Fictional Entities:

Comment on Radcliffe’s “Inside the Edge: Justified Reification of Actions”, and Chapter 8 of Ray’s Identity and Universals: A Conceptualist Approach to Logical, Metaphysical, and Epistemological Problems of Contemporary Identity Theory

David V. Ward, Ph.D.


Forum: Enlightenment (in partial fulfillment of the requirements for participation in the Enlightenment First Annual Meeting, 2001)


The Status of Fictional Characters.


Radcliffe argues that Ray is mistaken in denying existence, and thus the possibility of reference, to fictional characters.  Discussing the status of Elizabeth Bennet, a character from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Ray says:


For example, suppose that we are aguing about  Elizabeth’s moral charcter, and someone who has not read the book overhears us and thinks that we are analyzing one of our friends.  Our audience also knows the concepts we are using, and she thinks that they refer to something in reality.  She is deceived, because she extends her concepts to include an unkown as a real thing.  The difference between our discussion and what is overheard is that  we know that Elizabeth is Austen’s creation, that it is really her intentions that we must analyze through her words; while our hapless eavesdropper thinks we are gossiping.


But we are all making mistakes.  You and I are making the mistake of talking about this figment as though it is a woman... [Ray 99:Ch8]


I wish to argue contra Ray and with Radcliffe that fictional entities exist, but that Radcliffe is mistaken about what sorts of things they are.


Ray is precisely correct when she says that the issue is whether fictional entities have determinate identity.  On a naive view of the nature of fictional (as well as imaginary and mythological, fictional objects would indeed fail to have an identity. Specifically, they would fail to meet the requirements of the law of exluded middle.  Imagine a typical chicken.  Now, how many feathers does this imaginary chicken have?  The answer is indeterminate.  But any real chicken would have just so many feathers.  Our indeterminate imaginary chicken fails to have an identity, in the strict sense of identity required by the law of excluded middle and the law of identity.  We do not, and could not, imagine objects with the determinacy required by the formal requirements of identity.  Nor could an author specify the identity of a character determinately.  How many hairs are on Elizabeth’s head?  Is her right ring finger longer than her index finger or not?  For all real women, there would be a determinate answer to these questions.  But not for fictional women or imaginary chickens.


Radcliffe attempts to avoid this difficulty by denying, sensibly, that Elizabeth is a woman.    He says:


There is an entity, created by the action of my mind, named “Elizabeth Bennet.  This entity has properties that are very similar to the properties of a memory, but instead of being created by my perceptual experience of a living woman, it was created by my reading a book.  Anything I might remember about a woman I might also know about Elizabeth Bennet, and if you and I have read the same book the entities we created in our minds are likely to be similar; so similar that we may abe able to treat them as identical.  But they are not identical: there are at least as many Elizabeth Bennets as there are readers of  Pride and Prejudice...Thus Elizabeth Bennet is in fact a concept that subsumes all the mental entities named Elizabeth Bennet in the minds of all the readers of Jane Austen’s novel.


But Radcliffe’s suggestion conflates objects with concepts of those objects.  Elizabeth Bennet is a fictional character created by Jane Austen, not the multiple and differing concepts that readers might have of that character.  To be sure, I have a concept of Elizabeth, as do Ray and Radcliffe and all the other Austen fans.  But surely our concepts, our interpretations of Austen’s text, are not identical with Austen’s creation. 


Radcliffe’s wantonly promiscuous multiplication of Elizabeths calls to mind Derrida’s self-refuting dictum that “there are no texts, only interpretations.”   If Elizabeth just is the multiple and varying concepts that different readers have, this would make it difficult to claim that there could be incompetent readings of Austen (a Derridean problem indeed).  Suppose that someone says that Elizabeth is a silly, empty-headed woman of loose morals and no self-respect.  We would presumably want to say that is a misreading of the novel.  On Radcliffe’s account however, that person is speaking of his concept of Elizabeth.  How are we to disagree with our incompetent reader?  If we reply that, no, Elizabeth is far from silly or empty-headed, we are speaking of our concept, not his, and so we have failed to disagree. 


In order to disagree, we must be speaking of one and the same thing: the one and only Elizabeth Bennet, the Elizabeth Bennet created not by readers but by the author.   But what is it that the author created?  What Austen created was a text, a novel.  Elizabeth is a character in that novel--a “woman depiction”, if you will.  Not a depiction of a woman (unless Austen was writing a biography), but a woman-description.  That woman-description includes the relevant predicative descriptions from the novel: “ proud”, “ stubborn”, etc., and the logical implications of those predications. 


