Generally, a fact is defined as something that is true, something
that can be verified according to an established standard of
evaluation. There is a range of other uses, depending on the context.
For example, fact may be argued under the authority of a specific
discipline, such as scientific facts or historical facts. Rhetorical assertion of fact is often forwarded without an implied or express basis of authority.
Although the term fact often implies objectivity and truth, it is not so obvious that facts are free from interpretation; some argue that facts are established only within certain frameworks of thought and value perspectives. For example, historians understand historical facts within a certain context of understanding. Similarly facts in social sciences are established by social scientists according to certain theoretical assumptions and value perspectives. Statistical data is determined by the methodology that is used. Even in the natural sciences, facts are meaningful only within certain theoretical frameworks. The issue is closely related with the concept of objectivity and issues regarding the universality of truth.
Etymology and usage
The word fact derives from the Latin Factum, and was first used in English with the same meaning: "a thing done or performed," a use that is now obsolete.
The common usage of, "something that has really occurred or is the case," dates from the middle of the sixteenth century. Fact is also synonymous with truth or reality, as distinguishable from conclusions or opinions. This use is found for instance in the phrase Matter of fact, and in "… not history, nor fact, but imagination."
Fact also indicates a matter under discussion deemed to be true or correct, such as to emphasize a point or prove a disputed issue; (e.g., "… the fact of the matter is …").
Alternatively, "fact" may also indicate an allegation or stipulation of something that may or may not be a "true fact", (e.g., "the author's facts are not trustworthy"). This alternate usage, although contested by some, has a long history in standard English.
Fact may also indicate findings derived through a process of evaluation, including review of testimony, direct observation, or otherwise; as distinguishable from matters of inference or speculation. This use is reflected in the terms "fact-find" and "fact-finder" (e.g., "set up a fact-finding commission").
Fact in Philosophy
In philosophy, the concept fact is considered in epistemology and ontology. Questions of objectivity and truth are closely associated with questions of fact. A "fact" can be defined as something which is the case, that is, the state of affairs reported by a true proposition.
Facts may be understood as that which makes a true sentence true. For example, the statement "Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system" is made true by the fact that Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. Facts may also be understood as those things to which a true sentence refers. The statement "Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system" is about the fact that Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system.
Correspondence and the slingshot argument
Some versions of the correspondence theory of truth hold that what makes a sentence true is that it corresponds to a fact. This theory presupposes the existence of an objective world.
The Slingshot argument claims to show that all true statements stand for the same thing - the truth value true. If this argument holds, and facts are taken to be what true statements stand for, then we reach the counter-intuitive conclusion that there is only one fact - "the truth".
Any non-trivial true statement about reality is necessarily an abstraction composed of a complex of objects and properties or relations. For example, the fact described by the true statement "Paris is the capital city of France" implies that there is such a place as Paris, that there is such a place as France, that there are such things as capital cities, as well as that France has a government, that the government of France has the power to define its capital city, and that the French government has chosen Paris to be the capital, that there is such a thing as a "place" or a "government," etc. The verifiable accuracy of all of these assertions, if facts themselves, may coincide to create the fact that Paris is the capital of France.
Difficulties arise, however, in attempting to identify the constituent parts of negative, modal, disjunctive, or moral facts.
The fact-value distinction
Moral philosophers since David Hume have debated whether values are objective, and thus factual. In A Treatise of Human Nature Hume pointed out that there is no obvious way for a series of statements about what ought to be the case to be derived from a series of statements of what is the case. Those who insist that there is a logical gulf between facts and values, such that it is fallacious to attempt to derive values from facts, include G. E. Moore, who called attempting to do so the naturalistic fallacy.
The factual-counterfactual distinction
Factuality — what has occurred — can also be contrasted with counterfactuality — what might have occurred, but did not. A counterfactual conditional or subjunctive conditional is a conditional (or "if-then") statement indicating what would be the case if events had been other than they actually are. For example, "If Alexander had lived, his empire would have been greater than Rome." This is to be contrasted with an indicative conditional, which indicates what is (in fact) the case if its antecedent is (in fact) true — for example, "if you drink this, it will make you well."
Such sentences are important to Modal logic, especially since the development of Possible world semantics.
Fact in science
Just as in philosophy, the scientific concept of fact is central to fundamental questions regarding the nature, methods, scope and validity of scientific reasoning.
In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation; in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts.
Various scholars have offered significant refinements to this basic formulation, some of which are detailed below. Also, rigorous scientific use of the term "fact" is careful to distinguish: 1) states of affairs in the external world; from 2) assertions of fact that may be considered relevant in scientific analysis. The term is used in both senses in the philosophy of science.
Scholarly inquiry regarding fact, interpretation and truth
Scholars and clinical researchers in both the social and natural sciences have forwarded numerous questions and theories in clarifying the fundamental nature of scientific fact. Some pertinent issues raised by this inquiry include:
- the process by which "established fact" becomes recognized and accepted as such;
- whether and to what extent "fact" and "theoretic explanation" can be considered truly independent and separable from one another;
- to what extent are "facts" influenced by the mere act of observation; and
- to what extent are factual conclusions influenced by history and consensus, rather than a strictly systematic methodology.
