Counterfactual claims about fictional characters: philosophical and literary perspectives

Luis Galván 1
  • 1 Department of Philology, University of Navarra, E-31009, Pamplona, Spain
Luis Galván


The problems of making and evaluating counterfactual claims about fictional characters cannot be adequately handled without taking into account the practices of literary criticism, interpretation, and re-creation. The direct-reference theory of names explains only a subset of the phenomena of fiction and explains away the rest as irrelevant or pseudo-problems, whereas some criticisms of that theory bring in metaphysical concepts that may obscure the issue. This paper suggests that the indeterminacy of fictions and the conventions of the aforementioned practices are sufficient basis for explaining and assessing such counterfactual claims. In this view, fiction ceases to be understood as a phenomenon sui generis; it is instead an institutionalized use of the stipulative or computational aspects of language that are at work in other areas as well. Thus, these results can be brought into line with recent ideas in the fields of the philosophy of mathematics, relevance theory, and cognitive studies.

  • Alvin, Plantinga. 1974. The nature of necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Austin, John L. 1962. How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Barthes, Roland. 2007 [1966]. Criticism and truth. London: Continuum.

  • Barwise, Jon. 1989. The situation in logic. Stanford: CSLI.

  • Brock, Stuart. 2004. The ubiquitous problem of empty names. The Journal of Philosophy 101(6). 277–298.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Castañeda, Hector-Neri. 1979. Fiction and reality: their fundamental connections. Poetics 8. 31–62.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Cervantes, Miguel de. 2008 [1605/1615]. Don Quixote de la Mancha. Trans. C. Jarvis. ed. E.C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford UP.

  • Chihaia, Matei & Katharina Rennhak (eds.), Forthcoming. Relevance and narrative (research). Berlin/New York: De Gruyter.

  • Chisholm, Roderick M. 1967. Identity through possible worlds: some questions. Noûs 1(1). 1–8.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Cosmides, Leda & John Tooby. 2000. Consider the source: the evolution of adaptations for decoupling and metarepresentation. In Dan Sperber (ed.), Metarepresentations: a multidisciplinary perspective, 53–115. Oxford & New York: Oxford UP.

  • Currie, Gregory. 1990. The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

  • Davidson, Donald. 1967. The logical form of action sentences. In Nicholas Rescher (ed.), The logic of decision and action, 81–120. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

  • Davidson, Donald. 1993. Locating literary language. In Reed Way Dasenbrock (ed.), Literary theory after davidson, 295–308. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP.

  • Davies, David. 2015. Fictive utterance and the fictionality of narratives and works. British Journal of Aesthetics 55(1). 39–55.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Doležel, Lubomír. 1998. Heterocosmica: fiction and possible worlds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

  • Donnellan, Keith S. 1974. Speaking of nothing. The Philosophical Review 83(1). 3–31.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Eagleton, Terry. 2012. The event of literature. New Haven: Yale UP.

  • Eco, Umberto. 2004. On some functions of literature. Yale Review 92(4). 1–13.

  • Evans, Gareth. 1982. The varieties of reference. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Everett, Anthony. 2013. The nonexistent. Oxford: Oxford UP.

  • Fine, Kit. 1984. Critical review of Parsons’ nonexistent objects. Philosophical Studies 45. 95–142.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Friend, Stacie. 2000. Real people in unreal contexts. In A. Everett & T. Hofweber (eds.), Empty names, fiction and the puzzles of non-existence, 183–203. Stanford: CSLI.

  • Friend, Stacie. 2012. Fiction as a genre. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 112(2). 179–209.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Friend, Stacie. 2014. Notions of nothing. In M. García-Carpintero & G. Martí (eds.), Empty representations: reference and non-existence, 307–332. Oxford: Oxford UP.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Frye, Northrop. 1957. Anatomy of criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP.

  • Gabbay, Dov M. & John Woods. 2003. Agenda relevance: a study in formal pragmatics. Amsterdam: North-Holland (Elsevier).

  • García-Carpintero, Manuel. 2013. Norms of fiction-making. British Journal of Aesthetics 53(3). 339–357.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Genette, Gérard. 1991. Fiction et diction. Paris: Seuil.

  • Glüer-Pagin, Kathrin & Peter Pagin. 2014. Vulcan might have existed and neptune not. On the semantics of empty names. In M. García-Carpintero & G. Martí (eds.), Empty representations: reference and non-existence, 117–141. Oxford: Oxford UP.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Hoffmann, E. T. A. 1994 [1813]. Don Juan. Fantasiestücke in callots manier, 81–95. Berlin: Aufbau.

  • Howell, Robert. 1979. Fictional objects: how they are and how they aren’t. Poetics 8. 129–177.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Howell, Robert. 2010. Fictional realism and its discontents. In Franck Lihoreau (ed.), Truth in fiction, 153–202. Berlin: De Gruyter.

  • Howell, Robert. 2015. Objects of fiction and objects of thought. In Stuart Brock & A. Everett (eds.), Fictional objects, 41–70. Oxford: Oxford UP.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Ihwe, Jens F. & Hannes Rieser. 1979. Normative and descriptive theory of fiction. Poetics 8. 63–84.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Ingarden, Roman. 1968. Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

  • Kripke Saul, A. 2013. Reference and existence. Oxford: Oxford UP.

  • Kripke, Saul A. 1963. Semantical considerations on modal logic. Acta Philosophica Fennica 16. 83–94.

  • Kripke, Saul A. 1981. Naming and necessity. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Kripke, Saul A. 2011. Vacuous names and fictional entities. In Philosophical troubles: collected papers, vol. 1, 52–74. Oxford: Oxford UP.

