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Description, Disagreement, and Fictional Names

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 41, Number 3, September 2011
pp. 423-448 | 10.1353/cjp.2011.0028

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In this paper, a theory of the contents of fictional names — names of fictional people, places, etc. — will be developed. The fundamental datum that must be addressed by such a theory is that fictional names are, in an important sense, empty: the entities to which they putatively refer do not exist. Nevertheless, they make substantial contributions to the truth conditions of sentences in which they occur. Not only do such sentences have truth conditions, sentences differing only in the fictional names they contain differ in their truth conditions. It is, after all, commonplace to note such things as, for example, that

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit

is true, and

Sherlock Holmes is a hobbit

is false, while acknowledging at the same time that neither Baggins nor Holmes exists. The central problem, therefore, is that of reconciling the emptiness of fictional names with their substantial contributions.

A common approach involves taking them to fall within the scopes of intensional fictionality operators and offering a broadly Fregean analysis of referring expressions that occur within sentence frames of that kind (Currie, 1990; Lewis 1978). Roughly, the idea is that although fictional names lack referents, they have or express senses; and these senses serve as their contents when they occur in fictional contexts (Frege, 1997). Such analyses, however, run into serious difficulties. In particular, they seem to imply that fictional names of what are intuitively the same fictional characters which occur in different fictional stories must inevitably differ in content. As a result, speakers whose uses of fictional names are derived from different stories are inevitably talking past one another. The main goal of this paper is to develop a Fregean account of fictional names according to which names which occur in distinct fictional stories can have the same contents.

I Motivations

Consider the following claim:

  • 1.   Captain Broke took a fugitive spy on board the Shannon immediately prior to his action against the Chesapeake.

If it is made during a discussion of the storyline of The Fortune of War (O'Brian, 1979), this claim is true; but if it is made during a historical discussion of the War of 1812, it is false. The most obvious strategy for avoiding the implication that the very same claim can be both true and false is to recast the fiction-describing use of (1) as this:

  • 2.   It is fictional in The Fortune of War that Captain Broke took a fugitive spy on board the Shannon immediately prior to his action against the Chesapeake.

There is after all no contradiction in supposing that (1) is false and (2) is true, at least as long as the fictionality operator is properly interpreted. Minimally, what is required is that it be interpreted in such a way so that (i) the truth-value of a sentence of the form 'Fp' — where 'F' is the fictionality operator — can differ in truth-value for the embedded sentence 'p' and (ii) the contents of referring expressions occurring within the scope of the fictionality operator can differ from their contents in extensional sentence frames.

A promising approach to finding an interpretation of the fictionality operator that meets these conditions involves analyzing claims about fiction in term of the speech acts or propositional attitudes of a teller of some kind, normally an author or narrator figure. For reasons I have defended elsewhere, my own view is that such claims should be analyzed in terms of the revelations of a figure I call the 'narrative informant' — a non-actual, and sometimes non-fictional, fact-teller — where what someone reveals by means of what she says can depart significantly from what she says (Alward, 2010). The promise of this general approach stems from the fact that speech act and propositional attitude attributions arguably have the two features we are requiring of the fictionality operator. I will consider each feature in turn.

First, it is commonplace to note that the truth-value of what someone might be judged to say or believe is independent of the truth-value of the judgment that she said or believes it. So, for example, the (putative) truth of

All unsullied snow is white

would be compatible with either the truth or...


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