March 24, 2005

Using “facts” and “liberal” in the same sentence…

Today’s entry continues the conversation from last week about this curious assertion:

“Facts have a liberal bias.”

What does/can this mean?

In the second chapter of my dissertation, I develop an analytical technique for making positive statements about intention in communication. I re-theorized speech-act theory (re: J. L. Austin) by accounting for the role of rhetoric in the illocutionary act.

Austin described three characteristics, or acts, of statements that begin with the building blocks of words and end with the effects those words have on an audience. Locutionary acts: “roughly equivalent to uttering a certain sentence with a certain ‘meaning´ in the traditional sense.” Illocutionary acts: “such as informing, ordering, warning, undertaking, &c., i.e. utterances which have a certain (conventional) force.” Perlocutionary acts: “what we bring about or achieve by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even, say, surprising or misleading” (109).

Austin created this formula to describe the illocutionary act: F(p) in which F is the illocutionary force of a statement and p is the propositional content. John Searle says the illocutionary act is “the minimal complete unit of human linguistic communication. Whenever we talk or write to each other, we are performing illocutionary acts.”

Searle replaced Austin’s concept of “force” with something he called “illocutionary point,” which does a better job of explaining what Austin meant by “force”:

Searle posits five illocutionary points: 1) Assertives: statements that may be judged true or false because they purport to describe a state of affairs in the world; 2) Directives: statements that attempt to make the auditor´s actions fit the propositional content; 3) Commissives: statements which commit the speaker to a course of action as described by the propositional content; 4) Expressives: statements that express the “sincerity condition of the speech act”; and 5) Declaratives: statements that attempt to change the world by “representing it as having been changed” (Mind 148-50).

When we speak or write we are doing one or more of the following: asserting, directing, commiserating, expressing, or declaring. The illocutionary force should be interpreted as the intention of the interlocutor, e.g. If I say “shut the window” in a certain context, then I intend to direct you, i.e. the F of p [shut the window] is directive.

What hasn’t been done–what I tried to do in my second chapter–is connect the illocutionary and perlocutionary acts in a positive way by accounting for the role of rhetoric. In other words, an illocutionary point is certainly intended by the speaker, but I contend that it is intended for more than “communication” (i.e. understanding the F of p). I added a few things to Austin’s F(p) formula so that we may properly, I believe, account for the context (understood as a rhetorical situation) and the “rhemes” (units of rhetoric) used to sell p–to achieve the primary intention: a perlocutionary effect we call persuasion.

The purpose of this is to be able to make accurate statements about persuasive intention.

When I set out to understand the statement in question, I ran it through my analytical process. Here’s a re-creation:

As a speech-act, this statement is known as an “assertive”: statements that may be judged true or false because they purport to describe a state of affairs in the world. We know the statement is an assertive by its structure. The interlocutor does not refer to self, so the voice of the statement is third-person–the voice of exposition. The subject of the statement is a plural noun. The lack of the definite article [the] (the indefinite article is not possible) indicates the subject [facts] includes all members of that concept. The verb [have] indicates possession. The object of that possession (i.e. what [facts] possess) is definite article [a], adjective [liberal], noun [bias]. I’ve linked to dictionary definitions for [have] and [bias] to indicate that I accept them.

F(p) in which F = assertive and (p) = propositional content (i.e. the subject [facts] [have] (possess as part of a state of being) something called [liberal bias]).

Is the assertion true or false?

Before we may judge the assertion as true or false, we have to understand it as uttered in a context. I ignored the original context because, frankly, I couldn’t tell what the writer was referring to. And that’s one of the reasons the assertion caught my attention. It was just hanging there.

I linked to Google results for the statement as way to begin understanding some context. (Ha! Rhetorica is now #1 for “facts have a liberal bias.”) But those results didn’t help much.

I also linked to Slate as a way of suggesting possible contexts (not exclusive contexts). The link also helped me use the statement in regard to one of my areas of disciplinary interest: political bias in journalism.

Stick with me for a moment–some this will seem a bit redundant, but the payoff should be interesting (“spoken” like a true disciplinary believer!).

Mainly, I chose to try to understand it in the context of Enlightenment Liberal thought versus classical Conservative thought. My choice was not arbitrary, but it certainly also was not exclusionary. We may consider this assertion in any number of contexts depending upon, among many other things, how we choose to define “liberal.”

