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Philosophy Fiction
by
Peter Lamarque

Introduction

Aspects of fiction or fictionality have long intrigued and puzzled philosophers across a surprisingly wide range of the subject, including metaphysics, epistemology, logic, philosophy of language, and aesthetics. What is fiction exactly, and how is it distinguished from nonfiction? One prominent set of problems relates to fictional names (such as “Sherlock Holmes,” “the Time Machine,” “Casterbridge”), concerning how they might fit into a general semantics for natural languages. Should they be eliminated by paraphrase or should they be acknowledged as proper names, albeit referring to nonreal items? Related problems arise for ontology. Should we admit fictional entities into our ontology, affording them some kind of being (as abstract entities, perhaps, or as possible objects)? Or again, should we find ways to eliminate them? Another difficulty stems from the fact that well-developed fictional characters in realist novels can often seem more real than actual people. Not only are they spoken and thought about but they can also occupy a significant role in ordinary people’s lives, including their emotional lives. How can this be explained? How can people respond with such powerful feelings to beings they know are merely made up? Also, how is it that readers sometimes have difficulty imagining the content of stories? Philosophers writing in aesthetics about literature as an art form have explored the modes of representing fictional characters, the values storytelling might have, and the potential for works of literary fiction to convey truths about the real world. Finally, appeals to fiction are sometimes made to explain whole areas of discourse, such as mathematics or morals, where there is a reluctance to admit familiar kinds of propositions as literal truths because of their ontological commitments. Thus, “fictionalism” has been promoted: the idea that strictly speaking it is better to view the discourse as a species of fiction, even while acting as if the discourse contained straightforward truths.

General Overviews

Two succinct overviews of philosophical debates relating to fiction may be found in Lamarque 2003 and van Inwagen 2003, the former giving particular prominence to issues in aesthetics, the latter to issues in logic. The editors’ introduction in Everett and Hofweber 2000 is a useful survey of central theories in the semantics and metaphysics of fiction, and the volume’s thirteen essays, by different authors, cover a good range of key issues, often in a polemical manner. Howell 1979 also lays out the parameters of the debate about fictional entities in an illuminating way. Eklund 2009 is a comprehensive overview of the currently fashionable “fictionalism,” in its many forms, surveying and assessing arguments for and against it. McCormick, et al. 1998 offers separate perspectives on fiction broadly within the compass of aesthetics: P. McCormick offers a historical overview, W. Iser provides a literary perspective, and C. Wilson considers issues in the epistemology of fiction.

Metaphysics of Fiction

Positions on the metaphysics of fiction—notably on the ontological status of “fictional entities”—divide roughly into three: realist views that concede some kind of reality for fictional entities, eliminativist views that seek to remove any such commitment, and views that are skeptical of metaphysical approaches altogether. Items in each of these categories follow.

Realist Approaches

In modern discussions, Meinong 1960 (originally published in 1904) is still taken to be the starting point. Meinong postulated different kinds of “being,” of which actual “existence” is but a subclass. His theory was developed and set in the context of modern logic in Parsons 1980, which countenanced a class of “nonexistent objects,” including fictional characters, about which true statements could be made. A different approach, the idea that fictional characters exist as abstract entities of a certain kind, has proved popular. van Inwagen 1977 views characters as “theoretical entities of literary criticism,” comparable in status to plots, meters, and rhyme schemes. Another version is presented in Wolterstorff 1980, which argues that Sherlock Holmes, for example, belongs in the category of kinds— in this case, person-kinds—but he is not a kind of person (i.e., a physical being). One consequence of Wolterstorff’s view is that because kinds are eternal, timeless entities, they cannot be created, only discovered. Salmon 1998, Thomasson 1999, and Lamarque 2003 argue that characters can be both abstract and created. Thomasson 2003 seeks to show how little is involved in granting reality to fictional characters, thus making realism a palatable option. Braun 2005 offers further arguments in favor of realism about fictional objects.

