Facts are something we take for granted, at least most of the time. As ordinary individuals we assume that there are knowable facts, for instance, that the dog chewed the drapes, that England exists, that it rained yesterday, or that babies cry. If, as scholars, that is as historians, social scientists, and natural scientists, we are more aware of the problematical nature of “facts” we nevertheless tend to establish and use facts rather unselfconsciously in our work. On this occasion I want to look at the evolution of the concept of “fact,” and in particular the way “fact” entered English natural philosophy. I will attempt to show that the concept of “fact” or “matter of fact,” so prominent in the English empirical tradition, is an adaptation or borrowing from another discipline—jurisprudence, and that many of the assumptions and much of the technology of fact-finding in law were carried over into the experimental science of the seventeenth century.
My paper has three parts. The first discusses the nature of legal facts and fact-finding in the early modern period, focusing on the distinction between “matters of fact” and “matters of law,” the emphasis on first hand testimony by credible witnesses, the preference for direct testimony over inference, and legal efforts to create and maintain impartial proceedings. The second portion attempts to show how legal methods and assumptions were adopted by early modern historiographers and other fact-oriented reporters. The third section attempts to show how the legally constructed concept of “fact” or “matter of fact” was transferred to natural history and natural philosophy and generalized in Locke's empirical philosophy.