John Gibson, Fiction and the Weave of Life

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John Gibson, Fiction and the Weave of Life. Oxford U. Press, 2007. Pp. 201. $75.

How to assess the truth value of statements of apparent fact that occur in fictions ("Sherlock Holmes lived on Baker Street" is a favorite example) may sound like a merely academic, indeed philosophical question. And indeed it is, having been debated by philosophers since the turn of the twentieth century, when pioneers of analytic philosophy such as Alexis Meinong, Gottlob Frege, and Bertrand Russell took sides on a question that, if truth be told, is still batted around by philosophers more as a way of testing competing theories of meaning and truth than from any burning interest in literary writing as such. Roughly, Meinong thought that such statements could be true in a fictional world; Russell that, there being no world to refer to except the world, they are all false; and Frege that fictions are all sense or meaning (Sinn) and no reference (Bedeutung), and so don't have truth values. These days analytic philosophers tend to approach this question in terms of "possible world semantics." Gibson is a philosopher. But he does not go down the road of possible world semantics because he wants to make a contribution to analytic philosophy of literature, not, except per accidens, philosophical semantics. He wants to know whether we can learn about life from novels and plays, and, if so, how.

Gibson raises doubts about a way of answering this question that he calls "humanism," that is, the notion that it is possible to acquire knowledge of life from fictions and proper to their function to enable readers to do so. Humanism as he defines it fails to realize that because fictional persons, places, and events do not exist we can 'refer' to them (in scare quotes) only in the 'world' constructed by the fiction. We cannot extend their reference to the real world. So far forth, his view seems to combine elements of Meinong, Frege, and Russell without quite agreeing with any of them.

Gibson says that humanism comes in two flavors. Direct humanism says we can learn general truths about the real world from fictional works because at a certain level of abstraction they represent and refer to the real world in the first place (17). The indirect version is less insouciant about the fact that "literary texts ... generate the characters and events to which their descriptions refer" (30-31). It argues that fictional works do not make assertions about made up events and characters; they are merely pragmatic devices or tools for inducing the kind of learning that direct humanists presume (18). Gibson finds indirect humanism defended by philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and Stanley Cavell and on display in their efforts at literary criticism (14n2, 24n 14, 26,n 16). His objection, if sound, is strong enough to take out the direct version as well. The humanist's thesis fails because whatever we learn by means of fictions necessarily comes at a severe cost to their literary quality and artful integrity. We do not acquire knowledge about life from fictions qua works of literary art.

For his part, Gibson thinks that the humanist's core intuition can be preserved without violating the literary and more generally the aesthetic status of fictions if we say that fictional texts do not make either particular or general claims about the real world, but rather erect the standards by which we evaluate and appropriate such claims (69, 79). He means that by following the tale of Othello, for example, we learn what jealousy is in a way that both presupposes and goes beyond our factual knowledge of jealousy (114-15). Taking up a distinction he appropriates from the alleged humanist Cavell, Gibson says that fictions, or at least those that succeed in setting up such standards, enable us to ac-know-ledge (roughly: take to heart and properly judge) what we are presumed already to know (103-11).

In this connection, Gibson compares the cognitive work fictions do to the role played by the standard meter bar that is kept hermetically sealed in Paris. …