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.

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