Brute fact

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In contemporary philosophy, a brute fact is something that cannot be explained.[1] To reject the existence of brute facts is to think that everything can be explained. ("Everything can be explained" is sometimes called the principle of sufficient reason). There are two ways to explain something: say what brought it about, or describe it at a more "fundamental" level. For example, that there's a cat displayed on my computer screen can be explained, more "fundamentally", as there being certain voltages in bits of metal in my screen, which in turn can be explained, more "fundamentally", as that there are certain subatomic particles moving in a certain way. If we keep explaining the world in this way and reach a point at which no more "deeper" explanations can be given, then we have found some facts which are brute or inexplicable, in the sense that we cannot give them an ontological explanation. As it might be put, there exists some things that just are. The same thing can be done with causal explanations. If nothing made the big bang expand at the velocity it did, then this is a brute fact in the sense that it lacks a causal explanation.

Brute/scientific fact[edit]

Henri Poincaré distinguished between brute facts and their scientific descriptions, pointing to how the conventional nature of the latter always remained constrained by the brute fact in question.[2]

Pierre Duhem argued that just as there may be several scientific descriptions of the same brute fact, so too there may be many brute facts with the same scientific description.[3]


G. E. M. Anscombe wrote about how facts can be brute relative to other facts. Simply put, some facts cannot be reducible to other facts, such that if some set of facts holds true, it does not entail the fact brute relative to it.

The example she uses is that of someone owing a grocer money for supplying them with potatoes. In such a case, the set of facts, e.g. that the customer asked for the potatoes, that the grocer supplied them with the potatoes, etc., does not necessarily entail that the customer owes the grocer money. After all, this could all have transpired on the set of a film as a bit of acting, in which case the customer would not actually owe anything.

One might argue that if the institutional context is taken into account, putatively brute facts can be reduced to constituent facts. That is, in the context of something like the institution of a market, a customer ordering potatoes, etc. would entail that they owe the grocer compensation equal to the service that was provided. While Anscombe does acknowledge that an institutional context is necessary for a particular description to make sense, it does not necessarily follow that a particular set of facts holding true in an institutional context entails the fact brute relative to it. To wit, if the example is indeed considered in the institutional context necessary for descriptions of 'owing', it could still be the case that the customer does not owe the grocer, per the counterexample of a film production. This fundamental ambiguity is essentially what makes a fact brute relative to other facts.

That being said, Anscombe does argue that under normal circumstance, such a fact is actually entailed. That is, if it is true that a customer requested potatoes, etc., then under normal circumstances the customer would indeed owe the grocer money. However, because such entailment is conditional on such a set of facts holding true under a particular set of circumstances, the fact entailed is still fundamentally brute relative to such facts, just that in such a case the leap in inference occurs at the level of the circumstances, not that of the facts themselves.

Finally, if a fact brute relative to other facts holds true, it follows that some set of facts it is brute relative to is also true, e.g. if the customer owes the grocer money, then it follows that the grocer supplied them with potatoes. After all, had they not done so, then the customer would not owe them money. As such, given some fact brute relative to other facts, there is a range of facts, such that a set of them will hold if the fact brute relative to them also holds. That being said, Anscombe argues that the full range of facts that some fact can be brute relative to cannot be known exhaustively. The rough range can be sketched out with relevant, paradigmatic examples, but the full range of such facts cannot be known, as one can theoretically always suppose a new special context that changes the range.[4]


John Searle developed Anscombe's concept of brute facts into what he called brute physical facts—such as that snow is on Mt. Everest—as opposed to social or institutional facts, dependent for their existence on human agreement.[5] Thus, he considered money to be an institutional fact, which nevertheless rested ultimately on a brute physical fact, whether a piece of paper or only an electronic record.

Searle thought that the pervasiveness of social facts could disguise their social construction and ultimate reliance upon the brute fact: thus, we are for example trained from infancy (in his words) to see "cellulose fibres with green and gray stains, or enamel-covered iron concavities containing water...[as] dollar bills, and full bathtubs".[6]


The principle of sufficient reason is sometimes understood to entail that there are no brute facts.

In popular culture[edit]

  • A creature called a "brutfax" appears in the fantasy novel "Zelda Pryce: The Razor's Edge" (2013) by Joseph Robert Lewis as a vicious hound of unknown origin that cannot be destroyed.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis (1997) p. 211
  2. ^ Gary Gutting, French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (2001) p. 32
  3. ^ Gutting, p. 34
  4. ^ Anscombe, G.E.M. (1981). The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Volume III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 22–25. ISBN 0-631-12942-1. 
  5. ^ Searle, p. 121 and p. 1-2
  6. ^ Searle, p. 56 and p. 4

Further reading[edit]

  • "Brute Fact". Oxford Companion to Philosophy. 2005. 
  • Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). "On Brute facts". Analysis 18 (3): 69–72. JSTOR 3326788. 
  • Nicholas, Bunnin; Yu, Jiyuan (eds.). "Brute fact". The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. 
  • Rosen, Gideon (2010). "Metaphysical Dependence: Grounding and Reduction". In Hale, Bob; Hoffmann, Aviv. Modality. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199565818. 
  • Melamed, Yitzhak; Lin, Martin (2011). "Principle of Sufficient Reason". In Zalta, Edward N. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 ed.). 

External links[edit]