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Brute fact

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

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 invented the concept of a fact being 'brute relative to' some other fact—the fact that I have handed over certain coins and stated that they are to pay for the potatoes is brute relative to the fact that I have paid the bill for the potatoes. Which in its turn may be among the facts which are brute relative to the fact that I am solvent. The propositions standing for the facts which are 'brute relative to' a certain fact F belong to a range some subset among which holds if F holds.(Anscombe ' Modern Moral Philosophy' Philosophy 33 No. 124 Jan 1958) No subset among this range logically implies F, as there may always be some further fact which puts the brute facts in a different light. e.g. the whole deal may be a piece of theatre.The brute facts usually amount to F in the context of an institution, e.g. the institution of money, but F does not itself contain a description of the institution in question. The range of propositions which can stand for facts which could be brute relative to F cannot be completely enumerated.


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.[4] 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".[5]


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

In popular culture

  • 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


  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. ^ Searle, p. 121 and p. 1-2
  5. ^ Searle, p. 56 and p. 4

Further reading

  • "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