Eliminativist Approaches

For many philosophers, the realist option of granting some kind of reality to fictional entities is unacceptable. Quine 1953 showed one way in which unwanted ontological commitments might be avoided, through logical paraphrase. Various strategies, often inspired by Quinean paraphrase, have been offered to try to eliminate apparent references to fictional entities. Goodman 1968 gives an account of pictorial representation whereby a picture of a unicorn might be classified as a “unicorn-picture” without commitment to any kind of reality for unicorns. Specific arguments against particular versions of realism are presented in Brock 2002 and Everett 2005. Walton 1990 offers an influential view whereby fictional entities are explained (explained away) in terms of games of make-believe. This idea is taken up in Everett 2007.

  • Brock, Stuart. “Fictionalism about Fictional Characters.” Noûs 36 (2002): 1–21.

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    Argues against realist accounts of fictional characters by employing various paraphrase devices, including an operator “according to the realist’s hypothesis” prefixed to critical statements, such as “Scarlett O’Hara is a fictional character,” which might otherwise incur a commitment to fictional entities.

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  • Everett, Anthony. “Against Fictional Realism.” Journal of Philosophy 102 (2005): 624–649.

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    Rejects those views that posit some kind of reality for fictional entities.

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  • Everett, Anthony. “Pretense, Existence, and Fictional Objects.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (2007): 56–80.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2007.00003.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues against the view of fictional characters as abstract entities and defends a make-believe theoretic account as found in Walton 1990.

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  • Goodman, Nelson. The Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.

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    Develops an eliminativist theory of fictional entities applied to all art forms.

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  • Quine, W. V. O. “On What There Is.” In From a Logical Point of View. By W. V. O. Quine, 1–19. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953.

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    Classic statement of the use of logical paraphrase to reduce ontological commitments.

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  • Walton, Kendall L. “Doing Without Fictitious Entities.” In Mimesis as Make-believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. By Kendall L. Walton, 385–419. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

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    A subtle and complex discussion of the semantics and ontology of fiction in this important book, aiming to show how commitment to fictitious entities can be avoided in light of the general analysis of fiction in terms of “games of make-believe.”

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Anti-metaphysical Approaches

Not all philosophers agree that there are metaphysical issues at stake arising from fiction. For some, the ease with which we talk about fictional characters should be accepted at face value. There is nothing more mysterious in referring to Sherlock Holmes than referring to Barack Obama. Martinich and Stroll 2007 provides a good example of this approach. Philosophers, Martinich and Stroll believe, get into unnecessary trouble over fiction because they are committed to a principle, the axiom of existence (what is referred to must exist), which should be rejected. A similar view is taken in Rorty 1982 which asserts that analytical philosophers are wrongly obsessed with how language “relates” to the world. Crittenden 1991 also plays down the problems, suggesting our ordinary practices of speaking about fictions have no metaphysical implications.

  • Crittenden, Charles. Unreality: The Metaphysics of Fictional Objects. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

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    Wittgensteinian “language game” approach. Allows legitimacy of fictional entities (as “grammatical objects”), while also denying their existence in the physical world.

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  • Martinich, Aloysius, and Avrum Stroll. Much Ado about Nonexistence: Fiction and Reference. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.

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    An approach to fiction influenced by ordinary language philosophy. Rejects the axiom of existence for reference and legitimates reference to fictional characters. Polemical in style and attacks direct reference theories.

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  • Rorty, Richard. “Is There a Problem About Fictional Discourse?” In Consequences of Pragmatism. By Richard Rorty, 110–138. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982.

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    A lively rejection of analytic philosophy’s approach to fictional entities, arguing in effect that most “problems about fictional discourse” are spurious.

