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[2b2k] Facts and networked facts

Harry Lewis [blog], one of my faves and someone who does not put up with any of my guff, had me in as a guest lecturer in one of his courses today. We talked about knowledge on the Net, and, in particular, whether the Net is leading us to flock with others who are like us, thus making us stupider and more extreme, rather than smarter and more open. It’s hard to know what the data actually are about this; Harry, who worries that the Net is just enabling us to confirm our ignorances, nevertheless pointed us to the David Brooks column that references some more optimistic studies. But, as I think Harry agrees, this is an area where the meaning of such studies is up for grabs — ironically, if we cite the studies that confirm our beliefs (which, btw, is the opposite of what Harry was doing), and ironically with a double salchow in light of what I’m about to say about facts.

This discussion was quite useful for me. I’m writing the last section of the chapter on facts. The echo chamber argument (i.e., we flock with similar birds and chirp our way into stupidity) often expresses a nostalgia for the Enlightenment, which includes, in the modern era, a belief that knowledge rests on a bedrock of facts. Facts are bedrock because they cannot be disputed. Facts, after all, straddle the line between the world and our knowledge of the world: They are what are knowable about the world. They are what makes a true statement true. They are not dependent on our knowledge (they are true whether or not we know them), but they enable our knowledge. Because facts are facts regardless of whether any one of us recognizes them, they are true for everyone. Thus: Bedrock because they are independent of us, and bedrock because they are nonetheless knowable.

So, this makes a big stinking problem for the book, for a few reasons.

First, I don’t want to be dealing with this question. It’s too hard. This was supposed to be a relatively easy book about expertise and knowledge, and now I’m smack up against big questions that are way way past my pay grade.

Second, I think the metaphysics in which the “facts are bedrock” argument is embedded is a misguided metaphysics. I fully believe that facts do not depend on us, and that facts are just one (particularly useful) “mode of discourse” — one way the world shows itself to us if we ask about it in a particular way. The Enlightenment set-up of the problem doesn’t let us have our fact-based cake and eat it too, which is what’s required. But I don’t want to deal with metaphysics (see point #1 immediately above)). So, I’m thinking about talking in the book about “networked facts” that include their links and context, for facts are always (?) taken up in context, and once taken up by us, they no longer serve as a self-sufficient bedrock, because you take them up one way and I take them up the other. Facts in a networked world always (= almost always, often, can) point back into the source from which they emerge and ahead into the social stew that makes sense (= tries to make sense, pretends to make sense, makes no sense) of them. (I do want to make sure that the reader doesn’t feel let off the hook when it comes to facts; facts matter.)

Third, I realized after the class that I’m right back in the topic of my doctoral dissertation of 30+ years ago, which was about Heidegger’s ontology of things (= material objects, roughly). My question then was how do we make sense of phenomena that show themselves in our experience as being beyond our experience. Apparently, I still don’t know.

9 Responses to “[2b2k] Facts and networked facts”

  1. David,

    I think that one reason this may be a knotty problem is that there are a two different kinds of fact involved here — empirical fact and social fact.

    Empirical facts are supposed to be truths scientifically proven by means of empirical observation. I believe those include your bedrock facts. But even empirical truths are subject to theoretical assumptions and disputes (eg Kuhn’s paradigms).

    Social facts are of a different nature, and much more tricky. Habermas differentiates them as truth claims and has three types — facticity, or a truth claim asserted of the factual world (it’s raining); sincerity, or the truth claim asserted of intent (i’m speaking truthfully); and normative rightness, or the truth claim asserted on the basis of normative authority (i have the right to say what I say — as in, “your’e under arrest” is a fact only if I’m an officer). Not all agree on a consensual model of social facts, however, and many subordinate them to coordination of action, agonistics or negotiated differences, and much more. The matter of social facts is complicated because it necessitates a communication theory — which may emphasize interaction, statements, references, claims, action, understanding, and so on. But if you’re working on networked knowledge, some discursive model would seem necessary.

  2. Re your second point: “I fully believe that facts do not depend on us, and that facts are just one (particularly useful) “mode of discourse” — one way the world shows itself to us if we ask about it in a particular way”.

    Does this mean that the “facts” depend on the questions asked? If yes that may lead into some quantum world of uncertainty.

    In Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, our hero, Dupin, aks questions the police didn’t ask–about the unknown “language” of the killer, the super-human strength required to yank a clump of hair from a human skull, etc–and in doing so established a new fact, ie, that the murderer is not a human being.

