Ex post facto Facts & The Imaginary Construction of Reality
John Shotter’s account of the role of the imaginary in social life, and P.G. Ossorio’s notion of ’ex post facto facts’, can help us understand how our present cognitive perspective shapes our world and gives it a misleading solidity. These concepts are powerful tools for the analysis of ideology, especially when set in the context of a cognitive narratological perspective.
This is a section from John Shotter’s Conversational Realities (Sage, 1993), ch. 5, "Social Life and the Imaginary". It follows a discussion of how people create imaginary realities which allow social interaction, with an example from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Godot (or God, why not) may never appear but he plays a necessary function for Vladimir and Estragon:
The ’ex post facto fact’ fallacy and the illusion of clarity
Yet clearly, in the middle of their confusion, the clarity they appeal to is illusory. And although they lack a sense of confusion, although they do not feel confused, to us, they are in fact still confused: for they have clearly mistaken features of their talk (about some ’thing’) for the features of the supposed ’thing’ itself. And the fact is, that no matter how clear (in certain special moments of reflection) the existence of Godot may seem to them—as a special and separate being beyond themselves who gives a meaning to their lives—not only need Godot not actually exist, they clearly in fact possess no actual knowledge of Godot at all. Indeed, they wonder at first if another wanderer in the wilds, Pozzo, is Godot. They can (and clealy do) live without an actual Godot or Godots. Yet if aked, that is how they explain their conduct: they are waiting for Godot. Without their waiting—false though it may be as an account of what they are actually doing—their life would seem at least to them to lack any sense of meaning. But the only Godot known to them is a Godot ’subsisting’ in their ways of talking about such a being between themselves.
And the lesson for us here is that we too are living like his down-and-outs: no matter how clear and definable the topics of our talk and discussions may seem to us to be, no matter how strongly we may possess a sense of their ’reality’, often, we are merely talking about and studying things which only subsist in the sppech we use for co-ordinating our activities with those of the others around us. We have ’given’ or ’lent’ the things we talk of a nature which—although that which grounds our talk may be such that it ’permits’ or ’allows’ such an account—they do not actually have. And when it comes to our talk about our own nature, then this issue becomes acute. We cannot ’give it up’ and simply turn to an alternative, without a great deal of existential disorientation; yet, we must try.
For it is not just that our means of warranting, justifying, or explaining our actions to those around us—by reference to our supposed ’inner’ mental states, to ’motives’ and ’feelings’ supposedly ’in’ us somewhere—is false and hides from us the proper relation of our actions to their context, to their surrounding circumstances. Neither is it just that it supports the illusion of an individualistic, ahistorical, decontextualized from of human agency which falsely ignores the role of our relations to others, especially those of our predecessors who fashioned the current ’organized setting’ into which we now act. The nature of the falsity involved is even deeper and more dangerous than that: it is to suppose that our essentially unknown and unknowable human nature, that all our meanings, can be captured within a circumscribed and well-defined, systematic discourse; it is to mistake the imaginary entities, that subsists only in our stories about ourselves, as actually being who we are. Thus, while the social constructionist approach suggests that our nature is such that it is always in the making, that it is never complete, that new aspects of our being are already emergin from the background to our lives, by contrast, our current attempsts to capture ourselves in a range of identifiable, well-defined ’images’ or ’models’ of our own making, in systematic discourses, suggests otherwise. Such images (or more properly ’we’) can create a sense of —an illusion of— fixity and completeness about ourselves; we can ’lend’ ourselves a nature which, although it is ’permitted’ or ’afforded’ by what we already are, only represents one small aspect of what in fact we are, and might next become.
But once we come to view the world from within the confines of an orderly, systematic discourse, the claim that something defined within that discourse essentially underlies all our action—seems undeniable; no one seems able to formulate a doubt about it within terms acceptable [to] followers of the system. What is at work here is a special kind of self-deceptive fallacy to which one becomes prone when one’s ideal is that of construc ting, and thinking within a formal system. It is [a] fallacy of a hermeneutical kind, to do with interpreting the meaning of statements, or states of affairs, retrospectively (5), from within such systems, and ignoring the socio-historical processes of argument and contest which are involved in their formulation as such. Following (Ossorio, 1981), I shall call it the ’ex post facto fact’ fallacy. The temporal sequence of events involved is as follows:
2. We are, however, then tempted to accept one of these descriptive statements as true.
3. The statement then ’affords’ or ’permits’ the making of further statements, now of a better articulated nature, till a systematic account has been formulated.
