Saturday, April 08, 2006

Is there a problem about fictional discourse?

"Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures."
Jessamyn West.


I have not been shy in the past about criticizing Richard Rorty's positions on some issues, so it seemed only right that I should acknowledge my debt to him in commenting on a controversy that touches on several areas in the contested field of academic "analytic" philosophy, but also on linguistic philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, logic and probably other areas as well.

In addition to Professor Rorty, other important contemporary thinkers have examined the issue: Umberto Eco, Simon Blackburn, and John Searle among them. The controversy is far from "resolved." I am sure that we may expect many more contributions to this discussion in the years ahead.

I have borrowed my title from Richard Rorty's essay published in the collection Consequences of Pragmatism. I have also learned a great deal from Colin Radford's classic paper dealing with the "reality" of fictional characters in Driving to California. Others I have read on this issue include Colin McGinn and the novelist John Fowles. Professor Rorty formulates the issue as follows:

"What must be said about truth such that the sentences 'Gladstone was born in England' and 'Sherlock Holmes was born in England' can both be true?"

How we answer this question will have a great deal to do with whether we have adopted a correspondence, coherence, or pragmatist theory of truth. Absolute skeptics may say that "neither statement is true" because "there is no such thing as truth." However, they could not say, logically and at the same time, that it is true that "the statement is neither true nor false," unless they intend to contradict themselves.

They probably do contradict themselves since they cannot avoid doing so. In what follows, I will disregard all such self-contradictory views.

My discussion of this topic is not exactly unrelated to the vexed question of whether there is some objectivity to ethical judgments or whether our statements of value "refer" to something real.

I will leave it for readers to make the necessary connections for themselves between metaethics and logic. In terms of the relations between words and things, or "how our sentences hook up with the world" (Rorty), it is for the reader to decide whether he or she is a realist, a conceptualist, or a nominalist.

I begin my discussion with Bertrand Russell's once dominant "logical empiricist" or "reference" view of meaning and his version of a correspondence theory of truth, which is associated also with the early Wittgenstein's "picture theory" of language. And then, "for something entirely different" -- as the Monty Python troupe might say -- I discuss some recent purported resolutions of this controversy that I find interesting and attractive. Finally, I offer some opinions by way of conclusion.


Bertrand Russell suggests that the statement "Sherlock Holmes was born in England" has no referent. However, this does not make the statement meaningless. This is because no such person ever existed in fact.

This "common sense" view depends upon an understanding of the word "exists" that confines its scope to the empirical world. Yet the word may have broader connotations and we may use it in other ways.

When we ask such puzzling questions as "Was Sherlock Holmes born in England?," we may be assuming some understanding of what it is for something (or someone) to "be."

What are those unconscious assumptions?

Russell says that this question should be understood to mean only: "Was the character in Arthur Conan-Doyle's stories called Sherlock Holmes said in those stories to have been born in England?"

It is unclear whether this is what we mean when we ponder the "reality" or "histories" of fictional characters or entities like Sherlock Holmes.

For Russell the "object" of a statement had to "exist in fact" in order for that object it to be "knowable by acquaintance" so that the linguistic reference to it could be "completed." Hence, the (linguistic and ontological) question of an object's "reference" could not be kept apart from the (epistemological) question of whether that object could be known.

Subsequent philosophers have doubted whether this rigid "coupling" is tenable, speculating on whether it is time for a "divorce" of these two sets of issues.

As Wittgenstein's theory of language and truth evolved from the early "picture" to the later "game" theory, it became clear that the initial understanding of a necessary empirical link between word and thing was inadequate.

The objectivity of language and successful communication did NOT have to be connected to this simple reference model of meaning and/or the correspondence theory of truth.

Meaning can depend upon (or "emanate from") how words are used in particular "language games" that will determine the truth or success of the communication. ("Robert Brandom's 'Reason in Philosophy.'")

John Searle and the pragmatists have picked up on this point to argue that language may be seen as a kind of "behavior" governed by the conventions of the particular settings in which it is used or "deployed."

Each setting or "language game" will determine what purpose must be fulfilled for the transaction to be successfully completed. In other words, what constitutes "playing," or "winning and losing," depends on your language game. ("A Philosophical Investigation of Ludwig Wittgenstein.")

Whether a form of discourse is true will depend on the purpose to be served by it.

The game of physics will be different from the literature game. Success -- or even meaningfulness in each enterprise -- will also be different.

I am reminded of Lon Fuller's discussion of legal fictions: The social necessity for a concept will dictate its reality. Is a corporation a "person"? What is a legal person? How is the meaning, in law, of the concept of a person different from the moral meaning of the word? Corporations have free speech rights, do they also have separate rest rooms in public establishments? Are some of them Republicans? (All of them!) Are some of them gay? (Dream Works?) ("Ape and Essence" and "Persons and Personhood.")

