Literature, Philosophy of

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The concepts of fiction and of literature are distinct. On the one hand, there are nonfictional literary worksessays, memoirs, biographies, histories, writings about nature, and even philosophy. Perhaps we should also include some letter collections, diaries, and journals. On the other, there are nonliterary fictions both within and apart from the world of art. Cinema is full of fictional stories. Paintings represent fictional scenes. Advertising, whatever the medium it employs, often presents us with fictions. However, the concepts of fiction and literature are intertwined.

The paradigmatic literary works have steadily drifted toward being exclusively works of fiction: novels, stories, poems, and plays. When David Hume wanted to make his mark as a man of letters, he chose history and philosophy as his media. By comparison, Jean Paul Sartre made his literary mark with novels and plays while establishing his reputation as a philosopher with the contemporary equivalent of treatises and inquiries. Does this shift in literature's center of gravity reflect something important about it? Is there something about the value of literature that makes fictional works most apt to contain such value or is there perhaps an overlap between the value of fiction and literary value? We will discuss both concepts here, beginning with philosophical issues concerning fiction.

What is Fiction?

There are at least two senses of the word fiction that are easy to run together, but need to be distinguished for our present purpose. In one sense, a fiction can simply be a type of falsehood as when one says, "Your PhD is a fiction." By contrast, if one says that Middlemarch is a fiction, they are not saying that there is no such novel. They are saying that it is a certain type of book, story, or representation. It is true that there is such a book, story, or representation.

Unlike ambiguous words such as bank, there is probably some connection between the two senses of fiction, which explains the ease with which they are run together. Works of fiction typically contain an element of unreality. In reality, there is no such town as Middlemarch and no such people as the characters Dorothea or Casaubon who in the fiction inhabit the town. On another level, it is important to realize that the logical or semantic relationship between the two senses of fiction is loose. Fictions in the first sense can be lies and always involve falsehood. Works of fictionsa class of representationsare never lies, although they might just conceivably contain an intentional falsehood. They can refer to real things such as historical personages (Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte) and actual places (Rome, Moscow), and can contain truths about them.

The sense of fiction that primarily interests us is the second one, which refers to a class of works: works of fiction. Our job is to figure out what characterizes it and makes it distinct from other representations. Some have attempted to define fiction as a type of linguistic discourse. (Gale 1971, Urmson 1976). We know in advance that this is inadequate because of the ample existence of nonlinguistic fiction (see K. Walton [1990], for a survey and critique of this view). A second popular approach is to think of fiction as a form of pretense (though with no intent to deceive). This is on the right track, but the trick is to identify the right kind of pretense.

One might think that the standard function of a mode of representation such as language is to inform us about the actual world, to assert or show us things about it. Fiction could then be thought of as something derived from this standard use. Instead of actually asserting something, a fictional story or its author pretends to assert it (Searle 1975). The problem with this version of the pretense view is that it is not always the right description of what artists are doing in their works. Consider a clear case of pretense: Someone is pretending to sing by lip-synching. They are doing one thing in order to pretend to do another. Is Eliot pretending to describe a real town by representing one that does not exist? That does not seem right. To adequately describe what Eliot is doing, it is enough to say that she is writing about an imaginary town. The problem is to say what about means in the previous sentence.

The make-believe view offers an answer (Walton 1990). In order to understand this view one has to recognize that make-believe is being used in a restricted, somewhat technical sense. Make-believe in the relevant sense involves two special features. First it involves props. Props are publicly accessible objects that guide imaginings. If, for example, children are playing school with dolls, the dolls are props. Second, make-believe, unlike some other imaginings, operates according to underlying rules about these props, which authorize or mandate certain imaginings. For example, the game of school might operate according to the rule that the number of students in the classroom is equal to the number of dolls arranged in a certain way.

According to the make-believe view, a work of fictionwhether it be a painting, novel, or poemis a work that is intended or has the function of being a prop in a game of make-believe. What makes Middlemarch fictional is that it is a worka novel in this caseintended to be or having the function of being a prop of the kind described above. It prescribes that we imagine certain things: that there is a town inhabited by such and such people. This is the sense in which it is about a town and its inhabitants.

