Ending the supposed primacy of fact

The idea that the basic structure of human knowing starts with facts that are explained by hypotheses needs to go. In fact this is not even a basic description of what science is.

-If we trace the thought back to what is supposed to be the first fact, we find it isn’t a fact. It’s not some given that shows up to consciousness with its own name tag, and already neatly cut off from the indefinite field of things we could have focused on, questioned, been interested in, or seen fit to integrate into a broader research program. Who ever saw such a “fact”? Darwin certainly saw no such thing when he saw finch beaks, neither did Oersted when he saw his compass needles twitch when they were put by live wires. None of these were “facts” apart from an already given research program, a set of questions, and a set of traps that the mind had already laid out in the hopes of making a catch. The theory determines what can be observed.

The last sentence is a direct quotation from Einstein. It was originally addressed to Heisenberg and, by his own account, was the motivating spirit that empowered him to see his famous uncertainty principle (all the details are in Louisa Gilder’s fantastic The Age of Entanglement). Heisenberg was absolutely floored to hear Einstein say this, and pointed out  that the whole basis of the theory of Relativity was based on putting observation before theoretical construct. Einstein responded saying “I may have said that when I was young. I may have even wrote it. But it was nonsense all the same.”

-A thing is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. The mode of the knower is a sort of trap we set for parts of experience  and the mind might be best viewed as a trap maker for the elements of experience. Experience is infinite, the mind has an ability to make infinite traps, and knowing is trap making. The mind doesn’t just wake up to experience with its food ready-made in the fridge.

The claim that everything can be figured out by positive methods is a liar paradox, but everyone knows this an it tends to keep us from seeing a deeper problem. The deepest problem with the idea is that it is simply wrong about how science works. Facts do not appear and then wait to be gathered into theory. The theory always comes first, though for the vast multitude the deepest and most causal theories are transparent, and they simply take them for granted until the inevitable crisis of foundations, which usually just amounts to our re-recognition of the deep theories which were transparent to us, and which constituted the facts. 

-“Science” does not consist in moving beyond philosophy, but in making a kind of philosophy transparent to one who will be considered “the scientist”.

That no scientific fact is primary is clear by considering any one of them at random. Pressure drops with temperature. This is a fact because you can drop the former while you watch a column of mercury contract in a pipette. This is a fact? Whoever thought to mediate the feeling of the coming winter with the sight of a glass pipette? And why were we marking off lines on a pipette anyway? The reduction must hits a theory, and a rather large one at that.


  1. November 18, 2011 at 1:56 am

    It is impossible to study social phenomena, i.e., all important
    social phenomena, without making value judgments. A man who
    sees no reason for not despising people whose horizon is limited to
    their consumption of food and their digestion may be a tolerable
    econometrist; he cannot say anything relevant about the character
    of human society. A man who refuses to distinguish between great
    statesmen, mediocrities, and insane imposters may be a good bibliographer; he cannot say anything relevant about politics and political history. A man who cannot distinguish between a profound
    religious thought and a languishing superstition may be a good statistician; he cannot say anything relevant about the sociology
    of religion. Generally speaking, it is impossible to understand
    thought or action or work without evaluating it. If we are unable
    to evaluate adequately, as we very frequently are, we have not yet
    succeeded in understanding adequately. The value judgments
    which are forbidden to enter through the front door of political
    science, sociology or economics, enter these disciplines through the
    back door…

