Fiction, Modality and Dependent Abstracta
Thomasson (Amie L.)
Source: Philosophical Studies, Vol. 84, No. 2/3, Possibilism and Actualism (Dec., 1996), pp. 295-320
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Lucky for us, the residents of Southsea were unusually healthy. For if Arthur Conan Doyle's medical practice had been busier, Sherlock Holmes might have never been created. Fortunate, too, that Dostoyevsky met Anna Snitkina, for without the stability she gave Dostoyevsky's life, none of the brothers Karamazov might have come to be. The pages of literary history are full of such observations that, although there are such characters as Holmes and Karamazov, given other conditions there might not have been.
  2. But central though such claims are to literary history and to our common understanding of fiction, most theories of fiction stumble in the attempt to account for them. Making sense of these claims requires that we offer a modal theory of fiction, addressing such issues as what possible worlds a fictional character is in and how to analyze modal discourse about fiction.
  3. The question of which possible worlds a fictional character resides in has spawned an astonishing variety of replies - ranging from the possibilist view that fictional characters, though not members of the actual world, belong to other possible worlds; to the disbeliever's view that there are no fictional characters in any world, actual or possible; to the abstractist view that fictional characters are necessary abstracta appearing in all possible worlds. Yet despite their variety, each of these views leads to various difficulties. The confusion on this issue and lack of a satisfying answer suggest that it might be worthwhile to look for a new way of understanding the relation between ficta and possibilia.
  4. The second major problem lies in analyzing modal discourse about fiction. On the one hand, we need a way to account for the apparent truth of such claims such as "Holmes might have never been created" and "Meursault (of The Stranger) might not have killed the Arab". But some modal claims about fiction aren't so straight forwardly true or false. Questions such as: Is Sherlock Holmes essentially clever? Might Brick of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof become an abusive father? might leave us simply confused. Thus we not only need a way to explain the apparent truth or falsehood of clear claims, but also a way of sorting out confusions and reaching an analysis of the more puzzling modal claims about fiction.
  5. I propose here to navigate the troubled waters of fiction and modality. I begin by discussing some problems which other views encounter and developing instead the Artifactual Theory of fiction a view according to which fictional characters like Holmes and Karamazov are created, dependent abstracta present in the actual world and in some, but not all, other possible worlds. Treating fictional characters as dependent entities enables us to overcome problems faced by other views, to provide a better answer to the problem of what possible worlds a fictional character belongs to, and to unpack the confusions in modal discourse about fiction. Its ability to handle the intricate problems of fiction and modality should provide some confirmation that we are on the right track to an adequate and durable theory of fiction.
  6. But a well-tested theory of fiction is not the only result of this labor. There is a temptation to think of the problems with fiction as isolated difficulties of awkward objects, which less extravagant metaphysicians need not worry over. This would be a great mistake. For the problems of placing fictional characters in a modal context also arise for those handling other types of abstract objects. Like the friend of fiction, the defender of abstracta must stipulate where these objects fit in a possible worlds ontology - and the typical response that they are members of all possible worlds is ill-suited for certain abstract entities like works of music and literature, and unattractive to anyone who takes a constructivist or dependentist view of some abstract objects. The solution developed for fiction suggests an alternative account of what possible worlds dependent abstracta are in - an account which may be useful far beyond the realm of fiction.

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