The make-believe view has become one of the most widely held views about the nature of fiction (Currie 1990, Lamarque and Olsen 1994, Levinson 1996, Walton 1990), but it seems to count works as fictional items that are usually not so considered. Suppose that one writes an autobiography, but in such a way that the reader can vividly imagine the events of the writer's life. Then it appears that this work fulfills two functions. One is to inform the reader about the writer's life. A second is to enable the reader to engage in the kind of guided imagining that is constitutive of make-believe in the technical sense. Something similar happens in certain works of history and journalism, as well as nonfiction novels such as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. All these works are props that authorize certain imaginings. There are some who claim that because of this, these works are fictional even if the primary purpose lies elsewhere. (Walton 1990). But this is counterintuitive: Historical novels are fictional; history is not, even if it uses techniques that produce guided imaginings. How are we to express the difference?

It might be suggested that fiction always presents some things to the imagination that are placed there simply for the purpose of being imagined. Whether or not they express truths or refer to items in the actual world is irrelevant to their proper functioning in the work. This need not be true in the nonfiction works just mentioned. This does not mean that fictions cannot contain some elements that are meant to express truth, or pick out actual people, places, or other things. It just means that not everything in the fictional work so functions. Even in a historical novel, where every character picks out a real person from the past, we are to imagine certain doings or conversations without worrying whether they occurred. So on the present proposal, something is a fiction if it is a work that is intended for, or has the function of, being a prop in a game of make-believe, and at least some of the things it mandates to be imagined are placed in the work just for the sake of being imagined.

Fictional Characters

Works of fiction prescribe us to imagine people and their doings. Because of this, we say that such works, or their authors, create characters, about which we talk when describing and interpreting fictions. How should we understand such talk? How literally should we take it?

Consider the sentence, "Dorothea walked about the house with delightful emotion." A sentence such as this one normally refers to someone and says something about her, but if it appears in a work of fiction not about any actual personage, as this one does in Middlemarch, does it still refer to someone or, at least, to something? There are three answers to this question that currently have serious advocates: 1) the sentence still refers to someone, but a someone who does not exist; 2) the sentence does not refer to anyone, but it does refer to something (viz., a fictional character); 3) the sentence does not refer to anyone or anything.

Some proponents (Walton 1990, Lewis 1978) of the make-believe view hold the last view. Such a sentence refers to no one, but we make-believe that it does. In contrast, if we encounter in a work of fiction the sentence, "There was once a woman who was very happy," we may just make believe that there is some happy woman, at least until we are told more about her. An alternative way of putting the third position is to say that, although the original sentence refers to nothing, it is fictionally true or true in the story that it does. (Adams, Stecker, Fuller 1997)

Proponents of the second view believe that such things as fictional characters actually exist. (Howell 1979, Lamarque and Olsen 1994, Thomasson 1999, van Inwagen 1977, Wolterstorff 1980). They posit such things more to explain the things we say about fiction than to explain fiction itself. They might even agree that the original sentence, as it occurs in the story, does not refer to anyone or anything. But in creating a work of fiction, we also create other things including characters. We can then go on to talk about them, compare them to other characters, quantify over characters, and so on. Consider the claim that Hamlet is one of the most enigmatic characters in literature. Here we appear to be saying something about Hamlet, not merely making believe something. Characters are not people, although fictional works speak of them as if they are.

The plausibility of this view hangs on whether we actually gain something by assuming fictional characters exist, that is denied to those who claim that we merely make-believe that people are being referred to in fictions, or who claim that it is merely true in the fiction, but not in reality, that such reference occurs. The latter would say that the enigmatic thing is what make believe the play Hamlet prescribes or what is true in the play. One thing that is gained by positing the existence of characters is a convenient way to express ourselves when we talk about fictions. The paraphrases of statements about characters in terms of what is true in a story or what make-believe is prescribed by a story will always be more cumbersome. In practice, we will always prefer character-talk. But that does not settle the question whether character-talk really refers to characters rather than works.