    …The rejection of value judgments is based on the assumption
    that the conflicts between different values or value-systems are essentially insoluble for human reason. But this assumption, while
    generally taken to be sufficiently established, has never been proven. Its proof would require an effort of the magnitude of that which went into the conception and elaboration of the Critique of Pure Reason; it would require a comprehensive critique of evaluating
    reason. What we find in fact are sketchy observations which pretend
    to prove that this or that specific value conflict is insoluble.
    It is prudent to grant that there are value conflicts which cannot
    in fact be settled by human reason. But if we cannot decide which
    of two mountains whose peaks are hidden by clouds is higher than
    the other, cannot we decide that a mountain is higher than a molehill? If we cannot decide regarding a war between two neighboring nations, which have been fighting each other for centuries, whose nation’s cause is more just, cannot we decide that Jezebel’s action against Naboth was inexcusable? The greatest representative of social science positivism, Max Weber, has postulated the insolubility of all value conflicts, because his soul craved a universe, in which failure, that bastard of forceful sinning accompanied by still more forceful faith, instead of felicity and serenity, was to be the mark of human nobility. The belief that value judgments are not subject, in the last analysis, to rational control, encourages the inclination to make irresponsible assertions regarding right and wrong or good and bad. One evades serious discussion of serious issues by the simple device of passing them off as value problems. One even creates the impression that all important human conflicts are value conflicts, whereas, to say the least, many of these conflicts arise out of men’s very agreement regarding values.

    3. The belief that scientific knowledge, i.e., the kind of knowledge
    possessed or aspired to by modern science, is the highest form
    of human knowledge, implies a depreciation of pre-scientific knowledge. If one takes into consideration the contrast between scientific knowledge of the world and pre-scientific knowledge of the world, one realizes that positivism preserves in a scarcely disguised manner Descartes’ universal doubt of pre-scientific knowledge and his radical break with it. It certainly distrusts pre-scientific knowledge which it likes to compare to folk-lore. This superstition fosters all sorts of sterile investigations or complicated idiocies. Things which every ten year old child of normal intelligence knows are regarded as being in need of scientific proof in order to become acceptable as facts. And this scientific proof which is not only not necessary, is not even possible. To illustrate this by the simplest example: all studies in
    social science presuppose that its devotees can tell human beings
    from other beings; this most fundamental knowledge was not
    acquired by them in classrooms; and this knowledge is not transformed by social science into scientific knowledge, but retains its
    initial status without any modification throughout. If this prescientific
    knowledge is not knowledge, all scientific studies which stand or fall with it, lack the character of knowledge. The preoccupation with scientific proof of things which everyone knows well enough, and better, without scientific proof, leads to the neglect of that thinking, or that reflection, which must precede all scientific studies if these studies are to be relevant. The scientific study of politics is often presented as ascending from the ascertainment of political “facts,” i.e., of what has happened hitherto in politics, to the formulation of “laws” whose knowledge would permit the prediction of future political events. This goal is taken as a matter of course without a previous investigation as to whether the subject matter with which political science deals, admits of adequate understanding
    in terms of “laws” or whether the universals through
    which political things can be understood as what they are, must
    not be conceived of in entirely different terms. Scientific concern
    with political facts, relations of political facts, recurrenjt relations
    of political facts, or laws of political behavior, requires isolation
    of the phenomena which it is studying. But if this isolation is not
    to lead to irrelevant or misleading results, one must see the phenomena in question within the whole to which they belong, and one must clarify that whole, i.e., the whole political or politico-social
    order: e.g., one cannot arrive at a kind of knowledge which deserves
    to be called scientific, of “group politics,” if one does not reflect on
    what genus of political orders is presupposed if there is to be “group
    politics” at all, and what kind of political order is presupposed by
    the specific “group politics” which one is studying.

