Brute Facts

For Anscombe, a brute fact was opposed to a moral fact. Moral facts required certain dispositions of the perceiving subject (like maturity or good education) in order to be perceived whereas brute facts did not. Discerning that the sky is blue certainly seems different from discerning that a loving father’s discipline is good, though both are certainly facts, and one must mark off this distinction by fixing some sort of adjective. I’m not crazy about the adjective “brute”, but it will have to do.

Anscombe’s division has its limits. Aristotle (and all who followed him) makes a great deal out of the fact that sick persons cannot discern even what are called “brute facts” by the above definition. Men in fevers think spicy foods are bland, sweet foods are bitter, pungent things are odorless, etc. Indeed, Aristotle continually appeals to this as an analogy to explain the discernment of moral facts, that is, he argues that moral facts require a right disposition just as brute facts do. But again, this only shows that Anscombe’s division has its limits, which she no doubt admits herself.

Somewhere along the way, however, brute facts became unmoored from their relation to moral facts. As it stands now, a “brute fact” is supposed to be something that has utterly no explanation. It is not clear that there are such things, or even if they are possible. The first difficulty is that this account distorts what we first suppose a brute fact would have to be. If brute facts are “unexplainable facts” then statements like “the sky is blue” or “two plus two is four” cease to be brute facts, since one can give an explanation for why both are so. Another difficulty is that it is doubtful we have any criterion to discern brute fact, since no one has a very good sense of how to divide what can be explained from what can’t be. It might mean something to speak of facts that have no  explanation for the moment or on this or that hypothesis or school, but to claim that something has no possible explanation simply speaking is an odd claim – and at any rate if we could ever discern such a thing we would call it a mystery and not a brute fact. But doesn’t it make more sense to say that a mystery is the opposite of a brute fact?

Another problem with the account is that “explanation” means far more than one thing. It is not the same thing to prove (or explain) that something is so and to prove why it is so, as any scientist would tell you. That said, both require different sorts of explanations and proofs – sometimes even very elaborate ones.  If we take brute facts simply (that is, without some limiting qualification), it follows we can’t even establish that they are so. But if this is the case, then how in the world are they facts?

But perhaps a brute fact is supposed to be that which is not explained by something else, but itself explains other things. In this case, a brute fact is identical with a first principle or universal law or an axiom. But, here again, this is just not what we call “a fact”. When we speak about the “facts of a biologist” or the “facts of physicist”, or “the facts of an experiment” we aren’t talking about their fundamental axioms and laws. The facts of the science are things known even prior to the science itself while the fundamental axioms are not. Who thinks that the goal of science is to explain facts by facts (brute or not). If this were true, how is there any room for theory? Aren’t facts exactly the things we are supposed to explain?

And how would we distinguish such facts from the tautological or sheerly happenstance, since none of these things has an explanation either? There is no explanation for either a.) why did the earthquake happen while I stepped in the bathtub? or b.) Why are butterflies butterflies? But one can explain the lack of explanation- on the one hand there is mere chance conjunction of things, on the other hand there is only logical reflexive duplication. Neither have the same explanation for why they have no explanation. Both are at least mildly ridiculous. So is this what a brute fact comes to – the ridiculous?

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8 Comments

  1. Edward said,

    January 20, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    James, in some of my classes, teachers use the phrase “brute fact” even though it is obvious that they have never really thought about the idea in a critical way. It seems that modern philosophers have a plethora of phrases to which they have regular recourse even though they have no sustainable meaning. Brute fact is one, possible world is another. This is evidenced by the fact that one of your short posts is enough to expose the idea as either incoherent or, at least, poorly thought out. This is one of the major distinctions I see between ancient/scholastic philosophy and modern philosophy. I cannot imagine Plato or Aristotle ever using such a loaded term or taking its meaning for granted. I am sure you can think of even more.

  2. January 20, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Why isn’t it something that is known immediately by experience where the sense cannot be deceived? Rocks fall down when let go. Getting whacked with a stick hurts.

    There may be explanations, but my children don’t need them to immediately know the truth of the fact. They fall under what I call the law of common sense, which I also consider to be the first principle in any science.

    • January 21, 2011 at 4:50 am

      The consideration is not whether “brute fact” has a meaning, whatever it is, but whether the explanation of it as a fact without a meaning is plausible. This is not tilting at windmills – it is the most common meaning attributed to the term by contemporary Analytic philosophers.

  3. January 20, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    This is an explanation of the law of common sense. Warning, it’s not very intellectual, but then again, neither am I.
    http://catholiccultureandsociety.blogspot.com/2011/01/seeing-world-through-catholic-eyes.html

  4. January 21, 2011 at 6:09 am

    Could you define ‘meaning’ for me.

    • January 21, 2011 at 7:47 am

      To mean = to be, by agreement, a sign.

      Meaning is the formal part of this “that by which something is intrinsically, by agreement, a sign” (I add “intrinsically” to distinguish it from the external cause that makes something a sign – the mind in its social expression)

  5. January 21, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Alright, that’s what I thought.
    But observation in its most simple form such as rocks fall down doesn’t change what does occur. Nor does it add to the complexity of the act. Nor can we wholly remove observation. So in other words, I’m missing something, but can’t figure out what.

  6. January 21, 2011 at 11:31 am

    adding on. Rocks fall when let go, or getting whacked with a stick doesn’t have a sign, such as wearing black could.


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