There comes a time in the life of a student of philosophy when they start thinking facts aren’t important. What starts off as a passion to stamp out falsehoods and replace them with truths, morphs into an acute uninterest, and eventually disdain towards facts. I have suffered from this mental disorder for a long time, but have recently gotten cured. So here I am, standing on the other side, healthier and wiser, and preparing to persuade you.

Philosophy is a study of certain kinds of general ideas that are abstracted from particular details. So we talk about morality as a general principle, instead of focusing on real-life, on-the-ground policies. Making correct assessments about policies requires one to know many facts about what’s going on, and acquiring those facts comes with messy procedures, dirty hacks, approximations, and uncertainties. You can’t write a syllogism and marvel at the knowledge that if the argument is sound, and if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Real-life isn’t like that. It’s not clear what’s going on out in the world because everything is too complex. Too many different things happening all at once, and no good ways of cleanly parsing them out. To the degree that anything can be understood, the job is left to specialists in each field. Philosophers, on the other hand, stand quite far back, look at the final results, discard all the unnecessary details, and abstract ideas from them to talk about.

Instead of being curious about acquiring more facts, and consequently enriching their picture of a situation, the compulsion is to wash away any messiness so that only pristine abstractions remain. And upon those beautiful structures, they apply the tools of logic and reasoning smoothly. Sometimes principles are plucked out from the facts and clothed in fancy made-up fictional settings called Thought Experiments. The working of the fine machinery of philosophy can only be witnessed properly when the problems are diluted and transposed in this manner, to the point where all that is ever achieved are some intellectual stimulations for the participants. The problems will remain intact after all the discussions are finished; the real solutions and their implementations are left to the men and women without philosophy degrees, who’re on the ground putting their hands to use.

But even if you’re not interested in solving real problems, facts help immensely. While all that is ever discussed in philosophy are abstractions, they must cash out in the form of some facts about some things. If all you know are general high-level principles, you will be handicapped in your thinking, and you’ll be severely limited in what you’re able to see. The same fact, owing to its richness and colour and detail, can be used elsewhere, in some other situations, to make a different point. If only the principles are studied and remembered, re-use won’t be possible.

To take a simple cartoonish example, suppose I have a red apple, a green apple, a red chilli, and a cucumber, then I have two objects of colour red and two of colour green. I can see these two sets of things, and, caring only about their colours, discard any other details of them. I go on and talk about redness and greenness, properties of objects I was aware of, about which I don’t know anything further. But instead, had I known more about them, of what they’re made of and what part of the plant they came from, I could’ve abstracted them in another way: as fruits and vegetables.

Another reason why you should care about facts is that writing and talking about abstractions are quite boring for the listener. This article is a bit of a case in point. The more examples you have, the more you’re able to tell a visceral story, and the more you’re able to create a vivid image in the mind’s eye of the reader. Understanding something – truly understanding it – requires that you make a powerful enough impression on the listener, that the subject matter gets imprinted into their brains, fitting cohesively and tightly with whatever facts and background knowledge they already have. To do that, dry abstractions don’t help. 

Further, if what’s mentioned are facts and stories, they don’t have to be argued, they just have to be told. It’s when general claims are made that it has to be then supported by examples. But mostly all generalizations have exceptions, so if you’re only talking about abstractions, they’re less likely to be believed.

And above all those reasons, knowing facts is good for their own sake. It will make you a much more well-informed and useful person. It’s hard to know when the details become useful and how they could inspire you or change how you think and act. People get motivated to do things for all sorts of reasons, the least likely of which is that they became connected to an abstract idea; usually, it’s because a story touches them. So keep your mind open, read facts, and you may generalize from it, but don’t discard the rest.

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Thank you for writing this!

I would also add that sometimes the facts can lead you to abstractions that you wouldn't think about otherwise. As an example, consider quantum physics. Countless philosophers have spend years contemplating the nature of reality and writing books on the topic. Yet I am pretty sure that without experimental data, the hypothesis "maybe it's somehow related to the squares of absolute values of complex numbers" would simply never appear on their radar.

Thanks for this — it illustrates how facts combat reductionism, and why reductionist rhetorical strategies tend to be actively hostile to facts and science, in a way I haven’t seen before and find useful.

One nit: your red/green fruit/vegetable example is instructive but flawed. Chiles and cucumbers are both fruits (internal seeds).