Monthly Archives: May 2021

Stewards of the Facts

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835.
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

“The world is the totality of facts,” said Wittgenstein, “not things.” His early philosophy is no longer as fashionable as it once was, and he himself rejected it later in his life, but I’ve never really been able to shake the hold it got on me when I first read it. “We make ourselves pictures of the facts,” he also said, and I’ve made a great deal of that through the years.

“To think is to draw logical pictures of facts,” I tweeted yesterday, for example. “Philosophy is the art of their arrangement.” That was almost a plagiary of Wittgenstein, who said that propositions are logical pictures of facts, that such pictures are thoughts, and that philosophy could confine itself entirely to the perspicuous arrangement of scientific propositions. The austere “modernism” of that project has always appealled to me.

It is my view that scholars are stewards of fact, intellectual housekeepers. They maintain the machinery we need to cultivate a “propositional attitude” — a posture of belief, if you will, in “facts of the matter”. Ezra Pound said that good writers keep the language efficient as a means of communication and I would argue that good academic writers do this mainly in regard to our ability to make factual claims and challenge them.

As Bertrand Russell put it in his introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, “The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts.” Wittgenstein himself would later recant on this point, granting that language has a lot of other business to conduct on our behalf, but I would suggest that academics can reasonably take this as their “core business”, if you will, the logical form of their “value proposition”. The job of an academic is to assert and deny facts — to maintain and discard factual propositions in accordance with their truth and falsity.

Again, I understand that this is a rather “modern” value. Many academics today, working under the banner of some variety of “postmodernism” might chafe a bit at the idea their “job” is to keep “the facts” in working order. (Indeed, they might chafe at the idea of being told what their job is!) But perhaps our collective horror of the “post-truth condition”, our indignation over “fake news” and the circulation of “alternative facts”, can bring us together in a common cause?

Yes, this metaphysics of presence — this ontology of “facts” and epistemology of “truth” — is open to deconstruction. But surely there are some things that are more reasonable to believe than others? Perhaps our scholars can help us keep track of them. Reality may be a social construction, but surely a construction can be more or less well made?

Most of the important facts cannot be known to us by direct observation. Indeed, we are consigned to believe many of them simply because we have been told that they are the case. Others we must infer on the basis of our data, and we must be open to challenge from peers with data of their own. So long as we clearly distinguish between our claims and our basis for making them, we are opening ourselves to the criticism of people who are qualified to tell us that we are wrong. In this environment, claims may be evaluated on a running basis, even if some of them are likely to be wrong. We’re not going to get all the facts right, but we’re also not going to leave the truth entirely to chance.

We can’t all be responsible for everything. My own “modernism” is predicated on a division of labor, which is itself an perfectly modern notion. Not only can a scholar not know all the facts, there are other responsibilities. Consider the politician who we hold responsible for “the acts”. Or consider the philosopher! Socrates famously claimed only to know that he didn’t know. His responsibilities lay elsewhere, and modern philosophy traced them squarely to a stewardship of our concepts, our categories of thought, our capacity for reason. Or consider the modern poet, whose job it is to refine our emotions, to keep the language of passion in working order, to keep upright our posture of desire.

Everyone has a job to do. Sometimes our fields overlap a little and that is fine, but we all have something to be good at, something to be proud of, and scholars, like I say, do well to understand themselves as stewards of factual discourse. They maintain the parts of language that we need to assert and deny statements about what is and is not the case. I think this is an important job.

Craft Skills and Guild Privileges

Thinking about the (fading?) hopes and habits of my craft, a thought occurred to me and I pulled my long-suffering copy of Steve Fuller’s Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge off the shelf. As usual, it fell apart in my hands. I reassembled it and found that that the sentence I had remembered had been helpfully underlined by my younger self, probably twenty-five years ago. I don’t approve of that practice any longer (especially not using a pen!) but it was interesting to see how long these ideas have been with me.

