Pretense and fiction-directed thought


Thought about fictional characters is special, and needs to be distinguished from ordinary world-directed thought. On my interpretation, Kendall Walton and Gareth Evans have tried to show how this serious fiction-directed thought can arise from engagement with a kind of pretending. Many criticisms of their account have focused on the methodological presupposition, that fiction-directed thought is the appropriate explanandum. In the first part of this paper, I defend the methodological claim, and thus the existence of the problem to which pretense is supposed to be a solution. In the second part, I elaborate and defend the pretense theory as a solution to this problem.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Sainsbury (2010, p. 36) refers to such views as “heroic”—and he doesn’t mean in a good way.

  2. 2.

    In addition to Walton, I make substantive use of Evans’s (1982, chap. 11) discussion, derived from Walton’s earlier paper. Unlike Walton and Evans, Currie ( 1990) (another so-called pretense theorist) is admirably explicit on the points I want to raise. Unfortunately, as will become clear, he explicitly rejects the idea I want to find in Walton and Evans. I do not deny that Walton, especially, can be read along Currie’s lines. I only insist that there is in his work the germ of a very different idea.

  3. 3.

    This is a point both Currie (1990, p. 24) and Walton (1990, p. 82) emphasize. Currie’s preference to distinguish between make-believe and pretense follows, I believe, from his “literalism” (see below).

  4. 4.

    “Infallibility” is potentially misleading, as a label for this phenomenon. Here are three considerations suggestive of authorial fallibility. (i) Authors often mean for their stories to be set in the real world, and yet accidentally misdescribe that world’s geography; (ii) It is sometimes appropriate (or at least felt to be appropriate) to object to an adaptation, that the character never did that; and (iii) though when Conan Doyle wrote “The Last Bow” he meant for Holmes to die, and indeed he might have believed for several years that Holmes did die, nevertheless, when (ten years later) he wrote “The Empty House” he made it such that Holmes never died. Though this is a discussion for another time, I believe these considerations fit perfectly well with my preferred deflationary account of “authorial infallibility.” For now what matters is the phenomenon, not the label.

  5. 5.

    Many appeals to authorial intention strike me as conflating these two moments in an author’s career.

  6. 6.

    I take it pseudo-asserting involves what Kripke (2011, p. 59) called “pretended propositions.” Kripke seems to imply that discourse about fiction only involves pretended propositions, and this I want to deny. Kripke notes that the sentences that express pretended propositions aren’t strictly meaningless, as “one knows, so to speak, what kind of propositions they are pretending to express.” But this will not account for serious fiction-directed thought: when we dispute whether Ophelia loved Hamlet, but for the vagueness of love we know, not just what kind of proposition is at stake, but—so it is tempting to say—precisely what proposition is at stake, precisely what claim is being disputed. Distinguishing the fiction-making pretense from the serious thought such fiction-making activity enables should help.

  7. 7.

    This is the point that Pautz (2008) misses, when she assumes that, with enough false beliefs, the audience is not thinking about the “right” character. See (Hicks 2010). So long as the audience means to treat that text as authoritative (and one can mean this without having read the text, of course), their speculations are coherent.

  8. 8.

    I am, perhaps unfairly, distinguishing fan fiction from more serious adaptive work. As I noted earlier, it is tempting, when viewing a film adaptation, to think a criticism like “Holmes never did that” is on point. This suggests that adaptations can be treated in either of two ways: as (purportedly faithful) re-presentations of some other fictional presentation, and thus not authoritative; or as stand-alone fictional presentations, and thus authoritative. Tricky questions about the relationship between, e.g., a play and a performance of that play figure here.

  9. 9.

    This puts journalistic frauds like Janet Cook in a curious penumbra: she made up her texts, and if she had published them as fiction, reading them correctly would require recognizing her authoritative standing vis-a-vis the text. Of course, one wants to say, the whims of a publisher—publishing the text as “non-fiction”—aren’t written into the so to speak metaphysical standing of the text, so if it’s fiction published as non-fiction it is fiction nonetheless. This line of thought (Deutsch’s) seems to suggest that Cook and other frauds could rightly complain that they are taken to be frauds on the basis of a misunderstanding. But Cook has no such right. She offered her texts to be understood in the way a non-fiction is understood. That they can be understood, appreciated, as fictional works is no defense, for—so it is tempting to say—they aren’t fiction. Fiction involves an at least implicit assertion of authorial infallibility. Deutsch puts this point best in his more recent (2013) discussion, when he says that on his preferred view, “it is up to and open to the author of fiction to set out the story as they wish. That is not true of the biographer” (p. 368). The emphasis is his, but it is just right: what matters is not what the author did (set out the story as she wished) but whether it was open to her to do so: whether, given the story she was telling, she had the normative license to set out the story as she wished. I don’t have space here to develop a theory of fiction in detail, but this points to a conclusion Deutsch would deny, that authorial infallibility rather than “making it up” should be understood as the essence of fiction. (I return to this theme at the very end: cf., n. 43 and the surrounding text).

