Fictional Characters and Their Discontents: Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics of Fictional Entities

Dissertation, Lingnan University (2021)
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In recent metaphysics, the questions of whether fictional entities exist, what their nature is, and how to explain truths of statements such as “Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street” and “Holmes was created by Arthur Conan Doyle” have been subject to much debate. The main aim of my thesis is to wrestle with key proponents of the abstractionist view that fictional entities are abstract objects that exist (van Inwagen 1977, 2018, Thomasson 1999 and Salmon 1998) as well as Walton’s (1990) pretense view, which denies the existence of such entities. In the process, I propose modifications to these views to deal with problems they face and show how the modifications better account for the philosophical data. Key abstractionists (van Inwagen 1977, Thomasson 1999) make a strict distinction between discourse within fiction, in which statements about literary characters cannot be literally true, and discourse about fiction, as it occurs in literary criticism, where statements about fictional characters can be literally true. Fictional objects are postulated to account for the truth of the latter. This runs into trouble because statements thought to be literally true are not literal. (Yagisawa 2001, Friend 2002) I provide a uniform analysis to account for the truth of statements involving fictional characters by appealing to a presupposition involving a metaphor in both contexts. The presupposition is that there is an x such that x is fictional; x is likened to a real person; and x is and ought to be treated/counted as a real person for all relevant intents and purposes. More generally, I adopt Everett and Schroeder’s (2015) realist view that fictional characters are ideas constituted by mental representations. This, to me, better accounts for how fictional characters are created within the world’s causal nexus (unlike non-spatiotemporal entities in abstractionism), among other things. One key challenge they face is to explain how ideas can possess properties such as being a detective. I present a fine-grained version of their view, according to which the mental representations constituting fictional entities encode mind-dependent properties. Moreover, I explain how reference to such representations is possible, using Bencivenga’s (1983) Neo-Kantian view of reference and Karttunen’s (1976) view on discourse referents. Finally, I suggest that the identity of fictional characters is interest-relative. The constant, and sometimes radical, change of properties that, fictional characters can undergo is taken to be a consequence of the fact that unified mental representations are bundles of simpler mental representations. As change occurs, simpler representations are replaced by others. A key theme that runs through the thesis is that neither fictionality nor pretense is relevant to the semantics of fictional sentences—a claim bolstered by Matravers’ (2014) arguments. Whether or not my account works, this claim, as well as the new philosophical data I bring up, are some of the challenges I pose to the heart of established views.

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Shamik Chakravarty
Alliance University

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