On the second view, characters are not what they appear to be. They are not princes, lovers, or detectives. They are not male or female. They are not people. Presumably they are abstract entities of some sort, the properties of which are all, in one way or another, parasitic on the properties of the works in which they appear. Dorothea has the property of being a character in Middlemarch. She, or rather it, also has the property of being ascribed the property of walking about with delightful emotion on a certain occasion. But Dorothea does not actually have the property of walking about with delightful emotion. Proponents of the first view find this counterintuitive. They claim that Dorothea is a person capable of ambulating, feeling emotion, and having a gender. Middlemarch refers to her. In general, fictional works really do refer to people and other things, only often they are fictional people and other fictional things (i.e., people and things that do not exist) (Dilworth 2004, Parsons 1980, Zalta 1983, Zemach 1997). Dorothea and Hamlet do not exist, according to them. In this they agree with some of those who hold the make-believe view. But the people in this camp do not think that that is a reason to deny that we refer to fictional things. In fact, their chief claim is that we can refer to what does not exist including fictional people and places.

The straightforward way in which the first view treats characters is refreshing after the cumbersome paraphrases of the third view and the metaphysical abstractions of the second. Unsurprisingly, the straightforwardness comes with a cost: a highly unorthodox conception of reference. What is fair to call the majority view (which obviously does not mean it is the true one) is that one can only refer to what exists. When we refer to something, we pick it out, and what does not exist cannot be picked out because there is nothing to be picked out. If there were something, it would exist. The things we refer to are distinguished from others in virtue of their properties or characteristics, but nothing can have properties unless it exists in the first place. Existence is not just another property, but is the condition for having properties. What does (did, or will) not exist is nothing and so cannot have properties. If the first view is to get off the ground, it would have to show that the orthodox conception of reference is mistaken. Currently, there is no consensus about which of these views is the most plausible, but rather a lively, ongoing debate.

The Paradox of Fiction

Whatever is the correct view regarding fictional characters, once we become imaginatively involved in stories, we develop feelings and attitudes that appear to be directed toward creatures of fiction. We commonly say that we fear Dracula, despise Casaubon, or admire Sherlock Holmes. Yet there is something paradoxical about this. Feeling fear normally involves believing both that there is something to be feared, and that it poses a danger. We do not believe that Dracula actually exists, or that he poses a danger. Yet we feel fear nevertheless.

None of the views about fictional characters discussed in the preceding section offers a solution to this paradox. Two of the three deny that characters exist. They lead us into, rather than resolve, the problem. Those who claim fictional characters exist, deny that they are people, monsters, or anything else that could stir us to feel as we do. Characters, on this view, are abstract entities, and fearing them would be akin to fearing the number five.

The paradox of fiction has provoked an enormous literature, and many proposed resolutions. Three will be discussed here. The first denies that the object of fear is really fictional. (Charlton 1984, Paskins 1977). When we say we despise Casaubon or admire Holmes, we mean that we despise or admire people like them. We despise self-absorbed people who care nothing even for those close to them. We admire people with intellects (but not necessarily opium addictions) such as Holmes. Factualism, as this view is sometimes called, has some truth to it, but it cannot solve the whole problem. We don't fear creatures such as Dracula because we have no more of a belief in vampires in general than we do in Dracula in particular. Equally important, many of the feelings we develop in the course of taking in a fictional work, are guided by the specific things we imagine as we do this, and for this reason do not generalize beyond the fiction. As Anna Karenina approaches the railroad station, we hope she will turn away rather than enter and throw herself under the train. This is not the hope that despairing lovers will turn away from train stations, or, more generally, will refrain from suicide.

A second view is a further development of the make-believe approach to fiction. (Walton 1990, Levinson 1996). The basic idea here is that fear of Dracula, for example, occurs within the game of the make-believe we play when watching a Dracula movie. Hence, it is not literally fear, any more than our thought that Dracula lives in Transylvania is literally a belief. Our make-believe may, nevertheless, be phenomenologically indistinguishable from fear. That is, it can involve the same physiological changes in the body, we can experience similar feelings, and we may have an attenuated desire to duck, hide, or flee. What we lack is the beliefs that we have with real fear, and the full range of desires and behavioral tendencies.

The last view, known as the thought theory, rebels at the idea that what we feel are not real emotionsfor example, real fear. The chief claim here is that emotions such as fear and pity do not require a belief in the existence of the object of these emotions. The emotions can be caused by vivid imaginings as well (Carroll 1990, Dadlez 1997, Feagin 1996, Gron 1996, Lamarque 1996, Yanal 1999).

