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«DAVID SANSON Abstract. We want to say both that Sherlock Holmes does not exist, and that he is a fictional character. But how can we say these ...»

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Abstract. We want to say both that Sherlock Holmes does not exist, and that

he is a fictional character. But how can we say these things without committing ourselves to the existence of Sherlock Holmes? Here I develop and defend

a non-commital paraphrase of quantification over fictional characters, modeled

upon the non-commital paraphrase Kit Fine provides for quantification over possibilia. I also develop and defend the view that names for fictional characters are weakly non-referring, in Nathan Salmon’s sense, so and so provide us with a non-commital means to express singular propositions. The resulting position allows us to reap the benefits of Fictional Realism without paying the associated ontological cost.

1. Introduction Many of us want to say that fictional characters don’t exist. We want to say this both in general, as I just did, and in each case: for example, that Sherlock Holmes does not exist, that Harry Potter does not exist, and so on.

Many of us also want to make apparently substantive non-fictional claims about fictional characters, both in general and in particular cases: for example, that some fictional characters are more well-developed than others, that Sherlock Holmes was created by Conan Doyle, and that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character. But such claims seem to commit us to the existence of fictional characters.

Popular positions on the ontology of fictional characters force us to make a choice.

Fictional Realists choose to give up nonexistence in order to save the truth of the substantive non-fictional claims.1 Pretense Theorists choose to give up on the substantive non-fictional claims, in order to save nonexistence.2 In this paper, I develop a position that allows us to have it both ways, and so satisfies what Walton (1990, p. 386) calls “the urge to stand with feet on both sides of the fence” on this issue.

Noneists (or Meinongians) have it both ways, because they make a distinction between being and being something.3 On their view, some things don’t exist, but Date: August 18, 2015. Forthcoming Res Philosophica.

Thanks to Ben Caplan, Joshua Spencer, Wes Cray, David Braun, Heidi Savage, and all the participants in the 2013 Ohio State-Maribor-Rijeka Conference on Art and Reality at the Inter University Centre in Dubrovnik for helpful comments on drafts of this paper.

See van Inwagen (1977); Kripke (2013); Thomasson (1999); Salmon (1998); Braun (2005);

Zalta (1983); Schnieder and Solodkoff (2009) See Walton (1990); Everett (2013).

See Parsons (1980; 2011); Routley (1980); Priest (2005); Berto (2011).


there are still substantive truths about those things. In order to say this, Noneists need to reject the simplest definitions of existence and being, namely,

–  –  –

I am sympathetic to Noneism, but the position I will develop here is not Noneist. I will assume throughout that to exist is to be something, and that fictional characters do not exist in this sense.

The position is drawn from the metaphysics of modality, and modeled closely after Fine’s (1977; 1985; 2003) attempt to provide noncommittal paraphrase for possibilist discourse, as augmented by Salmon’s (1987) attempt to provide a noncommittal account of singular reference to merely possible objects. It is similar in many respects to the “de dicto, quantifying out” approach discussed but not endorsed by Howell (1979, §5.2).

My goal here is to develop the position, and, to the extent possible, defend it. I think the position has some significant advantages, and I think more can be said in its defense than one might have thought. It is also my hope that the position will provide a useful foil for those who would reject it, and, perhaps, a useful foil for those who wish to reject the corresponding views in the metaphysics of modality, defended by Fine and Salmon.

2. The Non-Fictional Truth about Fictional Characters Consider the sentence,

1. Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character.

Taken at face value, this expresses a true singular proposition about Sherlock Holmes, and so seems to commit us to the existence of Sherlock Holmes. Or consider,

2. Sherlock Holmes is a detective.

Again, taken at face value, this expresses a singular proposition about Sherlock Holmes, and so seems to commit us to there being such a thing as Holmes. But there is an important difference between (1) and (2). (1) is a piece of non-fiction while (2) is a piece of fiction. That is, (1) tells us something about what Holmes is really like, outside of the story, while (2) tells us something about what Holmes is like according to the story.

Any theory of fictional characters will need to make this distinction. A popular strategy among Realists is to distinguish two kinds of predication. For example, van Inwagen (1977, p. 305) draws a distinction between having a property and being ascribed a property: Holmes has but is not ascribed the property of being a fictional character; he is ascribed but does not have the property of being a detective. Zalta


(1983) says that characters encode but do not exemplify the properties they have according to the story.4 Let ‘isN F ’ express the relation between a character and the properties it has outside the fiction, and ‘isF ’ express the relation between a character and the properties it has according to the fiction. Then a sentence like (2) is ambiguous, and could express either,

–  –  –

which is true.

Alternatively, we can introduce to a sentential operator to mark the distinction between fictional and non-fictional truths. Here we have a choice. We can introduce an operator that takes two arguments, a fictional work and a sentence—e.g., ‘According to A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is a detective’. Or we can introduce an operator that takes just a sentence as an argument—e.g., ‘According to a fiction, Holmes is a detective’–and worry about how to identify and distinguish different fictions later. For simplicity, I adopt the latter approach here, and I write the operator as ‘F’.

So, according to the operator view, (2) is false, but (3) is true:

3. F(Sherlock Holmes is a detective),

I prefer the operator approach because it is more general. For example, it applies to the sentence, ‘It is always raining,’ which is true in Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Long Rain”, but is not non-fictionally true (thank goodness). And it applies to the sentence, ‘There are exactly five wizards’, which is true according to the Lord of the Rings. Perhaps there is a way to capture what is going on in these cases by judicious paraphrase and disambiguation of two kinds of predication, but it is not obvious. These examples suggest that the fundamental distinction is a distinction between fictional and non-fictional circumstances, and not just between fictional and non-fictional property ascriptions to the objects that show up in those circumstances.

