There was an annular solar eclipse near where I used to live (about 20 years ago). It is pretty well certain that it did happen, because eclipses can be reckoned precisely and the likelihood of anything affecting my memory of an entire day is extremely low.

But is it a "fact" that there was an eclipse then? Leaving aside questions of location, I am simply saying: can there be facts concerning things which have already occurred? I thought that facts are things we know for certain, and if there was some unknown which intervened or made the recollection wrong, it would be a false belief instead of a "fact". Is this why my Philosophy professor said that we can't know things in the past?

(For reference, one definition of fact includes the phrase: "something that has actual existence". But if an event is no longer the case, it does not have actual existence, therefore there can be no facts about the past. A definition of the word Exist is: "Anything that can be acknowledged in the present, exists.")

  • 1
    What's your question? It's hard to tell, since you end with a definition - which gives the sense of answering your own question; questions are usually improved when they refer to prior art in the subject; for example, here's a discussion of tensed facts in the IEP, which is a good reputable source for contemporary philosophy on the net. Mar 1, 2016 at 1:25
  • @MoziburUllah Wow: I guess I should have asked if Philosophy regards the concept of time as valid? That would be a much better question. It would bring in Causality, Choice, Knowledge... pretty much everything that it is possible to think about or discuss! I could "shatter" the entire thing with one blow. Thank you for the reference.
    – user16869
    Mar 1, 2016 at 1:29
  • you're welcome; time, is a huge topic; it's best if you can focus on some facet of it. Mar 1, 2016 at 1:32
  • @MoziburUllah I think it pretty much boils down to: can we prove the validity of time in the present? No. Without the past and future, time is meaningless. Since we can never get to the past or future (and the present is in some doubt) then there is no Time.
    – user16869
    Mar 1, 2016 at 1:34
  • 1
    The negative answer is called anti-realism about the past, see philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/32045/…
    – Conifold
    Mar 1, 2016 at 3:07

2 Answers 2


All true statements about the past are facts. Actually statements are either true or false but strictly speaking are not themselves 'facts'. There are lots of facts that have never been stated and never will. The 'fact' is the set of circumstances as laid out in the statement. We can never be certain that any given statement is true so we can never be certain of the facts of whatever matter we are talking about but that doesn't change the definition/concept.

  • I like your last sentence. That is essentially what I am trying to say. We would do well to reflect on the usefulness of a concept which does not function.
    – user16869
    Mar 4, 2016 at 2:12
  • +1, because the basic idea is right---something can be a fact without anybody ever knowing it. Facts don't have to do with knowledge. However, I did want to point out that there are some statements we clearly do know for certain. For instance, I'd take conceptual truths, like the truths of mathematics to be an example of such things.
    – user5172
    Mar 4, 2016 at 13:52
  • To Shane. Proofs can certainly be persuasive but even what we think of as proofs can contain errors and be incorrect. To be even more extreme you might be a brain in a vat being tortured by mischievous alien biology students forcing you to believe the most insane things that they can imagine. Claiming certainty (which is the same as absolute certainty) only demonstrates that the speaker is ignoring an awful lot. Mar 5, 2016 at 3:33

According to Cambridge dictionary (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/fact ):

something ​known to have ​happened or to ​exist

Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fact ):

Full Definition of fact

1  :  a thing done: as 
      a (obsolete) :  feat 
      b :  crime <accessory after the fact> 
      c (archaic) :  action

2 (archaic) :  performance, doing

3 :  the quality of being actual :  actuality <a question of fact hinges on evidence>

4  a :  something that has actual existence <space exploration is now a fact> 
   b :  an actual occurrence <prove the fact of damage

5 :  a piece of information presented as having objective reality

See meanings 4(b) and 5. From these, I'd conclude that a statement about the past can be a "fact". For instance, I could say tomorrow that I "wrote an answer on the philosophy stackexchange", which is a fact. To say that's not a fact is absurd.

  • I think he refers to anti-realism about the past philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/32045/… According to that, past no longer exists, so nothing about it is a "fact", we just make guesses based on its traces in the present.
    – Conifold
    Mar 1, 2016 at 3:07
  • @Conifold It is not even about making guesses. More like "must be present to win." If you are not "there" you cannot speak to the truth of something. Are there people in China? Does China exist? I would say, No. Not for me it doesn't.
    – user16869
    Mar 1, 2016 at 3:17

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