Understanding also requires us to understand the semantics of this act in the given context(s).

I understand “facts” to mean: Information based on witnessed occurrences and/or observed measurements. I understand “have” in its conventional sense doing conventional grammatical work. I choose to understand “liberal” in the context of Enlightenment Liberalism rather than its current usage as an adjective describing our common understanding of the political left (or the politics of the Democratic Party) in modern American politics. I do not choose to understand “liberal” in this latter sense because I then am unable to make any sense of the assertion other than as a political canard. I understand “bias” to mean: A preference or an inclination, especially one that inhibits impartial judgment.

By not understanding the original context of the statement as written in the comments of PressThink, I had to do something with the statement in order to make it understandable on something more than a pejorative level. So, yes, I could have saved myself a lot of time and trouble by just saying: “Oh, lookie! Silly partisan nonsense!”

(BTW, I’m open for re-interpreting this statement in regard to your understandings of the original comment. Did you understand what he was trying to say? If so, please leave a comment including your reasons for understanding the comment in a particular way.)

But look what happens when you reinterpret “liberal.” All of a sudden we have something interesting to discuss and something that may be applied (with arguable results, to be sure) to current political and journalistic discourse.

Why did I want to do anything with this statement in the first place? What exactly caught my attention? It’s the epistemology. Does understanding the world in terms of facts require a certain bias, and, if so, what is the nature of that bias? Considering the broad utility of facts, what does the statement suggest about our relationship to reality and the possibility of a/the universal human understanding of reality?

Or maybe it’s just a political canard.

19 Responses

  1. Sisyphus 

    re: “The purpose of this is to be able to make accurate statements about persuasive intention.”

    What is the (assumed) illocutionary verb?

    I suggest that “Facts have a liberal bias.”
    I think that “Facts have a liberal bias.”
    I believe that “Facts have a liberal bias.”
    I insist that “Facts have a liberal bias.”

    re: “I would argue, in agreement with Bach and Harnish, that it is exactly the perlocutionary effect that drives speaker intention.”

    The contexts you do not choose to understand demonstrate that the speaker’s intention was assert a political canard.

  2. acline 

    According Searle’s revision of speech-act theory, there are no assumed illocutionary verbs of the kind you suggest. The five illocutionary points are the illocutionary verbs.

    I assert (or some close approximation there of) p.

    Some of the statements on your list are examples of other illocutionary points.

    Further, adding the personal pronoun profoundly changes the structure of the statement and, therefore, our understanding of it. In the original statement, we have an assertion of fact that subordinates the role of the interlocutor to mere deliverer. In the examples you list, we have assertions of opinion in three cases and an appeal to facts that may/could be based on opinion in the fourth case. IOW, these are far weaker ways to assert if assertion is the illocutionary intent. The statements you list are, however, far more intelligent in the sense that they allow for facts to alter the propositional content. For example, one assumes that a person saying “I think that p” is open to changing p if the facts warrant the change.

    One thing is for sure: It would have been a lot more convenient for purposes of analysis had the writer owned his statement in one of the ways you suggest 🙂

    re: canard

    Yes.

  3. Doesn’t (in this case) “I assert” imply “I believe” and that it is meant to persuade that it is (was and always has been) constative?

  4. re: “The statements you list are, however, far more intelligent in the sense that they allow for facts to alter the propositional content. For example, one assumes that a person saying “I think that p” is open to changing p if the facts warrant the change.”

    You mean more liberally biased as an assertion than the original?

  5. rgrafton 

    I know you know this stuff stone cold Doc, which is why I’m asking for the Reader’s Digest form for this post.

  6. acline 

    S- re: “Doesn’t (in this case) “I assert” imply “I believe” and that it is meant to persuade that it is (was and always has been) constative?”

    I think Searle would say “no” largely because his positing of illocutionary points attempts to differentiate among assertives and the other types of F. The “I assert” meta-statement is, then, the implication.

    re: “You mean more liberally biased as an assertion than the original?”

    Hmmmmmmm…you took that in an interesting direction 🙂 But, by my interpretation of the original statement in the context of classical Liberalism, then, yes. Although I wasn’t intending to mean such a thing 🙂 What I intended was a little promotion for the ethos of owning and qualifying one’s assertions.