    Click to access Strauss-WhatIsPoliticalPhilosophy_text.pdf

  2. November 18, 2011 at 2:11 am

    The incarnation of the empirical spirit is the
    man from Missouri, who has to be shown. For he knows
    that he, as well as everyone else who is of sound mind and
    whose sight is not defective, can see things and people as
    they are with his eyes and that he is capable of knowing how his neighbors feel; he takes it for granted that he lives
    with other human beings of all descriptions in the same
    world and that because they are all human beings, they all
    understand one another somehow; he knows that if this
    were not so, political life would be altogether impossible.
    If someone would offer him speculations based on extra-
    sensory perception, he would turn his back on him more or
    less politely. The old political science would not quarrel in
    these respects with the man from Missouri. It did not claim
    to know better or differently than he such things as that
    the Democratic and Republican parties are now, and have
    been for some time, the preponderant parties in this coun-
    try and that there are presidential elections every fourth
    year. By admitting that facts of this kind are known inde-
    pendently of political science, it admitted that empirical
    knowledge is not necessarily scientific knowledge or that a
    statement can be true and known to be true without being
    scientific, and, above all, that political science stands or falls
    by the truth of the prescientific awareness of political things.
    Yet one may raise the question as to how one can be
    certain of the truth of empirical statements which are pre-
    scientific. If we call an elaborate answer to this question an
    epistemology, we may say that an empiricist, in contradis-
    tinction to an empirical, statement is based on the explicit
    assumption of a specific epistemology. Yet every episte-
    mology presupposes the truth of empirical statements. Our
    perceiving things and people is more manifest and more
    reliable than any “theory of knowledge”— any explanation
    of how our perceiving things and people is possible — can
    be; the truth of any “theory of knowledge” depends on its
    ability to give an adequate account of this fundamental
    reliance. If a logical positivist tries to give an account of
    “a thing” or a formula for “a thing” in terms of mere sense
    data and their composition, he is looking, and bids us to
    look, at the previously grasped “thing”; the previously
    grasped “thing” is the standard by which we judge of his
    formula. If an epistemology — for example, solipsism — manifestly fails to give an account of how empirical statements
    as meant can be true, it fails to carry conviction. To be
    aware of the necessity of the fundamental reliance which
    underlies or pervades all empirical statements means to
    recognize the fundamental riddle, not to have solved it. But
    no man needs to be ashamed to admit that he does not
    possess a solution to the fundamental riddle. Surely no man
    ought to let himself be bullied into the acceptance of an
    alleged solution — for the denial of the existence of a riddle
    is a kind of solution of the riddle — by the threat that if he
    fails to do so he is a “metaphysician.” To sustain our
    weaker brethren against that threat, one might tell them
    that the belief accepted by the empiricists, according to
    which science is in principle susceptible of infinite progress,
    is itself tantamount to the belief that being is irretrievably

    Let us try to restate the issue by returning first to our
    man from Missouri. A simple observation seems to be suffi-
    cient to show that the man from Missouri is “naive”: he
    does not see things with his eyes; what he sees with his eyes
    is only colors, shapes, and the like; he would perceive
    “things,” in contradistinction to “sense data,” only if he
    possessed “extrasensory perception”; his claim — the claim
    of common sense — implies that there is “extrasensory per-
    ception.” What is true of “things” is true of “patterns,” at
    any rate of those patterns which students of politics from
    time to time claim to “perceive.” We must leave the man
    from Missouri scratching his head; by being silent, he re-
    mains in his way a philosopher. But others do not leave it
    at scratching their heads. Transforming themselves from
    devotees of empeiria into empiricists, they contend that
    what is perceived or “given” is only sense data; the “thing”
    emerges by virtue of unconscious or conscious “construc-
    tion”: the “things” which to common sense present them-
    selves as “given” are in truth constructs. Common-sense understanding is understanding by means of unconscious
    construction; scientific understanding is understanding by
    means of conscious construction. Somewhat more precisely,
    common-sense understanding is understanding in terms of
    “things possessing qualities”; scientific understanding is un-
    derstanding in terms of “functional relations between dif-
    ferent series of events.” Unconscious constructs are ill
    made, for their making is affected by all sorts of purely
    “subjective” influences; only conscious constructs can be
    well made, perfectly lucid, in every respect the same for
    everyone, or “objective.” Still, one says with greater right
    that we perceive things than that we perceive human beings
    as human beings, for at least some of the properties which
    we ascribe to things are sensually perceived, whereas the
    soul’s actions, passions, or states can never become sense data.
    Now, that understanding of things and human beings
    which is rejected by empiricism is the understanding by
    which political life, political understanding, political ex-
    perience, stands or falls. Hence, the new political science,
    based as it is on empiricism, must reject the results of po-
    litical understanding and political experience as such, and
    since the political things are given to us in political under-
    standing and political experience, the new political science
    cannot be helpful for the deeper understanding of political
    things: it must reduce the political things to nonpolitical
    data. The new political science comes into being through
    an attempted break with common sense. But that break
    cannot be consistently carried out, as can be seen in a gen-
    eral way from the following consideration. Empiricism can-
    not be established empiricistically: it is not known through
    sense data that the only possible objects of perception are
    sense data. If one tries therefore to establish empiricism
    empirically, one must make use of that understanding of
    things which empiricism renders doubtful: the relation of
    eyes to colors or shapes is established through the same kind
    of perception through which we perceive things as things
    rather than sense data or constructs. In other words, sense
    data as sense data become known only through an act of
    abstraction or disregard which presupposes the legitimacy
    of our primary awareness of things as things and of people
    as people. Hence the only way of overcoming the nai’vete of
    the man from Missouri is in the first place to admit that
    that naivete cannot be avoided in any way or that there is
    no possible human thought which is not in the last analysis
    dependent on the legitimacy of that naivete and the aware-
    ness or the knowledge going with it.