However we mark the distinction, we are left with two sorts of non-fictionally true sentences about fictional characters. One sort, like (1), describes what a fictional character is like outside the fiction. The other, like (3), describes what a fictional character is like inside the fiction. Both appear to commit us to the existence fictional characters, for, absent some further story, both appear to express singular propositions about Holmes.

Apparent commitment to fictional characters also shows up in quantificational claims that make no use of proper names from fiction. For example,

–  –  –

4. There are characters in some 19th-century novels who are presented with a greater wealth of physical detail than is any character in any 18th-century novel. (van Inwagen, 1977, p. 302) (4) entails that there are fictional characters in 19th-century novels, and so that there are fictional characters. And, as Kroon (2003) emphasizes, we are happy to make such quantificational claims and, in the same breath, deny the existence of the characters we appear to be quantifying over, e.g.,

5. There are numerous creatures mentioned in Lord of the Rings that don’t really exist (Kroon, 2003, p. 151).

(5) looks both to commit us to there being fictional creatures, and commit us to their nonexistence. And, of course, we are equally happy to make such claims in the singular case, using proper names, as with,

–  –  –

But it is hard to see how negative existentials of this sort could possibly be true, since they seem to entail a contradiction.

So this is our problem: what should see say about such sentences, and their apparent ontological commitments?

Two popular responses are Fictional Realism and Pretense Theory. According to the Fictional Realist, fictional characters are existing


objects, and when authors tell stories, they are telling stories about these objects. So, on this view, Holmes exists, is an abstract object, and a fictional character. But he (it?) is not a human, nor a detective, nor does he smoke a pipe. Rather, he is all those things according to the fiction, but not in reality.

Fictional Realism provides a straightforward account of the truth of (1), (3), and (4), and it entails that (5) and (6) are, strictly speaking, false. So Realists need to say something more complicated to explain why we are inclined to say things like (5) and (6).5 Pretense Theorists, by contrast, argue that none of these sentences are in fact committing, because they are all just part of a game of pretense. Here the key idea is that we can pretend that there is a detective that smokes a pipe without there being some thing that we are pretending to be a detective that smokes a pipe.

Similarly, we might pretend that there is something named ‘Holmes’, and pretend that it is a detective.

Pretense Theory would seem to offer a nice account of sentences like (2), which are not true, but are treated as true (or “authorized”) within the appropriate game of pretense. But the view has trouble with sentences like (1), (3), and (4), which seem, at first blush, to express straightforward non-fictional truths about fictional characters. Here Pretense Theorists, following Walton (1990, ch. 10), argue that even these sentences are not literally true, but are instead only true (or “authorized”) within an appropriate pretense. So, for example, Everett (2013, p. 68ff.) argues 5For critical overview of what they might say, see Everett (2013, §7.1-2).


that an utterance of (3) counts as true within a “complex extended pretense”, that “extends the domain of make-believe to include further real objects.” Brock (2002) offers a nice suggestion: let the relevant “extended pretense” be the pretense that Fictional Realism is true. Then we can say, of sentences like (1), (3), and (4), that they are false, but they are true according to the fiction of Fictional Realism. He calls his view “Fictionalism about Fictional Characters”. So, on Brock’s view, all sentences that appear to commit us to fictional characters are not true, but only true according to the fiction of Fictional Realism.

Pretense Theorists run into trouble with sentences like (5) and (6). No doubt we can play a game of pretense in which we pretend that these sentences are true. But the whole point of sentences like (5) and (6), it seems, is to make a claim about what, as a matter of non-fictional fact, does not exist. So, like the Realists, the Pretense Theorists must say something more complicated about what is going on in these cases.6 So, putting aside the hard problem of negative existentials, we appear to face a choice: following the Realists, we can pay the ontological cost, and purchase robust non-fictional truths about fictional characters; or we can, following the Pretense Theorists, refuse the ontological cost, and seek a way of doing without the robust non-fictional truths. But it would be better if we could get what we want without paying for it.

3. Possibilia and Paraphrase

The solution I want to consider aims to provide non-committal paraphrases of everything we want to say about fictional characters, including negative existential claims like (5) and (6).7 The paraphrases make use of two correlated intentional operators, ‘F’ (‘in a fiction’) and ‘O’ (‘outside of all fiction’), and are closely modeled after paraphrases offered by Fine (1977; 1985; 2003) for quantification over possibilia. But finding non-committal paraphrases for quantificational claims, like (4) and (5), is not enough. We also need to deal with sentences involving proper names, like (1). Here again we can borrow from the literature on possibilia, and adapt Salmon (1987)’s account of “weakly non-referring” names to the case of fiction.

Consider the sentence, There is a possible purple cow: ∃x(x is a possible purple cow) Taken at face value, this commits us to the existence of a possible purple cow. But

we can avoid this by placing the quantifier within the scope of a modal operator:

6For some options, see Walton (1990, § 11.2), Brock (2002, § 4), and Everett (2013, § 3.4).

7There are at least two rather different ways of understanding the claim that some sentence, S2, is a non-committal paraphrase of some other sentence, S1. On the first, the idea is that S1 and S2 both express the same proposition, but S2 is a better guide to the quantificational form of that proposition, and so allows us to see that the proposition is non-committal. On the second— which I prefer—the idea is that S1 and S2 express different propositions, that the proposition expressed by S1 is committal, but that we can use S1 as a sloppy way of expressing S2, which is non-committal. I don’t think anything I say in this paper hinges on which way you prefer to understand the proposed paraphrases.


It is possible that there is a purple cow: ♦∃x(x is a purple cow) The claim that this avoids commitment depends on the assumption that the Barcan

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