Because I’ve been writing a book, How I Learned The Facts Of Life, I’ve been drawn into an internal debate over “fact” and “truth,” probing the meaning and proper application of each.
Is “truth” the equivalent of “fact”?
Dictionary definitions don’t go deep enough. Maybe philosophy would, but I have no patience for philosophy. As the most intellectual of my exes once said, “I’ve always figured I could learn whatever’s in philosophy by reading something more interesting — history, fiction…” I, who was at that time trying very hard to get through a multi-volume history of philosophy because I knew nothing about it but felt I should, sighed with relief, thanked ex profusely and gave the books away.
On the other hand, I have a bit of patience for my own contemplation — especially since it’s a lot terser than anything a philosopher could come up with. (A benefit of using Twitter: you can, if put to the task, express the universe in 280 characters. A good discipline.)
So here’s what I’m thinking:
“Truth” is often used interchangeably with “fact.” It conveys something larger and more glorious than plain old fact. Truth radiates a halo, conveys a bit of supernal awe.
Fact goes splat. It is not a graceful word.
But Fact means demonstrable evidence. Truth means belief – maybe accompanied by demonstrable evidence but maybe not. Who knows? Truth isn’t going to tell you.
I have noticed that some people use the word “Fact” as a battle cry, a preamble to a verbal colon. “Fact: I am a genius.”
I once heard such a misuse of “fact” in a meeting with a lawyer-investment adviser. He was flinging around a legal threat as a sort of sales pitch. “Fact: if you don’t do what I’m telling you, you could be sued for mismanagement.”
I’m still pissed at that memory. (Does it show?)
I don’t think there should be a strict rule, such as:
- If someone blares out “Fact,” followed by a tacit colon and a statement, assume it isn’t a Fact.
But maybe there should be a rule. OK, here’s a rule:
- If someone says ‘Fact,’ followed by a tacit colon, ask him to cite the authority for that “Fact.” Subtext: someone who is confident of a fact does not have to label it as one.
Ergo, if you have a fact, get over the lack of euphony in the word and just come out with it: “This is a fact.” If you don’t have a fact, fudge it by saying “truth.” But don’t do that to me because I’ll challenge you.
A friend of mine was challenged in a public forum about something she’d written in a book. “But that’s not factual, right?” she was asked.
She smiled in a serene, smug way. “It may not be fact,” she said, “but it is Truth.”
Three quarters of the audience went, “Ahh,” as if elevated to a higher perspective.
I was not among them.