In the intuitive view initially presented, fictional characters are higher-level dependent entities, indeed entities dependent in a variety of ways on a variety of entities. We can now outline precisely what those dependencies are and see that, as a result of those dependencies, fictional characters turn out to be abstract artifacts, a kind of entity often encountered yet little acknowledged. To make their ontological status clearer, I begin by using the prior work on dependence to make the intuitive version of the artifactual theory more precise and then turn to investigate how such dependent entities fit into a general modal metaphysics.
DEPENDENCIES OF FICTIONAL CHARACTERS
The immediate dependencies of a fictional character are first, on the creative acts of its author or authors, and second, on a literary work. Clearly the dependence of a fictional character on the intentional acts of its creator or creators is a rigid historical dependence. Its historical dependence on certain forms of intentionality signals it as an artifact, an object created by the purposeful activity of humans (or other intelligent beings). We are certainly no strangers to artifacts; on the contrary artifacts from computers to cutlery to couches are those entities that surround us most immediately in our everyday life. Yet little has been done to incorporate them into a philosophical ontology, perhaps in part because of fears that conditions for their identity would be too thorny, and in part because too little has been said about dependence on the thoughts and practices of human beings.
I have argued that we can offer better analyses of experience and language by postulating fictional characters, but before deciding to admit them these benefits must be weighed against the ontological costs. It is generally supposed that these costs are high, for admitting fictional characters, it is thought, involves postulating a new category of extremely strange and unusual entities, thus taking on a large burden compared with the parsimony which could be maintained without them. These worries should be taken seriously but should not be left unexamined. Does admitting fictional characters require positing a strange new category of beings bloating an otherwise spare ontology? Do the costs in terms of parsimony outweigh the benefits gained in analyzing experience and discourse? To properly assess the ontological costs of admitting fictional characters we must step back to ask how we can make such ontological decisions in a principled and consistent manner rather than on the basis of vague fears or aesthetic preferences for what seems to be a sparser ontological landscape.
PIECEMEAL ONTOLOGY VERSUS CATEGORIAL ONTOLOGY
Ontology is a two-part venture. The first task is to lay out categories in which things might be claimed to exist, without commitment to whether or not such categories are occupied. The second task is that of assessing what there really is. Contemporary ontologists typically – although not always – focus exclusively on the second task and proceed on a one-by-one basis to argue for or against allowing certain kinds of things, be they numbers, universals, acts of consciousness, or fictional objects, into our ontology.
The task of a theory of intentionality is to offer an analysis of the directedness of our thoughts and experiences towards those objects in the world that they are about. Theories of intentionality, like those of language, have often been directed by a desire to avoid postulating fictional entities and have sought alternatives to Meinongian theories of intentionality just as Russell sought an alternative to a Meinongian theory of reference. The main line of devising a theory of intentionality that avoids fictional objects is the content approach, which was first formulated in modern terms by Husserl and is defended in a number of contemporary theories of intentionality, including those of Searle, Smith, and Mclntyre.
According to content theories, ordinary intentional relations to objects of our veridical perceptions can be analyzed into three basic parts: The conscious act, the object, and the content. The conscious act is the particular perceiving, thinking, wishing, or so forth that occurs at a particular place and time. The object of the intentional relation is the thing the perception, thought, or so forth is of or about, normally just an ordinary physical individual or state of affairs that is chanced upon by the intentional act. The content of an act plays a role analogous to Fregean senses; it is what picks out, or prescribes, the object of the intentional act; it is dependent upon the subject's conception of, and angle of perception of, the object, but it is normally not something of which the subject is explicitly aware during the intentional experience. In particular, the content is not the object of the intentional act.
One fear that inclines many to reject fictional objects is that we are liable to get ourselves into trouble either by falling into contradiction or by trying to constrain such unruly entities into the confines of a well-behaved theory. The motivation for rejecting fictional objects on the basis of their supposed intractability goes back at least as far as Russell's claim that Meinong's nonexistent objects are “apt to infringe the law of contradiction” and has gained contemporary popularity from Quine's characterization of unactualized possible objects (and presumably other so-called nonexistents) as “a breeding ground for disorderly elements,” making them unsuitable for proper individuation and untractable in philosophical theories.