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Logic and Semantics of Fiction

How can a semantics of natural language accommodate the use of fictional names? As direct-reference theories of names—deriving from John Stuart Mill and Saul Kripke—began to find wide acceptance—that is, the view that proper names directly connect with their denotata without any implied descriptive content—the problem of fictional names became more acute. Fictional names look like proper names but do not act like them. Donnellan 1974, Adams, et al. 1997, Zalta 2003, and Sainsbury 2005 all address the problem of accounting for fictional names in the context of standard theories of reference. Jeremy Bentham, writing in the mid-19th century (see Ogden 1932), was one of the first philosophers to propose a method of paraphrase to distinguish apparent reference from actual reference. The view that what looks like reference might not strictly be reference has been fundamental to logical approaches to fiction. But how can a theory of language explain the act of storytelling, when a speaker appears to be making assertions about the world but is not doing so, only spinning a tale? Searle 1979 was one of the first to apply speech act theory to the problem. A storyteller, Searle argues, is pretending to make assertions, etc., and can be understood by virtue of the existence of storytelling conventions. Currie 1990 explains “fictive utterance” in terms of not a speaker’s pretense but a distinctive kind of intention regarding an audience’s pretense. Another logical issue concerns how readers of fiction draw inferences about what is true in a fictional world (the world of a story). Lewis 1978 offers an account in terms of counterfactual reasoning. This is taken up and criticized in Byrne 1993.

Paradox of Fiction and Emotion

Two important papers, Radford 1975 and Walton 1978, started a debate that has resisted any clear resolution since. The basic issue is this: How can audiences experience emotions such as fear, pity, love, and envy toward fictional characters when they know the characters are merely fictional? The problem arises because emotions of that kind appear to involve beliefs about their objects, not least being that those objects exist. Walton argues that it is only make-believe that audiences experience these emotions (in standard cases), they do not really do so, whereas Radford holds that audiences are simply irrational in responding emotionally as they do. Joyce 2000 criticizes Radford’s irrationality claim; Kim 2005 seeks to explore it more deeply. Neill 1991 raises problems for Walton, and Walton 1997 refines the original analysis. Lamarque 1981 also takes issue with Walton 1978 and suggests a new line, that an audience’s thoughts arising from the fiction can be the cause of the emotions. Meskin and Weinberg 2003 takes a not dissimilar line to Lamarque 1981 but in the context of “cognitive architecture.”

Fiction and “Imaginative Resistance”

There is an ever-growing body of literature on what is known as the “puzzle of imaginative resistance” (note that Matravers 2003 and Walton 2006, among others, are uncomfortable with that designation). How is it that readers of works of fiction sometimes find it quite easy to follow the imaginings prescribed by the works but other times find it virtually impossible to do so? Initially, for example, in Walton 1994 and Gendler 2000, the focus was on an apparent asymmetry between moral and nonmoral cases, the former thought to be more open to “resistance.” But it is now generally agreed (see Weatherson 2004 and Walton 2006) that there are other equally compelling nonmoral examples of problems with imagining. Nichols 2006 is a useful collection of papers, written by key contributors, that draw out the important issues. It is apparent that the problem is at its most interesting and perplexing when it engages deeply with the very nature of fictional storytelling: the role of narrators (Matravers 2003), the intelligibility of fictional content (Stock 2005), and the relation between fiction and imagination (Moran 1994).

  • Gendler, Tamar Szabó. “The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance.” Journal of Philosophy 97 (2000): 55–81.

    DOI: 10.2307/2678446Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An early and influential characterization of the “puzzle,” one of the first to identify the failure of a reader to imagine something as a kind of “resistance,” an unwillingness rather than an inability to imagine.

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  • Matravers, Derek. “Fictional Assent and the (So-called) “Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance.” In Imagination, Philosophy and the Arts. Edited by Matthew Kieran and Dominic M. Lopes, 91–106. London: Routledge, 2003.

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    Seeks to explain the phenomenon in terms of the trust that a reader places in a fictional narrator with regard to the narrator’s epistemological position vis-à-vis the events described.

