How Do You Know? Factive Verbs in Relation to Political, Religious, and Scientific Discourse

I’m thinking about factive verbs this morning in relation to such things as global warming, God’s existence, evolution, the future of the stock market, etc.

ESTABLISH, for example, is a very strong, emphatic verb, as in, “I’ve established the truth of this matter.” It’s akin to LEARN (as in “I have just learned that my father has died”), or to KNOW (as in, “I know that my father has died”), or to DISCOVER (as in “I just discovered that my father died yesterday”).

Other verbs like this are admit, perceive, recognize, secure, confirm, observe, show, and remember.

Grammarians call these factive verbs.

The linguist Steven Pinker, in his book The Stuff of Thought (2008), gives this example of a particularly dishonest and pernicious use of a factive verb: “When [President] Bush said that the British government had ‘learned’ that Saddam had sought uranium, he was committing himself to the proposition that the uranium seeking actually took place, not that the British government believed it did” (8).

Factive verbs are extraordinarily tricky to use, for we all know (know itself is a factive verb!) that we cannot ever really know things with absolute and complete certainty, and yet factive verbs function in sentences in this absolute fashion.

They are meant to set before the mind something that is to be treated as true. And yet, when we are trying to speak carefully and honestly, there is always a feeling that we should qualify our factive verbs, especially when we put them in the past tense, as in ESTABLISHED, for they seem to want to deconstruct themselves.

Another aspect of factive verbs, therefore, is in relation to deductive and inductive reasoning. In deductive reasoning, if our premises are true, the conclusion is 100% certain (“Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal”). In inductive reasoning, if our premises are true, the conclusion is something less than 100% certain (“Socrates sneezed, people who sneeze tend to have colds, therefore Socrates PROBABLY has a cold”). Factive verbs follow readily from deductive arguments, but are exaggerations in relation to inductive arguments (“We KNOW Socrates has a cold”; “We KNOW that sea levels will rise six feet over the next century,” etc.). Inductive reasoning requires that we qualify our claims (“We think it’s probable Socrates has a cold,” etc.).

So factive verbs are all variations on the claim to definite knowledge. Thus the implications for caution and skepticism in the use of factive verbs like “know” or “settled” in political, religious, and scientific discourse are pretty clear, especially in relation to the future. You can, for example, listen for a speaker’s use of factive verbs, and when it’s your turn to speak, point to the factive verb and ask a simple question: “How do you know?”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to How Do You Know? Factive Verbs in Relation to Political, Religious, and Scientific Discourse

  1. Zia says:

    Interesting post. I am tempted to go back and review some of the words I have used in my papers. Personally I like to use the words such as “seems like” (as in, data seems to support the conclusion that ….). It is actually quite common in scientific literature.
    This might be a cool project for my Biology class and maybe you can come and guide the discussion.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Zia,

      That would be fun to do with a biology class. Just let me know.

      • Zia says:

        Will do. I will try to move things around, have them read a short paper (I will send you a copy), and you will do your magic.
        I will try to drop by your office to talk

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