    Here’s he question: Did that “fact” exist in the detritus of the murder scene or was it called into existence by Dupin’s interrogation?

    Think on’t.

    Milverton Wallace

  3. facts are concepts too

  4. “…how do we make sense of phenomena that show themselves in our experience as being beyond our experience.” – Goldman Sachs comes to mind … :)

  5. “…how do we make sense of phenomena that show themselves in our experience as being beyond our experience.” — David Hume > Kant > Hegel founded the idea of subjectivity on the notion that “we affirm more than we know.” Rationalism, or the faculties of the mind answering to their own principles, including those necessary for apprehension of beauty and the sublime. The limit case for your question, David, might not be knowledge but Kant’s sublime.

  6. I’d love it if Adrian would expand his hint about Kant and the sublime.

    So there could be many ways of stating the “fact” that discourse is about something other, or more, than we can know or control.

    Another way might be: facts are theories – (Goethe). Theories are arguments. Arguments aim to establish facts, but what can be established without turning from them, to the unmastered power of rhetoric?

  7. Tom,

    I’ll do my best…

    Kant was a rationalist — taken to the extreme, his view of the world is solipsistic. In his three critiques he lays out a view of the subject (individual) that departs from empiricism and in which three faculties of mind provide our experience of the world according to reason and its intrinsic principles. (The categorical imperatives, which apply to what we know and should do.) Practical reason for apprehension of the world of fact; pure reason for imagination; judgment for legislating the two other faculties and for choice.

    In Kant, the sublime is the experience that exceeds the ability of reason itself — an aeshetic experience exceeds reason’s own ability to build it up. It’s Kant’s way of accommodating experiences of awe, be they in the arts, or in nature, and in his way, of preserving the possibility of being affected by God (tho he does not make this a theological claim).

    Magnitude is one example of this — a size that is not a number, but which is rather the limit point if you will of numbering/counting. An idea of big that exceeds the possibilities of counting — a size you can’t get to by adding one at a time (which is the job of practical reason).

    Kant led to Hegel, and the dialectic. To Merleau Ponty, and phenomenology. ANd to his own post-rationalists or post Kantians, whose attempts pretty much all foundered on the shores of solipsism.

    The 19th century culminated was the culmination of an immense amount of philosophical investigation into knowledge — be it in the metaphysicians of Europe, the pragmatics of Americans (dewey), the empiricists, etc. It’s not till the 20th century that the status of knowledge comes under real investigation, and takes a few turns that have brought us to the modern and unstable perspectives of today: systems, networks, discourse, psychology, etc.

    Two fronts opened up in the 20th century that are fruitful, I think, for thinking about knowledge in networked societies/systems. One is recognition of the domain in which knowledge is produced, and leads to semiotics (signs, and terms are independent of their relations), structural anthropology (structures, ritual, traditions), language (linguistics, a differentiation of speech and language, and pragmatics, or performance), phenomenology, systems theory, even media theory. Second is interest taken in communication.

    Sociologists have also given us a lot to learn from the construction of social relations and the status of knowledge. This accompanied a move from empirical fact to social fact, from reason to action, and from empirical knowledge to meaning domains.

    The 20th c was a century of interpretation, and recognition of the instability interpretation creates not only for the construction of social facts, but their communication and even observation (what framework permits us to correctly observe social “realities?”)

    Competing theories of course are many. The big ones include Habermas, whose pragmatics is based on speech, mutual understanding, interaction, and human interests (usually reasons). Luhmann’s systems theory is another. Foucault’s view that discourses and practices influence one another is very powerful (is in fact about power). Economics is catching up, but is still I think years behind. All would agree that a communication model that includes agency and action is necessary.

    All would accept that Marx’s insight into modes of production holds not only for material life but for psychic life, and knowledge, too. So a strong critique of knowledge in networked societies would want (imho) to address the production of social facts in modes specific to media of their production and consumption. That’s my take on it. We do affirm more than we know, and the challenge to unpacking the status of knowledge today includes a recognition of the role played by communication in knowledge capture, preservation, organization, distribution, and use. Accepting that in the extreme, value may not reside within the fact at all, but in its ability to cement agreement or coordinate activity.


  8. Thank you, Adrian.

  9. Yes, thank you indeed, Adrian.

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