“Scientists may prefer to concentrate the expression of their their knowledge claims in dense jargon rather than diffuse it through a cognitively permeable ensemble of words, pictures, artifacts, and ambience,” Steve tells us. “But that is a guild privilege that we can ill afford scientists to enjoy” (1993, p. xix). It was that last sentence I was looking for. I wanted to connect it to what turned out to be another underlined sentence in that book, which I have talked about before on this blog: “Truth and falsehood are properties of sentences in a language that has been designed to represent reality; prior to the construction of such a language, there is neither truth nor falsehood” (p. 189). Representation is difficult, and the difficulty, Steve tells us, is rhetorical. We have to “beat the logical positivists at their own game by envisaging what it would be like to implement their account of language.”

When I was 25, that’s what I thought I’d be doing when I grew up. And, in a way, that is exactly what happened. I am implementing language.

Scientists, researchers, scholars, academics … whatever we choose to call them … are using language to represent reality. Now, you might argue that everyone does this. “The essential business of language,” as Bertrand Russell put it, “is to assert and deny facts.” But a moment’s reflection should remind us that not everyone is trying so very hard to do this very well. Ordinarily, we don’t care very deeply about the facts. “In everyday life,” Steve reminds us, “an utterance is presumed to move its audience unless explicitly challenged.” We don’t usually use language to present our understanding of the facts with the intention of letting them correct us if we’re wrong. Ordinarily, we’re telling people how we feel about them and how we think they should feel about us. We’re telling them what to do, not what we’ve got on our minds. Represent reality? We pay people to do that! Scientists, researchers, scholars, academics …

“Ordinary language,” says Steve, “is ill suited to any of the usual philosophical conceptions of epistemic progress” (p. 187). But academic writers are no ordinary language users! We expect them to make progress in the usual, philosophical way, don’t we? We expect them to discover the truth and represent it. We want there to be people who know what the facts are and who can explain them. But must they be able to explain them to us? If ordinary language is “ill suited” to representation, why can we “ill afford” to let scientists use their jargons among themselves? Why must they paint us pictures too?

For Steve, it’s all about what in fact happens when a scientific claim is challenged. Scientists “will often justify it,” he says, “by invoking standards that, indeed would test the validity of the utterance if construed representationally, but which, under normal circumstances simply serve to terminate the discussion” (p. 189). Scientist who are challenged in public are likely to make hand-waving gestures at the complexity of the underlying data that supports their claims and, sometimes, even start browbeating skeptical objectors as “science deniers”. Sometimes they will invoke the intricate and expensive laboratory equipment that they use in their work, sometimes they will invoke the “vast peer-reviewed literature” that, effectively, insulates their own contributions from criticisms. “This institutional arrangement,” Steve reminds us, “is rather expensive to maintain,” but it is necessary if the the language is to afford us “representation” and “reference” (p. 188). All too often, unfortunately, this system of reference becomes a system of deference — a signal that continuing a critical line of questioning will simply cost too much.

“The search of for truth is quite an artificial inquiry,” Steve admits, and “one that is directly tied to the regimentation of linguistic practices.” Those practices, in turn, are tied to “surveillance operations” that allow us to test the truth and falsity of utterances. But, to repeat, those operations, in part because they’re so expensive, are more often invoked than deployed, which brings about a slide from “the representational function of language” to the “rhetorical function of representation”; and here Steve makes a point that he couldn’t have understood the signifiance of back in 1993: “A common example of this representationalist rhetoric occurs whenever one scientist incorporates another’s results into her own research without feeling a need to reproduce the original study.” This was once a commonplace, but the replication crisis gives it scope!

These days, the problem isn’t that scientists are unwilling to abandon their “dense jargon” in favor of “a cognitively permeable ensemble of words, pictures, artifacts, and ambience.” In fact, the poster child of the replication crisis is still the second most watched TED talk of all time. Scientists are happy to make their work available for mass consumption as “ideas worth spreading”, long before they’ve let their peers approach them as theories worth testing. By the time somebody does apply a “verificationist semantics”, it’s often too late. Perhaps it is time to to return to a more “artisanal” sensibility? What we can’t afford is to let scientists circulate their representations only in the cognitively hospitable environment of the mass media, where their truth is more often presumed than challenged. We need to let them hold each other to their higher standards, their more expensive tastes. Like other guilds, we need them to regulate themselves.