Comments by BV in blue.
Inwagen gives persuasive arguments that there is only one sort of existential quantifier, that we cannot quantify over ‘things’ that are in some sense ‘beyond being’, and that ‘exists’ means the same as ‘is’ or ‘has being’. No review of his work would be complete without a careful discussion of these arguments, but as I agree with them, I will not discuss them here.
The problem I want to discuss is with his main thesis. He aims to explain what he calls ‘fictional discourse’, namely discourse like “There are characters in some 19th-century novels who are presented with a greater wealth of physical detail than is any character in any 18th-century novel." Such sentences are true, according to him, but when we translate them into quantifier-variable idiom, we have to use the existential quantifier which, on his view, is equivalent to ‘exists’. This seems to imply that fictional characters like Tom Sawyer and Mr Pickwick exist. Inwagen bites the bullet, and argues that they do exist. They are abstract objects, which exist in exactly the way that numbers exist. So when we say, in a work of literary criticism, that “Mrs Gamp is a character in a novel”, the proper name ‘Mrs Gamp’ refers to an abstract or ‘theoretical’ entity.
BV: I don't think Ed is representing van Inwagen correctly here. Numbers cannot come into being, but it is plausible to hold that fictional characters do. So while fictional characters, for van Inwagen, are abstract entities, he remains noncommittal on the question whether they are abstract artifacts in the way that chess could be thought of as a abstract artifact, or instead abstract non-artifacts like numbers and cognate platonica. See the last paragraph of "Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities."
This leads to the following problem. Inwagen argues that when a sentence like “Tom Sawyer was a boy who grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River in the 1840s” appears in a work of fiction, it is not true. Indeed, it is not even false, since it does not make an assertion at all (Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities, p.148, footnote 15). But when it appears in a work of literary criticism, as ‘literary discourse’, it is true. But if it is true, it seems to imply that there was some individual who is [in] the extension of the property expressed by ‘boy who grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River in the 1840s’, and yet there was no such individual.
Inwagen resolves the problem as follows. Tom Sawyer the fictional character exists, but he does not have the property ‘boy who grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River in the 1840s’. Nor does Mrs. Gamp have properties such as being old, being fat and so on. He concedes that this sounds odd (Creatures of Fiction, p. 304-5), but he argues there is something rather like it in a familiar philosophical doctrine, namely Descartes’ thesis that a person such as Jones is an immaterial substance, and so cannot have properties like ‘being tangible’, ‘weighing 220 lbs’ and so on, but only properties appropriate to immaterial objects, such as ‘thinking about Vienna’, ‘being free from pain’ and so on. Descartes says that Jones bears a relation to the properties on the former list that is not the relation of ‘having’ or ‘exemplifying’ but, rather, the relation of “animating a body” that has or exemplifies the property. We say that Jones is about six feet tall, but we should really say ‘animates a body that is six feet tall’: “what looks like predication in ordinary speech is not always predication”.
Thus when we say that Tom Sawyer is the main character in a well-known book of the same name, we are saying something that is true because the copula ‘is’ signifies the relation of having or exemplifying. But if we say, in literary discourse, that Tom is a boy, or that he is a resident of Mississippi, it is true because the copula signifies a quite different relation, which Inwagen calls ‘holding’.
BV: This is an accurate summary of van Inwagen's position as I understand it.
Bill has already identified some problems with Inwagen’s thesis. For example, he says that when I think of Mrs Gamp, I think of a woman. But according to Inwagen, I am thinking of an abstract or theoretical entity, and no theoretical entity has gender.
I shall not discuss these (although I broadly agree with them), but will mention some further ones.
1. Plot summaries. I discussed plot summaries in a comment to Bill’s post. We have a clear notion of what counts as a ‘correct’ summary. E.g. “Tom Sawyer lives with his Aunt Polly and his half-brother Sid” is correct, “Tom Sawyer lives with his Aunt Polly and his sisters Lizzie, Jane, Kitty, Lydia and Mary” is clearly not. But this notion of ‘correctness’ is close enough to the notion of truth that Inwagen’s theory needs to deal with it. If we assimilate it to Inwagen’s notion of truth in ‘literary discourse’, i.e. if we regard a statement in a plot summary as of the same kind as “Mrs Gamp is a character in a novel”, then we have the problem that plot summaries are written ‘in universe’, and that the names of the characters refer to the characters as characters, and not as abstract theoretical entities. But if we assimilate plot summaries to condensed versions of the original literary work, we have the problem of how they can be ‘correct’ at all. It is fundamental to Inwagen’s account that sentences in a work of fiction do not make assertions at all, and so cannot admit of truth or falsity – or correctness or incorrectness.