Those who do attempt to offer identity conditions for fictional objects generally do so by reducing fictional objects to ideal abstracta, so that their identity conditions are reduced to those of more familiar and tractable entities. But such attempts inevitably miss important aspects of our ordinary practices in counting characters as the same or different. This difficulty is not unique to fiction: Indeed, some of the stickiest problems of identity arise for other cultural artifacts such as statues and monuments, musical works, and literary works, which are not identifiable with either basic physical concreta or with ideal abstracta and which thus seem to demand identity conditions different from those for either.
By conceiving of fictional objects as abstract artifacts we can offer identity criteria for fictional objects both within and across literary works that not only are as clear and precise as those we have for ordinary objects but also correspond closely to our practices in treating fictional characters as the same or different.
If we are to postulate fictional characters at all, it seems advisable to postulate them as entities that can satisfy or at least make sense of our most important beliefs and practices concerning them. Often theories of fiction are driven not by an independent sense of what is needed to understand talk and practices regarding fiction, but rather by a desire to show how fictional characters may find their place in a preconceived ontology of possible, nonexistent, or abstract objects – to demonstrate one more useful application of the ontology under discussion, or to provide catchy and familiar examples. Instead of starting from a ready-made ontology and seeing how we can fit fictional characters into it, I suggest that we begin by paying careful attention to our literary practices so that we can see what sorts of things would most closely correspond to them. I thus begin by discussing what sorts of entities our practices in reading and discussing works of fiction seem to commit us to, and I draw out the artifactual theory of fiction as a way of characterizing the sort of entity that seems best suited to do the job of fictional characters.
WHAT FICTIONAL CHARACTERS SEEM TO BE
Fictional objects as I discuss them here include such characters as Emma Woodhouse, Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, and Tom Sawyer – characters who appear in works of literature and whose fortunes we follow in reading those works. In our everyday discussions of literature we treat fictional characters as created entities brought into existence at a certain time through the acts of an author.
It is time to turn to the second ontological task, offering an assessment of what there is. We can already draw some conclusions from the ways in which our categories are drawn out and from their relations to each other. First, if we take our ordinary beliefs and practices at face value, then it seems that a great proportion of entities including scientific theories, works of art, and cultural artifacts do not fit easily into traditional categories such as the real and the ideal, the material and the mental. Thus we either have to show that we can eliminate or reduce all of these to objects lying in the traditional categories or postulate a richer ontology able to account for such variation.
Second, because of the close relations among the categories, questions of whether or not to postulate many sorts of entity hang together. Thus the stakes are high, for despite the apparent variety of entities, principled decisions to eliminate one type of entity may have wide-ranging consequences. For example, consistency requires that if you eliminate the supporting entities such as mental states, you eliminate all of those cultural objects, behaviors, and institutions that depend on intentionality. If you eliminate abstract objects on principle, you find poems and sonatas, laws and theories disappear along with your rejected universals. And if you eliminate fictional objects but keep stories or other abstract entities depending on mental states, you are left with a theory that has only false parsimony.
In Part One I argue that we should consider fictional characters not to be the strange occupants of another realm but rather as abstract cultural artifacts as ordinary as the works of literature in which they appear. If we do so, then the problems that arise for fictional characters, including how to refer to them and offer identity conditions for them, parallel problems for other abstract entities and cultural artifacts. I have attempted to show how these problems may be overcome by considering fictional characters to be dependent entities, thus removing two major stumbling blocks to postulating fictional characters and suggesting ways to overcome these problems for other dependent abstracta. But so far this merely eliminates reasons not to postulate fictional characters and does not provide us with any positive reason to postulate them.
