Philosophy Fiction
Peter Lamarque
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0045


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.

  • Eklund, Matti. “Fictionalism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2009.

    A thorough and clearly organized survey of arguments for and against fictionalism in its different forms.

  • Everett, Anthony, and Thomas Hofweber, eds. Empty Names, Fiction and the Puzzles of Non-Existence. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2000.

    The editors’ introduction is particularly useful for setting the scene, and the volume’s thirteen papers are grouped under the headings “Empty Names,” “Pretense,” and “Ontology.” Though sometimes technical and intellectually demanding, the essays reveal the depths and difficulties of the issues.

  • Howell, Robert “Fictional Objects: How They Are and How They Aren’t.” Poetics 8 (1979): 129–177.

    DOI: 10.1016/0304-422X(79)90018-4

    A useful critical survey of both realist and eliminativist strategies.

  • Lamarque, Peter. “Fiction.” In Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 377–391. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A survey of issues about fiction broadly connected with aesthetics, including the “paradox of fiction and emotion.”

  • McCormick, P., W. Iser, and C. Wilson. “Fiction.” In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Vol. 2. Edited by Michael Kelly. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Includes a historical overview, literary perspective, and discussion of the epistemology of fiction within the scope of philosophical aesthetics.

  • van Inwagen, Peter. “Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities.” In The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics. Edited by Michael Loux and Dean Zimmerman, 131–157. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A critical survey of prominent ontological approaches including those of Meinong, Wolterstorff, and Thomasson, among others.

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