31 July 2009

Fictional Objects

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 10:26 pm

Discussions of fiction typically begin with whether or not we must postulate fictional objects, with the defender of fiction attempting to establish that we absolutely cannot do without them, and the opponent attempting to show how we can manage to avoid postulating them through paraphrasing our apparent discourse about them and reconceiving our apparent experience of them.

– from Fiction and Metaphysics by Amie Thomasson, 1999, p. 5

Thomasson begins by observing that fictional characters are best thought of not as imaginary people but as abstract human artifacts, the result of human intentionality not dependent on a specific material manifestation, similar in this regard to scientific theories and laws of state and melodies. Even the clock is an abstract artifact: it can take a variety of physical forms while performing the same function.

In the first half of the book Thomasson explores what sort of entity a fictional character might be. Neither real (in the sense of having a spatiotemporal location)  nor ideal, neither material nor purely mental, the fictional character presents a challenge to traditional ontological categories. Does Sherlock Holmes exist in the world because the texts of books make reference to him? No: he would continue to exist as long as people remembered him. If there were no readers left in the universe who could make sense of Doyle’s books, would Holmes still exist in the texts? No, says Thomasson: the existence of a fictional character described in a book depends on there being readers who understand the text.

What is a fictional character’s identity? Is it the sum of all descriptions in all books written about him? Or are the words just a partial description of a character that’s more fully formed in the writer’s imagination? What if a writer other than Doyle were to import Sherlock Holmes into his own work and provide additional or even conflicting descriptions of him — is this the same Holmes, or a different one? If an author presents a character who shares all the key character traits identified in other literary appearances by Holmes, should the reader assume that this character is in fact Holmes even if the author doesn’t name him or assigns him a different name?  Thomasson acknowledges:

The prospects seem dim for drawing out a definitive set of necessary and sufficient conditions for character identity. But that does not place us in any worse a position than we already face in the case of formulating identity conditions for actual humans. (p. 67)

What counts as an entity? Tomasson proposes to accept all spatiotemporal entities and mental states, as well as anything that depends on them in any way. The first clause accounts for physical entities and intentionality; the latter for abstracta, intentional mental events, imaginary objects, and entities dependent on joint intentionality of multiple individuals or collectives such as governments and theories and fictional charcters. The everyday world is populated largely by entities that are neither purely physical nor mental but are dependent in part on both.



  1. Should an author be charged with a crime, if one of his characters is murdered or molested???


    Comment by Erdman — 11 August 2009 @ 9:38 am

  2. License to kill, baby!


    Comment by john doyle — 11 August 2009 @ 10:35 am

  3. I’m curious about a book that discusses fiction and metaphysics. Did it go into debates about philosophical Idealism? The idea that the ultimate nature of everything is idea or based on mind. The contrasting view is Realism.

    Your views expressed on this blog and elsewhere seem to suggest that fiction writing, the power to create, and language, all fit into some different category. Neither Idealist nor Realist. Phenomenologist, perhaps?


    Comment by Erdman — 11 August 2009 @ 10:44 am

  4. Yes, Erdman, the book tries to figure out what to do with fictional characters within the usual material/ideal split. Sherlock Holmes: he isn’t a “real” person, he has no single material location, he’s present in all the copies of all the books that write about him, and in the minds of the readers as well. But he’s not eternal — Holmes didn’t exist until A.C. Doyle wrote him into existence — and he’s not perfect. And he’s not an abstract category like Truth or Redness. And he’s not just a phenomenon, a product of human perception and cognition, since there are real words written about him in real books. So what is he? Thomasson says that Holmes is an abstract object.


    Comment by john doyle — 11 August 2009 @ 1:03 pm

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