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A fictionalist is one who aims to secure the benefits of talking as if certain kinds of things existnumbers, moral properties, possible worlds, composite objects, or whateverwhile avoiding commitment to believing in their existence. This understanding of fictionalism is broad and ecumenical, and it should be noted that fictionalism is frequently used in the recent literature to refer to one or other of the more specific doctrines that this entry discusses.

1. Fictionalism and Fictions

Consider paradigm cases of works of fiction such as J. R. R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings or Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol. On some occasions, such works of fiction are taken as the object of philosophical enquiry and explanation. In that case, as one would expect, there are competing philosophical accounts of the nature of fictioncompeting answers to such questions as the following: whether hobbits exist; whether it is true that Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by Marley; how, or why, people come to rejoice in Scrooge's redemption, or whether Lord of the Rings might have existed if Tolkein had not. On other occasions, however, works of fiction (in general) are invoked to explain (by analogy) various philosophically interesting discourses that are not obviously works of fiction or intended to be. In that case, certain answers to questions about the ontology and language of works of fiction are taken as given, and the workings of other discourses are accounted for by analogy with works of fiction so construedhence the use of the term fictionalism to describe accounts of this sort. Fictionalists need not explicitly propose an analogy with works of fiction. The link between works of fiction and fictionalism is best forged as follows.

There are three natural and plausible theses about fictions that fictionalists typically wish to transfer to the discourses that are the targets of their explanations. Firstly, a thesis of vindication: Fictional discourses do not call for elimination or rejection, nor may they be simply ignored. We should neither discourage novelists from writing stories nor prohibit literary critics from discussing fictional characters: Fiction fulfills some function in our lives and calls for a philosophical account that acknowledges that function. Secondly, an ontological attitude: We should not accept the existence of characters and kinds that are paradigmatically fictional. For instance, we should not believe in the existence of hobbits or Ebenezer Scrooge. Thirdly, a semantic thesis: It is not the case that any sentence that appears to be about fictional entities both (a) entails the existence of a fictional entity and (b) is literally true. This thesis is particularly important in the case of those sentences of the fictional narrative that are paradigmatically correct or true according to the fictionfor example, "Some hobbits live underground" and "Scrooge is the employer of Bob Cratchit." These sentences appear to entail the existence of fictionalia such as hobbits and Scrooge, and they appear to be true, so that anyone who accepts both these appearances will seemingly be committed to believing in the existence of hobbits and of Scrooge.

Fictionalists turn these theses about fiction into claims about the discourse for which they are accounting. Characterizing fictionalism this way enables us to distinguish fictionalism about a discourse (F -talk, say) from the most eminent rival approaches to interpretation and ontologynamely, eliminativism, realism, and reductionism. Firstly, the fictionalist's thesis of vindication says that we are well motivated in persisting in our use of F -talk because it serves some characteristic function or purpose that cannot effectively or efficiently be replicated if we abstain from F -talk. In contrast, the eliminativist characteristically denies that F -talk is so vindicated and proposes to abstain from its use. Secondly, the fictionalist's ontological attitude is that we ought not to accept the existence of F s. Thus the fictionalist is no realist assuming that realists about F -discourse must believe in F s. We should also expect the realist to reject the characteristic semantic thesis of fictionalism and so to insist that there are F -sentences that both (a) entail the existence of F s and (b) are literally true. Thirdly, the fictionalist does not accept the existence of F s and so, a fortiori, does not accept the conjunctive thesis that the F s exist and (for some G ) are identical with the G s. This separates the fictionalist from ontological reductionists, who assert this conjunctive thesis.

2. Fictionalist Strategies of Interpretation

As has been seen, the fictionalist wishes to exploit the thesis that no sentence of fictional discourse both (a) entails the existence of any fictional entity and (b) is literally true. Different general strategies of fictionalist interpretation correspond to different ways of rejecting (a) or of rejecting (b). To spell out these strategies, let us focus on the kind of sentence that may look like a counterexample to the view of fiction on which the fictionalist is drawingone that appears to entail the existence of a fictional entity:

(1) Some hobbits live underground.

