Monday, 14 January 2013

Kinds of Discourse about Fictional Entities

A theory of fictional entities aims to make overall semantic and ontological sense of discourse about fictional entities. It is quite difficult to do this. A recent survey article, "Fictional Entities", by Amie L. Thomasson (in A Companion to Metaphysics, eds., Kim, Sosa and Rosenkrantz, Blackwell, 2009) classifies four kinds of phenomena that any such theory should be able to account for:
(1)  Fictionalizing discourse (discourse within works of fiction), e.g. “[Holmes was] the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen” in “A Scandal in Bohemia”. 
(2)  Nonexistence claims, e.g. “Sherlock Holmes does not exist”. 
(3)  Internal discourse by readers about the content of works of fiction. This may be either intra-fictional (reporting the content of a single work of fiction, e.g. “Holmes solved his first mystery in his college years,”) or cross-fictional (comparing the contents of two works of fiction, e.g. “Anna Karenina is smarter than Emma Bovary”). 
(4)  External discourse by readers and critics about the characters as fictional characters, e.g. “Holmes is a fictional character”, “Hamlet was created by Shakespeare”, “The Holmes character was modeled on an actual medical doctor Doyle knew”, “Holmes appears in dozens of stories”, “Holmes is very famous”.
Thomasson continues with a summary of the basic problem:
The puzzles for fictional discourse arise because many of the things we want to say about fictional characters seem in conflict with each other: How, for example, could Holmes solve a mystery if he doesn’t exist? How could Hamlet be born to Gertrude if he was created by Shakespeare? Any theory of fiction is obliged to say something about how we can understand these four kinds of claim in ways that resolve their apparent inconsistencies. And any theory of fictional discourse will have import for whether or not we should accept that there are fictional entities we sometimes refer to, and if so, what sorts of thing they are and what is literally true of them. 
UPDATE (15 Jan): Tim Button mentions in the comments below that an important fifth kind of discourse may have been omitted. Possibly Thomasson intended it to be covered by type (4), "external discourse", so I'll call it:
(4)* Mixed external discourse by readers expressing relations between the characters and non-fictional entities, e.g. “Jeff Ketland is smarter than Homer Simpson”, “My college is prettier than Hogwarts”.


  1. This classification misses out relationships between things that straddle the real/fictional divide, e.g.:

    - Jeff Ketland is taller than Bilbo Baggins.
    - Jeff Ketland dislikes Saruman.
    - Sherlock Holmes lived here [indicating the real Baker Street]

    To my mind, sentences that state our relationship with fictions are the hardest sentences for any account to deal with.

  2. Tim, yes, I agree that these mixed sentences are the most difficult ones. (Cf., applicable mathematics and mixed math objects.)

    I'm not sure, but I think Thomasson means to include these as type (4), i.e., "external" statements.