Fiction and Metaphysics
Van Inwagen (Peter)
Source: Philosophy and Literature 7:1, Spring 1983, pp. 67-77
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Many works of fiction address themselves directly to metaphysical issues. One thinks of the stories of Olaf Stapledon, Charles Williams, or Jorge Luis Borges. Other fiction is more subtly and indirectly related to metaphysics — A la recherche du temps perdu, for example, or, in a rather different way, some science fiction. The relations that various novels and stories bear to the questions of metaphysics would be an interesting topic, but it is not the topic of the present article, which is the relevance to metaphysics not of this or that work, but rather of the very existence of such a thing as fiction. We shall see that philosophical reflection on fiction can lead one to certain remarkable metaphysical conclusions. Not surprisingly, the area of metaphysics to which these conclusions pertain is ontology. The word, though not the study it represents, is a new one — it is probably a seventeenth-century coinage. In the present century, the word "ontology" is associated mainly with the names of Martin Heidegger and W.V. Quine. I shall be using the word in Quine's sense: as a name for the study that attempts to answer the question. What is there?
  2. Quine's contributions to this study are of central importance for the thesis of this article. These contributions may be divided into two parts: those that belong to ontology proper and those that belong to what we may call meta-ontology. By Quine's "ontology proper," I mean his actual attempt to answer the question, What is there? This attempt is of great intrinsic interest, but it is not relevant to my topic. By Quine's meta-ontology, I mean his famous discussion of what it is to ask what there is and his famous theses about how to approach this question. These theses are the product of a really remarkable effort to think clearly about questions almost no one had thought clearly about, and a proper appreciation of them will liberate one from some very old and very strong illusions about being and existence. Or so many philosophers, including the present author, would say. And yet Quine's meta-ontology, when it is combined with what seem to be some very simple and obvious facts about fiction, yields a result that seems just obviously wrong; that names drawn from works of fiction ("Mr. Pickwick" and "Tom Sawyer," for example, as well as proper names of other sorts, such as "Dotheboys Hall" and "Barchester") denote existent objects.
  3. The thesis of this article is that this consequence of Quine's meta-ontology does not constitute a reductio ad absurdum; rather, Quine's meta-ontology should be retained and this consequence accepted.
  4. I shall first examine Quine's meta-ontology in the abstract, and then in application to fiction. …


For the full text, see Van Inwagen: Fiction and Metaphysics.

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