Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Fact and Nuance

Science posits a world of facts, which it undertakes to discover. These facts presumably subtend the variety of phenomena that we experience in our everyday encounters with things and people. The encounters are often too fleeting and too ambiguous to give us knowledge of the facts of the world. Indeed, I'm reluctant to say that the sights, sounds, and smells that I encountered yesterday evening on my jog through the park are facts about how the park looks, sounds and smells. It is a fact that I went for my jog and that the park exists. The familiar route that I ran, the trees and the grass around me, are facts, confirmed by repeated encounters. (They remain facts this morning, visible from my window.) But the phenomenal experience, the thoughts and feelings that passed through my body on that particular run—these are not facts. Let's call them nuances.*

Likewise, my encounters with other people consist, in the moment, largely of nuances, not facts. It is not a fact that my lover is pleased to see me, nor that my child is unhappy. Not at first pass, not as I encounter them. It is not a fact that my colleague is annoyed with me, nor that my boss is worried about my performance. Rather, in the encounter, I'm aware of nuances that suggest such interpretations. An ethnographer who is observing my "interactions"—let me interrupt myself to say I don't like this word when used in everyday speech, precisely because it sounds so scientific, but it is the technically correct term here—an ethnographer who is observing my "interactions" would register these nuances in their field notes and, perhaps, given further observations, one day be in a position to construct a fact—of my lover's pleasure, my child's unhappiness, my colleague's annoyance, my boss's worry. But the nuances themselves are not facts.

There are, no doubt, some scientists who believe that the universe is just an enormous collection of discoverable facts, and that even a nuance is reducible to a series of physical, biological, neuronal facts about the working of my body, its senses and muscles. It is a hypothesis that they pursue and I am happy to let them do so. But life is simply too short to acknowledge every fleeting nuance of experience as though it is a fact about which the truth could have been known. I'm happy to dwell, first and foremost, "proximally and for the most part" (as Heidegger might put it), among nuances.

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*I get this distinction between facts and nuances from Norman Mailer who invokes it a number of times in his Presidential Papers. One day, I'll write a paper about it. I think it is an important part of his philosophy, his phenomenology.

13 comments:

randallwestgren.net said...

Are nuances the stuff of poetry and facts the stuff of scientific writing? I hope you will follow up with a discussion of the boundary conditions for separating nuance from social fact. An interesting post to start my day, Thomas!

Presskorn said...

Pangrammatically, nuances are the "media of immediacy", i.e. half-felt, half-thought, ambivalent between intuition and institution, but always ready to become either the perception of a thing or the impression of man... You taught me well, right? :-)

Thomas said...

@Randall: Roughly speaking, I'd say that nuances are the stuff of poems and novels and facts are the stuff of science and journalism. But that's not to say that you can't have facts in a novel or nuances in a field report. It might be more accurate to say that novelists and poets pride themselves on getting the nuances right, whereas scientists and (though I sometimes wonder!) journalists pride themselves on getting the facts right. But everyone deploys both fact and nuance to achieve their ends. Mailer says that "a fact is a compression of nuance". Conversely, we can say that a nuance is the surface of a fact. That is, we can't have one without the other, but we can be interested in one over the other.

@Presskorn: Not quite. (But I hold you to a very high standard.) Institutions and intuitions are the media of immediacy. They are "that through which" facts and acts are experienced "immediately" as knowledge and power (truth and justice). Nuances are, if you will, the immediate "message" in the medium, whereas the fact and the act are the mediated message, the "content". (I haven't actually thought this through enough to know whether nuances only apply to facts, i.e., whether we must pose the problem: nuances are to facts as _______ are to acts. (A hint would be: senses are to facts as motives are to acts.) Impulses?

Thanks to you both! I'll definitely have to continue this on Friday

Jonathan said...

Not really. Nuances are subtle differences and distinctions, and can pertain to either facts or non-facts. For example, it is un-nuanced to say the Franco killed Lorca. It would be more nuanced to describe in factual terms what actually happened. Which factions of the Right wanted him dead, exactly? Being nuanced means being more fine-grained, less simplistic, and, in many cases, more factual as well.

