On 5th May I attended a fascinating talk given by Professor David Wootton on “The Invention of the ‘Fact’”, part of the series of Arts-Science Encounters directed by Dr Jessica Dubow and Dr Richard Steadman-Jones.
Professor Wootton, whose research interests focus on the history of science as well as intellectual and cultural history, presented an argument which combined micro-history (i.e. local events and contingency) with a sense of long-term inevitability (i.e. we were bound to end up believing in facts). Through this two-pronged approach, he analysed how the concept of the ‘fact’ entered early modern scientific thought.
The word ‘fact’ in its modern sense became established in English in the 17th century (via Italian and French). The word itself was not new: it derives from Latin factum and has a legal meaning dating from the 13th century. However, in the legal context, the word fact implies a sense of agency, as in the phrase ‘an accessory after the fact’, where the fact is the crime. Thus, the key linguistic shift that happened in the 17th century was from the fact as act, to the fact as event – something known by actual observation. Professor Wootton argued that this shift played an important role in the birth of modern science, enabling the discussion of ‘facts’ rather than ‘truth’ or ‘opinion’.
Professor Wootton’s study of contemporary scientific texts suggests that Hobbes has a strong claim to have introduced the word ‘fact’ in its modern sense to the English language. It was used by many early members of the Royal Society, but it took a while to become respectable, as it was associated with dubious concepts such as the ‘weapon salve’ - this remedy was initially thought to be empirically proven to work, but it was later realised that this was because only successful healings were reported). However, the word was a useful way of ending debates in turbulent times, and may also have gained respectability through Salisbury’s translation of Galileo.
After 1663 there were frequent references to facts in the English language, and the term had become institutionally entrenched through the Royal Society’s official aim of establishing new facts. Professor Wootton then went on to discuss the practice of the fact. Bruno Latour has argued that the printing press made facts harder; Professor Wootton suggested it might be possible to go a step further and argue that the printing press made facts. The public space of the printed book, along with the public space of the dissecting theatre, turned private information into public knowledge. Professor Wootton argued that “fact is an epistemological shadow cast by a material reality” – the printed book. He concluded by suggesting that technological change may have implications for the way we think in the future.
(Apologies to Professor Wootton if I have misrepresented his argument in any way. Thanks to Liz Brewster and Angharad Roberts for comments on my summary.)