It is now time to face the second question: Should we admit fictional characters into our ontology? The case of fictional characters provides occasion for reexamining the larger issue: What, in general, should we admit to our ontology, and on what grounds? One of the points of philosophy in general, and ontology more particularly, is to help us make sense of our world. Thus one goal in choosing an ontology is to select one that provides an adequate basis for understanding our experience of and discourse about the world. Naturally this does not mean that we can never determine that experiences are misleading, discourse fallacious, or practice in need of revision. It only requires that we seek a theory able to analyze what our experience is about and whether our sentences are true or false as consistently, adequately, and elegantly as possible overall.
I have argued that fictional characters are dependent objects, requiring for their very existence such entities as literary works and the creative acts of an author. But they depend on these in different ways – requiring the creative acts of an author only to come into existence, and works of literature to remain in existence – so that it is misleading to simply speak of these indifferently as dependencies. To unravel the details of the status of fictional objects we must step back to examine the concept of existential dependence in general and to delineate carefully the various forms that this relation can take.
One should not be misled, however, into thinking that only those tracking fictional objects and other ontological oddities need to worry about dependence. Dependence is an extraordinarily common and varied phenomenon. Clear notions of dependence are important to understanding the status not only of fictional objects but also of cultural and institutional entities and certain biological, physical, and even abstract objects. Thus, showing what notions of dependence underlie this view of fictional characters reemphasizes the fact that fictional objects are to be understood along the same lines as many, perhaps most, other entities in the everyday world. At the same time, developing the tools needed to understand fictional objects provides the tools to analyze the structure of a great variety of entities of other sorts.
Before we can use dependence to explicate the ontological status of fictional characters and other objects, we need a theory of dependence at once general enough to cover all of the cases, revealing what they have in common, and fine-grained enough to respect important differences in types of dependence.
Although examples from fiction and mythology have long provided a source of interesting puzzles and counterexamples that have guided the development of theories from Frege to Russell to Kripke, fiction has been seen as a sideshow issue in metaphysics. Even the Meinongian minority, which has done much to bring the topic of fiction back into discussion, has done little to dispel the image of fiction as a strange metaphysical jungle beyond the boundaries of traditional metaphysics.
Lying behind the sideshow view of fiction is an assumption shared by believers and disbelievers in fictional objects alike: Fictional characters are (if anything) odd, freakish entities, quite unlike common or garden objects. Disbelievers have used the supposed freakish nature of fictional entities as grounds for rejecting them, alleging that they would be too unruly to accommodate in a theory and fearing that by handling such oddities we will be led into contradiction. Believers have boldly, smilingly embraced their odd creatures, proposed special ontological realms to house them, and shown how, by handling them carefully, we can accommodate their curious tendencies and avoid contamination by contradiction.
The key to seeing the centrality of fiction in metaphysics lies in giving up this assumption and recognizing the similarities between fictional objects and other entities. In the view I propose here, fictional characters are abstract artifacts – relevantly similar to entities as ordinary as theories, laws, governments, and literary works, and tethered to the everyday world around us by dependencies on books, readers, and authors.
Far more intensive work has been done on analyzing fictional discourse than fictional experience. As in the case of intentionality, most of this work has been done in pursuit of the idea that there really are no fictional objects to which we can refer and so has been driven by a desire to avoid reference to fictional objects at all costs. But again the issue properly should not be conceived as whether we can get away without referring to fictional characters, but rather as whether we can offer a better theory of language by occasionally admitting reference to fictional characters. I argue that we can.
Many problems in speaking of fictional characters parallel those for thinking of them. Sentences such as “all parties to the discussion are speaking of the same character” express the tacit assumptions behind all critical discourse about how to understand and interpret literary characters. It seems that attempts to understand such sentences without referring to fictional characters, whether by appealing to the senses involved, the context of reference, or some combination of these, would run into problems parallel to those described above. Yet giving up the idea that such sentences could be true in a robust sense (not just that they were alike in thinking of nothing at all) would be to give up a great deal.
But rather than rehashing those problems for the case of language, I wish to focus on the problem that brought discussion of fiction into analytic philosophy: How to analyze statements apparently referring to fictional characters.
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