In discussing Buddhism and the subjectivity of perspective, one of my students mentioned Magritte’s Son of Man, the famous painting of an apple concealing a man’s face. The apple, an object we desire, conceals the subject, the idea that lies behind this painting. Reality appears to us as simply there, bare and objective, which conceals that our reality is also our own individual perspective, which we learn through investigation and reflection. Much of human experience and the history of philosophy across the globe is concerned with either separating the objective from the subjective or describing how the two are intertwined. One couldn’t ask for a more perfect illustration than Magritte’s painting, whose title suggests that this has been the simple problem in the faces of all the descendants of Adam and Eve ever since the apple.
I recently posted a review of Dreyfus and Taylor’s new book Retrieving Realism (2015) in which I am critical of their treatment of Rorty and pragmatism. In his piece Charles Taylor on Truth (1998), Rorty challenged Taylor to explain or abandon the distinction between “in itself” and “for us”, arguing that we do not need to appeal to an independent, objective reality separate from the forms of life we live. Against Rorty, Dreyfus and Taylor argue that we know our reality through our practices, but also that there may be a single coherent structure of reality independent of our practices. I myself am a proponent of pragmatism, and I agree with Rorty that we do not need truth or meaning in itself beyond what they are for us, nor do we learn about reality as it is independent of our interaction with it through our interactions with it.
From a pragmatic perspective, and in accord with the later work of Wittgenstein, it is nonsensical to speak of reality independent of ourselves or of facts that we have yet to experience. It makes perfect sense to speak of matters deep in space that we have yet to encounter, but it makes no sense to speak of facts deep in space that we have yet to establish. Facts are fashioned in language and judgement through our interactions. Thus, facts do not exist in locations we have yet to encounter and encode, even as we imagine all sorts of things to be there. To say that there are facts we have yet to encounter is to say that there are accurate judgements and descriptions we share that we have yet to discover.
Let us say that there is a green chair we leave in a room out of sight. It makes sense for us to agree with each other, after consultation, that the green chair is in the room and that this is a fact even when we do not see the chair, but only because we have seen the chair, last saw it in the room and have no reason to think it has been moved. The reason that the positivist, as opposed to the pragmatist, wants to say that there are facts independent of our experience is that we are always in the uncomfortable position that what seems like a fact for you and I may, in any instance, turn out to be false. It may be that someone has moved the chair or painted it blue, in which case our “fact” turns out to be false.
We would like our facts to be infallible, but if we cannot speak with complete certainty about the location of a single chair, it is difficult to secure anything we consider true as completely immutable and indisputable. Consider that, if I ask you if the chair is green, you could say that it looked green when you last saw it. However, it would be strange for you to say that the chair looks green right now when we are unaware that anyone is currently looking at it. Just as the Zen Buddhist muses that the tree which falls in the forest does not make a sound if there is no listener to receive it as “a sound”, delimited and individuated, it does not make sense to say that a green chair looks green at this very moment when neither you nor I are looking at it. Rather, the chair has looked green regularly to us when we have looked at it, and this is the evidence available. The question is how we establish and share truth in our interactions with others and things, not how we establish that it is completely independent of us.
Wittgenstein would argue that there are circumstances in which we would be presented with evidence that calls the chair’s location or color into question, and that in the absence of this evidence we would find it nonsensical to question our shared understanding as fact. However, this does not mean that our fact is itself absolutely certain or guaranteed to be true. Rather, there is little need to establish certainty in most circumstances when there are no problems or changes. Thus, it makes sense for us to believe in the fact that the chair is green, but it makes no sense to insist that this fact is absolutely certain beyond disbelief, nor to insist that it is a fact that the chair looks green when we do not know of anyone currently looking at it.
The positivist says that this would make our facts sadly uncertain, and the pragmatist agrees. The positivist says that some things are indisputable, and the pragmatist agrees, as we are not in this moment disputing all things, but we could, if we choose, dispute any particular thing if and when we want to. In philosophy, of course, we upset all kinds of people by disputing endlessly about what the true and the good are, which is useful for developing critical and creative minds.
It is here that we come to our most confusing conclusion: Facts are not simply true, nor are they simply to be believed. Sometimes, our facts turn out to be false and should not be believed. This sounds odd because we use the word in two overlapping ways, both as a positivist who affirms the idea of an independent objective reality and as a pragmatist who rejects it. This is why putting “fact” in scare quotes feels fitting, as in one way a “fact” is a fact, but in another way it is not. A “fact” that turns out to be not true is an agreeable belief fashioned in judgement and language, but it is not in that we cease to agree with it when we find it is false. If something was a true fact but is now false, we could say that it is a fact that is false, or we could say that it is not a fact, as it is false.
Many years ago, as I was arguing with a friend about subjective and objective truth, we passed by the Berkeley Art Museum, and I gestured to this statue, remarking that different people could interpret this in different ways. My friend replied that it was clearly an anchor from a large ship. I laughed out loud, as I could now see it as an anchor, but I replied that it was no longer an anchor, but a piece of art outside a museum. That exchange has stayed with me. What does it mean about our culture that anchors can be abstract statues, and statues can be recognized as former anchors?