The Role of Facts In Understanding

Our introduction to philosophical inquiry is designed to illustrate some of the basic methods of thinking about different modes of understanding. Its purpose is not only to present some of the most profound ideas from thinkers of the past but also to suggest specific methods of analysis and to encourage the use of creative thinking. Philosophy is an investigation of the fundamental questions of human existence. Such questions include wondering about such things as the meaning of life, what kinds of things the universe is made of, whether there can be a theory of everything, how we can know what's the right thing to do, and what is the beautiful in life and art. Other disciplines are concerned with these sorts of questions also, but philosophers, more often than not, either attempt to provide adequate reasons and justifications for their beliefs or attempt to clarify and examine the basis for those beliefs.

An attempt has been made to select readable and enjoyable essays to help develop these approaches, even though many of the constitutive philosophical sources require slow and careful reading, and some passages are notoriously difficult to interpret. Beginning a study of philosophy for the first time involves a steep learning curve. Even so, there is little doubt that if we do not find doing philosophy interesting now, we are unlikely to employ these methods in the future in the effort to make sense of our lives and careers. As John Dewey has accurately noted:

The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.[1]

Even though it is sometimes tempting to memorize established, useful ways of solving problems, in philosophy it is often counterproductive to do so. Learning by doing is far more interesting and rewarding than applying standard methods by rote and, indeed, is far more likely to enable us to solve different problems in the future.

In this regard, Henry Hazlitt has provided a useful insight into the dangers of rote learning:

I remember the story in some educational treatise of an inspector who entered a school room, asked the teacher what she had been giving her class, and finally took up a book and asked the following question, "If you were to dig a hole thousands and thousands of feet deep, would it be cooler near the bottom or near the top, and why?" Not a child answered. Finally the teacher said, "I'm sure they know the answer but I don't think you put the question in the right way." So taking the book she asked, "In what state is the center of the earth?" Immediately came the reply from the whole class in chorus, "The center of the earth is in a state of igneous fusion."[2]

The techniques provided in this introductory text can help us avoid being caught up in such a dreary educational scheme.

Solving problems involves more than just formulating hypotheses or possible solutions and then seeking facts or ideas to support or falsify those proposals. Far more important is the realization that very often the nature of a fact depends entirely upon one's world view or conceptual framework. Many times when differing beliefs appear to be factually different, they actually are different only because of the different points of view from which they are apprehended.

Even though people speak about seeking facts, collecting facts, or "sticking" to the facts, the word "fact" proves difficult to define precisely. Facts are sometimes assumed to be in the world and therefore to be present for everyone to experience. However, facts are not usefully thought of as physical objects occurring in space-time. The earth being about eight thousand miles in diameter is not an eight-thousand-mile long fact. A football field is one hundred yards long, but that length is not a "short fact" compared to the "long fact" of the diameter of the earth.

Moreover, unlike things or objects in the world in which we live, facts do not have colors. Many interior doors are brown, but the color of the door is not a brown fact. The door is brown, but the fact, itself, is not colored. So we can reasonably ask, if facts do not have size, shape, weight, color, taste, and so forth, what, then, are they? If we do not know what they are, how can it be said that we know the facts? How, then, how is it possible for us to find or seek the facts? What could be meant by these expressions?

Let's first look at an extended example of "fact finding" and then attempt to relate this process to how we learn. Samuel H. Scudder recounts his problems with factual observation when he first began study at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Anatomy under Professor Agassiz.



John Dewey. Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1938, 51.


Henry Hazlitt.Thinking as a Science. Los Angeles: Nash, 1969, 35.