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Monday, April 19, 2010

Fictional Characters

Posted by Adam Roberts on 04/19/10 at 06:24 AM

Anthony Everett is a philosopher at the University of Bristol who, in ‘Against Fictional Realism’ [The Journal of Philosophy, 102:12 (2005), 624-49], makes the argument that fictional character’s aren’t ‘real’ in the way actual characters are real. What interests me about his case is not that I tend to disagree—for, after all, what does that matter?—but that his detailed professional-philosopher’s case seems to me to miss something important about the way actual fiction, and indeed actual life, goes.

Here’s what I mean. Everett’s case starts with two propositions:

(P1) If the world of a story concerns a creature a, and if a is not a real thing, then a is a fictional character.

(P2) If a story concerns a and b, and if a and b are not real things, then a and b are identical in the world of the story iff the fictional character of a is identical to the fictional character of b. [627]

‘The world of the story’ in (P2) puzzles me; I think what Everett is getting at is, assuming that we take fictional characters to be in some sense ‘real’, what we make of different versions of one character—Faustus in Marlowe and Goethe, for instance; or Jekyll/Hyde in Stevenson and Alan Moore. (Is Faust ‘real’ in Marlowe but not in Goethe? Vice versa? ‘Realer’ in one than the other? Surely Romeo is ‘realer’ in Shakespeare’s play than in that Dire Straits song. You can see the sorts of arguments we might have.) So, OK; here’s Everett’s thesis:

I shall argue, authors may leave certain things unspecified about the world of their story including whether certain creatures count as identical or distinct in that world and which creatures exist in that world. Given (P1) and (P2) this sort of underspecification within a story gives rise to ontic indeterminancy concerning which fictional characters occur within that story. Moreover, I shall argue, if the laws of logic and identity fail in the world of a story, these failures may infect the fictional characters occurring in that story. In short, given (P1) and (P2), the fictional realist seems committed to certain pernicious forms of indeterminancy and to objects that flout the laws of logic and identity. [627-8]

He means something technically precise by ‘ontic indeterminancy’, of course; but it isn’t clear to me to what extent ‘laws of logic and identity’ ought or, in fact, do apply to any sort of character, real or fictional. The obvious move here is surely to apply Everettian strategies to the actual world and see how they shake down. Because if the world itself ‘leaves certain things unspecified’, or even exhibits ‘ontic indeterminancy’, then at the very least we can argue that authors creating characters are being true to the nature of things. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that Everett is applying a different argumentative strategy to his ‘fictional characters’ than to the world at large. For instance:

Of course, if we accept fictional characters into our ontology then we face the task of determining precisely which fictional characters there are. [627]

Why? Would anybody say ‘of course, if we accept real people into our ontology then we face the task of determining precisely which real people there are’? Or again:

A story might describe an impossible world in which the laws of logic or identity fail. But since by (P1) and (P2), what exists in the world of a story determines which fictional characters occur in that story determines which fictional characters occur in that story, various impossibilities within the world of a story may inflect the fictional characters that occur in that story. [633]

He then makes up a story:

When she arrived in Dialethialand, Jane met Jules and Jim. This confused Jane since Jules and Jim both were, and were not, distinct people. And this made it hard to know how to interact with them. For example, since Jules both was and was not Jim, if Jim came to tea Jules both would and wouldn’t come to. [634]

I like this story, actually; but it doesn’t show what Everett wants it to show, I think. His case is that, since this story-world is logically impossible, any ‘characters’ included in it cannot, logically, exist. He concedes that readers are able ‘to engage imaginatively’ with the world of the story (how many biscuits should Jane buy, just enough for Jules, or enough for Jules and Jim? Her solution: ‘both to buy and not to buy extra biscuits whenever Jim came’). ‘I suspect,’ says Everett, ‘that many readers will find Jane’s response to the biscuit problem very appropriate, given that she is in Dialethialand’ [635]. But this is a sort of minimal level of imaginative engagement; and as such it misses something huge and crucial about this broader question. It is not that we follow the impossible logic of the story; it is that a story such as this—as with Stevenson’s much more famous Jekyllhydean story about two individuals who both are and are not the same man—resonates as powerfully and eloquently true. Not knowing how to interact with people is a crucial, formative aspect of our being-in-the-world, one that Everett’s little tale addresses directly. Our apperception of people, and our own identity, is not consecutive and logical; and fictional characters are not based upon such alien protocols. We engage imaginatively with Jekyll and Hyde not because it is ‘conceivably possible’ to do so, but because the story, and its characters, are eloquent and powerful and true. Jekyll and Hyde is not false or inconsistent ontology; it is beautifully reflective of our sense of the way actual being-in-the-world is.