Treating fictional or mythological objects as a relevant subset of the text of a work (and the implications of that portion of text) avoids the logical violations of the naive view.  Woman-depictions are extensional; they conform to the law of excluded middle, and all other logical constraints.  And they are not (merely) mental entities (if such exist--though I’m inclined to agree with Radcliffe that there are mental entities).  Fictional characters are not figments. 


Treating fictional characters as “person-depictions” also makes evident how it is that, for example, a given conception of a character can be rationally criticized as incorrect: there is an objective source, the text, which can be called upon to adjudicate disputes.


Radcliffe’s conflation of concept with object is evident in the quote above.  He says that Elizabeth is a concept, a mental entity very like a memory.   Then in the same passage he says that “anything I might remember about a woman I might know about Elizabeth...”  But the sorts of things that one might remember about a woman (e.g., that she is tall or highly educated or married) are not the kinds of things that one could know about a “concept which is very like a memory.”  Concepts can’t be tall or married or highly educated.  It seems a mistake to identify Elizabeth with anything mental at all.


Are we, as Ray asserts, making the error of talking about Elizabeth as if she were a woman?  I think that there is merit in Radcliffe’s claim that this would commit Ray to an odd sense of  “mistake”. [Is an actor in a play, speaking lines of dialogue which are not true, the play being a fiction, making a mistake?]  If one says, speaking of Elizabeth, that she is high-minded and principled woman, this doesn’t commit one to the claim that there exists an x such that x is a woman and x is named Elizabeth and x is high-minded.  On my analysis, assertions about fictional characters are to be parsed as assertions about what is included or implied by the text.  They are assertions about what is constitutive of the depiction.  Thus:  The depiction of Elizabeth includes the predicates “ high-minded and principled” and “ a woman.”  Similarly, when we say of the Mona Lisa that she, the woman in the painting, has a beautiful smile, we are not asserting that there is a woman in the painting, a woman who has been hanging on a museum wall for many decades and who is about a 16th on an inch thick, and who smiles interminably though beautifully.  We are not even asserting that there exists a beautiful smile.  We are asserting, using our knowledge of the conventions of fiction and art, that this woman depiction includes a beautiful smile depiction. 


Ray seems to make different sort of error when she says, “... Elizabeth is Austen’s creation, [and] it is her intentions that we must analyze through her words...”  I believe that it is fundamentally wrong to attempt to understand and analyze a work by understanding the “author’s intentions.”  First, the author’s intentions may be, and often are, inaccessible.  Second, even where the author is available, we face the problem of the subversive or ironic author who gives disingenuous reports of his or her intentions.  Finally, even in cases where we could have confidence in the sincerity of the author’s report of intentions, it is far from clear that the author’s intent is transparent even to the author herself.   It seems likely that in subtle and complex works, mixed and complicated intentions, perhaps even unconcious intentions, enter into the creation.  It is likely that many authors and artists fail to realize all the important implications of their characterizations, or the “intentions” which moved them to that precise creation.  The difficulties involved in unpacking the artist’s intent become more evident when we consider visual arts, particularly painting.  What was Leonardo’s intent in giving Mona Lisa that ambiguous smile?  How could such a thing be determined--if in fact it is determinate?


The most serious difficulty with tying fictional entities (and their ilk) to the intentions of their creator is the questionable ontological status of intentions.  We would need, at the least, an account of intentions which permitted them an identity.  It is notoriously difficult to give a characterization of intentions which avoids the logical problems of indeterminacy.


I suggest that the work of art is a separate object, whose identity is separate and distinct from its creator’s intentions.  The painting is what is on this surface; this novel is the text contained between these covers.  And it is from that surface or text that the work derives its identity.  Intentions are obscure; the work of art is public and objective.


For purely imaginary objects, where there is no objective independent work of art or text produced, it seems to me that we do better with an analysis that focuses on the act of imagination rather than on some purported imaginary object.   If I imagine a pig with wings, there is no “pig with wings in my imagination.”  There is not even an image of such a pig in my imagination.  My imagination is not the sort of thing which could contain images, let alone pigs.  Humans have the capacity for a kind of mental action, “imagining”, and one form which imagining can take is “flying pig imagining.”  If we can thus characterize the act, we have no need of imaginary objects.  All talk about them can be parsed into a characterization of an action:  we are imagining in a certain way, namely “pig flyingly.”


To belabor the point, imagine that someone unaquainted with dance wishes to witness one, specifically to see a tango.  We take this person to a ballroom where people are do the tango, and he says to us, “Well, I see all the feet and bodies moving in a particular pattern--but where is the tango?”  The feet and bodies moving so just is the tango.  And so it is with imaginary objects.  They are modulations of the act of imagining; they are the way in which we are imagining.