The fact and (moral) value distinction in adult education work intentionally targeting social exclusion

Keith Hammond, University of Glasgow, UK

... citizens cannot think well on the basis of factual knowledge alone.

Cultivating Humanity. Martha C. Nussbaum


Clark Kerr, in a book published in 1972 said that in our era the university has turned into a multiversity, characterised as 'a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking'. Kerr refers to the university's 'identity crisis'. Others have said the university is fast becoming a 'service station' catering for both teaching and research to the immediate practical needs of the paying client. Aviram (1992) says that the universities are 'losing the faith in an independent educational or intellectual mission transcending the immediate and the narrowly practical and uniting the different faculties'. Institutional facts depend on the coherence of the university's collective intent. When this is not there then there can be no special value given to adult education work fighting social exclusion.

This places the problems of evaluating current adult education work not on the distinctions of logic and not in the adult education work itself but in the changing identity of the university. The lessons of the last 15 years of the Access movement have been that excellence in academic standards need not mean side-stepping questions of equality and fair distribution of opportunity.

The eighties were an indication of things to come. In 1992, twenty years after Kerr's book, everything changed for adult education. The 1992 Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act spelled it out. For departments inside Higher Education, all the old alliances were either moved or they were shifted from the field entirely. Adult education then had to prove itself on new terms, as just another thread of Higher Education, subject to standard fact and value distinctions where all that mattered was what was taught with what results, regardless of the students' age, gender or social background. The more adult education was pulled into emulating core provision, the more difficult it has been for it to claim a continuation of its historic mission. In determining the relative value of their work, adult educators were forced into a new and more brutal relationship with the landscape of educational facts. In this paper I review some of the philosophical problems involved in assessing educational facts and deriving their subsequent value. I first look at Wittgenstein's 1929 paper on Ethics, and then go on to discuss John Searle's 'social' facts as a way of maintaining the more traditional egalitarian aim of adult education work in the new circumstances of fighting social exclusion.

The problem

Consider the case where a module at Level 1 carrying 20 SCOTCAT points is organised as part of a first year undergraduate programme inside the university. At the same time, but with the tuition being spread over a longer period, the same is organised outside the university, in a very depressed area as part of an 'outreach' part-time degree. In the case of the former, the students have gained entry to the university through the 'traditional' route of 'A' levels, or as in Scotland, Highers. In the case of the latter, however, the students have gone through no such route. They gain access to their class through open-entry. The spread of marks gained is almost the same in both situations but the unit costs of the second class are marginally higher. The problem follows then of honouring the 'facts' expressed in the marks achieved by the students across the two situations whilst at the same time saying that the facts of the latter situation count as something of more value for the university because of the contribution they make to a more fair higher education system. Can this be done without making the idea of marks completely worthless and the idea of the relative values and costs completely arbitrary ?


According to current criteria, both the class inside and outside the university would attract the same FTE's. They would be described in the same system of representation. Where the facts are the same, the derived value of the classes would be the same and funding would follow. The intention of the department involved in the latter as they target certain areas would not be recognised and would therefore count for nothing. Facts as FTE's do not take into account intention here. However it is precisely the intention of the adult education department (endorsed by the parent institution) that would make the latter class important in a different way to the former class, held inside the university.


In 1929 Wittgenstein gave his one and only 'popular' lecture in Cambridge. The Wittgenstein of this time had the world existing as a totality of facts. The logical relations of facts had to correspond to relations in the world. What this meant is still a puzzle but he was less obscure in saying that 'the world is all that is the case' and what 'we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence'. What matters might often be said to lie outside and distinct from facts. He says that 'ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it'. Were Wittgenstein involved in adult education now, he would be complaining of the illogical madness of having to pour gallons of evaluative liquid into a factual teacup without creating the slightest spill or overflow. He would no doubt point out the limit of the factual teacup and the volume involved in accurately evaluating the work of adult education.

In the 1929 paper Wittgenstein took evaluative statements to be made in two senses :

i. In the trivial or relative sense where something is described as functioning according to some predetermined standard, and

ii. In the ethical or absolute sense where something is described as failing to meet a standard that ought to have met.

Evaluative statements in the non-trivial sense are fraught with problems; and expressed as a failure to meet certain standards, are absurd. Deriving values from facts in the logical sense where there is implied a duty or standard that has not been met is not on. This kind of an evaluation can only be made where the facts are assessed against the agent's intention. Wittgenstein comments that 'although all judgements of relative value can be shown to be mere statements of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgement of absolute value'. According to this position then, we can only state the facts of our adult education classes, and yet we have to bring broader egalitarian considerations into more accurate representations of the value created in the work of our classes. Why then should we not be absolutely clear in stating that these mysterious 'facts' mean nothing unless the intention of adult education is brought into the matter, and inequality in opportunity is unequivocally expressed as our target ?

