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Saturday, February 20, 2021


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Here is an argument that whatever is real is not necessarily actual. Or, at the very least, an argument that such a principle has to be specified further.

Consider the example of danger. You perceive danger in a situation, e.g. you see a bear cub at some small distance from you as you are hiking. What is the danger that you perceive? It is the possibility for imminent harm. But it is not something actual, since so long as you are merely in danger, nothing has actually happened to you. The danger is real, but it is not something actual, but only something possible -- unless you want to call it something actually possible?

What do you think?


In this case I fear my being attacked by a bear. The fear is an intentional state, and its object is a state of affairs, one that is not actual as you say, and is therefore merely possible.

If your thesis is that there are really possible states of affairs that are not actual, then of course I agree.

The philosophical problem I am addressing above is the problem of the ontological status of merely possible states of affairs and merely possible individuals. I am not denying that the merely possible is real. I am asking how we are to understand the reality of the merely possible.

Rescher thinks that the reality of the merely possible is the reality of that which is constructed by us -- a theory which is hardly obvious and I would say untenable.


I would think that once you've admitted the reality of the merely possible, contrary to your (c) above, you've answered the question. The merely possible represents an irreducible ontological category and that's that. Why not?

Bill, you write,

The purely fictional is barred from actuality by its very status as purely fictional: Sherlock Holmes cannot be actualized. What cannot be actualized is not possible; it is impossible. Sherlock Holmes is an impossible item.
Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes stories as if they were accounts of Holmes's investigations written up by Dr. Watson. What you say is very much at odds with the intuition that there is a possible world in which a John Watson writes a history of a detective called Sherlock Holmes using exactly Conan Doyle's words.

Hi David,

"There are two main problems with the claim that fictional objects are possible objects. One is the problem of impossible fictional objects. Some fictional objects are ascribed incompatible properties in their home fiction by their original author (usually inadvertently). This seems to be sufficient for them to have those properties according to their home fiction, for what the author says in the fiction (inadvertently or not) seems to hold the highest authority on truth in that fiction. On the assumption that a fictional object has a given property if it has that property according to its home fiction, those fictional objects are impossible objects, for no possible object has incompatible properties. The other problem is the failure of uniqueness. It may be viewed as the problem of meeting the Quinean demand for clear identity conditions. Holmes is a particular fictional object. So if we are to identify Holmes with a possible object, we should identify Holmes with a particular possible object. But there are many particular possible objects that are equally suited for the identification with Holmes. One of them has n-many hairs, whereas another has (n+1)-many hairs. No fictional story about a particular fictional object written or told by a human being is detailed enough to exclude all possible objects but one to be identified with that fictional object, unless it is a fiction about an actual object or a non-actual possible object analogous to Kaplan’s automobile or Salmon’s Noman."


Hello Bill. Yes, and we have discussed some of these arguments in these pages. I was hoping you would comment on my modal intuition that Conan Doyle's words appear as history in some possible world. If this intuition is well-founded then Sherlock would seem to be a possible item, contradicting the standard argument re fictional and possible objects.


you say:

Sherlock Holmes is an impossible item. He is impossible because he is incomplete. Only the complete (completely determinate) is actualizable. Sherlock is incomplete because he is the creation of a finite fiction writer: Sherlock has all and only the properties ascribed to him by Conan Doyle.

I agree that only the complete is actualizable but I deny that Holmes is incomplete. Here is my argument: Even granting that there is an item which has exactly those properties that Doyle ascribed to Holmes, such an item -- let us call him "Ho", is not Holmes. For according to Doyle, Holmes is a man (= would be a man if he existed). Every man is complete; but Ho is not complete, so Ho is not a man, and therefore he is not Holmes.

Those who claim that ficticious entities are incomplete and impossible (which seems to be almost everybody) seem to confuse the properties of the conceived object in itself with the properties of the object insomuch as it is conceived. Holmes is incomplete insomuch as he is conceived -- as pretty much any conceived item is, due to the limited nature of our cognitive faculties. But in himself, Holmes is not incomplete. He was not intended to be an incomplete object in himself by his author (unlike Carrol's Cheshire Cat's Grin). Almost any writer intends to describe coherent, possible, and therefore complete characters and stories, despite, inevitably, describing them incompletely. Writers strive to describe an "alternative reality", as it were, for the reader. Not some weird world of incomplete logical freaks.

We never succeed in completely describing an object. But this is does not preclude us from referring to complete objects. And it is a feature of our conceptual knowledge that it is insensitive to their existential status: a concept is indifferent to the fact whether its objet exists or not, i.e. whether it is actual or merely possible. Therefore, if a concept can refer to complete actual objects, in spite of conceiving them incompletely, it can also refer to complete merely possible objects, because it refers to objects irrespective of their existential status.


responding to your two problems with the claim that fictional objects are possible objects:

(1) Inadvertent ascritpions of incompatible properties. What problem is that, I wonder? Yes, some authors fail to describe possible objects in their fictions. The fact that they do it mostly inadvertently and that they consider it a failure shows that their intention is (in most cases) to describe possible, not impossible objects. If this is so, then all their descriptions can be construed as containing a tacit provision, "all inadvertent inconsistencies being suitably resolved".

(2) Failure of uniqueness. Of course no fictional story is is detailed enough to pin down exactly one individual. But from that does not follow that it pins down an incomplete impossible freak instead. Rather, it follows that the reference to that particular possible individual is vague or indefinite. But it it still is a reference to an individual, not to a class of individuals, nor to a universal, an incomplete object, or whatever.

It is like offering someone a cigar by presenting him an open cigar box full of cigars. By saying "have a cigar", you are referring to one cigar from the box (not to all of them -- you are not offering him to take all of them; and not something else), but it is undetermined which one. And if the person declines, it remains forever undetermined -- but nevertheless, you succeeded in offering him one of the cigars in the box. In a similar way, a fiction-writer succeeds in referring to one of the individuals satisfying his descriptions, without it being determined which one. And the writer does not care, for if he cared, he would be more specific in the respective point cared about.

The fact that we do not have a de re epistemic rapport with the possible individuals (as we can only refer to them through descriptions) does not preclude the possibility of de re (rigid) reference to them. In fact, it seems that we do not have de re epistemic rapport with actual individuals either (or else we would always be capable of telling qualitatively indiscernible individuals -- such as identical twins -- form each other), and yet we can -- pace Quine -- have semantic de re rapport with them.

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