Alternative facts?

Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino
Alternative facts?
There are legitimate references to 'alternative readings' or 'competing narratives'

Ariston Estrada, one of the iconic figures of the UST’s Faculty of Arts and Letters in a bygone age – when I did my AB Philosophy there – had an uncomplicated definition of a fact: anything that is or that happens.

The revered Ariston may have been a staunch, intractable Thomist, and his definition of a fact was definitely scholastic. But it was not a bad definition. In fact, it was good ontology. One line from the cryptic but dense Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of Ludwig Wittgenstein leaps at the reader from the very first lines of the slender volume: “The world is the totality of facts and not of things.” 

That, of course, is a statement of an ontological atomism that corresponds to the logical atomism he advocated. Every atomic proposition pictured an atomic fact, Wittgenstein maintained in the first phase of his philosophizing, and a proposition made sense even to one who had never encountered it earlier, because, like a picture, it showed its sense. 

So every proposition was a picture of a state of affairs. “Donald Trump will lead the gay pride parade this year” pictures a possible state of affairs – one that most likely will never to come to pass.

Now some states of affairs are facts, others are not. Predictably, Wittgenstein advocated a strict correspondence theory: Any proposition P is true if and only if p. That is to say: “Strawberries are red” is true if and only if strawberries are indeed red – where the key to the whole assertion is “indeed.” If one proceeds in this fashion, of course, then the whole talk of “alternative facts” is consummate nonsense! If “S is P” is a fact, then “S is not P” cannot be equally factual, not even as an alternative fact. It just is not!

But the very moment we grant, as we should, that all knowing is interpreting, and that all knowledge is mediated by language, things cease to be as neat and as straightforward: the very reason there is such a thing as a Later Wittgenstein who realized that “picturing” was not the only thing that language did. 


Plurality of profiles

First, there is the important point contributed by a phenomenology of perception that because everyone perceives from a particular standpoint – his physical posture and location, his affective history and disposition, everything that has entered into the fabric of his familiar world – what the perceiver has is a “profile” that by no means falsifies alternative profiles. Then we must grant the possibility of a plurality of profiles, because persons do have different standpoints. 

And many a quarrel – domestic and otherwise – arises from this pathetic inability to grant to the other’s profile the validity one asserts as one’s own! 

But there is a limit to this. Two visitors to a gallery can debate the particular hue found in a painting, but when both stand in front of the Mona Lisa and one says he sees a woman with an enigmatic smile, but the other strenuously insists that he sees a statant, guardant unicorn, then clearly, the first would be well advised to keep a safe distance from a clearly delusional companion, or more charitably, invite him for a visit to a shrink! 

There remains an objective world against which our propositions and assertions run.  Some interpretations just do not “work”! If this is what “alternative facts” means, then there is some plausibility to the claim, except that while one profile opens up to other profiles, it also excludes others as being incompatible. After all, perception is perception of something! 

Textuality poses its own challenges. Is there such a thing as “the” correct reading of Plato’s Crito, or Aristotle’s Peri Hermeneias or Sartre’s Being and Nothingness or of the Sermon on the Mount? 

And if one is willing to find textuality even in events, was it Catholic zeal that moved the Catholic monarchs to approve of expeditions to what was then the unknown world or plain and simple expansionist greed? Are these even alternatives? Given the independence of a text from authorial intent, a point Gadamer convincingly makes, then one must grant the possibility of different “readings.”

Meaning will therefore be context-dependent, and when context has changing boundaries or porous frontiers, then many “meanings” will be possible, expected even and justice will demand that marginalized “readings” be allowed a hearing as the more dominant ones. 

This is the essence of the post-modern quarrel with grand narratives. 

So there are contexts within which “alternative facts” would be utter nonsense. Given our usual counting pattern, there can be no alternative sum to 7 and 5 than 12.  Whoever introduces an “alternative fact” just does not know how to add! 

But there are legitimate, even necessary, references to “alternative readings,” “competing narratives” and to a “conflict of interpretations.” But I wonder if those who have popularized “alternative facts” in these our ambivalent times are really possessed of that measure of thoughtfulness! –

The author is vice-president of the Cagayan State University and Dean of the Graduate School of Law, San Beda College. 


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