Mini-Feature: Fact vs. Truth
What's the difference?
What is the difference between fact and truth?
Fact and truth are both things you don’t want to be too critical of. A life spent on criticism is increasingly a waste of time or even of life force. But it is worthwhile to bear in mind the different ways the sense of cognitive safety inherent in fact and truth can be put to your disadvantage.
An exorcist once told me (and about 50 others) that demons enter your life via two inner paths—the faculties of memory and imagination. These faculties are separate but integrated. (Mary Carruthers opens her big study of memory in medieval life with the observation that friends of the greatest geniuses of letters in Western history praised them as masters of imagination in some instances and memory in others, depending on the cultural milieu they were in. A media theorist might add that different communications technologies define the formative milieus involved in such cases.) It seems uncontroversial to me to suggest that fact is characteristically mobilized through the faculty of memory as a way to assert authority, while truth is mobilized via imagination for the same purposes.
Put a bit differently, I mean that people work the levers of our memory when they assert authority by summoning forth facts, and work the levers of our imagination by appealing to truth. A truth is not something that (for instance) a computer can call up for us. Even “total recall” is not enough to grant access to the experience and comprehension of truth. (This despite what Plato’s Socrates seems to so strongly insinuate in his framing of justice and the good as phenomena we struggle to behold clearly because we have in some deep way forgotten about them. Then again, imagination is central to his framing: the way to apprehend justice and the good is to approach them via the perfection of the city in speech.)
These interplays are foundational to human interaction, to our communication in thought, writing, and speech. So naturally they can be abused. If someone wants to gain control over you through your faculty of memory, they can try to do this by assaulting you with facts—not just snow-jobbing you with “the data,” but by invoking facts as things with more authority than you, authority independent of you. And if they want to master you psychologically via imagination, they are likely to assault you with “truth claims” in the same way, not simply smothering you with truths but dwarfing you with them, making you submit in the awesome radiance of authority present in assertions of what (e.g.) true justice or the true good is.
We see this today in the way politics is argued and communicative power is used. Our ruling class works both levers, insulting its critics as enemies of “the facts” (or “the science”) on the one hand and apostates of truth (“our norms” or “our values”) on the other. The domination of our formative milieu by digital communications technology has led the ruling class to double down on “the science” because the computer has made memory relatively more powerful and authoritative than imagination. But it has also led them to double down on “our norms” because they think they need to imagine better than ever in order to stay on top—not just of the ruled class, but of the new upper class of digital machines.
Even if the ruling class were nevertheless deposed by some chain of events, there is no real escape from these political dynamics. The thing to do is grasp where they come from, why they are a part of us, and how to recognize and react to them when they are used to put us psychologically in play.
This is an old philosophic question. The easiest way to think about it is to, say, consider old moral stories, accounts that usually involve a talking fox and rabbits and other woodland creatures. Those stories are not, strictly speaking, factual, but they are true in a deep sense. Or at least some of them are.
The real distinction that needs to be made is between fact and value. Ask Leo Strauss that one.
Etymology is not destiny, but sometimes it is illuminating.
The English word “fact” comes to us from Latin, a language that has always seemed to me as spare and unforgiving in its exactitude as the Romans who spoke it. Factum is the neuter perfect passive participle of the verb facere, to do or make: it means “a thing done.” That is how it initially came into English, too, in the late 15th century: it meant “a deed.” In today’s English it refers, as I understand it, to the brute material realities of the world: person x did thing y at time z. These are facts.
“Truth” grows naturally out of our own Anglo-Saxon roots. It is a brambled plant which thrives in the stony soil of our Germanic past—in the oldest substrate of our native linguistic soil, which Seamus Heaney called “the rough, porous / language of touch[.]” In Old English—the language of kings and warlords and peasants, the yearning compounds and fanciful syllables in which men dreamed once of Beowulf—“trēowth” means “faithfulness” and “constancy.” It is where we get words like “betrothed.”
Therefore I understand truth to be broader, more diaphanous, than the facts which we are so used to thinking of as cold and hard. We speak not simply of material truths but also of spiritual ones, of the poetic truths whereby we convey ineffable realities that cannot be captured in speech unless through the prism of analogy.
Hence the notion of “fidelity”: stories and metaphors, though false in fact, are faithful to the realities they convey—to which they are not welded but betrothed. No, your heart did not literally “drop into your gut” when you got the phone call from the ICU. But there was something in your experience that felt that way, and no other—the qualities of it cannot be conveyed by describing the mere facts of what happened to you physically in that time.
Fear, dreams, anguish, love: these things are truths, though they are captured by no facts we can touch or describe. This is why we can live at once in a regime which idolizes facts but attacks truth: to insist on the former at the expense of the latter is to wage a war against the soul.