  3. November 18, 2011 at 2:13 am

    There is a better short quote from Leo that I can’t find right now, breaking down specific “facts”…the researcher must know all manner of things to, say, perform an interview, etc…

    But this is easier to do and has been done–the break has been made–in political “science.” It will be much harder to do in the realm of SCIENCE writ large, but I think even there things are breaking down faster than we likely believe.

  4. November 18, 2011 at 2:27 am

    In other words, the fallacy you speak of seems to reduce to the absurd rather easily (in that it is more easily shown to be false) when it branches out into the social or political, but it is at its strongest in the realm of the study of physical things. What is odd is that it has remained strong even in the face the developments of physics over the last century…developments which ought, in fact, to emphasize the truth of what you say above instead of reinforcing the intellectually primitive fact/hypothesis construct. It is, simply put, a fiction, a crutch, a story we tell ourselves to cover over the difficulties of understanding what it.

    • November 18, 2011 at 7:00 am

      It seems like the F-H account is or arises from a theory that makes a fact it calls “facts”, though the two senses of the term are contradictory. The whole theory itself involves a more straightforward contradiction- one can’t hold that there are scientific facts observed all by themselves in the world and that science is somehow necessary for understanding it.

      The theory does extreme damage. We all suffer from it to some extent when we think that theory or “hypothesis” is a will-o-t’-wisp that can blow anywhere or prove anything and the “fact” is something solid and sturdy that will ground and test it and bring it down to earth. Doing actual experiments isn’t much like this. They’re more like hunting for fishing. And at any rate, facts are far less epistemically solid than theories.

  5. George R. said,

    November 18, 2011 at 11:49 am

    James, I think you might be confusing facts with the inferences drawn from them. Facts never depend on hypotheses, whereas inferences often do. Facts are always more epistemically solid than theories, for the solidity of the latter wholly depends on that of the former.

    • November 18, 2011 at 3:16 pm

      Good objections! Let me try to dance a song or two with them.

      you might be confusing facts with the inferences drawn from them

      I’m speaking about how theory is prior to either fact or hypothesis. Theory (and theory is not identified with hypothesis) is prior to both.

      Facts are always more epistemically solid than theories, for the solidity of the latter wholly depends on that of the former.

      Theory is not the same as hypothesis, just as theoretical physics is not hypothetical physics. The deepest parts of the theory are what allow for there to be that which can count as a fact inside the theory. For example, without some prior commitment to mathematical homogenization, the reduction of proper sensibles to common sensibles, the construction of a very peculiar notion of force (and a large pile of other presuppositions) one can’t have a fact like “pressure is proportionate to temperature”. For that matter, you don’t even have the fact of temperature as a fact in physics. The fact comes to be not by way of an inference from some “pure fact of temperature” to “physical temperature”, but rather from its existence within a larger doctrine that first comes to be from theory, a certain whole in which the various parts (the facts) have their meaning. The attempt to do it the other way around is an attempt to derive the whole from the part, whereas the order of being – whether in reality or thought – is from whole to the part, from actual to potential.

