Peter Smith wrote recently (Question 2823) that "facts aren't the sort of thing

Read another response by Allen Stairs, William Rapaport
Read another response about Language, Philosophy
Peter Smith wrote recently (Question 2823) that "facts aren't the sort of thing that are rational or irrational". But that isn't true, is it? The first definition of the word "rational" on is "agreeable to reason". Certain facts offend reason - and the questioner's example (while not the best, in my view) of death seems to be a fact that is not agreeable to reason. That is to say, if reason ruled the world or, put another way, if God created everything in accordance with reason, we would not die. There is no rational explanation or reason for our death. Certainly there is a sense in which I understand Peter Smith's statement that facts aren't rational or irrational, but there seem to be plenty of definitions of "rational" for which it makes perfect sense to say that facts are rational or irrational. What's more - and I don't mean to be contentious - Peter seems to focus on this aspect of the question to the detriment of the spirit of the question. The questioner seems perturbed by the apparent flippancy with which language (s/he says "philosophers" but perhaps s/he is just referring to the philosophic language s/he's encountered on this site) treats issues that are very solemn indeed. Maybe we can rephrase his/her question thus: is it possible that philosophic language cannot do justice to the solemnity of the issues philosophy deals with?

I thought that Peter Smith's reply was fine, too, until I read this new question and Prof. Stairs's reply. So I went back and re-read the original question (2823) and Smith's answer, and I wonder if this isn't all a tempest in a teapot. My reading of Smith's original answer was that he was distinguishing between "facts" and "beliefs", where facts are what philosophers call "states of affairs" or "situations": ways the world is (or could be). Facts simply "are", or "hold", or "obtain". Beliefs, on the other hand--as I think Smith used that term--are "propositions" or maybe even "sentences": Descriptions of ways the world is (or could be). Beliefs, understood in this way, can be true or false, rational or irrational. In ordinary, everyday usage, people (other than philosophers) tend to use the word "fact" to mean "belief" or "proposition", but I think Smith was trying to make a distinction that the current questioner is missing.

As for the spirit of the question, sure, some facts are--what shall we say?--unfortunate, sad, etc., but to call them irrational would be a category mistake. But then I'm a philosopher and I tend to split hairs :-)

Related Terms