What confuses me about the notion of a fact, is that it seems like it's something that's discovered. So, a fact could be said to be this 'thing' that has a perfect correspondence with reality, and when one comes to know of a fact, they come to know part of true reality i.e the way the world really is.

If there were no thinking being in the world, we would want to say there are still facts of the world, after all, such facts is what would be discovered, or at least some facts, if there were (which of course there are) to be beings capable of thought.

Perhaps then, facts are just the potential for objects, their properties, and relations to known by a thinking being. So if there were no thinking beings, we can still say that there are facts, for if there were, said facts still have the potential to be expressed.

But (horay!), what if there is something about the nature of reality that is literally unknowable. It's every bit as real as everything else, but no mind, no matter how sophisticated, could ever come to know of such a fact. And actually, the question doesn't make technical sense, for the definition of a fact just given does not allow for 'unknowable' facts, since it bears no potential to be known, or even thought about. But it does have alot of intuitive sense, so we may want to revise our definition of a fact.

What then, is the solution? It seems as if we should very much keep the condition that a fact is this perfect correspondence to reality, that's what everything is revolving around. Do we eliminate the need of potentiality (to be known) then, and keep the condition of correspondence (of fact and reality)? If so, we're back at trying to determine what a fact actually is. We can't invoke the notion of potentiality again because that would cause the same problem.

However, we've arrived at a contradiction. We could say that facts don't exist, but then what bears the potential to be thought about, and to expressed? However, this notion of potentiality has its own problems, yet we can't seem to do without.

So ultimately, what actually is the ontological components of a fact? Can the condition of potentiality be replaced, so as to satisfy, completely, what a fact is? Is there a satisfactory definition that could resolve any doubt, any criticism of what a fact actually is? Or is it undefinable, either by current means or just in and of itself?

  • I would say that "fact" is a very fuzzy term, about which it is very difficult to make logical propositions. Commented Sep 4, 2016 at 12:59
  • Good question. The SEP article on facts may help. Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 6:41

2 Answers 2


"The sun rises every morning". That is a fact about reality. But it is a string of letters unless one understands what "sun", "rises", "every" and "morning" mean. What they mean has to be established and learned prior to producing the fact, and does not belong to reality alone, it depends on human categorizations of it, to which alternatives are possible. It is tempting to assume that reality is pre-categorized "in-itself", and this is the position of naive realism and its traditional philosophical expressions, e.g. Aristotle's. But this overlooks the more recent analysis of how categorizations work. Because we routinely model reality to understand things we instinctively try to model the relation between a model and reality on a relation between two models, one refining the other. But this is exactly the case where the trick can't work, the relation between any two of our models is of a completely different nature than between any of them and reality, and no amount of refining helps with that.

At issue is the thorny problem of intentionality, how one thing (category, concept, idea, proposition) can "stand for", "represent", another. It can not be solved by representing the representing, as the naive approach attempts, that is circular. The only way we understand how it can work is when there is a "subject" (not necessarily live or sentient) that connects the two through some action, category is a "rule" for such action (if only for recognizing). Without a "subject" it is unclear what it even means that concepts or propositions "correspond" to reality (or anything "corresponds" to anything else). There is a similar deficiency with the meaning of "something about reality that is literally unknowable". Negation ("un") here can only be conceptual, yet it is used to negate conceptuality as such, the result is a "dry wetness".

One traditional solution, chosen by Plato and Aristotle, is to postulate that things of a kind with concepts (i.e. idealities) already exist out there. Since the middle ages this led to the intractable problem of universals as to how these idealities are supposed to relate to particulars they are "about". Another way was to invoke an ideal subject, the God of epistemology. It is commandeered to do the "true" categorizations, and the suggestion is that human ones resemble God's in some way, or approach them in the fullness of time. But this "solves" the problem with a bigger problem, the only work "God" is doing here is converting "reality in itself" into something of a kind with human concepts, and our lack of understanding of what that means does not improve when we call it God. It is also unclear why there should be a "best" way to categorize reality at all, only one "God", as opposed to many excelling in their own ways but unmergeable.

Since Kant there has been a growing realization that the prospects of traditional, a.k.a. metaphysical realism, and of correspondence theories are problematic. A very influential modern critique of them is given by Sellars's Myth of the Given, see also the more recent discussion stirred by McDowell's book Mind and World. Both Sellars and McDowell nonetheless identify as realists. This cuts across the analytic/continental divide, Peirce, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Quine, Putnam, are all realists, or perhaps quasi-realists, in the following sense.

They draw a distinction between two different senses of "mind-independent", semantic and substantive. Any proposition or fact is mind-dependent semantically, a subject has a pre-acquired array of categories, whose availability is needed to even enable facts. But what the subject then "detects" as fact is not up to it, "he" has no control there, it forces itself upon "him", even as it is coached in "his" categories. Reality acts as a constraint on pre-formed propositions, not as a source of them, there is no "reality intake". In this sense facts are discovered, but at the same time their "building materials" are invented, in our human case, historically. And for reasons explained above "separating" the two into "pure reality" and "interaction with the subject" is not a meaningful suggestion. We can certainly build meta-models where objects are equipped with "potentialities" that are "grasped" by us, as we do with great benefit, and in such meta-models the facts will appear as correspondences to (modeled) reality. But all of this takes place within an already pre-conceptualized space, and is enabled by our role as subjects, it is therefore implicitly relativized to us.

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    Thanks very much for your input, your response will be studied carefully (i've already read it, of course, but it's a lot to take in, very thorough). Very much appreciated :) Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 19:01
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    @user2901512 I sympathize, it was not easy for me too to get my head around the subtleties. Perhaps it is easier to start with understanding "theory ladenness" of observations in science, where the semantic dependence of facts is more explicit plato.stanford.edu/entries/science-theory-observation I also found Friedman's book Dynamics of Reason useful as an entryway for understanding some contemporary philosophical developments press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/D/bo3634648.html
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 1:34

Perhaps propositions and facts can be understood through Balaguer's semantic fictionalism and as a fictional row in a relevant truth table, or a model in first-order logic that reflects what is the case.

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