  10. 10.

    Carefully constructed fan fiction might provide evidence, for instance, that Watson is an unreliable narrator, by showing that the facts Watson gives us independent of his interpretation are consistent with the falsity of his interpretation, or something along those lines. Still, it is never authoritative in the way the text is.

  11. 11.

    This idea—that the proper understanding of fiction is normatively articulated—is further reason to prefer the normative characterization stemming from authorial infallibility to the psychological characterization stemming from “making it up.”

  12. 12.

    “Fidelity” is Sainsbury’s term. Another way of addressing the intuition in question, associated especially with (Lewis 1978), is to introduce a “truth in fiction” operator. In Sect. 2.5 below, I discuss operator accounts.

  13. 13.

    Not all literalists endorse Sainsbury’s claim that, taken literally, fiction-directed judgments are (typically) false. Indeed, Sainsbury uses “literalism” to refer to those, like Martinich and Stroll (2007), who would claim that fiction-directed judgments can be literally true. Regardless, the literalist does not require, for core grasp of content, that one recognize the fictionality of the content.

  14. 14.

    Thus, literalism is false. I have not shown, though, how to accommodate the thesis of conceptual unification. I return to this in Sect. 3.4 below.

  15. 15.

    Cf., especially, (Lewis 1978), but also (Currie 1990).

  16. 16.

    Currie answers this question by invoking Gricean cooperation. This is what leads him to claim that, to the extent that an author—like Defoe—is uncooperative, he does not actually produce fiction. Currie’s literalism also leads him to deny that “Holmes was a detective” employs a proper name (for if it did it would need a bearer). I return to this below.

  17. 17.

    Richard (2000) invokes Walton at this stage.

  18. 18.

    Compare a thought about Tom Cruise and a thought about Ethan Hunt (as portrayed by Tom Cruise). On the view I am criticizing, these thoughts must share some content, some “factor”, they do not share with other thoughts, e.g., about other actors or about other super-spies, fictional or otherwise. Other than a mental image of Tom Cruise, though, they do not. Let us not revert to the conflation of conceptual abilities and mental images.

  19. 19.

    Just to be clear: I do not think this charge sticks to Evans. From a purely methodological perspective, though, his discussion raises this worry.

  20. 20.

    I have heard it suggested that this is a methodological flaw. It strikes me as a methodological virtue. It is not at all obvious that, for instance, “Vulcan” (the name of the hypothesized planet), “the largest prime number” (as in, “if the largest prime exists, it is odd”) and “Sherlock Holmes” represent any natural kind of conceptual ability. For my part, I am tempted to give very different analyses to the three, and to claim the mantle of common sense in doing so. But this is an argument for another time.

  21. 21.

    This is, I think, corollary to Kripke’s (2011, p. 62) comments about fiction and the need for a free logic; Kripke, though, still fails to distinguish Shakespeare’s (pseudo-assertive) “truths” from the genuine truths that our consumption of Hamlet makes available.

  22. 22.

    Currie (1990, esp., Sect. 4.7) insists on this point, under the guise of a “fictional author”. Walton (1990, e.g., 365) does not insist, but he is friendly to it.

  23. 23.

    This is a technical term. Cf., e.g., (Walton 1990, 174–175).

  24. 24.

    Fictions encourage games of make-believe, in which, at least it can be argued, such questions would be silly (but not bad). But those games (in which the reader is a character) must be distinguished from the “authorized” game that determines the truth-conditions of fiction-directed thought. In the next section, I will criticize Walton for taking the “expanded” game too seriously.

  25. 25.

    Similarly, Walton often says that fiction-directed utterances do not express “propositions.” He has a “Russellian” understanding of propositions in mind, according to which a proposition is an ordered pair of an object and a property. There is no object, so there is no proposition.

  26. 26.

    It could also be that she admires Kevin, who is playing Hamlet. But that is a different case yet.

  27. 27.

