Licensed as Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Harrison's emphasis is squarely on the relations between sciences (their taxonomies and laws) rather than on the entities or facts that fall within the purview of any given science. He says:
We do not diminish the supreme place of the spiritual facts in life and in philosophy by admitting these spiritual facts to have a relation with molecular and organic facts in the human organism -- provided that we never forget how small and dependent is the part which the study of the molecular and organic phenomena must play in moral and social science. (Ibid., 158, italics added)
In view of these quotations, it's safe to say that Harrison would side with the critics who accused Huxley of eliminative-scientism. Nevertheless, many of those critics would charge Harrison with social-scientism, for he remained committed to the program of naturalistic social sciences that broadly follow the empirical methods of the physical sciences and that will, eventually, describe laws of human functioning that afford as complete an understanding of us as can be had. The methods in question needn't invoke empathy, or Verstehen. As Harrison remarked in another context, 'We take man as he is and history as we find it, and we seek to interpret the whole on one uniform scientific method' ('The Creeds - Old and New', The Nineteenth Century, No. XLIV, [October, 1880]: 526-49, at 544).

Monday, May 25, 2015

Some quotations on facts (revised, May 31)

 Bernard Mandeville (1732):
Facts are stubborn things.
(Mandeville, 'An Enquiry into the Origin of Honor, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War' [1732])
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1831:
You cannot state any fact before a mixed audience, which an opponent as clever as yourself cannot with ease twist towards another bearing, or at least meet by a contrary fact, as it is called. I wonder why facts were ever called stubborn things: I am sure they have been found pliable enough lately in the House of Commons and elsewhere. (Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk, Dec. 27, 1831) 
John Donne (1608):
Contemplative and bookish men must of necessity be more quarrelsome than others, because they contend not about matter of fact, nor can determine their controversies by any certain witnesses, nor judges. But as long as they go towards peace, that is Truth, it is no matter which way. (Biothanatos,'Preface', 1608)
Emily Dickinson (c. 1875?):
Opinion is a flitting thing, but truth outlasts the sun; if then we cannot own them both, possess the oldest one
 Cicero: res ipsa loquitur, the basis for the English phrase,
Let the facts speak for themselves
T. H. Huxley (1860):
Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. (Huxley, letter to Charles Kingsley [September 23, 1860])
Coleridge (1830):
He told me that facts gave birth to, and were the absolute ground of, principles; to which I said, that unless he had a principle of selection, he would not have taken notice of those facts upon which he grounded his principle. You must have a lantern in your hand to give light, otherwise all the materials in the world are useless, for you cannot find them; and if you could, you could not arrange them. (Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk, Sept. 21, 1830)
Charles Dickens (1854) -- Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times:
Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. Stick to Facts, sir  .... We hope to have, before long, a board of facts, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.
John Tyndall (1871):
Facts looked at directly are vital; when they pass into words half the sap is taken out of them. (Tyndall, Fragments of Science for Unscientific People [1871], p. 360)
Thomas Carlyle, 1836:
I grow daily to honour Facts more and more; and Theory less and less. A Fact it seems to me is a great thing: a Sentence printed if not by God, then at least by the Devil; -- neither Jeremy Bentham nor Lytton Bulwer had a hand in that. (Carlyle, letter to Emerson, April 29, 1836)
From the Dictionnaire de théologie dogmatique, liturgique, canonique, et disciplinaire: Volume 3 (1851):
Les faits ne parlent pas d'eux-mêmes. [The facts do not speak for themselves.]
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1829:
The most important thing to remember is that all facts are already theory.
(Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years, 1821/1829) [The original German:Das Höchste wäre, zu begreifen, daß alles Faktische schon Theorie ist.]
Johann Gustav Droysen (c. 1860-1880):
It is only in appearance that the 'facts' speak for themselves, alone, exclusively, 'objectively'. Without the narrator to make them speak they would be dumb.
(Droysen, Outline of the principles of history [Grundriss der Historik] trans. E. Benjamin Andrews [1897], pp. 52-53[The original German: Nur scheinbar sprechen hier die „Thatsachen" selbst, allein, ausschliesslich, „objectiv". Sie wären stumm ohne den Erzähler, der sie sprechen lässt.]
Arthur Sidgwick (1914):
In either case what we call the 'fact' is only our opinion about the fact. (Elementary Logic, p. 237)
Arthur Dukinfield Darbishire (1917):
'The facts speak for themselves,' we say. But it is an illusion .... Facts do not speak. If the reader should answer and say, 'Well, at any rate they speak to me,' I would come out and meet him on the same ground and reply, 'Very well, then; so do they speak to me, but they do not say the same thing.' Facts are like the dolls of the ventriloquist and say what we want them to. (Darbishire, Introduction to Biology [1917], p. 9)
Aldous Huxley (1944):
Facts are ventriloquist’s dummies. Sitting on a wise man’s knee they may be made to utter words of wisdom; elsewhere, they say nothing, or talk nonsense, or indulge in sheer diabolism. (Huxley, Time Must Have a Stop, 1944)
Talking Heads ('Crosseyed and Painless')
Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out
Facts are getting the best of them
Facts are nothing on the face of things
Facts don't stain the furniture
Facts go out and slam the door
Facts are written all over your face
Facts continue to change their shape

Monday, May 18, 2015

Born today: Russell, Carnap, etc.

Philosophers and kindred spirits born on May 18: Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, Bishop Butler, Pope John Paul II, W. G. Sebald.

Observation statements are based on unconscious theorizing (says Sir George Lewis in 1849)

Sir George Cornewall Lewis, 'Essay on the Influence of Authority in Matters of Opinion' (1849):
It is true that even the simplest sensations involve some judgment: when a witness reports he saw an object of a certain shape and size, or at a certain distance, he describes more than a mere impression of his sense of sight, and his statement implies a theory and explanation of the bare phenomenon. When, however, this judgment is of so simple a kind as to become wholly unconscious, and the interpretation of the appearances is a matter of general agreement, the object of sensation may, for our present purpose, be considered a fact.