Article Title

Matters of Fact


Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact.- Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. xxv, 419. $49.

Barbara Shapiro, A Culture of Fact. England, 1550-1720. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. x, 284. $42.50.

One would expect Mary Poovey's A History of the Modern Fact.- Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society and Barbara Shapiro's A Culture of Fact: England, 1550-1720 to cover roughly similar ground. After all, they both locate the origins of the modern concept of "fact" in early modern England and chronicle its migration across numerous discourses and disciplines by the eighteenth century. Both, moreover, note the frequently made distinction in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries between "fact," denoting a free-standing particular, and a cluster of terms designating the context into which facts might be integrated as evidence: "theory," "law," "conjecture," or "hypothesis." And they draw on many of the same earlier scholars, especially Lorraine Daston, Peter Dear, Simon Schaffer, and Steven Shapin, while both also mount significant refutations of the latter's characterization of the ethos and methods of the Royal Society. Finally, neither undertakes a new causal explanation of the rise of the fact; while referring to the general context of exploration and colonization, religious dispute and civil war, they stay within the confines of discursive history.

But despite these similarities the authors offer us almost totally unrelated methods and narratives. With little methodological self-consciousness, Shapiro primarily traces the word "fact" from one domain to another, noting when it appears, what assumptions it imports into the discourse, and how its usage changes in the period. Her analyses are spare, and her evidence is reported with a crisp, nononsense efficiency that lends itself easily to the summaries that appear at the ends of the chapters. Hers is a history of the fact that Sergeant Friday himself might have written. In contrast, Poovey is methodologically garrulous, devoting both an introduction and a first chapter to the elaboration of her assumptions and procedures, and to the justification of the discourses and texts she will treat. She pays little attention to the appearance of the term "fact" as she proceeds, and she chooses her texts not for their representativeness or even for the importance of their contributions to the sciences of wealth and society, but for their own epistemological self-scrutiny.