    Walton (1990) does not use the *-convention he introduced in his earlier paper. Evans did, and it has been taken up elsewhere in the literature, because it is a useful tool. One point about which it is potentially misleading is the topic of the next section: one might think that we can infer from “Jane admires *Hamlet*” that Jane admires someone. This would be disastrous for the sort of account I am developing. But it can be avoided.

  28. 28.

    Walton (1990, Sect. 5.3) tries to explain the significance of what I will call “*-attitudes” (like Jane’s admiration for *Hamlet*) in terms of our engagement with make-believe. So far as I can tell, this eloquent section merely brings out how important it is to distinguish *-attitudes from attitudes, but does not explain how they differ from *attitudes*. Similar comments apply to (Friend 2000). Her account is very similar to the one I am pursuing. However, she insists on the presence of presupposed beliefs, which would block the next move, applying this account to reference: see the next section.

  29. 29.

    Deutsch (2000) worried that the pretense theory ignores the ineliminable role that emotional involvement with, e.g., poetry, plays in aesthetic experience. My version at least does not, for it insists that we can explain emotional involvement with fiction in terms of pretense, without assimilating that emotional involvement to pretend emotion. As Deutsch himself notes, “There need not be only one variety of the real thing. Aesthetic grief is no doubt different from grief for a dying loved one” (n. 175, p. 181). On my view, aesthetic grief or admiration is not pretend grief or admiration—it is grief or admiration based on knowing engagement with a pretense.

  30. 30.

    Morreall (1993) makes a claim like this, against (Walton 1978).

  31. 31.

    I am treating “thinking about” as shorthand for singular, as opposed to general, thought.

  32. 32.

    Currie argues that thought concerning Holmes is descriptive, and so not, in the relevant sense, like non-descriptive thought about a real detective. This causes him to deny the coherence of certain apparent truths, such as that Holmes’s name was “Holmes” (1990, Sect. 4.10). He concedes that this is a theoretical cost. Better, I think, to embrace the thesis of conceptual unification and show that it does not constitute an objection. Anyway, that is my strategy.

  33. 33.

    “Are we perhaps over-hasty in our assumption that the smile of an unweaned infant is not a pretence?—And on what experience is our assumption based? (Lying is a language-game that needs to be learned like any other one.)” (1953, Sect. 249—I elided a paragraph break). Wittgenstein runs together pretense [Verstellung] and lies here, but in context it seems clear that his point is that the child cannot intend to deceive. (As I note below, even very young children pretend.)

  34. 34.

    See also (Grice 1989, pp. 292–294). In a similar spirit, Martinich and Stroll (2007) claim that in fiction, the maxim of quality is suspended. A peculiarity of their presentation is that they insist that fiction-directed claims are (typically) true. They seem to have in mind that one can lie with impunity, for everyone knows you are lying, and so it is not really lying. But we have to choose: either it is lying, though not criticizeable, in which case it is (blamelessly) false, or it is true, in which case it is not lying. If it is true, then the fact that it is being offered in a context where the general maxim that one ought not lie has been suspended seems irrelevant: one is not telling untruths. But they are right that there is something special about the context of fiction. It is just that, so far as I can tell, claiming that what is special is that the maxim of quality has been suspended will not work. Rather, fictional contexts play a role in determining the content of utterances offered in that context.

  35. 35.

    Cf., Friedman and Leslie (2007); Rakoczy and Tomasello (2006). Both groups of authors take this evidence to undermine the claim that children are doing something less than pretending (merely behaving as-if), and this is the conclusion I need. Leslie’s well-known work, however, is widely understood to undermine the interpretation of false-belief tests as showing that young children lack a theory of mind. To take this evidence to imply that claim, one must make the literalist assumption that recognizing pretense as pretense requires recognizing it as a deliberate suspension of the ordinary rules of discourse. I disputed this in the first part of this paper.

  36. 36.

    Around my daughter’s first birthday, she would sometimes insist on having a toy be “fed” each of the spoonfuls of her dinner before she would eat it (she made the sounds, “num, num, num”). Clearly, she did not think the toy was actually eating—she was happy to eat the food afterwards, and got quite fussed if I did instead. I find it unlikely that she was engaged in an intentionally complex act, like lying while intending not to deceive.

  37. 37.

    Ian Hacking (in the “interlude” to his 1983) and Williams (2002, Chap. 7) have made similar claims. Both, however, are primarily concerned to use this fact to illuminate world-directed thought, and so do not inquire into our right to employ fiction-directed thought.

  38. 38.

    Thus, the account of fiction-directed thought is neutral on one psychological question: whether reading fiction literally involves play. Reading fiction involves recognizing what one would play at, were one to play. Our ability to think about the fiction is underwritten by our ability to play, even if, as adults, we have put aside such childish things.

