Monday, 30 November, 2020
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Fallacy Of Factual Representation



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Bhupa P. Dhamala

 

When I wonder how people think about fact and its relation with what represents it, two things, which many people tend to believe, occur to my mind — something in print is a fact and something told by a great human is also a fact. But when we seriously ponder over the issue for a moment if these assumptions are true, then we may find them fallacious. Let us further closely examine the issue.

Can Language Reflect Facts?
A Word can have its relations with the world in two ways — iconic relationship and symbolic relationship. In the former way, the word reflects the world exactly the way it is, just as a mirror does, and in the latter, the word represents the world the way word signifies the world. In iconic model word and the world are associated by physical resemblance, like an object and a photograph of it. In the symbolic model, word and world are associated arbitrarily.
A photographic reflection of the world into word does not happen in real-life situations even as it seems that there is a natural connection between signs and objects in the use of onomatopoeic words. But even the onomatopoeic words do not reflect the world objectively. If they did, why would a voice of a cockerel, for instance, sound differently in different languages in different locations and cultures? There is no true iconic relationship between a word and the object it refers to.
Even if language is not merely an imitation of the objective world, it still can be regarded as valid substitute for things or ideas. It is generally assumed that words stand for something other than themselves. In this sense, language can be taken as nomenclature (a process of giving names corresponding to things). Nomenclature is done on the assumptions that humans already had ideas about the things for which they simply coined words to represent them. Ferdinand de Saussure (1913) also claimed a linguistic sign pairs the signified (concept) and the signifier (label). This is known as the symbolic representation of the world in language.
Contrary to Saussure's definition of linguistic sign as a combination of signified and signifier, Jacques Derrida (1968) claimed a word seems to signify something but that is not real; the relation between them is always floating; meaning evaporates the moment one utters words. So there is no such thing as factual representation. If there was, then there would be one linguistic sign to refer to one thing across all cultures. The context that there are different words to mean the same thing and, conversely, that different things can be represented by one word is ample evidence to suggest that language cannot represent the world in true sense. Nor does it prove by any means that the linguistic representation of the world is factual.
For reasons above truth is elusive and thus cannot be represented by language that is inadequate to fully give a factual photograph of what we call fact. In a situation when language fails to reflect even the objective world by its equivalent word, symbolic relationship of language with the world is even far from reality. Most of the abstract world such as democracy and social justice can only be represented by words as symbols that are based on assumptions rather than facts. Therefore, factual representation of the world through language is a myth, not reality.

Fact Turned Into Fiction
By fact we generally understand something that happens or something that we do. There is no denying that things that have happened and things that are done are facts. But the moment facts are told or written in a language they are deviated without our knowing. Most of the blind followers of religion believe that whatever is written in the Mahabharata or the Bible or the Quran are facts and that they are words of the Gods. But those scriptures are written by God's disciples who are humans. Because humans have their limited perspectives, they cannot put things and events into words in a photographic manner. So anything said or written by humans cannot represent the things that happened or that were done. There is another reason for created fiction not being fact. Language itself is inadequate to reflect the whole fact. What it does at the most is a partial representation of something. So anything said or written, even as it is in print form, cannot be reliable. It is merely fiction or sometimes even fantasy.

Fiction Made Into Fact
Because language has an interested character, it can be used by a speaker for good or bad purposes. We often think that anything said or done for public welfare is good and something that is done for ulterior motive is bad. Whether language is used for a good or bad purpose, it is manipulated and thus far from reality. When language is manipulated in the speaker's interest, it cannot be impartial. The (auto) biographies of leaders like Mahatama Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela valorize them in exaggeration. Likewise, leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini are denounced. There is no sufficient evidence to suggest that the history of great human beings is reliable. It is fiction but is written in a way it looks like a fact. It is thus not invalid to think that those leaders may not always have spoken the truth.
Because fact turns into fiction the moment it is put into words and fiction can also be turned into fact by a manipulative writer, there is no such thing as a factual representation. If this were true, there would not be controversy in written history. So anything that is put into words is unreal and thus under critical scrutiny. What happens or what is done is fact. What is put into words is fallacious representation.

(Dhamal is Professor of English, TU)

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