It is not clear that we need to take these last two views as offering genuinely distinct theories (Currie 1997). Proponents of the thought theory must admit that when imaginings cause fear, it is different in some important respects than belief-induced fear. In addition to the difference in propositional attitude (believing that versus imagining that) there are cognitive and behavioral differences as well. Proponents of the make-believe view are willing to admit we feel a real emotion, but deny it is literally fear or pity. So it is not clear that the argument between the make-believe view and the thought theory amounts to more than a dispute over the name we should give to the feelings that arise in our imaginative encounters with fiction. They appear to agree about the nature and cause of those feelings.

What is Literature?

The nature of literature is just as much a matter of controversy as the nature of fiction. However, it is now widely accepted that certain definitions will not work. In the first half of the twentieth century there was the hope that literature could be defined as a special way of using language. Literature uses defamiliarized language, drawing attention to its own literary devices. (Beardsley 1958, Jakobson 1960, Wellek and Warren 1973). But on the one hand, literary works can adopt the form of any kind of writing, from the scientific report to the advertising jingle. And on the other, all sorts of nonliterary uses of language can be rife with literary devices such as figures of speech, rhetorical techniques, implicit meanings, and so on.

Three proposals will be considered for defining literature. The first defines literature in terms of a role it plays in society or a community within society. Something is a work of literature, on this view, if it is a piece of writing that fulfills this role. Different theorists in this camp define the relevant role differently. For some, the relevant community is the community of critics, and the relevant role is that of being deemed worthy, or simply being the object, of critical attention (Fish 1980). For others, the relevant community is society at large, and the relevant role is sustaining the structure of power in the society (Eagleton 1983). It is not clear, however, that this approach can succeed in defining literature, whatever insights underlie it. Consider the first version. Who are the critics in question and what does critical attention consist in? They are the literary critics of course rather than the interpreters of philosophical texts (unless they are literary interpreters of those texts from the right academic departments). There are two dangers here and it is virtually impossible to avoid both. One danger is circular definition. The critics are those whose job it is to attend to a certain body of worksworks of literature. Alternatively, the critics are those who use certain techniquesbut those techniques can and sometimes are used on all sorts of things so that we get the extension of literature quite wrong.

A second approach asserts literature is a practice. Writers, readers, critics all enter into this practice by attempting to create, enjoy, or facilitate the appreciation of literary aesthetic value (Lamarque and Olsen 1994). To avoid circularity, literary aesthetic value is cashed out as the value to be found in the experience of a subject or story that has a humanly interesting content in virtue of embodying one or more perennial themes and that is given a complex form suitable to developing such a theme.

What seems right about this approach is the claim that the creation of literature is imbedded in a social practice with distinctive aims, institutions, and traditions. What is controversial about the approach is its conception of the practice in terms of aiming at a single kind of value in a way that has remained unchanged, at least since ancient Greece. When one thinks of all the various items that are relatively uncontroversial examples of literature, from ancient classics to eighteenth century essays to contemporary poetry, one must wonder whether the formula proposed by this definition really encompasses all of literature.

An alternative is to think of literature as a practice defined by an evolving set of values or functions and central art forms. Currently, these forms are the novel, short story, drama, and poetry, and in addition to their aesthetic value, we also characteristically value them in other ways such as for fulfilling certain cognitive functions, and for providing opportunities for open-ended interpretation. Anything that belongs to such an art form and is seriously intended to provide one or another of these values is a work of literature, but so are other pieces of writing that fulfill these valuable functions to a significant degree whether or not they are in one of the central literary forms. Finally, it should be recognized that our current concept of literature has itself evolved from earlier predecessor concepts, such as those of fine writing (belle lettres) and the ancient Greek or Latin classic. Items that fall under these predecessor concepts also belong to literature by a principle of inclusion implicit in our current concept. (Stecker 1996).