Comments

I’ve done some reading about fictionalism, and there are some scholars who link the metaphysical issues to more direct concerns of aesthetics, even issues in narrative theory. The level of abstraction that this article works on, for example, is not going to get you very far when thinking about our fictions, and I’m reasonably sure that the author and his audience understand this.

While there may be psychological fidelity in the Strange Case, it doesn’t seem to concern itself much with the world as it is. Chesterton’s quip about the lawyer reading scripture on Sunday nights, for example, and how this was Edinburgh purporting to be London is one thing. Another is the vacant dreamscape where children run around at 3:00 AM waiting to be trampled. And we get very little in way of details about Hyde’s depredations, compared to say what you might expect from Zola or Gissing.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 04/19/10 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t have access to the journal, and can’t really understand the argument from the little quoted snippets of it.  Is Everett making a distinction between “fictional characters” as characters that do not have models in the real world and between characters in fiction that are based on real-world models?  Like, for instance, the difference between Gandalf and the Napoleon of _War and Peace_.

Or is the difference between fictional characters and real people?  In which, other than the obvious—real people are made out of matter, etc.—what he seems to be talking about as the law of identity doesn’t apply in the real world.  There are no two people who are identical to each other, not even identical twins.  Imagining a fictional world in which characters can be identical is already creating a fictional world in which impossibilities occur.  There’s no need for the “Jules and Jim both were, and were not, distinct people.” All you need is “Jules and Jim were not distinct people.”

But I must be misunderstanding this in multiple ways.

By on 04/19/10 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan: But Zola and Gissing are the exception rather than the rule, surely?  ‘Stories’, taken in the mass, don’t attempt to reproduce the material fidelity of the world. They inflect it in various plastic or fantastic ways.  I don’t mean to channel ‘Barbie Girl’ in writing that, by the way.

By Adam Roberts on 04/19/10 at 11:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: I assume the point of Everett’s “Jules and Jim both were, and were not, distinct people” is not just impossibility but logical impossibility.  (How might “Jules and Jim were not distinct people” stand up to the case of patient James Julian who suffers from split-personality schizophrenia?) So Everett wants to imagine a story in which something fundamental doesn’t apply; and he’s gone for the ‘conceptual impossibility’ angle in Kant et al., that a thing cannot both be and not-be at the same time.  But I don’t see that this transfers over very well.  Here’s one of his footnotes:

These examples might be multiplied. With sufficient ingenuity we might construct stories where, for example, the law of the excluded middle, the reflexivity of identity, the transivity of identity and the laws of arithmetic fail to apply to identical statements involving the denizens of these stories and hence fail to apply to the fictional characters occurring in those stories. [633]

I suppose my point is that ‘we’ hardly need to tax our ingenuity, since (say) Thomas Pynchon, or any amount of science fiction, already done all of this.  And having done it the result is, mostly, not an attenuated and unealistic thought experiment, but texts that engage us exactly like reality does.

By Adam Roberts on 04/19/10 at 11:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for posting this, Adam.

I’ll need to read the article before I can comment more coherently, but the problem with Everett’s argument seems to be that he assumes the property of fictional characters he needs to prove.

For instance, regarding (P1), how does the “world of a story” “concern” creatures?  How do we determine the reality of irreality of a particular creature within the “world of a story”? Ignoring (P2), which frankly makes no sense to me, we can proceed to his argument that “underspecification within a story gives rise to ontic indeterminancy concerning which fictional characters occur within that story” and that “the fictional realist seems committed to certain pernicious forms of indeterminancy and to objects that flout the laws of logic and identity.”

