Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Complete Fiction, inside and out

David at E.G. has a very interesting post wherein he argues that fictions are complete; that is, for any proposition P, P is either true or false in the fiction. This claim supports the straightforward analysis of truth in fiction as simply being truth at a particular 'possible world' - namely, that world where the fiction is factual.

I don't think fictions are complete. If all we're told about Harry Potter's footwearing habits is that he puts on his shoes before flying away, there simply is no fact of the matter as to which shoe he put on first. That simply isn't part of the story. It's left unspecified. Quick poll: is that your intuition too, or are you inclined to think there must be some fact of the matter (in the fiction), even if we could never possibly know what it is?

David's main objection, if I've understood him correctly, is that such incompleteness would be too "logically strange". The disjunction 'P or not-P' is a logical truth, so presumably true in the fiction. But, according to classical logic, it follows from this that either P is true or not-P is true.

Of course, this assumes that classical logic applies to fictions, and I think this assumption is mistaken. It's fictionally possible to have 'P or not-P' true, despite there being no (fictional) fact of the matter as to which disjunct is the true one. As evidence for this I cite our intuitions above. This is only 'strange' insofar as it differs from non-fiction, which we take to be complete. But it should come as no great surprise if truth in fiction ends up being somewhat different from the genuine article. So long as we still have a coherent picture of what's going on - and by employing non-classical logics we can avoid any serious logical difficulties here - I don't see that there's any problem.

I think we do much better to understand fictions in terms of sets of possible worlds (if we must employ possible worlds in the analysis at all). To quote Chris Ragg's comment:
How can it be that the books only pick out one of these worlds? If you take the books to express a set of propositions, it is completely underdetermined which world is being discussed. The author herself cannot even decide between the worlds!

It seems to me that she is telling a partial story of all the possible worlds which are consistent with the propositions expressed in the book. That is, the books refer to the worlds in which Harry puts on his left shoe first, his right shoe first, ties double knots, single knots, etc. If we take the novels to express sets of propositions, then they are telling a partial story of all the worlds in which those propositions are true.

From this view, we can better understand the logical behaviour of fictional truth, and see why it is not so 'strange' after all. A proposition is true in a fiction iff it is true in all the relevant possible worlds. Clearly, 'P or not-P' is true in each world, so it is true of the fiction as a whole. However, suppose the individual worlds differ as to whether P is true or not-P is true. (In some worlds Harry puts on his left shoe first, in others his right.) Then there is not fictional fact as to which one of P or not-P happens to be true. And this result makes perfect sense. From the fact that 'P or not-P' is true in all worlds, it does not logically follow that either 'P' is true in all those worlds or 'not-P' is true in all those worlds.

So, given such an analysis, the logical behaviour (and incompleteness) of truth in fiction makes perfect sense. The problem only arises if we assume that truth in fiction should be analyzed in terms of a single possible world, giving us a 'complete' fictional world. But of course to make that assumption is to beg the question entirely.

Another interesting aspect of David's post is his distinction between 'internal' and 'external' explanations of fictional facts. I think it's a very useful distinction to make. The internal view tells us why a particular fact is true at a particular possible world. For example, perhaps Harry Potter put his shoes on before flying "because he did not want his feet to get dirty when he came down to land." The external view, by contrast - and here I depart slightly from David's own description - tells us not why a fact is true at a world, but rather, why the story is to be identified with that world. Given that there is a possible world wherein Harry puts his shoes on before flying away, what makes this world (as opposed to some other possible world) the world of our fiction? The answer to this question is external to the fictional world, of course, and instead involves facts about what is written in the text, and perhaps how the ideal reader would respond to it (what they would infer), etc. This, I think, is the crucial question for any analysis of truth in fiction.

Now, I think David actually misdescribes the 'external view' (and I hope it is not too presumptuous of me to suggest this, given that David came up with the idea in the first place!). He ties it specifically to the author - whether her explicit pronouncements or implicit beliefs about her written fiction - rather than the more general question of how fictions are identified with particular possible worlds. He goes on to show, quite correctly, that authors can be mistaken about what is true in their fiction:

Suppose that several events in the story, taken in conjunction, imply that nobody but the maid could have committed the murder -- but Rowling has not noticed the implication, and mistakenly believes that she has left the identity of the murderer as an open question. Then what would be the case from the external perspective?