Criticism and Interpretation

Criticism is the blanket term for writing about or commenting on individual literary (or art) works. Being a blanket term, it covers different kinds of projects. One of the oldest kinds exists to orient an audience to new literary (artistic) productions as they appear. In doing this, this kind of criticism fulfills a variety of distinct functions. It will typically identify the sort of work under discussion (e.g., an experimental novel in the manner of so and so), and acquaint a potential reader with important features of the work such as its style, plot, themes, and characters. Often implicit in these descriptions is an appreciative response (positive or negative) by the critic leading to an explicit evaluation of the work. The contemporary review is an example of this sort of criticism.

A different activitythat of analyzing and interpreting literary worksbecame a central critical activity in the twentieth century. This had a variety of causes. One was the rise of English and, more generally, literary studies, as an academic discipline. This generated a series of debates about the nature, content, value, and proper reception of such works, which associated a work with a great variety of ways of taking or reading itin essence, a great variety of interpretations. Another factor was the growing prominence of difficult avant-garde works that are simply hard to understand. For such works at least, it is natural to turn to analysis and interpretation in order to understand and appreciate them. However, once we see how such analysis generates unexpected meanings or significance in these works, one suspects it might do so in any work, making any literary work a candidate for interpretation.

There are a variety of parameters along which approaches to interpreting literary works diverge. One that arose early on and has remained prominent concerns the significance of authorial intention in interpretation. Is the meaning of a work identical to such intentions, do they resolve ambiguities and other uncertainties in the work, or are they absolutely irrelevant to correctly interpreting it? Those who originally disagreed on this matter (Beardsley 1958 and 1970, Hirsch 1967) nevertheless did agree that the purpose of interpreting a work is to understand it better and that there is one best understanding that can in principle be attained. Notice there are two claims here: one about aim, one about number. These provide two further parameters about which literary theorists disagree.

Regarding the proper aim of interpretation, there are a variety of views. We have already mentioned one: understanding (Carroll 1992, Iseminger 1992, Juhl 1980, Margolis 1980, Stecker 2003). In some works, it is just difficult to grasp what is going on, and this can happen at all sorts of levels. A work can be hard to understand because of its historical or cultural distance from its audience. Alternatively, features of its style may make it difficult. There are poems where it is hard to understand what the individual lines mean. There are novels and stories where it is hard simply to follow the plot. There are others where, while it is clear that a certain series of events have transpired, there are different ways in which one could understand their significance in the story. More commonly, one knows what happens in a story or what the lines of a poem say, but one does not grasp their point or the point of various bits. There are many other ways in which one may feel one's understanding of a work is inadequate, but in all such cases one turns to interpretations of a work for greater clarity.

An alternative to understanding as the aim of interpretation, is appreciation. (Davies 1982, Goldman 1990, Lamarque 2002). The point of interpretation on this view is to create ways of taking works that enhance their aesthetic value, or that guide the reader to an appreciative experience. Just whether, and precisely how, these two aims really differ is debatable: How can one lead a reader to an appreciative experience, without offering a way of understanding a work by organizing certain features of it around a theme, by describing a character as representing a type of person, identifying the point of a series of images, and so on? The difference may be in the way one evaluates interpretations. If one's aim is understanding, perhaps one hopes to get things right, to give a correct or true interpretation, whereas if one aims to enhance the value of the work or an experience of it, the test of an interpretation is in the aesthetic enjoyment it offers to readers.

Those who think the aim of interpretation is enhanced appreciation, also tend to be pluralists about the number of acceptable interpretations a work can bear. Interpretations that are considered acceptable within this camp range from those strictly constrained by conventions in place when the work was created (Davies 1996) to a virtual free play with a text (Barthes 1989). Among those who claim that the aim of interpretation is understanding, some, such as M. Beardsley and E.D. Hirsch, are monists arguing there is a single ultimately correct understanding of a work, whereas others are pluralists. A number of writers argue that meaning is relative to the constantly changing historical moment in which the work is received (Gadamer 1975, Margolis 1980), to the responses of readers in the face of textual indeterminacy (Iser 1980), or to the assumptions of critical communities (Fish 1980; Carrier 1991).