The first kind of fictionalist strategy proceeds from denial of the entailment component (a) of the thesis. It claims that the sentences do not have the existential consequences that they appear to have. If this claim is secured, then in order to avoid unwanted existential commitment, the fictionalist need not deny that the sentences in question are true. This entry distinguishes three versions of this strategy, modeled on different accounts of the nature of fiction:

(a1) nonfactualism (related terms: noncognitivism, expressivism, instrumentalism)

The sentences of the fictional narrative are not used with the kind of illocutionary force or intent that is required in order for them to state a propositional, genuinely truth-evaluable content. The proper use of the sentence is in a kind of illocutionary act that precludes assertion or presenting the content of a belief. Accordingly, sentences so used are not truth-apt and lack the kinds of content that can be, or properly entail, any existential proposition. In fictional narratives, perhaps the crucial illocutionary act is that of fictionalizing or pretending. The nonfactualist strategy of interpretation is familiar from the moral and aesthetic cases, where fact-stating is contrasted with evaluating or attitude-expressing, but is also applied in certain instrumentalist approaches to (portions of) mathematics and science. The locus classicus of ethical nonfactualism is the emotivism of A. J. Ayer (1936, ch. 6). For an instrumentalism about infinitary portions of mathematics see David Hilbert's article "On the Infinite" (1983). Simon Blackburn presents a list of nonfactualist (expressivist) suggestions about a further range of discourses as background to his own nonfactualism (quasi-realism) about morals and modals (1984, chs. 56).

(a2) noneism (related term: meinongianism)

Sentences such as (1) may be used assertorically, they have propositional content, but they do not entail the existence of hobbits because, generally, propositions of particular quantification (some A s are B s) do not entail the existence of those things over which they quantify. On this view, it is consistent to hold, in general, that there are some things that do not exist and, in particular, that among some of the things that do not exist are hobbits that live underground, or infinitely many prime numbers or worlds that have talking donkeys as parts. A comprehensive, noneist fictionalism would treat all apparently existential quantification in the true propositions of the discourse as particular quantification, and would treat all such particular quantification as quantification that is not existentially committing. The locus classicus of noneism is Richard Routley (1980; see also McGinn 2000, ch. 2).

(a3) paraphrasis

Sentences of the fictional narrative are elliptical expressions of propositions that do not entail the existence of fictionalia; correspondingly, sentences of F -discourse do not entail the existence of F s. One prominent development of this thought has it that sentences such as (1) express propositions in which nonfactive operators take position of widest scopeoperators of modality, conditionalization, or consequence operators invoking a story (or theory). For example:

(1*) According to the Tolkein stories, some hobbits live underground;


(1**) The Tolkein stories entail that some hobbits live underground.

The modal fictionalist introduced in Gideon Rosen's article "Modal Fictionalism" (1990) claims that one can have all the benefits of talking about possible worlds without the ontological costs by interpreting apparently existential claims about a plurality of worlds as claims about what is the case according to the plurality of worlds hypothesis advanced by David Lewis (1986). (Armstrong 1989 puts forward a related view; for discussion, see Lycan 1993). In the philosophy of mathematics, Geoffrey Hellman's (1989) modal structuralism is a proposal to treat apparently existential claims about numbers as claims about what would follow from the hypothesis that certain structures are instantiated. The presentism of A. N. Prior (1957) incorporates a proposal to paraphrase away apparent reference to past and future times by translation into a medium of tensed operators.

The second kind of fictionalist strategy proceeds from refusal to accept the component thesis (b)that the sentences in question are literally true. A choice then presents itself. One might proceed by multiplying kinds of truth and make out the case that there is a feature of nonliteral truth or relativized truth that can be attributed to the "correct" sentences of the discourse. Thus, it might be held that (1) is fictively true or (in a metalinguistic analogue of an earlier proposal) is true-in-the-Tolkein-stories but not literally true or true simpliciter. Going the other way, one might stick with only one univocal notion of (literal) truth but refuse to ascribe (univocal) truth to (1) or any other correct existential sentence of the fiction. Here only the latter, better-charted path will be explored. If the fictionalist refrains from holding that any existential sentence is true, she may treat those sentences as expressing the existential propositions that they appear to express without having immediate cause to worry that unwanted existential commitment will ensue. Three versions of this strategy are as follows:

(b1) presuppositionism

When sentences containing special fictional terms occur outside the scope of a story operator ("According to T ") they simply lack a truth-value. This view might be supported by the contention that in order for some such sentences to be true or false, the existential presuppositions invoked by the use of the narrativepresupposition of the existence of hobbits and other kinds of thingswould have to be fulfilled. For such a view of sentences involving predications to empty definite descriptions see P. F. Strawson's essay "On Referring" (1971).