    R- How about this: I have this analytical process I dreamed up a few years ago that helps me understand, or make positive claims about, what people intend when they make statements in rhetorical situations. But this “facts” assertion interests me more as a statement of epistemology than as a statement of fact in the original context (which I couldn’t figure out in the first place). So I added my own context and re-interpreted. My findings: It could make sense (or be accurate) in the context of Enlightenment Liberalism. Otherwise, it appears to be partisan nonsense.

  7. re: “But, by my interpretation of the original statement in the context of classical Liberalism, then, yes.”

    Then let me posit this:

    The proposition is false because facts cannot possess and ideology or be biased except in the context of their perlocutionary effect.

    Facts have a liberal bias if they are persuasive.

  8. re (myself): “Facts have a liberal bias if they are persuasive.” (or dissuasive, I suppose).

    I suppose a corollary would be:

    Facts have a conservative bias if they are unpersuasive.

  9. acline 

    S- re: “The proposition is false because facts cannot possess and ideology or be biased except in the context of their perlocutionary effect.”

    I would agree with this except you leave out the illocutionary act, which means you leave out intention and its context (although that may not be your intention). But you have correctly identified the point at which linguists jump ship and rhetoricians climb aboard–that tricky connection between intention and effect. As you are well aware, that connection often fails for interlocutors and/or auditors.

    How about this: The proposition is false because facts, as agreed-upon statements about the world, cannot possess ideology or bias except as they are employed rhetorically, or applied analytically, by the interlocutors and auditors in a given rhetorical situation.

  10. re: “As you are well aware …”

    You flatter, and lie (although that might not have been your intention).

    😉

    re: “How about this:”

    OK, give me about a week to digest that. I’m turning over in my head this: “except as they are employed rhetorically, or applied analytically, by the interlocutors and auditors in a given rhetorical situation.”

  11. acline 

    re: except…blah blah blah

    I think this gets at what you mean by (and expands) “context of their perlocutionary effect.”

    re: Facts have a liberal bias if they are persuasive and/or facts have a conservative bias if they are unpersuasive.

    I don’t see either of these statements springing from our conversation so far because we would then be into something entirely different (re: the conditional [if] restructures the original assertion): the ideological bias of persuasion.

    I’d be willing to go out on a limb here and state: Persuasion knows no ideological bias nor respects any particular ideological bias.

  12. acline 

    Cool. Send me what you come up with.

  13. re: “Persuasion knows …”

    I’m on board with that. I need to keep the connection between facts and persuasion.

    Perhaps then, by saying, “employed rhetorically, or applied analytically”, you mean using facts in an appeal to logos in order to persuade (which would be an Enlightment Liberal bias?) versus appealing to pathos, mythos (or even ethos) in order to persuade (a Classical Conservative bias)?

  14. acline 

    re: by saying

    Sort of (interesting use of the artistic proofs, BTW!). I’m having a difficult time coming up with a short way to explain/justify “sort of.” Let’s just say that, for the moment, I am comfortable with your statement as long as we understand that the artistic proofs may be employed for any intention depending upon the rhetorical situation.

  15. re: Sort of

    I have to admit being stuck, or at a loss, on how to move the conversation forward.

    I know I lack the disciplinary knowledge so I need you to clarify/progress the conversation at this point.

  16. acline 

    Ah, man…yer gonna make me do all the work? 🙂

    I have a few things to think about. I’ll plan on another post about this topic in the next few days. I’ll need a break from writing my conference essay by Monday for sure.

    Good conversation so far. I appreciate it!

  17. Something else has been bothering me about the “facts” assertion and placing it in a Classical Liberalism context.

    The Enlightment, and Classical Liberalism, was transformative. One might have called it progressive for it’s time.

    However, the context that it has been used has been “reality-based”. “Hard” facts that contradict transformation, deny change or progress is possible or occuring, as opposed to “transformative” or “soft” facts that transformation is possible, needed, or occuring.

    Or not. Really just struck me and I thought I’d put it down quick before it faded away.

  18. Sisyphus 

    Not sure this fits anywhere: Facts, ideology, and hatred

  19. Sisyphus 

    One more, I’m on a roll: Jay Rosen

    The pole of conflict, then, will not be between liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat or hawk and dove… but between “hard” views of reality–what the facts on the ground say– and “soft” views, where there are more options available to policy makers than recognizing the real.