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  • Moran, Richard. “The Expression of Feeling in Imagination.” Philosophical Review 103 (1994): 75–106.

    DOI: 10.2307/2185873Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An important and wide-ranging treatment of not only issues surrounding how difficult it can be to imagine certain states of affairs in fiction, but also the paradox of fiction, critical of the make-believe account. Available online.

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  • Nichols, Shaun, ed. The Architecture of the Imagination: New Essays on Pretence, Possibility, and Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006.

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    A useful set of papers by distinguished contributors exploring aspects of the imagination in relation to fiction, including the “imaginative resistance” issue.

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  • Stock, Kathleen. “Resisting Imaginative Resistance.” Philosophical Quarterly 55 (2005): 607–624.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0031-8094.2005.00419.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A helpful critical overview of the debate. Suggests the core issue—why readers of fiction sometimes fail to imagine something—can be explained in terms of the “contingent incomprehensibility” of the propositions to be imagined.

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  • Walton, Kendall L. “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 68 (1994): 27–50.

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    An important contribution, exploring the asymmetry between moral and nonmoral content in works of fiction.

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  • Walton, Kendall L. “On the (So-called) Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance.” In The Architecture of the Imagination: New Essays on Pretence, Possibility, and Fiction. Edited by Shaun Nichols, 137–148. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006.

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    A useful extension of Walton 1994, disentangling different elements of the “puzzle,” not least between an “aesthetic puzzle,” a “fictionality puzzle,” and several “imaginative puzzles.”

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  • Weatherson, Brian. “Morality, Fiction, and Possibility.” Philosophers’ Imprint 4 (2004): 1–27.

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    Argues that the “puzzle of imaginative resistance” does not arise only in cases of moral deviance, and proposes an explanation that turns on the role of “higher-level concepts” in conceiving a work’s content. Available online.

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Other Issues about Fiction within Aesthetics

Many other issues arise about fiction within aesthetics. One concerns the capacity of works of fiction to convey truths and knowledge; the issue is less whether it is contingently possible for readers to learn things from fiction but whether this is one of the literary values of fiction. Lamarque and Olsen 1994 argues that it is not, whereas Carroll 2002 suggests ways that it might be. Other questions about value arise for fiction. Is the aesthetic value of a literary work of fiction affected by its moral stance? Carroll 1996 and Gaut 2007 argue that it is, Anderson and Dean 1998 that it is not. This debate has had considerable impact on aesthetics. Still on value, Feagin 1996 argues that the appreciation of works of fiction is integrally tied to a reader’s affective responses. Walton 1990 is a revered contribution to the theory of representation, defending the ideas (1) that all representations are fictions, and (2) to be fictional is “to possess the function of serving as a prop in games of make-believe.” For Walton, all pictures are fictions.

Fictionalism

Fictionalism takes different forms and is applied to different areas of discourse (mathematics, morality, modality, science, etc.). Broadly, it is the idea that taken literally, certain sentences within the discourse are not true but can be used—and might be useful—if considered as a species of fiction, perhaps prefaced with some such operator as “according to the fiction.” An early version may be traced to Vaihinger 1923, whose ideas in turn originate in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Vaihinger’s philosophy of “as if” elaborated the notion of “conscious falsehoods” or “fictions of convenience” in science, law, and other areas. Eklund 2009 and Sainsbury 2010 give useful surveys of the different applications and kinds of fictionalism, and Kalderon 2005 is an illuminating collection of papers arguing for different positions under this broad heading. Yablo 2001 categorizes species of fictionalism. Different fictionalist applications are exemplified as follows: to mathematics (Field 1989), to modality (Rosen 1990), to moral sentences (Joyce 2005), to discourse about ordinary objects (van Inwagen 1990), and to names and identity statements (Kroon 2004). It should be noted that many of these applications draw on theories of fiction, including that of Kendall Walton, which appear elsewhere in this entry.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0045

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