⚖️ A Culture of Fact
Where does the Modern concept of "fact" actually come from?
👋 Hi, Ed & Chris here. In the Atlas of the Long Now, we interpret our rapidly changing world. We do this with through the historic-futuristic lens of the long-term thinker and the toolbox of the speculative creator. After all, by interpreting our past, new imaginings of our future reveal themselves.
This week we read a fascinating historical study.
The book is called A Culture of Fact. England, 1550-1750, written by Barbara J. Shapiro, a historian affiliated with the University of California. As the title suggests, the book is an examination of the origins of the Modern concept of "fact. It describes how "thinking in terms of facts" became part of English popular culture.
A Culture of Fact paints a fascinating picture of Early Modern English history (1450-1800), a period when Europe was desperately searching for a new relationship with reality.
When is something true? Or merely probable? What are proofs and what is an observation actually worth? Over these questions the European Early Moderns racked their brains.
The answers they formulated to these questions have shaped our current legal, scientific and journalistic traditions.
We read A Culture of Fact to learn more about how Modern culture, in which factuality and objectivity play an important role, came into being. But of course, we were also curious to see if it could tell us anything about the current era of fake news and alternative facts.
So today some thoughts after reading this book. These thoughts, by the way, are an extension of the essay we wrote for our fellowship at Pakhuis de Zwijger and that shared with you last week Building Trust in the Electric Age.
A Culture of Fact
In the Early Modern Era (1450-1800), a more objective and disenchanted approach to reality gradually developed in Europe. As urbanisation and literacy increased, this development accelerated.
Aron Gurevich, a Russian historian, once described popular culture in the Middle Ages as a "mythopoetic and folkloric-magic consciousness. In the Middle Ages, man lived in a deeply subjective world full of miracles, spirituality and lore. This everyday experience gradually gave way in the Early Modern Period to a more objective, secular and materialistic view of the world. The world was no longer driven by subjective forces of the will, such as those of gods or devils, but by objective forces of nature - forces that could be known.
In A Culture of Fact , Shapiro describes some of the mechanisms by which this slow cultural transition occurred in England.
Shapiro shows how in the 16th century the concept of factuality took shape in the English courtroom, after which it became part of popular culture through a variety of other disciplines. By the early 18th century, according to Shapiro, the word fact was already part of everyday language.
Today a fact - without tugging at its many epistemological loose ends - means an event or circumstance whose material reality is established. The problem with this definition, as English legal scholars in the 16th century also discovered, is as follows: how do you determine that the material reality of an event or circumstance is actually so?
To solve this problem at the time, they invented all kinds of legal procedures and considerations to determine the reliability of, for example, testimonies. In doing so, they asked the following questions: Is self-interest or bias involved? Are the witnesses in the right mind? What is the value of testimony under oath? How many witnesses are there and do they say the same thing? How do you compare and consolidate multiple accounts?
But also the value of other evidence, such as murder weapons, were scrutinised, as well as that of alibis and motives. And experts - what do they actually add? How do you value expertise and independence?
In short, all kinds of legal methods arose to be able to interpret something beyond reasonable doubt as a fact. So here a fact was not an absolute determination, but a legal assumption. People were aware that reality was difficult to approximate - at least in the courtroom, where one dealt specifically with non-repeatable events and circumstances.
These developments, according to Shapiro, were not unique to England. Indeed, in continental Europe, the rationalisation and objectification of law had begun much earlier. This was because common law prevailed in England, while on the mainland Roman law was the norm - in which these kinds of rational considerations had been codified some 1,000 years earlier.
Unlike the Roman legal tradition, in which professional judges rendered judgments, English common law worked with jurors. And it was these commoners who brought this legal thinking into the wider world. Where, according to Shapiro, it contributed greatly to the objectification of the English view of man and the world
This cultural development then gained momentum as the English population rapidly urbanized and literacy increased at that time. As a result, writers of travel books and newspapers, for example, had to account for what they wrote down. They could no longer just assert anything. Claims had to be substantiated. It was not uncommon in those days for a poorly written news item or travel story to be dismissed as unfactual - as fables, fiction or opinion.
This "culture of factuality" eventually led to Modern journalistic ethics, in which evidence, testimony, collecting information from multiple sources and expertise play a major role.
According to many, the Enlightenment and the development of the scientific method drove the transition from the Medieval to the Modern view of man and the world. But what Shapiro argues convincingly in her study is that the legal tradition, at least in England, is thus at least partly responsible for this.
Well before Modern Science asserted itself in popular culture, the courtroom had long been an arena for epistemological debate. Here, too, after all, truth-telling is central. When trial by combat, religious dogmas and other kinds of irrational destiny-determining practices - think of the witch-trials, for example - started to raise more and more eyebrows, people had to look for something else that could aid them in establishing truth.
Between the lines of Shapiro's book we also read that the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity was marked by the introduction of a new work ethic: professionalism. The travel writer and journalist were expected to leave their subjectivity at home and conform to the mores of their profession. Their opinions and their preferences were considered secondary to the facts.
As we wrote in last week's essay for Pakhuis de Zwijger, the development of this new Modern work ethic was an important element in the emergence of a new public domain. A public domain that was no longer built on subjective opinions and experiences but on objective methods of truth-telling. This new public domain was, moreover, due to the invention of printing, also scalable
The culture of fact that emerged in England and Europe in the Early Modern Era was thus secured by professionals. First by professionals who kept legal procedures as factual and objective as possible and then by writers who kept the public domain as factual and objective as possible
As we wrote last week, the transition from subjective worldview to objective was intertwined with the transition from the spoken word to the printed word.
Right now, we are experiencing the transition from the printed word to the activated word, and at the same time, we are also seeing the new digital public domain being overrun by fake news and 'alternative facts'. We also see that people are beginning to lose confidence in the objectivity of professionals.
So professionalism as a work ethic is apparently not enough to guarantee objectivity in the digital public domain. So we need to look for a harder architecture of factuality. A structure in which facts and their evidence are much easier for the public to ascertain.
Consider, for example, a journalistic platform like NOS (The Dutch 'BBC'). Most articles on the NOS website, for example, cite the words of experts, politicians or ordinary people without providing the source material, the audio files of the interviews, for example. The reader is expected to trust the professionalism of the NOS editors (often there is no author mentioned with the article) that the quotes were actually said.
The same applies to other journalistic sources, such as photo or video footage of events or official documents obtained through the WOB (A Dutch law through which citizens can demand the minutes and other records of governmental bodies to be made public). These too are sampled and quoted without the reader being able to check the source material for accuracy
In short, perhaps it is time for some kind of public stack, a digital public infrastructure in which, through personal data vaults, for example, journalistic source material can be made available by the journalist.
The journalist can authenticate the files and their metadata, such as geolocation and timestamps - he personally vouches for their authenticity and integrity. He can then link to them in his articles. Other journalists can also link to them in their articles. He can also link the files to other relevant source material held by other journalists in the data vault.
This way you get a more transparent chain, or network, of evidence. Especially if linked to public data vaults, such as libraries, archives, land registers, etc.
So far some initial thoughts after reading A Culture of Fact. No doubt we will return to this more often as Shapiro's research touches on many aspects of our thinking.
Until next week,
Lots of love ❤️ Ed & Chris