“Stick to Facts, sir!”

After completing Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times (1854), I presented my students with three views of facts and asked them, as I did at the beginning of our study, “What are the facts? How do we know them? And what is their relationship to life?”

VIEW 1: Facts Alone

Dickens creates a character named Mr. Gradgrind, who parodies the facts-only utilitarianism that was influential in 19th-century Victorian England. The novel begins with Mr. Gradgrind lecturing the schoolmaster about how to educate the young:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root our everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

Here is how Dickens describes his character:

Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of fact and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir – peremptorily Thomas – Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. 

VIEW 2: Interpretable Facts 

In a famous note (#481) from 1883-88 that belongs to a posthumous collection of writings entitled The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche critiques the positivist project to discover “brute facts” independent of all interpretation:

Against positivism, which halts at phenomena – “There are only facts” – I would say: No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact “in itself”: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing. . . . In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings. – “Perspectivism.” It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.    

In a separate note (#477) from 1887-88, he writes:

Everything of which we become conscious is arranged, simplified, schematized, interpreted through and through – the actual process of inner “perception,” the casual connection between thoughts, feelings, desires, between subject and object, are absolutely hidden from us – and are perhaps purely imaginary. The “apparent inner world” is governed by just the same forms and procedures as the “outer” world. We never encounter “facts.”

VIEW 3: Mythical Fact 

C. S. Lewis scholar Colin Duriez writes in The A-Z of C. S. Lewis, “An important factor in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity was accepting J. R. R. Tolkien’s argument (captured in his poem Mythopoeia) that the biblical Gospels have all the best qualities of pagan myth, with the unique feature that the events actually happened in documented history. Lewis and Tolkien thus radically differed from views of myth espoused by liberal biblical scholars of the time, which divorced myth from history as a matter of definition.” In his essay “Myth Became Fact” (1944), C. S. Lewis wrote:

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.

* * *

Those who do not know that this great myth became Fact when the Virgin conceived are, indeed to be pitied. But Christians also need to be reminded . . . that what became Fact was a Myth, that is carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. 

Definitions

  • utilitarianism: The ethical doctrine that virtue is based on utility, and that conduct should be directed toward promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons.
  • positivism: A philosophical system that holds that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and that therefore rejects metaphysics and theism.
  • perspectivismThe theory that knowledge of a subject is inevitably partial and limited by the individual perspective from which it is viewed. See also relativism.
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