All such relativist views imply pluralism regarding correct understanding, although pluralism does not imply relativism. An alternative to relativism about a work's meaning is a pluralism about the acceptable aims of interpretation (Stecker 1997 and 2003). Not all interpretation aims at recovering the meaning of a work. Some legitimately aims at enhancing appreciation, making a work significant to a contemporary audience, or to filling in indeterminacies in optional ways. These projects can clearly be pursued in a plurality of ways. By contrast if one's aim is to recover the intention with which the work was made, that may be a more monistic project. Perhaps, among these interpretive aims, there is one that attempts to identify a historically correct understanding of a work. There are currently a variety of proposals about what this might be (Carroll 2000, Levinson 1996, Stecker 2003).

The Value of Fiction and Literature

At the beginning of this entry, we noted that, though fiction and literature are not the same thing, the paradigmatic literary forms today are all types of fiction: poetry, the novel, the short story, and the drama. The question we raised then and turn to now is what it is about the value of literature that makes fictional work the most typical to possess that value. Is it that the value of fiction and literature tend to overlap?

The philosophical debate about the value of literature might be aptly described as between those who answer this last question affirmatively and those who answer it negatively. Fiction, clearly, can serve all sorts of purposes, and we might value it for its function in almost any of these. The chief vehicle by which it achieves these valuable purposes is imaginative engagement (i.e., the make-believe that is intimately involved in the reception of fiction). Whether or not imaginative engagement is valuable in itself, it can quickly lead to things we clearly value (e.g., the pleasure of following a story and imaginatively participating in its world).

In addition to such pleasures, imaginative engagement can also be valuable in other ways. It is plausible that it can enhance valuable abilities: to make fine discriminations, to put ourselves in the shoes of others (to empathize), and to refine the ability to identify emotional and other psychological states. A fiction also might at least contribute to acquiring propositional knowledge. What is true in a fictional world is commonly at least possibly true in the actual world. Thus we can acquire knowledge of possibilities or conceptions of how things may be. A fiction may strongly suggest that something is not only possible, but that it actually is that way, and this may help us to learn about the way things not only might be, but are.

Clearly, all of these valuable traits of fiction can be possessed by literary works, fictional or not, but we can go further and say that literary fictions are the most likely to possess, in the highest degree, the cognitive values just mentioned. While not everyone would accept this, the more controversial issue concerns whether such traits add to the literary or artistic value of these works. A view that denies this claims instead that literary value resides wholly in the aesthetic experience a work offers, where this experience is fairly narrowly conceived. For example, one view that has been vigorously defended is that the aesthetic value of a work lies in its ability to create a complex form that explores a theme of perennial human interest (Lamarque and Olsen 1994). The appreciative experience, which determines the extent to which a work possesses aesthetic value, consists in following the development of the theme in the complex formal structure of the work. What is no part of the literary value is any insight the work might offer regarding the truth about the issues it explores.

This view has the virtue of serving as a corrective to the rejection of the relevance of the aesthetic, even suspicion about its place among the central human values, that has infected large swaths of literary theory (Eagleton 1983, Scholes 1978). However, even as an account of the aesthetic value of literature, it is far too narrow. For one thing, the perennial themesfate, free will, nature versus nurturejust are not the organizing features of all literature. Some works are more concerned with characters, some with telling a riveting story, some with exhibiting an emotion, some with precise description, and so on. Perhaps we can say that every literary work offers a conception of some aspect of human experience, and when it is good literature, it does so in such a way that one can experience what it would be like if that conception were true (Stecker 1997). However, having said this, it becomes fairly obvious that it is perverse to deny that a further way that literature can be valuable is in the cognitive value of the conceptions offered. They can be valuable for getting it right, but also for suggesting new ways of thinking or experiencing, fruitful conjectures, as it were, even if they turn out to be ultimately wrong. After all we value philosophical works for just this reason, and there are many literary works that have overtly philosophical aims.

Just as fiction can be valuable in many ways, pluralism about literary value also seems to be the most sensible view. When literary works are evaluated not only for the aesthetic experience they offer, but the cognitive, ethical, art-historical value that they possessto mention only some additional parameters that are relevantwe are still evaluating them as literary works. Those who argue that interpretations of literary works should maximize the opportunities to appreciate them should welcome this point of view because it opens up so many new avenues from which such appreciation can develop.

See also Art, Interpretation of; Derrida, Jacques; Gadamer, Hans-Georg; Hermeneutics; Structuralism and Post-Structuralism.


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Robert Stecker (2005)