(b2) agnosticism

The problematic existential sentences of the discourse may properly be used to assert the existence of F s and do have a determinate truth-value. But people are not, and perhaps cannot be, in a position to judge what that truth-value is, and certainly not in a position to assert any such sentence. The most famous agnostic fictionalism is that of Bas C. Van Fraassen (1980) on the unobservables of microphysical theory. Rosen and Cian Dorr (2002) proposed agnosticism about the existence of the composite objectsentities that have other entities as partswhich people's ordinary talk is about.

(b3) error theory

The problematic existential sentences are assertoric of the existence of F s and do have determinate truth-value, and one is justified in holding that these sentences are systematically false. J. L. Mackie (1977) famously reads Locke as an error-theorist about secondary properties and develops a parallel error theory of morals. Mackie interprets ordinary moral judgements as requiring the existence of "objective prescriptivity"states of affairs that give reasons for action independently of the agent's motivationsand thus as systematically false. However, Mackie goes on to recommend that one persevere with moral discourse in order to secure the benefits of social cooperation. The moral fictionalism of Richard Joyce (2001) develops this position, suggesting that people should cease to believe moral claims while continuing to utter sentences such as "Kicking babies is wrong," provided they do not do so with assertoric force.

Error theories about mathematics abound. Hartry Field (1989) construes the existential sentences of mathematical theories as entailing the existence of abstract objects. On epistemological grounds one should hold these sentences false. But, Field maintains, because reference to mathematical entities can be removed from the best physical theories, one is entitled to continue using theories that contain mathematics and is motivated to do so because it offers significant shortcuts in inference and calculation. Other mathematical error theorists develop positions that are not committed to such dispensability of quantification over abstract entities. Joseph Melia (2000) claims that mathematical sentences can convey useful information about the concrete part of the world, even though they are often false through entailing the existence of abstract objects.

When the fictionalist proceeds along any of the (b)-route strategies, she will typically offer as an alternative to truth some other subsidiary norm that the "correct" sentences satisfy and in terms of which the success or characteristic function of the discourse is to be explained. What the norm is will differ from discourse to discourse. For example, Van Fraassen's refusal to hold true the existential sentences of microphysical theory, and the theories that entail them, is combined with the views that the good theories in which they feature are good because they are empirically adequate and that one can explain their success without ascribing truth to them. Similarly, Field holds that mathematical "goodness" is not truth but membership of a nominalistically conservative theory (compare Rosen and Dorr 2002 on the atomistic adequacy of ordinary composite object talk). However, the fictionalist who proceeds along the (b)-route in withholding the ascription of truth may not feel compelled to appeal to any norm other than truth. The alternative is to maintain that the discourse could still fulfill its function if people limited themselves to believing or holding true only its nonexistential claims.

It is not the case that all versions of fictionalism are presented explicitly as versions of these strategies. Often other explanatory resources are prominent (e.g., quasi-assertion, games of make-believe, and metaphor. See Yablo 2001, Walton 1990). However, it is suspected that in order to avoid relevant ontological commitment, fictionalists must eventually commit to one of the semantic strategies presented here.

3. Issues for the Fictionalist Strategies of Interpretation

A fictionalist strategy of interpretation will succeed only if:

  1. It avoids the ontological commitments that it is intended to avoid;
  2. it secures the benefits that motivate persistence with use of the discourse; and
  3. it makes intelligible whatever distinctive semantic devices that it invokes in order to escape ontological commitment.

Nonfactualist fictionalism faces its primary challenges over points (2) and (3). In particular, if apparently existential sentences do not, at bottom, state propositions, then how are nonfactualists to square whatever linguistic properties they ascribe to those sentences with the role of the sentences as premises in inferences? This point bites hard when the target discourse is one that functions as an inferential medium as, notably, portions of mathematics and scientific theory do with respect to observation statements.

