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Peter van Inwagen FICTION AND METAPHYSICS Many works of fiction address themselves directly to metaphysiced issues. One thinks of the stories of Olaf Stapledon, Charles Williams, or Jorge Luis Borges. Other fiction is more subtly and indirectly related to metaphysics — A la recherche du temps perdu, for exeimple, or, in a radier different way, some science fiction. The relations that various novels and stories bear to the questions ofmetaphysics would be an interesting topic, but it is not the topic of the present article, which is the relevance to metaphysics not of this or that work, but ramer of the very existence of such a thing as fiction. We shall see mat philosophical reflection on fiction can lead one to certain remarkable metaphysical conclusions. Not surprisingly, the area of metaphysics to which these conclusions pertain is ontology. The word, though not the study it represents, is a new one — it is probably a seventeenth-century coinage. In the present century, the word "ontology" is associated mainly with the names of Heidegger and Quine. I shall be using the word in Quine's sense: as a name for the study that attempts to answer the question, What is there? Quine's contributions to this study are of central importance for the thesis of this article. These contributions may be divided into two parts: those that belong to ontology proper and those that belong to what we may call meta-ontology. By Quine's "ontology proper," I mean his actual attempt to answer the question, What is there? This attempt is of great intrinsic interest, but it is not relevetnt to my topic. By Quine's meta-ontology, I mean his feunous discussion of what it is to ask what there is emd his famous dieses about how to approach mis question.1 These theses are the product of a really remarkable effort to think clearly about questions almost no one had thought cleeirly about, and a proper appreciation of them will liberate one from some very old and very strong illusions about being emd existence. Or so many philosophers, including the present author, would say. And yet Quine's meta-ontology, when it is combined with what seem to be some very simple emd obvious facts about fiction, yields a result mat seems just obviously wrong: that names drawn from works of fiction ("Mr. Pickwick" emd "Tom Sawyer," for example, as well as proper names of odier sorts, such as "Dotheboys Hall" and "Barchester") denote existent objects. The thesis of this 67 68PHILOSOPHY AND LITERATURE article is mat this consequence of Quine's meta-ontology does not constitute a reductio ad absurdum; radier, Quine's meta-ontology should be retained and mis consequence accepted. I shall first examine Quine's meta-ontology in the abstract, and then in application to fiction. In the abstract, Quine's meta-ontology may be viewed as comprising four propositions. (1)Being is die seune as existence. That is, to say mat things of a certain sort exist emd to say mat there être things of diat sort is to say pretty much the same diing. For example, to say diat horses exist is to say mere are horses, and to say mat diere was such a person as Homer is to say that Homer existed. This might seem obvious, but on reflection it can seem less obvious. Suppose I am discussing someone's delusions and I say, "There are a lot of diings he believes in that do not exist." On die face of it, I appear to be saying diat diere are diings — the poison in his drink, his uncle's medice, emd so on — that do not exist. To tedce a radier more metaphysical example, I have read a letter to the editor of a newspaper, the audior of which argues diat contraception is a sin since it prevents people who would omerwise exist from doing so. This may be a bad argument on meiny grounds that have nothing to do with metaphysics, but it is certainly clear diat its propounder believes diat diere are unconceived people, people who might have existed but who, owing to certain acts of contraception, do not exist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 67-77
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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