Monday, October 17, 2011

Fictional entities

A student tells me: "Patrick Jones stole my laptop. Could I get an extension?" But the student's laptop has never been stolen, and the student knows it. Clearly the student has to be lying. Or does she? Suppose that we accept a realism about fictional entities, and suppose that shortly before coming to class, the student wrote a very short story in which Patrick Jones steals her laptop after she writes her homework. On realist views of fictional characters on which one can correctly say "Odysseus was resourceful", the student has told me the sober truth. (That she features in the story is clearly not a problem—stories can include real entities.) That seems to be a good reason to reject such views. This argument leaves untouched realist views on "Odysseus is a fictional character" is literally true, but "Odysseus was resourceful" should be taken to be elliptical for something like "Odysseus was resourceful in the Odyssey."

14 comments:

Kenny said...

Perhaps realism about fictional entities can be saved by claiming that no fictional entities are identical with actual entities. This is a little implausible as it implies that the characters in historical fiction are not identical to the characters in history whose names they share, but counterpart theory might be at least a little more plausible for fictions than for possibilities.

If we take this view, then the student's claim is false, since the laptop Patrick Jones stole was not her laptop, but the counterpart-in-the-fiction of her laptop.

DL said...

I'm pretty realistic about fictional characters, but unless her preceding statement to you was, "I wrote a story about myself featuring Patrick Jones the dashing cat-burglar and guess what happened on the first page?", then she's lying; as much as if some non-fictional Patrick Jones had stolen her laptop… twenty years ago. Or if a non-fictional Patrick Jones had just stolen her laptop, but she didn't lose her work because she hadn't done any yet. In all these cases, she's relying on your normal and expected interpretation of the context to mislead you, but it's all lying (if done deliberately, etc.).

Heath White said...

The student almost certainly thought of a very short story involving the fictional PJ stealing her laptop; that's the story she's telling you. So this kind of realism invites disaster.

Alexander R Pruss said...

DL:

These are all examples of deceit, but it is not clear that they are lies. To lie that p, one needs to assert that p and, except in some weird cases, take p to be false.

Heath:

Maybe. I don't know if a lie counts as a fiction, though. If it does, then probably so does a mistake. Now our ontology really bloats. Paleontologists find a bunch of dinosaur bones, and call the animal "Denny." But it turns out that the bones don't come from a single individual. So now Denny is a fictional character, made of the bones of various real animals.

DL said...

To lie that p, one needs to assert that p and, except in some weird cases, take p to be false.

I would say she does make false assertions in all those scenarios. (Possibly she makes true assertions as well, insofar as her words can be interpreted both ways, like an elaborate sort of pun, but she at least makes the false assertion that she intends you to believe.) But even if it's useful to make a terminological distinction under which this kind of deceit doesn't fit our technical definition of "lying", it's still an attempt to deceive someone immorally, and so wrong. So I agree with Heath's point that any such lie or deceit (or mistake) involves a fictional story, but I don't fear disaster because the deceit is still immoral even under fictional realism.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Say I write a story on which Moriarty murders Hitler when Hitler is a baby. Then on the strong realist view (the one that not only recognizes fictional characters but allows in-story claims to be true simpliciter, as in "Odysseus is resourceful"), the following is true:
1. Moriarty murdered Hitler when Hitler was a baby.

We can then logically deduce:
2. Hitler was murdered by Moriarty as a baby.
3. Hitler was murdered as a baby.
4. Hitler died as a baby.

But 3 and 4 are uncontroversially false.

DL said...


"Hitler died as a baby" is uncontroversially false if by "Hitler" we are uncontroversially referring to the famous wallpaper-hanger who did not die in infancy. "Abraham Lincoln is alive and well in Brooklyn" is entirely true, as is "Abraham Lincoln is an aircraft carrier", because there is more than one person (or naval vessel) named "Abraham Lincoln". Similarly, there is more than one person called "Hitler" — at the very least, there is Adolf Hitler the former Fuhrer, and Hitler the fictional murdered infant. Since the context in your comment makes it clear that you are referring to the latter, surely (3) and (4) are uncontroversially true!

(Of course, if your comment didn't include the first sentence, it would be natural to think you were referring to the famous Hitler, just as in your original example, it's natural to think that "Patrick Jones" refers to a non-fictional person. Conversely, it's natural to think that an unqualified reference to "Hamlet" is a reference to the fictional character. Someone who makes a statement contrary to the obvious context is either joking or lying or mistaken, or else just really bad at knowing how to provide the necessary context.)

Alexander R Pruss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander R Pruss said...

But the person murdered in the work of fiction is the infamous Adolf Hitler himself, just as Sherlock Holmes lives in the famous London, not in some fictional London.

DL said...

But the fictional London can't be the same as its non-fictional counterpart: for one thing, the fictional London numbers Holmes among its citizens, and the non-fictional London doesn't. I guess if fictional realism is defined as meaning fictional twins are the same entities as their counterparts, then it's trivially impossible. But why would we consider them not that: merely twins? True, they often are impostors; they pretend to be the "real" city or person, but that's part of the gimmick. As readers, we know that this is a shorthand for saying, "Sherlock lives in a city that is just like the non-fictional London in history and organization, etc., except where otherwise stated." It's part entertainment and part a way to avoid describing lots of unimportant detail.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Suppose I just plain lie to you and say: "Sherlock Holmes still lives in London." (Maybe I hope to convince you by my epistemic authority.) Then the "London" I was referring to is our world's real London. Suppose I make a counterfactual claim and say: "Last month, I could have visited London." Then the "London" I am referring to is our world's real London, even though our world's real London doesn't have me in it last month. Why should the fictional claim refer to a different London than the lie or the counterfactual claim?

I can also make the point in fiction.

A story can start, "Once upon a time, in London, ..." Or it can start, "Once upon a time, in a city very much like London, and named 'London', ..." The two stories are saying something quite different.

I can write an alternative-history story where Socrates gets nicknamed "Alcibiades", where he becomes a treacherous politician and sophist, etc. But it's still a story about Socrates.

DL said...

I'm not sure the counterfactual London is the "real" London. Maybe "could have" means something like, "There is a possible/fictional world where my twin was in London's twin last month, and up to that point, that world was exactly the same as this one." Certainly in the case of the lie, referring to the "real" London is what makes it wrong. If the lie was referring to London₂ (instead of the "real" London₁), then it would be a true statement; and I want statements like, "Holmes lived in London₂, but not in Paris₂" to be true.

I'd also deny that your story is about Socrates, that is, about Socrates₁. However, I'd accept that "about" can be used loosely in such circumstances to mean, "is about a close twin of Socrates₁." Or maybe Socrates₂ is himself "about" Socrates₁ somehow, if fictional characters point to their non-fictional counterparts in some intentional sense. But if your story were simply and directly about Socrates₁ despite many details being different, you could change more and more details until there was no resemblance left to the real Socrates₁ at all and still say your tale was "about" him.

Alexander R Pruss said...

So the price of this sort of realism about fictional entities is that you end up with counterpart theory all over the place.

DL said...

Yes. Since we talk easily about thing like whether Hamlet "really" went mad or was just pretending, or whether it's true that Holmes lived in London, something there better be real. (Then again, I'm a realist about forms, so it's no big deal to me!)