Why does underspecification give rise to pernicious indeterminacy for fictional persons but not for real persons (say, in creative nonfiction)?  Why, because we have already specified that they are “not a real thing”!  There is no “fact of the matter” to which we can refer in order to regulate the fictional character.  How do we know?  It doesn’t matter, since we assume this irreality as our premise.  In other words, Everett’s conclusions do not seem to “follow” from his premises.  Instead, we have what looks to me like a tautology.

By Lee Konstantinou on 04/19/10 at 12:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d recommend that any interested parties read the SEP entry on Fictionalism to understand more about this.

This is a technical subject. It uses a different vocabulary and conceptual structure than that of literary theorists. I think you can find some points of coherent overlap in the work of Gregory Currie, Paisley Livingston, Lubomir Dolezel, and Marie-Laure Ryan.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 04/19/10 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why should classical logic and its criteria be adjudged competent to handle issue of personal “identity”, (as if it were the same as logical “identity"), let alone fictional characters? Didn’t Heidegger write a fat book on how ontological categories deriving from the traditional metaphysical notion of “substance” were inadequate for handling issues of human existence, which rather involve temporally distended meaning-horizons of being “in” a world? And, of course, fictional characters are mere paper “beings”, since the sentences of literary works are factitious, mere Schein, illusion, stripped of any direct communicative “force” or consequence. But it’s doubtful that the ambivalences, conflicts, transformations and alternative possibilities ingredient in human (self-)relations could be worked out in terms of formal logic anyway. Since we are “in” a world and merely part of it, we can’t grasp it “as a whole”. The alternative worlds of literary fiction are a way of coming to terms with our actual fates, in terms of an alternative “world”, in which the “whole” can be “seen”, together with its interstices, which the functional “necessities” of our lives routinely ignore or bypass. The under-specification, indeterminacy and ambiguity of such fictional worlds and characters are not defects, but rather effects of that surplus of meanings and possibilities that underlie our actual lives and their (foreclosed) alternatives. That such literary art is made out of the waste-products and decay of experience and its meaning, which can’t be absorbed into the functionalities and inevitabilities of our actual lives and fates, is nonetheless also a means of insight, which can’t be (re-)produced in cognitive and “logical” terms, more “intimate” than perhaps otherwise available, into the costs of our negligences and exclusions, a breaking of our egoistic “identifications”, and a reaching out to the otherness of different “worlds”, over against the reified “myth of the given”, ought to set our “lost” possibilities in order. There’s a shock of discovery there, that can’t be reduced to prior terms, nor assimilated into “normal” life. But which requires and demands attention. “What Maisie knew” is never the definite article.

By on 04/19/10 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why should classical logic and its criteria be adjudged competent to handle issue of personal “identity”, (as if it were the same as logical “identity"), let alone fictional characters? Didn’t Heidegger write a fat book on how ontological categories deriving from the traditional metaphysical notion of “substance” were inadequate for handling issues of human existence, which rather involve temporally distended meaning-horizons of being “in” a world? And, of course, fictional characters are mere paper “beings”, since the sentences of literary works are factitious, mere Schein, illusion, stripped of any direct communicative “force” or consequence. But it’s doubtful that the ambivalences, conflicts, transformations and alternative possibilities ingredient in human (self-)relations could be worked out in terms of formal logic anyway. Since we are “in” a world and merely part of it, we can’t grasp it “as a whole”. The alternative worlds of literary fiction are a way of coming to terms with our actual fates, in terms of an alternative “world”, in which the “whole” can be “seen”, together with its interstices, which the functional “necessities” of our lives routinely ignore or bypass. The under-specification, indeterminacy and ambiguity of such fictional worlds and characters are not defects, but rather effects of that surplus of meanings and possibilities that underlie our actual lives and their (foreclosed) alternatives. That such literary art is made out of the waste-products and decay of experience and its meaning, which can’t be absorbed into the functionalities and inevitabilities of our actual lives and fates, is nonetheless also a means of insight, which can’t be (re-)produced in cognitive and “logical” terms, more “intimate” than perhaps otherwise available, into the costs of our negligences and exclusions, a breaking of our egoistic “identifications”, and a reaching out to the otherness of different “worlds”, over against the reified “myth of the given”, which ought to set our “lost” possibilities in order. There’s a shock of discovery there, that can’t be reduced to prior terms, nor assimilated into “normal” life. But which requires and demands attention. “What Maisie knew” is never the definite article.

