Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fictions about Real Things

I am on the plane from New York back to Los Angeles (currently over Omaha), and since Google was good enough to sponsor free in-flight wifi for all Virgin America flights, I figured I'd take this opportunity to write up a blog post.

I would think that it is utterly uncontroversial that there are some fictions about real people. but, it is often the case that things I take to be utterly uncontroversial are subjects of heated philosophical dispute.

Start with this fiction (which, admittedly, has little aesthetic value):
One day, during his exile on the isle of Elba, Napoleon met a surprisingly friendly group of vampires. After a brief conversation, they parted ways and Napoleon made a mental note not to prejudge vampires. The end.

Here are a couple things I think we should all accept about that story (call it "Vampires on Elba").
1) "Vampires on Elba" is a story about Napoleon
2) The occurrences of "Napoleon" in "Vampires on Elba" refer to Napoleon.

Here is a potential worry for accepting 1 and 2:

It seems to follow from 1 and 2 that:
3) The Napoleon of "Vampires on Elba" is Napoleon.
And, intuitively we would want to accept:
4) The Napoleon of "Vampires on Elba" met some vampires.

But, now we have a contradiction, since:
5) It is not the case that Napoleon met some vampires.

So, 3, 4, and 5 form an inconsistent triad.

Let's take it for granted that 5 is beyond reproach.

We either need to deny 3, deny 4, or argue that there is equivocation going on. And if we deny 3, we will need to figure out whether to reject 1 and 2, or whether 3 doesn't really follow from them at all.

It seems to be the best strategy for rejecting 4 is to argue that it is literally false, but can be used to convey the truth:
4*) According to the fiction "Vampires on Elba", Napoleon met some vampires.

This is somewhat unsatisfying, but does allow us to cleanly preserve 3.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the best strategy for rejecting 3 involves treating "the n of S" (where 'n' is a name and 'S' is the title of a story) as a function that takes one from the referent of n to some other object. I'm going to call this approach the "Cadillac of Minivans" approach. In essence, we reject 3 because it is an identity claim, but the definite description doesn't pick out the object named by 'n', rather, it picks out some relevant counterpart of that object. Note that this is compatible with (and almost requires) treating 'n' as it occurs in 3, as retaining its ordinary reference. Just as "Cadillac" retains its ordinary reference in the phrase "The Cadillac of minivans".

I am not sure whether this strategy is compatible with accepting 1 or 2 (I am more worried about 1, I guess, than about 2).

I am currently inclined to accept 3, and to either maintain that 4 is false, but can be used to make claims about what is true according to the fiction, or maintain that 4 is ambiguous between the false reading and a reading on which it literally makes a claim about what is true according to the fiction.

I'm mostly curious as to whether there is some way to maintain natural readings of 1 and 2, while denying 3. Any thoughts?


bekka said...

can't you just deny 3 because the Napoleon of "Vampires on Elba" is not Napoleon? The Napoleon in the story is _based on_ Napoleon... or am i missing something?

Lewis Powell said...

Right, so then 'The Napoleon of "Vampires on Elba"' has to be a definite description that designates something other than Napoleon in the real world (as in the "Cadillac of Minivans" style view I mentioned).

Additionally, it looks like it might require us to give up the intuitively appealing 1 and 2, which seem to require that the character in the story _is_ Napoleon.

bekka said...

i guess i also don't understand why you want to avoid denying either 1 or 2. I don't think that you have to accept Vampires on Elba is a story about Napoleon. It's a story about a character that is based on Napoleon up until the point where it diverges from reality. And the occurrences of "Napoleon" refer to that character, not the real Napoleon.

bekka said...

feel free to tell me if i'm just not seeing your point.

Lewis Powell said...

I guess I want to avoid denying 1 and 2 because, I thought that there could be fictions about real people.

For example, I think I am speaking the literal truth when I say that the setting for Sherlock Holmes stories is London.

I don't know that you are missing my point, I think maybe you just have different intuitions than I do about whether there can be fictions about real people.

Part of my thinking is that there can be lies about real things. If I just claimed (or perhaps sincerely believed) that Napoleon met some aliens I am still talking (or thinking) about Napoleon, even though I got it wrong. And we could say, "Lewis claimed that Napoleon met some aliens" or "According to Lewis, Napoleon met some aliens." I'm not sure why a fiction has to be talking about someone else, when I don't have to be talking about someone else.

It also gives us a nice explanation of one aspect of what makes it fiction (the story makes false claims about Napoleon, and was not told with the aim of making true claims about Napoleon, so it is a fiction about Napoleon).

Those are some reasons why I like 1 and 2.

Lewis Powell said...

sorry that fourth paragraph should say "lies or mistakes" not just "lies"

bekka said...

ok, now with lies or mistakes i see a bit more the conundrum, and how it therefore relates to other fictions that are not meant to be believed as truth. think think think...

Jonathan Ichikawa said...

I like the treating of (4) as conveying a fact about truth in fiction. But I don't think you have to call it literally false plus a pragmatic story or something; you could just understand it as elliptical, or as having an unspoken contextual variable.

I think that denying (1) and (2) would be pretty crazy. I mean, we think that these fictions are false, right?

Lewis Powell said...

@Jonathan: On your first point, yeah, that's a good call. There could be some contextually supplied "according to the fiction" operators. I guess I was thinking the sentence has a semantic value that is literally false, but can be uttered in such a way as to principally assert a truth (however that story gets fleshed out).

On your second point, I think the issue is at least slightly more complicated than that. Suppose I take (for lack of a better label) the Leibnizian view that a) fictions describe possible (but non-actual) worlds, and b) individuals are world-bound. On such a view, my fiction "Vampires on Elba" is about a counterpart of Napoleons, on a counterpart of the isle of Elba. However, the set of claims constituting the fiction are still false at the actual world, since it is not the case that counterpart-Napoleon met vampires (in the actual world). Put another way: if we Ramsey the fiction nothing actual fills the "Napoleon" role for the theory of the fiction.

The problem then is coming up with a story about why 4 is true. It is possible that the Leibnizian (as I described the position) has enough better of a story available to explain the truth of 4 that they are in an all-things-considered better position to account for the intuitions than the view that accepts the truth of 1 and 2. However, it seems like they burden is on the Leibnizian to show that, since, on the face of it, both parties have some difficulty with 4, but one of the views definitely captures the intuitions favoring 1 and 2.