From the nineteenth century through twentieth century, a number of thinkers questioned the pure objectivity of knowledge and the concept of fact as reality free from interpretation. Friedrich Nietzsche argued that human knowledge is essentially perspectival and all "facts" are loaded with the perspective of a person who views them. Nietzsche objected against the concept of pure rationality which is free from interpretation. Similarly, Karl Marx argued that social and historical facts and realities are loaded with interpretation of the person who views them; social, political interests of the person define what "facts" are.
In the natural sciences, along with the development of philosophy of science in the twentieth century, thinkers began to question the nature of science and scientific observation. Consistent with the theory of confirmation holism, some scholars assert "fact" to be necessarily "theory-laden" to some degree. Thomas Kuhn and others pointed out that knowing what facts to measure, and how to measure them, requires the use of some other theory (e.g., age of fossils is based on radiocarbon dating which is justified by reasoning that radioactive decay follows a Poisson process rather than a Bernoulli process). Similarly, Percy Williams Bridgman is credited with the methodological position known as operationalism, which asserts that all observations are not only influenced, but necessarily defined by the means and assumptions used to measure them. Thomas Kuhn questioned the pure objectivity of scientific knowledge and argued that scientific facts are made possible within a paradigm which is conditioned by social, historical practices of scientists. Post-Kuhnian theorists such as Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyarabend pointed out that scientific observations are meaningful only within scientific theories, thus, "facts" are theory-loaded.
Philosophers such as Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer argued that human understanding is essentially hermeneutic. Gadamer in particular argued for the universality of hermeneutics.
In the late twentieth century, postmodern intellectuals further pursued the interpretive dimension of knowledge which questioned the concept of objectivity of knowledge, neutrality of fact, and associated concept of truth. Postmodernists often argue that facts are different according to perspectives. This point is well illustrated, for example, by Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon. The film depicts the rape of a woman and the apparent murder of her husband through the widely differing accounts of four witnesses, including the bandit, the woman, a witness, and, through a medium, the dead man. The accounts of "fact" are mutually contradictory, highlighting the challenge of objectivity within the context of multiple perspectives.
Fact and the scientific method
Apart from the fundamental inquiry in to the nature of scientific fact, there remain the practical and social considerations of how fact is investigated, established, and substantiated through the proper application of the scientific method. Scientific facts are generally believed to be independent from the observer in that no matter which scientist observes a phenomenon, all will reach the same necessary conclusion. In addition to these considerations, there are the social and institutional measures, such as peer review and accreditation, that are intended to promote factual accuracy (among other interests) in scientific study.
Fact does not always mean the same thing as truth. Fact is a generally agreed-upon and seemingly obvious observation. It is a fact that things stick to the earth, without regard to why that happens. It was once a fact that the planets changed direction from time to time, and that the sun, planets and stars circled the earth once daily. This seemed obvious, and was generally agreed to be the case.
In time, the fact was changed, and it was then said that the earth circles the sun, and the planets only appear to change direction as they are passed by the earth in their orbits, or vice versa.
Misunderstanding of this difference sometimes leads to fallacy in rhetoric, in which persons will say that they have fact, while others have only theory. Such statements indicate confusion as to the meanings of both words, suggesting they believe that fact means "truth," and theory means "speculation."
Fact in History
A common rhetorical cliche states, "History is written by the winners." This phrase suggests but does not examine the use of facts in the writing of history.
E. H. Carr in his 1961 volume, What is History?, argues that the inherent biases from the gathering of facts makes the objective truth of any historical perspective idealistic and impossible. Facts are, "like fish in the Ocean," that we may only happen to catch a few, only an indication of what is below the surface. Even a dragnet cannot tell us for certain what it would be like to live below the Ocean's surface. Even if we do not discard any facts (or fish) presented, we will always miss the majority; the site of our fishing, the methods undertaken, the weather and even luck play a vital role in what we will catch. Additionally, the composition of history is inevitably made up by the compilation of many different bias of fact finding - all compounded over time. He concludes that for a historian to attempt a more objective method, one must accept that history can only aspire to a conversation of the present with the past - and, that one's methods of fact gathering should be openly examined. As with science, historical truth and facts will therefore change over time and reflect only the present consensus (if that).
Others have argued that an approach to facts such as Carr's is relativism and they lament the loss of a transcendent or fixed moral framework. However, his views together with the popular rise of historiographical narratives and meta-narratives may comprise a consensual view.
Fact in law
In most common law jurisdictions, the general concept and analysis of fact reflects fundamental principles of Jurisprudence, and is supported by several well-established standards. Matters of fact have various formal definitions under common law jurisdictions.
- an element required in legal pleadings to demonstrate a cause of action;
- the determinations of the finder of fact after evaluating admissible evidence produced in a trial or hearing;
- a potential ground of reversible error forwarded on appeal in an appellate court; and
- any of various matters subject to investigation by official authority to establish whether a crime has been perpetrated, and to establish culpability.
A party to a civil suit generally must clearly state all relevant allegations of fact upon which a claim is based. The requisite level of precision and particularity of these allegations varies depending on the rules of civil procedure as well as the jurisdiction. Parties who face uncertainties regarding the facts and circumstances attendant to their side in a dispute may sometimes invoke alternative pleading. In this situation, a party may plead separate facts that (when considered together) may be contradictory or mutually exclusive. This (seemingly) logically-inconsistent presentation of facts may be necessary as a safeguard against contingencies (such as res judicata) that would otherwise preclude presenting a claim or defense that depends on a particular interpretation of the underlying facts.