Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Linguistic Data and Fictional Characters

Academic journal article Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations

Linguistic Data and Fictional Characters

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. According to abstract creationist views, fictional characters are contingently existing abstract entities. Thomasson and others have showed that creationism can be successfully defended against standard objections. I will argue, however, that the main claims of creationism are flawed in light of the available linguistic data. After delineating the basic problems of this view, I will briefly consider two alternative approaches. An important advantage of these alternatives is that they are able to provide a more adequate description of the origin of fictional characters.

Keywords: fictional characters; abstracta; authorial creation; linguistic data

1. Fictional Characters as Created Abstract Entities

The bare claim that fictional characters such as Anna Karenina or Sherlock Holmes are products of artistic invention sounds quite natural in most contexts of literary discussion. Are fictional characters created through the artistic activities of storytellers? Many of us would probably say yes to this question without hesitation.

Amie L. Thomasson was among the first to show that this claim can also be given a firm philosophical foundation. In her seminal work Fiction and Metaphysics (1999), Thomasson provided a comprehensive and detailed theory of the supervenience base of fictional characters and other artistic artifacts. The essential point of this theory was that artistic artifacts are created on the basis of the independent physical world and the intentional acts of human beings. According to Thomasson, the ontological status of fictional characters follows directly from the structure of their supervenience base. Since Anna Karenina and Sherlock Holmes were created by the intentional acts of storytellers at a given stage of literary history and their persis- tence depends on the copies of literary works in which they are represented, they have to be regarded as contingently existing abstract entities.

Although Thomasson's main points (e.g., that fictional characters are created and that they are abstract entities) may seem intuitively self-evident, the creationist theory has been recently challenged with attractive arguments.1

A typical kind of objection concerns the explanatory link between Thomasson's two points: if fictional characters are abstract entities, it is hard to understand how they can be created, because abstract entities cannot enter into the causal process of creation. Another often-heard objection is that fictional characters frequently behave like real people: they walk in the garden or smoke a pipe, but if Anna Karenina and Sherlock Holmes are abstract entities, they cannot do such things.

In the next section we will see that creationists have enough conceptual resources to defend themselves against these familiar kinds of argument.2 In the second part of the paper, however, I will argue that, despite its explanatory strength, Thomasson's framework is unable to provide a coherent description about the way storytellers create fictional characters. Finally, I will briefly consider two alternative accounts of authorial creation.

2. Standard Arguments against the Creationist Theory

Contemporary ontologies often define abstracta as things which fall outside of space and time.3 Numbers, sets and functions are considered traditionally as incontestable examples of abstracta. Such objects of pure mathematics exist without occupying any determinable region of spacetime. We cannot descriptively identify a concrete location l and time point t and say that a particular number is located at l at t.

If a thing falls outside of space and time, it must also fall outside of the scope of the laws of causality. The reason for this is that causal laws can exert their effects only on objects that are able to enter into spatial and temporal relations with each other. So it can be said that the property of lacking a particular spatiotemporal position entails the property of being causally inert. …

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