BV: Ed's point here seems to be that van Inwagen cannot account for the correctness of plot summaries. It is clear that some summaries are correct or accurate and that some are not. Now a summary of a piece of fiction is either itself a piece of (severely condensed) fiction, in which case it contains sentences that are, on van Inwagen's theory, neither true nor false, or it is not a piece of fiction but a piece of writing containing true sentences about the content of the fictional work being summarized. This disjunction appears to be a dilemma. For on the first disjunct, it is hard to see how a plot summary could be correct or true. But the second disjunct is also unacceptable. For suppose the summary contains the sentence 'Mrs Gamp is a fat old lady.' Then 'Mrs Gamp' in this sentence takes an abstract existent as its referent, an existent that does not HAVE but HOLDs the properties of being fat, being old, and being a lady, when the novel is not about abstract objects at all, but is about concrete objects one of which HAS, but does not HOLD, the properties of being fat, old and a lady.
A very astute criticism that may in the end hit the mark. I don't know.
Suppose I write a three-sentence novella:
It was a dark and rainy night. Shaky Jake, life-long insomniac, awakened from his dogmatic slumbers by the rythm of the rain, and deciding he needed a nightcap, grabbed his flashlight and his raincoat and headed for the Glass Crutch bar and grill, a local watering hole a half a mile from his house. Bellying up to the bar, he said to the 'tender: "One scotch, one bourbon, one beer."
A correct plot summary: An insomniac awakened by the rain goes to a bar for a drink.
An incorrect summary: A philosopher in La Mirada, California, dreaming about the ontological argument, is awakened when an earthquake causes a copy of David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature to fall on his head.
Ed's question is how the first summary can be correct and the second incorrect if fictional sentences 'in universe' as Ed writes, lack truth-values. I am not convinced that there is a problem here. For a summary to be correct it doesn't have to be true of anything; it merely has to reproduce in condensed form the sense of the the piece of fiction summarized. I can take in the sense of a sentence without knowing whether it is true or false. A summary merely boils down the sense of the original.
2. ‘Sincere’ fiction. Not all fiction is ‘insincere’, i.e. knowingly made up. What if a sincere but deluded person writes a long account about characters (angels, spirits etc) and events which were ‘revealed’ to him in a vision? Contra Inwagen, his claims are assertions, and are capable of truth or falsity.
BV: But is this a case of literary fiction? The delusive account is fictional in that it is false, but that might be different use of 'fictional.' Why can't van Inwagen insist that literary fiction is by definition 'insincere' in Ed's sense?
3. Story-relative reference. Any serious account of fiction needs to deal with the way that names in fiction (and empty names generally) are able to identify or individuate within the story by telling the reader which character is being talked about. Inwagen needs to explain how such story-relative reference works, for his theory does not address it. He also has the problem that ‘literary discourse’ also seems to use story-relative reference. Consider the story (A) “A man called Gerald and a boy called Steve were standing by fountain. Steve had a drink”, and the statement (B) “In the second sentence the proper name ‘Steve’ identifies Steve." Statement (B) is true, and so is ‘literary discourse’, according to Inwagen, and so ‘Steve’ in (B) identifies an abstract object. But it clearly ‘refers back’ to the ‘Steve’ in (A). How can a term referring to an abstract object also refer back to a character in a story, when the character is not an abstract object?
BV: Van Inwagen might respond by saying that in (B) ''Steve' identifies Steve only in the sense that 'Steve' in the second sentence has 'Steve' in the first sentence as antecedent. So there is no (extralinguistic) reference at all, and 'Steve' in (B) does not pick out an abstract object.
Note the ambiguity of 'Ed signed his book.' It could mean that Ed signed Ed's book. Or it could mean that Ed signed a book belonging to someone distinct from Ed. (Suppose, while pointing at Tom, I say to Peter, "Ed signed his book.") In the first case, 'his' exercises no (extralinguistic) reference. In the second case it does.
4. The problem is worse in the case of names whose emptiness is in doubt. Suppose I make a reference statement: “Luke 1 v5 refers to Zachary, a high priest at the temple”. Like many characters in the New Testament, we are not certain whether Zachary existed or not. If he did exist, the name in my reference statement refers to him. If not, according to Inwagen, it refers to an abstract object. How can the semantics of the sentence be so utterly different without my knowing? For I don’t know whether Zachary existed or not, and so I don’t know what the semantics of the reference statement is. But surely I do.
BV: I don't think van Inwagen will have any trouble with this objection. Suppose we don't know whether Zachary existed or not. Our not knowing this is not the same as our not knowing whether he is nonfictional or fictional. For we know that the NT is not a work of fiction -- assuming that, necessarily, every work of fiction involves pretence on the part of its author or authors. If we agree that the NT is not a work of fiction and it turns out that Zachary never existed, then van Inwagen can say that no one had all the properties ascribed to Zachary. His theory does not require him to say that 'Zachary' refers to an abstract object.
5. What about statements where we say what the author says? For example “Dickens says that Mrs Gamp is fat”. Inwagen would classify this as literary discourse, but if so, the token of ‘Mrs Gamp’ refers to an abstract object. But Dickens is surely not saying that an abstract object is fat?
The general problem, and here I think I am agreeing with Bill, is that the semantics of proper names as used in fiction (or ‘sincere’ fiction) doesn’t seem to be enormously different from the semantics of the same names as used in ‘literary discourse’. Yet, according to Inwagen, the difference is as enormous as it gets.