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.