A recent sociology article with the title "Fuck Nuance" also does not quite understand what nuance is, in my opinion, though it makes some other good points. An example would be someone saying they want more nuance, when what they really want is to introduce some extra factor of analysis: race, or class. Well, the introduction of that may or may not make the analysis more nuanced. After all, most of that analysis would be at the simplistic level of "but... class!"

Thomas said...

@Jonathan: You're right that the root meaning of nuance is just a subtle difference, a "shade". It gets me thinking. When I reify nuances as individual experiences (like a fleeting smell, or the look a person gives me) I'm forgetting that a nuance is always between one thing and another, it's where one experience (of a color or an emotion) "shades off" into another. The question, then, is what are nuances fundamentally differences between.

It's probably not really "things" and I'm reluctant to say facts. (The difference between one fact and another is probably just another fact.)

So I'd venture that nuances are always differences between images. Now, we can imagine facts and we can imagine acts. So, if my improvised response to Thomas Presskorn is right, then impulses are the (felt) differences between images of acts, just as nuances are the (thought) differences between images of facts.

This can get quite, ahem, nuanced. After all, if I'm going to say that a smell is "nuanced" insofar as it is a difference between images of facts it could, precisely, be the difference between the olfactory and the visual image of the rose.

Presskorn said...

Improvised or not; I liked the response... BTW, apropos Heidegger and the quote on research as Betrieb [eng. striving, hustle] from the "The Age of World Picture" that you often use:

"Scientific man, however, does not stand in isolation. He is connected to a community of similarly striving researchers with its rich relations to students. The life-context of scientific consciousness expresses itself objectively in the formation and organization of scientific academies and universities." (M. Heidegger, 'Science and University Reform', p. 4, in Towards the definition of philosophy (Athlone Press, 2002/1919), pp.3-5).

Thomas said...

Thanks. Nice quote. Did you say "striving" here translates a cognate of Betrieb?

Jonathan said...

I think you are on to something but that the word nuance has other uses. You are not wrong except in contrasting it to "fact." Maybe another word would serve your purposes better?

Thomas said...

I need the fact/nuance distinction in my reading of Mailer. He's completely explicit about it. "A fact is a compression of nuances that alienates the reality." That's actually a strong Bloomian misreading of Mailer's sentence, but one that corrects what I think is a typo.

Presskorn said...

No, unfortunately not, the German original is 'gleichstrebenden', "like-striving" as in "like-minded", here translated as "similarly striving". Yet I don't think it is too farfetched to say that “betrieb” and “streben” belong to the same "semantic orbit" as linguists sometimes say, but then again, I am no expert in German. Freud uses “streben” [striving] in his analyses of “trieb” [desire], but then again; Freud is not always – even by his own admission – a truthful witness.

PS: At least in the Danish “bedrift”, we can hear the connotations of ‘accomplishment as the result of striving’ as well as its quite Heideggerian connection to the ‘business of running of a small farm’.

Thomas said...

PS (@Jonathan): "The worst story I ever heard about Jack Kennedy was that he sat on his boat one day eating chicken and threw the half-chewed bones into the sea," says Mailer (PP, p. 101). He presents that story, we might say, as a fact: Kennedy threw chicken bones into the sea. Then he explains: "Throwing a chicken bone into the sea is bad because it shows no feeling for the root of death, which is burial. Of course Kennedy might have muttered, 'Sorry, old man,' as he tossed the bone. That is the difficulty with anecdotes. One cannot determine the nuance." (PP, p. 102) He says the nuance, i.e., he talks about nuances as individual states or moments or experiences, not as shades of difference. I believe he's talking about the nuance of the fact that Kennedy threw bones into the sea.

Thomas said...

@Jonathan (10:31 PM): I'll write about this on Monday, but I'm pretty sure that I (and Mailer) mean "nuance" in the sense that Healy (in "Fuck Nuance") calls "Actually-Existing Nuance". And I'm leaning toward the idea that Healy is right that it doesn't belong in sociology, though it certainly belongs in literature. And Mailer's problem, of course, "actually exists" somewhere between literature and sociology, namely, in journalism.

Thomas said...

@Jonathan in re "[Kieran Healy's] 'Fuck Nuance' ... does not quite understand what nuance is": I think he would agree with you in the sense that those who deploy nuance (qua "actually-existing nuance") in sociology don't really understand what nuance is, or certainly not what nuance is for.