David rightly concludes that the author's perspective is inadequate when it comes to explaining truth in fiction. However, because he identified the author's perspective with the external perspective, he also dismissed the latter. I would argue that this is not justified. We can explain truth in fiction by appeal to external facts other than those of authorial intent. We could also refer to the implications of what is written in the text, for instance. So what David showed is not that the external view is inadequate, but rather that authorial intent is the wrong analysis of the external view!

I have one last disagreement to voice. David claims that "fictional worlds are complete from the internal perspective." He doesn't provide any real argument for this claim, however, and indeed I think it is false.

Referring to the proposition (e): 'In HP's world, there are an even number of stars', David writes:
From the internal perspective, (e) is true (or false). It wouldn't surprise me, in fact, if some wizard in Harry's world knew that (e) is true (or false); wizards seem often to know those sorts of things.

Here's the problem. There is a possible world where (e) is true and the wizards know this. However, there is another possible world where (e) is false, as is (again) known by the wizards of that world. Now, which of these possible worlds is the world of the Harry Potter fictions? This is a question for the external view (by my definition) to answer. But in fact there is no such answer, the fiction is underdetermined. So we would do better to conclude that the fiction is (as Chris put it earlier) a partial description of both worlds. Accordingly, there is no fictional fact as to whether (e) is true or false, and nor is there any fictional fact as to what the wizards believe about it. These facts will vary from [possible] world to world, and the fiction describes all of them equally.

To conclude this (perhaps overly) critical post, I want to offer David my sincere thanks for writing such a thought-provoking post to begin with. Clearly I disagree with him on several points, but his post inspired these ideas that I otherwise would not have had. I especially appreciate his internal-external idea, and hope he does not mind too much the alterations I made to it!


  1. Hi Richard,

    I have some problems with your weblog. It always takes very long to get from one post to the comments - or BTW to get to your weblog. Ten minutes ago I wanted to get from this post to the comment section and I had to wait three minutes.
    I don't think that my internet access causes this waiting time. (my computer is directly connected with the server.)Has anyone other the same problems?

  2. I'll be the first to admit that I've not studied the philosophy of fiction much at all.

    However it seems a bigger problem than vagueness that there are many inherent contradictions in fiction. Many authors contradict themselves. Exactly how to resolve that isn't at all clear to me. Fiction, unlike reality, seems to follow a different logic.

  3. In his last sentence, Clark seems to solve his own problem.

    (Also, yes, I also have enwe's problem with your blog, Richard.)

  4. Richard,

    First of all, just to respond to your intuition poll: My intuition is the opposite of yours. But you already knew that!

    Secondly: Thanks for making these criticisms available. Responding to criticism is the best way to improve one's view, so I certainly don't think your post is "overly critical". On the contrary, I very much appreciate your sincere and thoughtful response.

    I think some of your criticisms here succeed. I'm still not ready to give up my view, but I think my view might need to be slightly tweaked in light of some of the points you make here.

    I agree that the "external" perspective was, in my post, overly involved in the author's intentions/thoughts/etc. I think something like your version of the external perspective would be better than the one I offered.

    I think two central claims of my original post still stand:

    1. From the internal perspective, all propositions are either true or false; and
    2. The external perspective exhibits a "logical strangeness" which is not typical of our ordinary thinking about fictional worlds. (And therefore, we do not ordinarily think about fiction from the external perspective.)

    I won't respond to your criticisms of either these claims now, since I'm not quite sure how to do so yet, but I plan to do so in a future blog post. For now, I only want to acknowledge that your criticisms of these claims (especially of claim 1) seem persuasive, and deserve a thorough response.

  5. *shrug* I don't really know much about surrealism, and the "basics" of truth-in-fiction seem tricky enough even without introducing such complications. Though I recall 'impossible fictions' in general being discussed in an old FBC post as motivating an expansion of our ontology to include 'impossible worlds'. I could dig up the link if you're interested. Though I'm not sure whether that would help explain plane-hopping characters at all...

