Fiction and Intentionality
Thomasson (Amie L.)
Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 277-298
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. A good phenomenological theory must be able to account equally well for our experiences of veridical perception and hallucination, for our thoughts about universities, colors, numbers, mythical figures and more. For all of these are characteristic mental acts, and a theory of intentionality should be a theory of conscious acts in general, not just of consciousness of a specific kind of thing or of a specific kind of consciousness. In so far as phenomenology purports to be a general study of intentional acts of consciousness, it must be able to account for acts with all kinds of objects (existent or non-existent, particular or universal, specific or vague) and with all kinds of thetic character (judgings, perceivings, imaginings...). Any limitation of these features puts the theory in danger of being an explanation of only some kinds of mental act, and of mis-characterizing the nature of intentionality in general.
  2. One of the most important features of intentionality is that the object of an intentional act need not exist (as a spatio-temporal, physical particular). Traditional theories of intentionality distort and trivialize the issue of our intentional relations to non-existent objects by considering almost exclusively such marginal and unusual cases as seeing a centaur. Such cases are, of course, important for theories of intentionality, but since they are so unusual, and epistemically so private, we have very few intuitions about how these experiences ought to be analyzed, against which we could evaluate the success of the theory. The selection of such cases is, in my opinion, the reason intentionality theory has not yet dealt adequately with the problems involved in dealing with non-existent objects like fictional characters.
  3. The case is very different with fictional objects, for they are objects of frequent and quite ordinary (as opposed to paranormal) daily conscious experiences. Our experience of fictional characters is no doubt one of the most important and common kinds of intentional relation to something outside the realm of ordinary physical existents: we discuss fictional characters with others, write theories about them, interpret them, pass moral and aesthetic judgments on them, admire and emulate them, even dedicate academic disciplines to their study. In short, only the oddest of people has hallucinatory experiences as complex and varied as our normal experiences of fictional objects.
  4. Thus given that accounting for our intentional relations to non-existent objects is one of the most important tasks for a theory of intentionality, and given that fiction comprises perhaps the richest source of experiences of non-existent objects, analyzing our intentional relations to fictional objects should be one of the most important tests of a theory of intentionality. Moreover, these kinds of relations can function as a test of a theory of intentionality precisely because we have such a wealth of experiences of fictional objects of which we need to make sense.
  5. As we shall see, the other features of intentionality, including its conception-dependence and context-sensitivity, are preserved in our intentional acts directed towards fictional objects as well as in those directed towards existent objects. This fact creates many difficulties for phenomenological theories that try to avoid postulating fictional objects. If phenomenological theory is to analyze our basic kinds of conscious experience, than any theory which is too much at odds with our basic experiences of (and talk about) fictional objects ought to be rejected just as much as any theory that is inconsistent with or unable to explain our perceptual experiences.

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