  6. George R. said,

    November 19, 2011 at 10:59 am

    James, I’ll grant that some scientific facts are predicated upon theory. But the theory itself, if it is valid, depends on other facts, which are not necessarily predicated upon other theories. These fundamental facts we can call “observed facts,” i.e., those that we can know immediately from the senses.

    For example, that the blueness of the sky is caused by the deflection and diffusion of high-frequency light when light from the sun collides with gas particles in the atmosphere is a fact predicated upon theory. However, that the sky is blue is a fact not predicated upon anything, but is an observed fact, known immediately from the senses.

    You write:

    “The attempt to do it the other way around is an attempt to derive the whole from the part, whereas the order of being – whether in reality or thought – is from whole to the part, from actual to potential.”

    This is true for reality; and I’ll allow that is also true for thought, as far as the intellect itself is concerned. However, insofar as thought depends on information received through the senses, it is not the way that thought proceeds at all; for the sensible objects are parts not wholes. In this way, therefore, human thought proceeds from the parts to the whole.

    • November 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm

      But on this account, “fact’ means only “whatever is prior to the act of the intellect or sense”, but then you are not talking about the facts of the theory, that is, the facts that are supposed to build up the theory as its parts. Further, this is a questionable sense of fact, and I’m not sure I want to admit it. When I look at the world, I don’t think it is a collection of facts apart from my looking at it, as though it were some multitude of S is P’s just waiting to be found or impress themselves on me. This seems like a projection of some of the parts of my thinking (facts) on the world. But I’ll have to write a whole post to flesh out what I’m thinking about here.

      But briefly, if one wants to speak of that which is prior to the intellect or to sense, it seems very misleading to call it a fact. This is early Wittgenstein or Analytic philosophy, thinking that the fact is some pre-existent unit of the real world. This strikes me as just batty, something like thinking that, because I could eat anything in the animal kingdom, that therefore my bite radius was the pre-existent unit from which all animals were put together.

  7. November 20, 2011 at 1:03 am

    In other words, the sort of “fact” that you start with cannot be severed from everything else connected with it in the way that you treat of “facts” later on. And the reason and way that you actually DO sever what you want to to create these so-called the first “facts” is caused by something better described by the word “theory” than fact. The Strauss quotes above are actually pretty decent on all this, generally speaking, even if he is specifically attacking the fact/value distinction.

    The problem is that “observed facts” aren’t quite the same thing as the sort of facts you deal with later on, and in themselves they aren’t mere puzzle pieces you put together like Legos. You can’t quite extricate them from the whole they exist in like that, and you sure as hell don’t actually build to scientific understanding if they were Legos.

    That’s the problem. One starts to wonder, why is the sky blue? And then on the basis of principles, causes and elements that you already know concerning physical matter, one attempts to find an answer, and you start separating and dividing based on what you already know. Hypothesis and experiment at various points may be part of that. But the fact/hypothesis deal is only one part of the process, and the way those words and their relation to each other are defined are a bit cartoonish or rigid in a way our actual coming to know is not.

  8. Hylemorphist said,

    November 21, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Interesting post as usual, thanks.

    Do you think the distinction between real being and ideal being is useful here?

    For example, “real being” is anything that has, or can have, existence independent of our mind and our actual knowledge of it.

    “Ideal being” is any thing in so far as it is known, an abstract (or abstracted) essence.

    Facts and theories thus have no real being, just ideal being.

    To say theories describe facts is just to say that one kind of ideal being is used to make sense of other things which also have ideal being?

    One may perhaps even argue that facts have sensual ideal being while theories have intellectual ideal being. But the sensual ideal beings of our senses do not make intellectual sense without some theory or intellectual abstraction that is in the intellect first (not in time or per accidens but prior per se)?

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