    David, I'm glad you took my comments in the light they were intended. There's another issue about the internal/external distinction I want to raise. I thought it was about different ways of explaining fictional facts. We might explain them from within the world(s), or else we might explain why the fiction is about worlds containing those facts. Either way, the facts are unchanged. All that changes is our explanatory perspective.

    However, you seem to be arguing that these perspectives give rise to different facts or truths. You seem to accept that the external perspective is incomplete, but argue that all truth values will be determinate from an 'internal' perspective. So do you want to say the distinction goes deeper than originally proposed? Or is it, perhaps, a different distinction entirely?

    I look forward to your next post on the topic...

  6. Glad you found my comment over at EG helpful. I still think it's strange to say that fictions pick out unique worlds. David is right to say that they would do this from his internal perspective, and that thereby all propositions would be true or false for every fiction. But, I think the internal perspective is the wrong way to go. A way to bring this out more might be by discussing those fictions that we all know so well: dreams. Last night I had a dream that involved some women I had never met before having a nervous breakdown while I tried to save her sanity. Is it true or false that in that dream-world the nail of my left pinky-toe needed a trim? Boy, I couldn't even begin to answer that question, and I'm the only one who has any sort of direct epistemic access to the dream.

    Another interesting question: How should we deal with fictions containing contradictions? Imagine a story that said, "And then Fred saw an object that was both a circle and a square at the same time." Uunfotunately that proposition is not true in any world, so how could we analyze it? I wonder if anyone has dealt with this question in the literature before....Like Clark, I haven't read much at all on this subject.

  7. Jonathan, when you insinuate fiction follows a different logic, what do you mean? Do you literally mean a different logic like fuzzy logic or intuitionalist logic?

    I'm afraid that my inclination is that we ought treat the author's words much like the words of a historian trying to assert something about a fictional world. Further that the fictional world can't be captured by the intents of the author. That's true for numerous reasons. One being multi-authored works. (And of course we can raise the spectre of whether an author writing at different times is the same author)

    My inclination is to suggest that speaking about what is a defensible reading of a text versus an indefinsible reading is a more useful way of considering the problem. However I confress that comes more out of my semiotics background and the philosophy of the open vs. closed text. It seems to me that to even ask the question in the way some do presupposes the possibilty of a closed text.

  8. Chris, I'm still not sure that even the internal perspective is 'complete'. As I understand it, the internal perspective explains why a fictional fact is so from within the fiction. The external perspective explains why the story contains this fact to begin with. They're the same facts, so how can one perspective be complete and the other not?

    Now, I agree that the fiction encompasses individual worlds which, if taken on their own, would be complete (and could be described as such from their own 'internal perspective'). So there is a possible world where the wizards know that (e) is true, and we can explain this fact by reference to other facts within that world (e.g. that (e) really is true in that world, and the wizards have magical abilities which let me know this). But those facts aren't part of the broader fiction, so how can they be part of the broader fiction's internal perspective?

    I would argue that the internal perspective of a fiction can only appeal to facts that are common to all the individual worlds covered by the fiction. So we cannot appeal to (e), because (e) is false in some worlds described by the Harry Potter fictions. So (e) is not an internal fact of the fictions. Fictions are not complete, even from an internal perspective. Only individual possible worlds are; but fictions cover more than just one individual possible world.

  9. Like mostly everyone else, I haven't actually read any of the official literature on this topic. But I've benefitted from reading others' blog posts - especially at Fake Barn Country (I highly recommend interested readers browse through their archives on the categories of 'fiction', 'imagination', and some of the 'metaphysics' posts too).

    For example, Allan discusses impossible fictions here.

  10. I have been enjoying an email correspondence with Richard on this topic, and have enjoyed it enough that I have posted some of (what I found to be) the most interesting discussion on my blog... The post page is available at in case anyone is interested, or if not at least Google will now add +1 to Richard's PageRank for this topic...



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