Jacques Derrida and some others who follow him have taken things a step further by suggesting that "there is nothing outside the text," that is, nothing beyond the game-player's self-definition of success within the context of his or her game. ("Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

Few wish to go this far. Games are shared and acquire objective traditions, conventions or a kind of "logic of play" that determines success over time, as in chess, which cannot simply be set aside at whim, not if one wishes to continue to play that particular game. Dworkin's discussion of "integrity" in law is highly relevant at this point. ("A Philosophical Investigation of Ludwig Wittgenstein" and "Ronald Dworkin's Jurisprudence of Interpretation.")

Terence Parsons and other theorists contend that "whatever is referred to must be an object," within the terms of that context of reference in which it arose. This is what amounts to a coherence theory of truth, or the point when Kant becomes Hegel: "If you have enough or sufficient representations, then you can forget about the thing-in-itself."

The ultimate reality of the linguistic structure comes from within its own terms, then, it is imminent and not transcendent. This also may be associated with Putnam's "internal realism."

Notice that this still involves affirming the distinction between being an object of reference (which Sherlock Holmes is) and being an empirical object (which Sherlock Holmes is not), while making empirical reference indeterminate -- or nondispositive -- on the issue of existence or reality in general.


If we can confidently assert that it is in some sense "true" that Sherlock Holmes "exists" (or is real) and "was born in England" -- at least to the extent that YOU, as a reader, enter into the "language game of literature" with Conan-Doyle, or with the tradition itself, perhaps merely by absorbing and being absorbed in the English language -- then is it appropriate to be moved by the plight of such fictional characters?

I think that it is appropriate and that we all are anyway.

We have all been moved by literature. We know that the stories that we read as novels or novellas are just that: stories. They are works of fiction, dealing with persons who never lived. How much of what we call history or science, for that matter, is also fiction is less clear, but much of that history/narrative is moving too, regardless of how imaginary it may be.

We all have had the experience of being deeply moved by an actor's performance on stage. Yet we know that such performances are just that, "mere" performances.

The setting in which a dramatic performance takes place is as artificial as possible: lights, darkened theater, audience; nevertheless, the powerful effect created by the meaning of the experience is undeniable. To clarify why this may be so, ironically enough, I will tell you a story borrowed from Gregory Bateson.

A man wanted to know about mind, so he consulted his private super-computer. He asked it, "Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?"

The machine then set to work to analyze its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed its answer on a piece of paper as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words: "THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY." ("Ex Machina: A Movie Review.")

Evolution is a story. Everyone's life is also a narrative. Science is a story, too. 

The recent translation of a Gospel of Judas is not only consistent with the "facts" of the Christian story, I believe, but suggests a solution to the problem of evil in the "character" of Judas that is in keeping with the aesthetic or gnostic hypothesis. (More on this is coming up in a later essay examining this new "Scripture.")

Human beings think in terms of stories and protagonists. This is true whether we are "thinking" of quasars or of such fictional entities as "corporations." It is certainly true when we tell ourselves stories about the past or the persons who lived in it. We identify to a greater or lesser extent with protagonists, possibly less with quasars than with Sherlock Holmes.

We seek the emotional truths in fictional stories -- often finding our greatest meanings, including moral or political meanings and truths -- in stories like Hamlet, Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, or the stories in the Bible. Part of the paradox of communication and of all literature is the mystery of how it is that lies convey truths. (Time to see the Arnold movie "True Lies.") ("On Bullshit.")

No, this will not allow New Jersey's criminal politicians to escape the long arm of the law by claiming that "it never happened." It only means that when they are arrested -- and they will be -- it'll be up to them to decide on the "meaning" of their adventures.

How you doing, Senator Bob? ("Menendez Charged With Selling His Office.")

Carlos Fuentes suggests that literature and maybe all myth was invented by the first of our earliest ancestors with the power of speech who realized that it was possible to lie -- to say something other than what was -- for this was the power to remake the world or to create another by means of language. ("Carlos Fuentes and Multiculturalism.")

Notice that to object to lying means that you admit that there is such a thing as telling the truth. It also means that you accept the reality of moral judgments concerning a preference for truth. In this area, context is everything. ("John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.")

What makes the plight of Sherlock Holmes or King Lear "real" and "true" is the emotions they "experience" that we readers identify with -- an identification that is less a matter of versimilitude than authenticity in our responses.

How deeply we respond to a story may depend much more on how well it is told than on plot. (See Paul Ricoeur on "emplotment.")

Sherlock Holmes was indeed born in England. He continues to generate millions for the national treasury in the UK and his adventures have even led to the creation of a museum at 221B Baker Street in London, an address that did not exist and that Conan-Doyle invented, that replicates Mr. Holmes living arrangements and habits perfectly, allegedly, down to the violin in the corner of the room and the bullet holes on the wall.

Arthur Conan-Doyle, on the other hand, gets a small plaque somewhere in London, wherever it is that he lived.

Holmes deserves at least a knighthood by now. James Bond? ("'Diamonds Are Forever': A Movie Review.")

The importance of literature and of the dreaming faculty in human beings must not be underestimated, especially by those great dreamers the philosophers. The critic and philosopher Richard Hughes reminds us:

"All that non-fiction can do is to answer questions. It is fiction's business to ask them."

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