4. The initial interpretation (already accepted as true, of course) now comes to be perceived, retrospectively, as owing its now quite definite character to its place within the now well- specified framework produced by the later statements.
In other words, the original situation has now been ’given’ or ’lent’ a determinate character, within the terms of the system, which it did not, in its original openness, actually possess. This, I think, is a fallacy which operates on a grand scale in the social sciences, where we always attempt to make sense of social and psychological phenomena within well-defined systems of terms—that is, systematic discourses. It is what makes it seem that such systems can be detached from their origins in people’s social activities, and exist in some free-floating sense ’outside’ them. (6)
Someone who has studied its nature in relation to the genesis of the scientific fact is, as I have already mentioned, Ludwik Fleck (1979). As we saw earlier, in attempting retrospectively to understand the origins and development (and the current movement) of our thought, we describe their nature within our to an extent now finished and systematic schematisms. Thus, as he goes on to say:
But the trouble is, once ’inside’ such systems, it is extremely difficult to escape from them to recapture the nature of our original, open and indeterminate thoughts, the thought to do with the system’s development. We can become as Stolzenberg (1978) puts it, ’entrapped’. Where, the attitudes and habits of thought which prevent those within the system from recognizing its inadequacies arise out of them ignoring what Stolzenberg (1978: 224) calls ’those considerations of standpoint that have the effect of maintaining the system’. In other words, their plight arises, not just from them ignoring the fact that they have located themselves within a particular discursive or intralinguistic reality (sustained by a discourse couched within a particular idiom), but also from the fact within that their (self-contained, systematic) way of talking does not ’afford’ or ’permit’ the formulation of questions about its relations to its socio-historical surroundings. syntax masquerades as meaning to such an effect, that ’We predicate of the thing what lies in the method of representing it . . . ’ (Wittgenstein, 1953: no. 104).
5. Much as in linguistics, one studies only patterns of already spoken words, and not the activity of words in their speaking.
6. This process is also discussed of course by Marx and Engels in their account in The German Ideology of how the ’ruling illusion’ of ’the hegemony of the spirit in history’ (Hegel) is produced.
Beckett, S. (1956). Waiting for Godot. London: Faber.
Fleck, L. (1979). The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. (1977). The German Ideology. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1977.
Ossorio, P. G. (1981). ’Ex post facto’: The Source of Intractable Origin Problems and Their Resolution. Boulder, Colorado: Linguistic Research Institute Report no. 28.
Stolzenberg, G. (1978). "Can an Inquiry into the Foundations of Mathematics Tell Us Anything Interesting about Mind?" In Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honour of Eric Lennberg. New York: Academic Press.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
This is a significant passage for the study of the cognitive value of retrospection and retroaction, especially when it is connected to a cognitive narratology, and to a perspectivist analysis of ideology. "The ex post facto fact fallacy" is another term for (or rather a subclass of) what has been called ’hindsight bias’, or what (in a narratological context) I call the narrative fallacy par excellence.
Concepts such as Morson and Bernstein’s sideshadowing and backshadowing are also apposite to this analytic perspective. The present, in sum, changes the landscape of the past, which must be reopened and explored in order to fully understand it. (Although the imaginative reopening of the past is always effected from a virtual bracketing of hindsight, not an actual suppression of it. We cannot renounce the benefits of hindsight, even as we reinterpret the past in terms which are less univocally indebted to present priorities).
A perspective reorders the past and erases the process which generated it, or dispels and discredits the systems which preceded it. The cognitive coherence of a perspective is thus enhanced and reinforced, and its genesis and prehistory are dowplayed or obscured. The present or dominant cognitive perspective is thus naturalized as self-explaining; it is bootstrapped into its present position, and the representations it provides are interpreted as nature itself. Roland Barthes’s reflections on the naturalization of ideology come also to mind as a related topic for reflection. If our cognitive landscape structures and shapes the fabric of reality, it is reality itself which is cognitively remade through this narrative fallacy, this hindsight bias. Reality rests therefore, to some extent, on an illusion created by hindsight.