  39. 39.

    “Given any theory of reference—given any theory of how the conditions of reference are fulfilled—one can surely pretend that these conditions are fulfilled when in fact they are not” (Kripke 2011, p. 60). It is tempting to object that one who pretends the conditions are fulfilled merely pretends that there is a reference one could make. The puzzle we are facing is why, in virtue of this fact, there seems to be a particular (pretending) reference that can be made.

  40. 40.

    Assuming that there are singular thoughts that are testimony-derived, the thesis of conceptual unification predicts that thoughts expressed with “Holmes” derive from pretend instances of those, and are, in that sense, unified with testimony derived singular concepts. As Currie denies that “Holmes” can be used to express singular thought, he must choose between offending against the thesis of conceptual unification and separating testimony derived thought from its object.

  41. 41.

    I attempt to do so in a manuscript entitled “The Presentational Use of Descriptions.”

  42. 42.

    Janet Cook was pretending, making it up, but she was not authorizing fiction-directed thought. If she had been, she would be able to claim that she was a misunderstood fiction-writer. Now we can put this point by saying that, while she *presented her characters* she did not *-present them.

  43. 43.

    Recall Russell (1919, pp. 169–170): “If no one thought about Hamlet, there would be nothing left of him; if no one had thought about Napoleon, he would have soon seen to it that some one did.”


  1. Currie, G. (1990). The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Deutsch, H. (2000). In A. Everett, & T. Hofweber (Eds.), Making Up Stories’ (pp. 149–181).

  3. Deutsch, H. (2013). Friend on making up stories. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 113, 365–370.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Eagle, A. (2007). Telling tales. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 107, 125–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Evans, G. (1982). In J. McDowell (Ed.), The varieties of reference. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  6. Everett, A., & Hofweber, T. (Eds.). (2000). Empty names, fiction and the puzzles of non-existence. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

  7. Friedman, O., & Leslie, A. M. (2007). The conceptual underpinnings of pretense: Pretending is not ‘behaving-as-if’. Cognition, 105, 103–124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Friend, S. (2000). In A. Everett and & T. Hofweber (Eds.), Real people in unreal contexts (pp. 183–203).

  9. Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Hacking, I. (1983). Representing and Intervening: Introductory topics in the philosophy of natural science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Hicks, M. (2010). A note on pretense and co-reference. Philosophical Studies, 149, 395–400.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Kripke, S. (2011). Vacuous names and fictional entities, In Philosophical troubles: Collected papers (Vol. 1). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  13. Lewis, D. (1978). Truth in fiction. American Philosophical Quarterly, 15, 37–46.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Martinich, A. P., & Stroll, A. (2007). Much Ado about nonexistence: Fiction and reference. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  15. McDowell, J. (1982). Criteria, defeasibility and knowledge. In Meaning, Knowledge and Reality (pp. 369–394). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.

  16. Morreall, J. (1993). Fear without belief. The Journal of Philosophy, 90, 359–366.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Pautz, A. B. (2008). Fictional coreference as a problem for the pretense theory. Philosophical Studies, 141, 147–156.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Rakoczy, H., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Two-year-olds grasp the intentional structure of pretense acts. Developmental Science, 9, 557–564.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Richard, M. (2000). In A. Everett & T. Hofweber (Eds.), Semantic pretense (pp. 205–232).

  20. Russell, B. (1919). Introduction to mathematical philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Sainsbury, R. M. (2010). Fiction and fictionalism. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Searle, J. (1975). The logical status of fictional discourse. New Literary History, 6, 319–332.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Thomasson, A. L. (1999). Fiction and metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Walton, K. L. (1973). Pictures and make-believe. The Philosophical Review, 82, 283–319.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Walton, K. L. (1978). Fearing fictions. The Journal of Philosophy, 75, 5–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Walton, K. L. (1990). Mimesis as make-believe: On the foundations of the representational arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Williams, B. (2002). Truth & truthfulness: An essay in genealogy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, tr. by G.E.M. Anscombe.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This paper has been gestating for many years, over which time I have discussed the material with too many people to list. Thanks especially to Maura Tumulty for giving me the initial motivation to write it, to Dan Guevara for reading a late draft, and to an anonymous reviewer for this journal for incisive criticisms.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael R. Hicks.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hicks, M.R. Pretense and fiction-directed thought. Philos Stud 172, 1549–1573 (2015).

Download citation


  • Fiction
  • Pretense
  • Kendall Walton
  • Gareth Evans