  • Lamarque, Peter & Stein Haugom Olsen. 1994. Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Leslie, Alan M. 1987. Pretense and representation: the origins of ‘Theory of Mind’. Psychological Review 94(4). 412–426.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Lewis, David. 1978. Truth in fiction. American Philosophical Quarterly 15(1). 37–46.

  • Lotman, Jurij. 1977. The structure of the artistic text. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan.

  • Luhmann, Niklas. 2000. Art as a social system. Stanford: Stanford UP.

  • Lycan, William G. 1994. Modality and meaning. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

  • Lycan, William G. 2015. A reconsidered defence of haeccetism regarding fictional individuals. In Stuart Brock & A. Everett (eds.), Fictional objects, 24–40. Oxford: Oxford UP.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Mandel, Oskar (ed.), 1963. The theatre of don juan: a collection of plays and views, 1630-1963. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

  • Margolin, Uri. 2012. Mathematics and narrative: a narratological perspective. In Apostolos Doxiadis & Barry Mazur (eds.), Circles disturbed: the interplay of mathematics and narrative, 481–507. Princeton: Princeton UP.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Nabokov, Vladimir. 1983. Lectures on Don Quixote. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

  • Parsons, Terence. 1980. Nonexistent objects. New Haven: Yale UP.

  • Pattison, Walter T. 1980. La Fontana de Oro: Its early history. Anales galdosianos 15. 5–8.

  • Pavel, Thomas G. 1986. Fictional Worlds. Cambridge (MA). Harvard UP.

  • Pérez Galdós, Benito. 1871. La Fontana de Oro: novela histórica. Madrid: Imprenta de José Noguera y Castellano.

  • Pratt, Mary Louise. 1977. Toward a speech act theory of literary discourse. Bloomington & London: Indiana UP.

  • Priest, Graham. 2005. Towards non-being: the logic and metaphysics of intentionality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Proust, Marcel. 1946a [1920-1921]. A la Recherche du temps perdu, VI: Le côté de Guermantes (première partie). Paris: Gallimard.

  • Proust, Marcel. 1946b [1920-1921]. A la Recherche du temps perdu, VI: Le côté de Guermantes (troisième partie). Paris: Gallimard.

  • Putnam, Hilary. 1976. Literature, science, and reflection. New Literary History 7(3). 483–491.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Rorty, Richard. 1982. Is there a problem about fictional discourse? In Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980), 110–138. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Routley, Richard. 1980. Exploring meinong’s jungle and beyond. Camberra: Australian National University.

  • Ryan, Marie-Laure. 1991. Possible worlds, artificial intelligence, and narrative theory. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

  • Salanskis, Jean-Michel. 2013. La littérature entre axiomatique et formalisme. Les Temps modernes 676. 178–197.

  • Salmon, Nathan. 1986. Modal paradox: parts and counterparts, points and counterpoints. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 11. 75–120.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Salmon, Nathan. 1998. Nonexistence. Noûs 32(3). 277–319.

  • Schmidt, Siegfried J. 1980. Fictionality in literary and non-literary discourse. Poetics 9. 525–546.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Schmidt, Siegfried J. 1989. Die Selbstorganisation des Sozialsystems Literatur im 18. Jahrhundert. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

  • Searle, John R. 1969. Speech acts: an essay in the philosophy of language. London: Cambridge UP.

  • Searle, John R. 1975. The logical status of fictional discourse. New Literary History 6(2). 319–332.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson. 1995. Relevance: communication and cognition. 2nd. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Stock, Kathleen. 2011. Fictive utterance and imagining. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume 85. 145–161.

    • Crossref
    • Export Citation
  • Thomas, Robert. 2000. Mathematics and fiction I: identification. Logique and Analyse 171/172. 301–340.

  • Thomas, Robert. 2002. Mathematics and fiction II: analogy. Logique and Analyse 177/178. 185–228.

  • Thomasson, Amie L. 1999. Fiction and metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

  • Tomasello, Michael. 2008. Origins of human communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Tomasello, Michael. 2014. A natural history of human thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

  • Tooby, John & Leda Cosmides. 2001. Does beauty build adapted minds? Toward an evolutionary theory of aesthetics, fiction and the arts. SubStance 30(1/2). 6–27.

  • Van Inwagen, Peter. 1977. Creatures of fiction. American Philosophical Quarterly 14. 299–308.

  • Voltolini, Alberto. 2006. How ficta follow fiction. Dordrecht: Springer.

  • Walsh, Richard. 2007. The rhetoric of fictionality. Columbus: Ohio State UP.

  • Walton, Kendall. 1990. Mimesis as make-believe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

  • Williamson, Edwin. 1984. The half-way house of fiction. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Williamson, Timothy. 2007. The philosophy of philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 1980. Works and worlds of art. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Woods, John. 1974. The logic of fiction. The Hague: Mouton.

  • Woods, John & Peter Alward. 2004. The logic of fiction. D. M. Gabbay & F. Guenthner (eds.), Handbook of philosophical logic, 2nd, vol. 11, 241–316. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

  • Zalta, Edward N. 2000. The road between pretense theory and abstract object theory. In T. Hofweber & A. Everett (eds.), Empty names, fiction, and the puzzles of non-existence, 117–147. Stanford: CSLI.

Purchase article
Get instant unlimited access to the article.
Log in
Already have access? Please log in.

Log in with your institution

Journal + Issues

The Journal of Literary Semantics has pioneered and encouraged research into the relations between linguistics and literature. Widely read by theoretical and applied linguists, narratologists, poeticians, philosophers and psycholinguists, the journal publishes articles of a philosophical or theoretical nature that attempt to advance our understanding of the structures, dynamics, and significations of literary texts.