The Doubter’s Dictionary: Facts

Facts: Tools of authority.

Facts are supposed to make truth out of a proposition. There are the proof. The trouble is that there are enough facts around to prove most things. They have become the comfort and prop of conventional wisdom; the music of the rational technocracy; the justification for any sort of policy, particularly as advanced by special interest groups, expert guilds and other modern corporations. Confused armies of contradictory facts struggle in growing darkness. Support ideological fantasies, Staff bureaucratic briefing books.

It was Giambattista Vico who first identified this problem. He argued that any obsession with proof would misfire unless it was examined in a far larger context which took into account experience and the surrounding circumstances. Diderot was just as careful when he wrote the entry on facts for the Encyclopedie:

You can divide facts into three types: the divine, the natural, and man-made. The first belongs to theology; the second to philosophy and the third to history. All are equally open to question.

There is little room for such care in a corporatist society. Facts are the currency of power for each specialized group. But how can so much be expected from these ignorant fragments of knowledge? They are not able to think and so cannot be used to replace thought. They have no memory. No imagination, No judgement. They’re really not much more than interesting landmarks which may illuminate our way as we attempt to think. If properly respected they are never truth, always illustration.”

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

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