Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Writers, Facts, and Readers

Under what conditions can you speak for the facts? Well, it seems reasonable to demand that you have some knowledge of "the facts" in question and that you are a competent user of whatever language you propose to speak of them in. In my work, I generally assume that my authors know what they are talking about and that my job is to help them to develop their linguistic competence, their style. What, then, is it about a sentence, or a paragraph, or a journal article, that makes it able to represent facts in the world?*

In my last post, I suggested that time and space are essential conditions. That's a very "transcendental" (in the Kantian sense) way of putting it, and may not be immediately useful. It would be better to say that a text needs a particular time and a particular space in which to represent facts. Moreover, it is ultimately not the text itself that represents the facts but the writing and reading of the text that does. The text must be used in a particular way (at a particular time in a particular space) in order to be relevantly "about" the facts in question.

Because the text must be written and read to represent facts if it is to have any chance of doing so at all, there is some reason to think that facts are "socially constructed". Representations of facts certainly are. The most common way of talking about this today is probably to say that facts emerge in "discourse"; they exist in exchanges between speakers. The essential thing about a fact is not so much that statements about them may be true or false (though I'm generally sympathetic to this idea) but rather that such statements may be questioned. They are the proper subjects of discussion.

Factual claims have lost some of their currency in these deconstructive times, but I think somewhat unfairly. People who invoke facts (people who tell you what the facts "are") are sometimes dismissed as arrogant, or at least a little presumptuous. Who are they to make such "pronouncements"? it is sometimes asked. (I heard a version of this argument at a keynote lecture at a recent conference.) But this dismissive attitude is actually a failure to hold up the other end of a conversation that the speaker (of factual "truth") is proposing. A "proposition" is always a proposed topic of discussion: it says "Here's what I think," and always implies the question, "What do you think?"

Facts are things we talk about in particular ways at particular times to particular ends. It is not silly or presumptuous to propose to have such conversations. So, in developing the style of your factual writing, think about the conversation you are implicitly proposing to have with your readers. Don't imagine that they will believe every word you say just because you have chosen to speak in declarative sentences. And, as a reader of such sentences, don't just refuse to believe them, as if that's all the writer wants you to do. Hold up your end.

*As Bertrand Russell pointed out in his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, this "logical" question was its central concern. I have always admired the directness with which he addressed this question.


Presskorn said...

I am very much in agreement with your post. But perhaps more with its “spirit” than with its “letter” (to use a Paulian-Hegelian distinction). For one thing, it is all wrong to say that claiming a proposition or a fact implies/is equivalent with (“is always a proposed topic of discussion…”) saying “Here is what I think!”… Rather talk of facts (or propositions held to be “factually” true) is supposed to eliminate discussions about whatever you or I may “think”. Saying that a factual proposition “is always a proposed topic of discussion…” is already conceding too much to the deconstructive stance that you wish to deny…. You wish to say a proposed fact is always put forward as an object of public evaluation, while the deconstructivist, presumably on the exact same grounds, will say that something is being subjectively evaluated.

Thomas said...

I'd love to hear a more detailed argument for this. My view is that it is only a caricature of positivism that suggests that references to facts should end discussion. It is far more reasonable to say that propositions are part of conversations about "what the facts are".

Postmodernists, I would argue, take the line that a proposition (statement of fact) always refers obliquely to some proposed act, and that the fact itself therefore is contingent on the correlated subjective position (agency). That's a perfectly reasonable line of criticism.