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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.

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