Monday, September 01, 2008

The Facts

Wittgenstein famously proposed that "the world is the totality of facts, not things" (T 1.1). We know not just that a number of things populate the world but how these things stand in relation to other things. We know not just "what there is" but "what is the case".

While your academic discipline and empirical theme should acquaint you with a specialized class of objects, your knowledge of these things is not limited to knowing their names. As you gain knowledge, you should become better and better at making factual claims about these things.

There are various kinds of facts. When I first started blogging, I wrote a very long and rather unbloggish post about getting your facts straight in which the main point was probably lost. It is worth repeating, however. All researchers should develop a system to organize their knowledge of a particular set of facts; those facts go a long way towards defining your expertise.

As an academic, you should be the "go to guy" for people who want a straight answer about whether or not this or that is the case. How do you keep track of the facts that we are counting on you to know for us? Where do you keep your knowledge of them?

Some of these facts are scholarly, i.e., facts about what has been written on a particular topic. You demonstrate your knowledge of these facts in your literature review. Others are about the "real world" of practice. The authors I work with usually have specialized knowledge of an industry, political domain, or set of organizations.

It is worth making a list of the facts that constitute your world. Every now and then, choose ten or twenty facts to write down. Give them a one-sentence description. Then unpack these descriptions into a whole paragraph. You will find all kinds of uses for such prose in your writing. A fact is what a true sentence refers to, and good, clear, true sentences, whatever else we may think of them, are good for your style.

Remember the story of Agassiz and the fish. Practice making true descriptions; practice writing facts down. These are like the sketches of animals made by zoologists. Making such a sketch is a serious test of their expertise. Also, it is your responsibility as a researcher to keep your notes in some semblance of order. You must be able to retrieve an account of the facts when you need it.

In the end, "facts are stupid things", as Agassiz said, and at some point you will need to introduce some theory to make sense of them. But first you need to learn how to put a "simple fact" in writing. And how to store it for later reference.

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