Philosophical perspectives on fictional characters
Livingston (Paisley) & Sauchelli (Andrea)
Source: New Literary History, Volume 42, Number 2, Spring 2011, pp. 337-360
Paper - Abstract

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Authors’ Introduction

  1. In what Fred Crews calls “duty free interdisciplinarity,” scholars borrow an idea from another field and slip it across the border into their home discipline, where it is misrepresented as the state of the art in the source field. We aim to avoid this kind of error in the following selective survey of philosophical perspectives on fiction and fictional characters. Although we cannot offer a comprehensive historical overview, we describe a number of different positions that have been central to contemporary philosophical debates. We pass over various approaches and topics that have figured prominently in literary theory, and instead emphasize work that is less likely to be familiar to literary scholars.
  2. Our focus here is on what can be called the more fundamental issues, that is, questions about the very nature of fictional characters and the basis of our knowledge of them. We take it that these issues are logically distinct from, but of direct relevance to, a number of other fascinating topics, including questions about the feelings or emotions that are and are not appropriate to a reader’s experience of persons represented in a work of fiction, or the question of whether and how genuine knowledge is to be had from the experience of characters and their doings in fictions.
  3. We do not pretend to be neutral about the positions surveyed in what follows, and shall refrain from misrepresenting our opinions as the object of a philosophical consensus. It is our hope that literary scholars may find some of these ideas insightful and useful, and indeed, we aim to establish that the philosophers whose works we discuss have presented a number of arguments and positions that are directly relevant to debates in literary studies. We hasten to add, however, that this is not a situation where an authoritative theory can be imported from one field into another. Instead, it should be acknowledged that topics surrounding fictional characters have proved to be an important challenge to a number of sophisticated theories in metaphysics and the philosophy of language and mind.
  4. Here is a brief outline of the paper.
    1. We begin by setting forth a basic and central question about fictional characters and survey some of the main ways of trying to answer this question.
    2. We start with the broad family of realist approaches and discuss some of its members. The premise shared by such approaches is that, at least in some cases, claims about fictional characters refer to something real and can be right or wrong.
    3. Having discussed realist approaches we then turn to “irrealist” approaches. The basic orientation of all such approaches is provided by the thought that fictional characters are in some sense a figment of the human imagination. This family of views has its attractions, but faces problems as well.
    4. Those who think the problems outweigh the advantages have sought to find a way out of the realist / irrealist dilemma, and one family of views, based on work by Alexius Meinong, is discussed. We turn, finally, to issues related to the distinction between characters and other aspects of the content of fictions, including the relation between a literary concept of character and positions on personality theory in psychology.
    5. In a brief conclusion we sketch our preferred stance on the issues and positions canvassed in the paper.

Authors’ Conclusion
  1. In the place of a recapitulation of points from our descriptive survey, we propose the following concise formulation of our own understanding of the key problems and of our preferred approach to their solution.
    1. We deny, contra the Meinongian line, that fictional entities are best thought of as nonexistents that have some special mode of being called “subsistence.” Although such postulations would certainly provide the sought-after truth-makers for fictional discourse, they themselves would appear to stand in need of plausible truth-makers.
    2. For similar reasons, we do not find it promising to try to explain the referential function of fictional discourse in terms of worlds furnished by either concrete or abstract possible entities, at least if talk of fictional worlds is supposed to be more than loose and metaphorical.
    3. More generally, in this regard we follow Roman Ingarden and Amie L. Thomasson in espousing the assumption that the grounds of fictional discourse are quite complex.
  2. A first such basis is the creative human capacity known traditionally as the imagination. Irrealists are right to identify imagining as the distinctive type of mental attitude and process that opens the door to fiction, just as the artifact theorist is right to think of works of fiction and their contents as the result of human creativity. To create a work of fiction is to engage in a specific train of imaginings and subsequently to create a prop of some kind, such as a text or an audiovisual display, that can serve to invite others to engage in similar imaginative experiences. A good philosophical account of how a work of fiction can be created begins with the assumption that human beings have the capacity to engage in imaginings having determinate content, but it does not follow that philosophy can or need provide any deeper explanation of how this is possible. Works of fiction are created only if agents use their imaginations in certain kinds of ways and end up endowing the work with a determinate content, where the term “content” refers to what is to be imagined in engaging appreciatively with the work qua work of fiction. The determinate content of a work of fiction owes its existence, then, to the imaginative process or act, and this is what grounds the truth-values of such statements as Rebecca Sharp is a fictional character, while also justifying the seemingly contrasting contentions that Rebecca Sharp does not exist, and that she has a lot of musical talent. While the act of imagining a particular train of thoughts is real, what those thoughts are about can, but need not, be anything actual or possible.

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