Facts, Truefacts, Factoids; or, Why Are They Still Saying Those Nasty Things about Epistemology?

By Greetham, David | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Facts, Truefacts, Factoids; or, Why Are They Still Saying Those Nasty Things about Epistemology?


Greetham, David, Yearbook of English Studies


'Epistemology still looks classy to weak textualists'. (Richard Rorty) 'Vulgar pragmatism [is] an unedifying prospect. [. . .] There could be no honest intellectual work in Rorty's post-epistemological utopia'. (Susan Haack)

Those are both pretty nasty things to say. On the one hand, who would want to be thought of as a 'weak' textualist and therefore to be accused of thinking good things about epistemology because of failing to be a 'strong' textualist?[1] On the other, who would want to be a 'vulgar' pragmatist advocating a cynical and hypocritical post-epistemology in which there was only 'dishonest' work to be done?[2] The battle-lines between pragmatists and epistemologists are polemically if not substantively well-defined: Rorty looks disdainfully on those who 'think that by viewing a poet as having an epistemology they are paying him a compliment' and is scornful of the 'tendency to think that literature can take the place of philosophy by mimicking philosophy' -- by being, of all things, epistemological' (p.156). Giving no quarter, Haack describes Rorty's 'dichotomy' between the 'irrealist' and the 'grandly transcendental' options as 'grossly false',[3] and sternly advises that her own epistemological typology will 'enable us to struggle free of the wool Rorty is trying to pull over our eyes' (p. 189). Noting that although a couple of chapters in Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature have 'truth' in their titles but that 'there is no entry under "truth" in the index!' [italics in original],[4] Haack tartly observes that 'Rorty is, I take it, letting us know the importance he attaches to the concept' (p. 188).

Apart from the obvious conclusion that an intellectual disagreement often seems to take on the attributes of a moral crusade against unbelievers (a condition documentable in the trade of textual criticism and editing from St Jerome down to John Kidd),[5] what can these exchanges between the pragmatists and epistemologists tell us about the state of text as a pragmatic or epistemological object, and what can the battle between the philosophers tell us about such concepts as textual 'truth', 'fact', 'proof ', and 'evidence'? This is a wide-ranging charge for a short introductory essay to a collection on evidence, and will necessitate my moving from legal terminology to particle physics to mathematics to biblical hermeneutics, and eventually to Monty Python and the Holy Grail; but the narrative and the journey will, I hope, be illuminating for the reader about to encounter the more specific exemplifications of rules of evidentiary logic (as these principles affect textual criticism and scholarly editing), to be demonstrated in the rest of this volume.

To begin, take my ex-wife, who has unwittingly provided the first part of my title, or properly, take her dialectics as a very successful litigation lawyer in a high-powered mergers and acquisitions firm. Trained in, or at least familiar with, the Abelardian dialectic of sic et non,[6] I was quite prepared for the adversarial rhetoric of litigation when she became a lawyer ('them' and 'us'), but not for the specific, and subtle, vocabulary in which its polarities of 'truth' and 'error' were represented. If memory serves, she informed me that there were degrees of truth (and thus of the 'facts' whereby truth could be accommodated): 1. raw facts were the common ground of the dialectic, the donnees of evidentiary materials, and could thus be appropriated by both sides in the lawsuit; 2. on one side of this common ground were the truefacts of one's own case, those facts that had been appropriated by only one party in the dialectic and had thereby not lost some of their probity by no longer being 'common knowledge', but on the contrary, had acquired a new level of revealed truth by being frankly partisan, and thus more true than mere facts; 3. on the other side were the lowly factoids of the opposing team, those evidentiary fragments and pieces of rhetoric that would have had the potential to become facts or even truefacts if accepted by one's side, but, lacking such espousal, were only ever latent and incipient rather than manifest and fulfilled. …

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