Ayer's contribution

Some years after Wittgenstein's 1929 talk, there were a number of pretenders to the analytical throne. All claimed to understand Wittgenstein. Ayer became the spokesman for cool objectivity in the universities. Some of the old universities, especially pride themselves on holding onto the kind of distinctions made by Ayer.

The preface to A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic (1936) is worth quoting at length here :

The views which are put forward in this treatise derive from the doctrines of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, which are themselves the logical outcome of the empiricism of Berkeley and Hume. Like Hume, I divide all genuine propositions into two classes : those which, in his terminology, concern 'relations of ideas', and those which concern 'matters of fact'. The former class comprises the a priori and propositions of logic and pure mathematics, and these I allow to be necessary and certain only because they are analytic. That is, I maintain that the reason why these propositions cannot be confuted in experience is that they do not make any assertion about the empirical world, but simply record our determination to use symbols in a certain fashion. Propositions concerning empirical matters of fact, on the other hand, I hold to be probable but never certain. And in giving an account of their validation I claim also to have explained the nature of truth ... I require of an empirical hypothesis, not indeed that it should be conclusively verifiable, but that some possible sense-experience should be relevant to the determination of its truth or falsehood. If a putative proposition fails to satisfy this principle, and is not a tautology, then I hold that it is metaphysical, and that, being metaphysical, it is neither true nor false, but literally senseless.

It is not contentious to describe Ayer's position as barbaric. To leave the world at the level of description is to leave it incomplete and without a sense of justice. Humans do not weave their way through life like cameras, describing as they go along and leaving things at that. Humans act on the facts according to imaginative possibilities posed in the tension of what 'is' the case and what 'ought' to be the case in a better world. From the 'is' to the 'ought' is not a logical move but it is one easily made. It is a constant complaint of university mandarins that adult educators make this kind of a move regularly in situations where they are no sooner given a task with a remit than they set about rewriting that remit, moving from the 'is' to the 'ought' and letting the move be informed by a strong sense of justice, not pure logic.

Anscombe's brute fact

The words of David Hume (1978) in the Scottish university are sacrosanct. David Hume gave universities his 'fork' in the dichotomy between relations of ideas and matters of fact. Ayer built his career on exhausting Humean puzzles giving an example of how the fork worked itself out. It is Elizabeth Anscombe however who develops the work. Following Anscombe's argument a Miss X may come to the university and say that '180 Scottish £1 notes = £180' and then say that she has 'signed up for an accredited evening course in Glasgow University and handed over the Scottish notes'. A university employee might then point out how Hume's fork divides 'relations of ideas' and 'statements of fact' as it is expressed in these two propositions. The employee might then say that from the two it cannot be reasoned that because Miss X has paid over 180 crisp £1 Scottish notes and she has signed up for an accredited course she is then as a consequence owed the course by Glasgow University. The employee might then comment that Miss X should not get her logic confused and should not make jumps in her reasoning from what 'is' the case to what 'ought' to follow. The university employee would be quite right in one way (which did not matter) and completely wrong in another way (which really mattered a great deal).

Considering this simple event in terms of pure description makes no sense. Certainly it is difficult to see how the university would owe Miss X the course from just her handing over £180. The money might be owed for a course already taken. For to arrive at the conclusion of the university owing the course a whole complex net of intentions come into play - individual and institutional. But the situation where Miss X reads things as she does and describes the university as owing her the tuition involved in an accredited course does not seem unreasonable. This is 'simply' because the 'relation of ideas' and 'statement of facts' involved are not free floating entities but are anchored in the solid context of Miss X and the university's intentional relationship. The university, amongst many other things, is about providing accredited courses.

The 'intention' here of course is not something interior. What it is about relates to real students. There is no guarantee that the course is owed X as a result of the payment but in the ordinary set of events, such a situation would very likely be taken as the outcome. This is because the intention of the University and the intention of Miss X figure centrally, as the whole scenario of facts and their implications work themselves out in this ordinary way. There is no logical necessity involved and there is no detailed description of what intention means here but the point made by Anscombe is that in some very, very ordinary exchanges, some very simple 'facts' only make sense according to what follows from them when they are considered as integral to interconnected webs of belief where all kinds of things are taken to be the case and are taken to fulfil endlessly complicated functions. And of course some sort of deception is always possible. The point however is that Hume's fork here is meaningless. As enlightened institutions, universities are not bound by the category distinction of 'relations of ideas' and 'matters of fact'. Universities, hopefully function according to an intention of making the world a more just place. Without this the pursuit of excellence and the development of new knowledge is void of any moral content.

