Reading, Writing, and Speech Act Theory: Prolegomena to any Future Logic of Fiction

Abstract

meaning of a proper name is simply its referent.[1] This thesis, however, brings with it a whole host of problems. One particularly thorny difficulty is that of negative existentials, sentences of the form ‘N does not exist’ (where ‘N’ is a proper name). Intuitively, some such sentences are true, but the direct reference theory seems to imply that they must be either false or meaningless. After all, if the meaning of a name is just its referent, then a sentence such as ‘Mary does not exist’ is meaningless unless there exists a person Mary who is the referent of the name ‘Mary’. But if such a person exists, then the sentence denying her existence must be false.            Now it might be suggested that negative existentials involve a rather rare and specialized use of names, for which an alternate analysis might well be appropriate. One might, for example, have independent reasons for thinking that existence is not a predicate. Even if this is right, however, the analysis of fictional discourse poses difficulties for the direct reference theory that cannot be so easily avoided. The trouble is that fictional names—‘Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Bilbo Baggins’, for example—lack referents; fictional characters do not exist. As a result, a simple application of the direct reference view to fictional discourse is entirely untenable—this would entail that claims regarding fictional characters are not only never true, but always meaningless.            The tendency in the philosophy of language has been to treat fictional discourse as a peripheral case, posing little threat to the direct reference view. And, as such, the fact that the analysis of fiction seems to run into intractable difficulties has been downplayed, and the fact the analyses on offer tend to be ad hoc has been tolerated. Typical strategies include treating fictional names as abbreviations for definite descriptions, supposing that fictional names occur within the scope of tacit fictive operators of various sorts, or taking them to directly refer to non-existent objects..

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Peter Alward
University of Saskatchewan

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