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  • Possible Worlds, Mathematics, and John Mighton’s Possible Worlds
  • Elizabeth Klaver (bio)

Do possible worlds really exist? Or is there one (actual) world, and infinitely many (im)possibilia? Despite sounding like something out of science fiction fantasy or theoretical physics, depending on who you run with, the question of possible worlds has been debated in certain philosophical circles since the turn of the twentieth century, ranging from set theory in mathematics to modal philosophy to semiotics.1 The link between the three disciplines lies in the ontological fiat, or performative, that brings a possible world into "existence," however that existence may be defined. For Umberto Eco, possible worlds are at base "cultural constructs," but, then again, so is the real world; for David Lewis, the founder of modal realism, possible worlds are just as real as the real world; and for David Hilbert, one of the early developers of mathematical set theory, the set-theoretical universe, which underpins possible worlds theory, quite simply is paradise.2

My project in this essay is to detect if (and how) the theory of possible worlds may underpin certain aspects of the narrative of drama and performance, and more specifically, the 1990 play, Possible Worlds, by Canadian playwright John Mighton. In order to do so, I will interrogate the seminal article Eco published in 1978 on textual semiotics, "Possible Worlds and Text Pragmatics: 'Un drame bien parisien'," and consider how the theory of possible worlds is transferable to a narratology of drama and performance. In the course of this discussion, though, I also want to peel back two further layers and consider: (1) the way Eco's work depends upon and departs from the possible worlds theories of philosophy, especially that of Lewis, and (2) the way Lewis and Eco depend upon mathematical set theory. Finally, I hope to put the whole thing back together by appraising how the play Possible Worlds navigates the theory(s) of possible worlds.3 [End Page 45]

Possible Worlds Semiotics

Umberto Eco is well known for his work in the semiotics of theater as well as texts.4 In "Possible Worlds and Text Pragmatics," he follows the work of logicians and modal philosophers such as Jaakko Hintikka, Janos S. Petöfi, and David Lewis to develop a theory of possible worlds for a semiotics of literary narrative. Interestingly, though, he does not extend the theory of possible worlds to a semiotics of performance genres. Nevertheless, as Keir Elam points out in The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, the "as if" quality of drama on the page or in performance clearly depends on hypothetical world-creating properties, as any text does, which makes the theories of possible worlds developed by logical semanticists and semioticians especially pertinent and fruitful to the study of drama (99–102). Eco's particular angle on possible worlds theory and how it may unpack the structural workings of texts is concerned not only with the "as if" construct of the (actual) text as itself, but also the "as if" constructs posited by the text within itself.

In "Possible Worlds and Text Pragmatics," Eco outlines three "worlds of the fabula": 1) the possible world imagined and asserted by the author; 2) the possible sub-worlds imagined by the characters of the fabula; and, 3) the possible sub-worlds imagined by the "Model Reader" (46–47). Eco is following, and I will as well, terminology initiated by the Russian formalists. The term "fabula" refers to the chronology of the narrative and is independent of the strategic ordering of the sequence of scenes, the "sjuzet" or "plot." What is notable about Eco's taxonomy is that the ontological ground of all three worlds of the fabula, regardless of their serial embeddedness, is conjectural and imagined, based on the beliefs and wishes of someone, whether that someone is author, reader, or character within the text. And the possible worlds of the text include possible states of affairs, possible individuals, possible events, and so on, and can become "actual" or not, depending on the way the narrative trajectory of the text develops.

Eco's taxonomy can be recognized in any fictional text, and certainly in plays as dramatic text or...


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