My Rambling Metaphysics of Fiction

July 12, 2006 at 12:33 am Leave a comment

(These are some of my thoughts on the philosophy of fiction. It would seem that reading a novel or watching TV are a few activities that are at least a safety zone from philosophy and philosophizing. But this is not so. There are many difficult issues associated with something as simple as enjoying a sitcom, such as the metaphysical status of fictional objects, the rationality of emotional responses to fiction, what fiction is, whether consumers of fiction have any ethical duties, the authority of the author in making truth claims about the story etc. I find this to be a revealing testiment about the power, scope and value of philosophy).

Fiction readers often grant their writers much creative liberty in their fiction. It is often assumed that the author has ultimate authority to define the particulars and norms in their stories, and that the author’s stating any proprosition is sufficient for its being true within the story. If, for example, the author populations his/her story with large, red, firebreathing dragons this is taken to be a sufficient condition for his/her fictional world containing dragons. Let us call this the authoritarian view of fiction:

(AvF) For any story s, the author of s affirming x is true of s is a sufficient condition of x being true of s.

So we can assume that on AvF, anything that the author affirming within his/her story is true of that story. And additionally that this view of fiction is widely affirming by most people who enjoy fiction on a consistent basis.

A confusion might arise at this point. Principle AvF may be confused with another principle of fiction which also seems to be widely held, namely the disconnect between fiction and reality,

(DFR) For any proposition p, the affirming of p by the author r is not a sufficient or necessary condition for p being realistic (believable) of any story s by r.

At first it may seem as though AvF and DFR are inconsistent or conflicting in some way. The confusion hinges on the assumption that those things which are true of x, must also be believable. In other words, if a story’s author affirms the existence of red dragons, then their are red dragons in the story, so how could this be unrealistic or unbelievable?

This is of course another way of making the assumption more explicit. But here is an example. Suppose you were witnessing a fist in the street during the afternoon of a clearly lit day. One of the guys gets his face bloodied up and falls to the ground. But after he gets up you see his face heal up in a matter of seconds. Cuts and blood disappear. Suppose also that you can verify both that his face was really cut when you first saw him AND that his face really healed up on the spot. That is a ‘real-life’ example of something that would be true and yet unbelievable.

Given that there is no inconsistency between AvF and DFR, it is important to realize that many times we take them of be inconsistently implicits while watching a movie or reading a book. Of times finding a character or circumstance unbelievable or forced viewers/readers may take this as in indication that AvF is false, that the writer’s affirming of proposition within the story is not a sufficient condition for it being true in the story, we shall call this the inconsistent thesis,

(IT) If any proposition p is incredible (unbelievable) in any story s, then that is a sufficient condition for p not being true of s inspite of the author’s authority.

In other words, most viewers/readers take AvF and DFR coming in conflict (supposed conflict) to be reason enough to throw out or modify AvF. But why should we accept this? AvF and DFR coming into apparent conflict is not enough to modify AvF for two reasons; first, AvF and DFR do not come into conflict upon further analysis as I showed earlier in this post, and secondly something being unrealistic has not bearing on the truth of the story. As I showed earlier something can be actually true and yet unbelievable. There is no logical connection between something being true and it being belieable (realistic).

Modality (possible worlds talk) is the model I wish to use for fiction. Fictions are simply possible worlds as narrative. In other words a fictional story is simply another way of talking about possible worlds. Any state of affairs which is logically possible (not a contradiction) can be put into the language of possible worlds. Let us call this the logically possible view of fiction,

(LPF) For any story s, any proposition that is affirmed of s by the author of s is true iff s is a possible world (i.e. logically possible).

On such a view AvF and DFR are fully consistent.

However, there is another problem with AvF, since it seems to contradict LPF. Suppose the author affirms that necessary truth nt is false in his story. Does this give us reason to believe that nt is false? No. On the LPF model of fictional truth, something is only true of a story if it is both affirmed by the author AND it is logically possible. Let us call this the logically impossible thesis,

(LIT) For any proposition p affirmed of story s by the author of s is true of s iff p is logically possible, but not necessarily capable of being actualized.

Of course LIT is a modification of AvF, since the combination of AvF and LPF is inconsistent. Enough said about fiction of a bit.


Entry filed under: general philosophy, metaphysics.

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