John Searle's 'institutional' or 'social' facts

Hilary Putman (1992) made the point in his Gifford Lectures whilst at St Andrew's that any philosophy which can be put in a nutshell belongs in one. Yet this is the kind of philosophy that has most appealed to adult educationalists with Lockean concepts of person and so forth. Metaphysics has somehow been considered well outside our concerns. But this is changing. And it is not the case with John Searle's work, who takes Anscombe's idea and makes institutional facts very distinct from brute facts. Facts based on human agreement are 'institutional' facts and facts not so composed are 'brute' facts which require no such agreement. This agreement forms a collective intention. Institutional facts are self-referring in accordance with this intention. John Searle's meaning of intention is not to be confused with that of Daniel Dennett (Searle, 1997, Dennett, 1996). Money, property, governments and marriages are all examples of institutional facts which exist simply because humans agree them to exist. They are objective, but not in the same way as a 'brute' fact. Money for instance is valueless in itself and its value would mean nothing without human compliance in its common function. This is not to say that money exists because of human preferences, evaluations or moral attitudes. There is a common, shared belief in its representation of value because it serves as mediator in the exchange of goods. In this way, the belief that money is valuable acquires a rational basis. But the facts of money like other institutional facts are very different from other facts like 'water is H20' which are independent of any human opinion.

Academic objectivity

Objectivity takes pride of place in universities. In grasping objectivity much depends on it being contrasted with subjectivity. In the epistemic sense 'objective' and 'subjective' are primarily predicates of judgements. We speak of judgements being 'subjective' when the truth or falsity cannot be settled in a 'matter of fact' sort of way, but is dependent on certain attitudes, feelings, or the points of view of those making or hearing the judgement. For 'objective' judgements, it is the facts in the world that make them true and not someone's judgement. The truth or otherwise is independent of anyone's attitude or feelings. In this epistemic sense the university not only claims objective judgements but also through its traditions, it claims access to objective facts.

Searle draws attention to the ontological sense of 'objective' and 'subjective' where they involve predicates of entities and types of entities. They ascribe modes of existence. Pains are subjective entities because their being felt is dependent on a subject but mountains are ontologically objective in that their mode of existence is not dependent on any subject perceiving them or having a mental state that grasps them. It is quite feasible for to make subjective (epistemic) judgements and statements about (ontologically) objective things and it is equally so for making objective (epistemic) judgements and statements about (ontologically) subjective things. Searle for instance gives the example that someone might say 'Mount Everest is more beautiful than Mount Snowdon' or 'I now have toothache in my only wisdom tooth'. The pain, the phenomenon itself, exists as a subjective thing, but that I have a dodgy wisdom tooth giving the pain is an objective report. Institutional facts are close to the tooth ache and if work that fights 'social exclusion' is to be seen as particularly valuable, then it must be down to an institutional fact. But the value ascribed to the work by the department and parent university (and perhaps funding bodies and government policy) depends on their intention. It is in this way that institutional facts are self-referring.

The new importance of collective intent

The class organised by the university in an area of social exclusion only makes sense if that university sees that work as important. Without devaluing the work done inside the university, the work done to fight social exclusion must carry a separate and quite distinct institutional value. This will involve the 'collective' intentions of the university. It is this intention that is important and not a strict adherence to 'brute' facts that matters in the adult education work of a university. Searle argues that human action does not make up social reality in a causal sense, it is identical with it in the sense of collectively constituting it. So work done in areas of multiple deprivation does not have value because of what students go on to do. The work is at the heart of constructing a more just social reality. This has been the historic purpose of adult education throughout this century. More than ever however, a continuation of that work now becomes dependent on policy formed outside of adult education itself.


Aviram, I. (1992) 'The Nature of University Education Reconsidered (a response to Ronald Barnett's The Idea of Higher Education). Journal of Philosophy of Education. Vol 26 No 2.

Ayer, A. J. (1936) Language, Truth and Logic. London : Golanz

Dennett, D. (1996) Kinds of Minds. London : Phoenix.

Hume, D. (1978) Enquiries concerning Human Understanding. Third Edition revised notes P H Nidditch. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Kerr, C. (1972) The Use of the University. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press.

Putman, H. (1992) Renewing Philosophy. London : Harvard Press.

Searle, J. (1993) The Construction of Social Reality. Penguin Books.

Searle, J. (1997 The Mystery of Consciousness. Granta.

Wittgenstein, L. (1997) 'Lecture on Ethics'. In Moral Discourse and Practice, (Eds). Darwall, S, Gibbard A, and Railton P. Oxford University Press. Anscombe, J.E.M. (1959) 'Brute Facts' in Analysis, 18, 3 (1958).