What’s on : Lectures

The Invention of The Fact, 1453-1800

6 Mar 2012
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Prof David Wootton
The Invention of The Fact, 1453-1800

Event Information

The Invention of the Fact, 1453-1800
Professor David Wootton, University of York
Joint lecture with the Historical Association, York branch

We all deal with facts throughout our lives. Our whole civilisation is built on producing, managing, and revising facts. Facts are sacred. Yet it is not at all clear what a fact is. Stranger still, the era of the fact only began in 1660. Why were facts invented? How does the idea of the fact change the world? How did people manage before there were facts? What were the preconditions for the invention of facts? This lecture traces one of the most important innovations of modern history, an innovation that has become almost invisible, so completely do we take facts for granted. It thus explores a key event in the making of the modern world.

by Margaret Leonard

Before the 15th century, European scholars did not place much weight on the study of facts, considering reason and authority as important as experience. In those days, the word ‘fact’ existed in English only as a translation of the Latin ‘factum’ to mean ‘deed’. David Wootton credits Barbara Schapiro, writing in America, as the first to study the development of this concept, but disagrees with her conclusions. He claims the first English author to use the word fact in the modern sense was Hobbes, in his book The elements of law (published 1650). Ironically this downplays the importance of the notion, perhaps deliberately challenging the writings of Gallileo and Montaigne who had embraced it. Once introduced into English, the modern use of the word quickly became established. The Royal Society (founded in 1660) promoted the verification of all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment, and the printing press played a crucial role in facilitating the dissemination of facts.

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