Noneist fictionalism faces the sharpest challenge of all under point (3), for it has been held that the pivotal claim of noneismthat there are things that do not existis unintelligible. Moreover, there is a particular methodological challenge to be faced by all fictionalists that the noneist in particular seems to invite. Suppose that a fictionalist succeeds in avoiding commitment to some problematic realm of objects. It would smack of absurdity if their strategy could be applied globally, to free everyone of all ontological commitments whatsoevereven in cases where those commitments were not undesirable. The fictionalist who holds that some but not all discourses can be treated fictionally needs a principled way of drawing the line.

Paraphrastic fictionalists who invoke nonfactive operators immediately face a dilemma over point (3). If the operators in question are taken as primitive, that is at least an ideological cost of the theory; but if the (modal, consequence, or conditional) operators in question are interpreted in standard ways, then they may generate commitment to entities such as models (sets) or possible worlds. But these semantically induced entities may either be, or share problematic features with, the entities that the fictionalist is trying to avoidthus contravening (1). For example, a fictionalist about numbers who is suspicious of abstract objects had better not end up invoking other abstract objects in order to explain what "according to standard arithmetic" means. Along the first horn of the dilemma the question arises again, as it did for the nonfactualist, of how to account for the (perhaps crucial) inferential role of the sentences. Often it seems that one could do so if the existential sentences were interpreted as existence-entailing; the paraphrastic fictionalist has to demonstrate that her alternative construal can do the same work.

Another difficulty arises when the nonfactive operator chosen is of the sort "According to T," where T is a philosophical theory the fictionalist holds to be false. (Rosen-style modal fictionalism is an example of a fictionalist theory that invokes such an operator.) It seems reasonable to ask the fictionalist why any philosophical theoryespecially one the fictionalist holds to be falseshould play such a central role in her account of the discourse. In addition, it may be asked why the fictionalist chooses to use the particular theory that she does. What distinguishes that theory from other philosophical falsehoods?

The various route (b) strategies that withhold ascription of literal truth face their most immediate difficulty over (2). Can the characteristic function of the discourse really be secured if all of the intuitively correct sentences are held to have some feature that is weaker than truth or if only the nonexistential intuitively correct sentences are held to be true? A question that lies just beyond this one is whether proper strictures of charitable interpretation will permit an interpretation of the discourse that ascribes such powerful existential entailments and then sets the standard of truth so high (and so distinct from the operating standards of correctness) that the users of the discourse systematically fail to meet them.

4. Historical Postscript

These contemporary fictionalist views have many historical antecedents. The phenomenalist strand of empiricist thought, as represented, for example, in John Stuart Mill's An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1979 [1865]) is paraphrastically fictionalist when it suggests the translation of ordinary material object talk into counterfactual claims about sensations. The nonfactualist strand of empiricist thought, which is often discerned in Hume (1978), can be viewed as suggesting fictionalism about a wide range of cases from the external world to the self. More specifically the notion of paraphrase, and its function in avoiding ontological commitment, is prominent in the thought of Jeremy Bentham in the nineteenth century and in that of W. V. Quine in the twentieth century. Arguably, this style of fictionalism also surfaces in Bertrand Russell's doctrine that classes are "logical fictions," eliminable through contextual definition, and in his famous general treatment of definite descriptions (1956). Finally, in the early twentieth century, Hans Vaihinger (1924) proposes that one should accept atomic theory, theology, and many other discourses, without believing them. Vaihinger presents his views as a reading of Kant, though recent commentators have stressed his affinities with pragmatist thought.

See also Agnosticism; Ayer, Alfred Jules; Eliminative Materialism, Eliminativism; Error Theory of Ethics; Field, Hartry; Hilbert, David; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Lewis, David; Literature, Philosophy of; Locke, John; Mackie, John Leslie; Mill, John Stuart; Noncognitivism; Prior, Arthur Norman; Propositions; Quine, Willard Van Orman; Strawson, Peter Frederick; Vaihinger, Hans; Van Fraassen, Bas.


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John Divers (2005)

David Liggins (2005)