I'm struggling to decide whether to jettison use of the word fact, because the definition appears to be not solid enough to support continued usage. What do I mean by that? Look at one "meaning ladder" (taken from Random House via TFD Online) among several on the same page:
- something that actually exists: Your fears have no basis in fact.
- something known to exist or to have happened.
- a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true.
- something said to be true or supposed to have happened.
- an actual or alleged event or circumstance, as distinguished from its legal effect or consequence.
This definition marches us from something that exists to something that is merely supposed to be true to something that may be "actual or alleged." (And yes, I am aware that dictionaries don't dictate the meanings of words; they record meanings from usages. And the meanings of this word as it is used and recorded in English seem to be antagonistic toward each other.)
What are we to do with all this? Does a fact require the modifier true to be judged genuine? When we preface a statement with "in fact" don't we mean What follows is the truth? The aforementioned dictionary certainly thinks so:
in fact, in truth; really; indeed: They are, in fact, great patriots.
Here fact and truth are equated absolutely. So I'm wondering: how do we distinguish between what is a fact in the sense of absolute truth and what is a fact of a lesser order? Other words can have many shades of meaning, but this one seems somehow like it shouldn't. So if I hear the word fact without hearing true before it, does it even deserve the term?
A cautionary note
I'm not really looking for a discussion of truth in the philosophical sense. The scope of this question is limited to the meaning of a word in English, not the meaning of an absolute concept as rational beings can or should understand it. What I'm really after, as I mentioned in a comment, is whether the adulteration of this particular word renders it, ultimately, meaningless, and therefore something to be avoided.
In conclusion, I offer this quote from Howard K. Zinn, from his Afterword to A People's History of the United States:
But there is no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation. Behind every fact presented to the world—by a teacher, a writer, anyone—is a judgment. The judgment that has been made is that this fact is important, and that other facts, omitted, are not important