By on 04/20/10 at 01:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A dodgy bit of reasoning. Everett relies on vague language like “may” and “seems” to derive a conclusion that the fictional realist is commited to a pernicious form of indeterminacy, without specifying why it’s pernicious. Anyhow, he needs to provide a clearer ontology of what it is to be a fictional character before making such pronouncements. Cheers, K

By Kevin on 04/20/10 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jean Valjean both is and is not Father Madeleine and is and is not Fauchelevent and is and is not the person designated by his prison number. 

That’s precisely the point of Hugo’s novel.  Otherwise, it is right and proper for Javert to arrest JVJ for all his past crimes.  The symbolic and ritual logic, the spiritual logic, of death and rebirth trumps the materialist logic.

And Odysseus is Nobody.

And then there’s *Finnegans Wake* and its “characters.”

By on 04/20/10 at 10:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But this is preposterous?  A character is either ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’?  If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile.  You do not evey think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it...fictionalize it, in a world, and put it away on a shelf--your book, your romanced autobiography.”

--John Fowles,in The French Lieutenant’s Woman

By on 04/21/10 at 01:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I find Jane’s response to the biscuit problem ludicrous.  Surely she has the sense to tell Jules and Jim they can buy their own bourbons when they come to tea and save her the bother.  Although as they’ve already been so insensitive as to put her in this position I’d think twice about asking them back.  Or she could go to Dialethianetto and get a value pack.

When oh when will people stop confusing reality (boring things approachable by ontology) with the truth (interesting, personal/universal things approachable only by experience and fiction)?  When?  *raises hands to heaven*

As you say, Adam, Everett seems to have tripped over it and missed it. I’m just chiming in because I’m so amazed.

By on 04/27/10 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam

You say this:

Because if the world itself ... exhibits ‘ontic indeterminancy’, then at the very least we can argue that authors creating characters are being true to the nature of things. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that Everett is applying a different argumentative strategy to his ‘fictional characters’ than to the world at large.

As an author who writes in the same genre - indeed the same subgenre - as Everett does (yes, the academic paper is a genre, with its own literary conventions - why do you ask?), and knows the literature that forms the background for his work, I feel pretty confident in saying that Everett almost certainly doesn’t think there is ontic indterminacy in the world at large,

But there’s no need to take my word for it. He’s a real person, with a real email address that’s not too hard to find. Why don’t you write and ask him?

If I’m right, then he’s not being - as you suggest - inconsistent. Is he right? Well, that’s another matter, of course.

But I think that in order to convince me that he was, you’d need not just to suggest that there is ontic indeterminacy in the non-fictional world but (at very least) to provide some plausible example of it. Unless I missed it, I don’t think you did this. So I’m not convinced

By on 04/27/10 at 11:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with Justina.

Bill W.:"Why don’t you write and ask him?“ You think that’s the best way to have this sort of discussion? Private email rather than public blog where others can chip in?

yes, the academic paper is a genre, with its own literary conventions - why do you ask?“ I neither ask nor disagree with what you say here.

Everett almost certainly doesn’t think there is ontic indterminacy in the world at large ... you’d need not just to suggest that there is ontic indeterminacy in the non-fictional world but (at very least) to provide some plausible example of it. Unless I missed it, I don’t think you did this. So I’m not convinced

This, it seems to me, depends what we mean by ‘the world at large.’ Everett looks for things that, from Kant onwards, philosophers have agreed are a priori: extension, duration, transivity of identity and so on.  Then he imagines a fiction that contradicts those a priori truths, which, as he demonstrates, is easily done.  But these sorts of truths are truths of the world.  Fiction is not about the world, so much as it is about people, and about people’s sense of the world.  People’s sense of the world does not cleave to these sorts of a priori conditions.  Dream logic is not the same thing as syllogistic logic.

By Adam Roberts on 04/27/10 at 06:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another way of putting it: would you say the world, as it is, is ironic?

By Adam Roberts on 04/28/10 at 05:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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