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Fictional Surrogates


It is usually taken for granted, in discussions about fiction, that real things or events can occur as referents of fictional names (e.g. ‘Napoleon’ in War and Peace). In this paper, I take issue with this view, and provide several arguments to the effect that it is better to take the names in fiction to refer to fictional surrogates of real objects. Doing so allows us to solve a series of problems that arise on the reference-continuity view. I also show that the arguments philosophers usually rely on in order to ban surrogates are not as serious as they have been taken to be. In the first part of the paper, I describe the two conflicting views. In the second part, I discuss several specific arguments in favor of surrogates. In the third part I take up the kind of reasons ordinarily offered against them.

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  1. This formulation is not meant to pre-judge the question whether there really are fictional characters, as opposed to our merely pretending to refer to them (more on this presently). I am borrowing the term ‘surrogate’ from Parsons 1980, but I prefer the term ‘import’ to Parson’s ‘immigrant object.’

  2. The reason I do not wish to defend the stronger view here has to do with occurrences in the fiction of sentences like ‘Jack behaved like Napoleon. He considered everybody his subordinate.’ If Napoleon is not a character in this novel, the name ‘Napoleon’ might preserve its reference to the real person. I wish to remain non-committal about this case, restricting my view only to ordinary cases, where there is, intuitively, in the fiction, a character called ‘Napoleon.’

  3. I can say ‘The White House expressed concern over the matter,’ and mean to talk about the U.S. administration by using a name that semantically refers to a building. Or I can say ‘What a jerk,’ talking about Charlie, although no expression I have used semantically refers to Charlie. Compare Abbott 2010, who argues that, in an utterance of ‘A man is downstairs in the kitchen. He is cooking dinner’, ‘a man’ does not semantically refer to Larry, even if Larry is actually in the kitchen cooking, and the speaker means to be talking about Larry.

  4. The distinction has been acknowledged by Peter Lamarque and Stein Olsen as well: “Of far greater significance for literary fiction than reference is ‘aboutness.’ To speak of what a work is about is not equivalent to speaking of its references.” (Lamarque and Olsen 1994: 108).

  5. How the fictional Napoleon represents the real one (whether by resemblance or in some other way) would of course need to be worked out in a full theory of fictional representation, supposing such a unified theory is possible.

  6. For Meinongian realism, see Parsons 1980; Routley 1980; Zalta 1983. For abstract realism, see Howell 1979; Thomasson 1999; van Inwagen 1973, 1977; Kripke 2013; Schiffer 1996; Salmon 1998. Howell no longer holds a realist view.

  7. For similar considerations bearing on the connection between names in fiction and the associated information content, see Bonomi 2008.

  8. According to Bonomi, this fact about names is “crucial” in understanding why sentences in the fiction are not assertions (Bonomi 2008: 234). Bonomi agrees that sentences as used in fiction are not assertions, but he takes metafictive sentences to contain reference to surrogates.

  9. Notable exceptions are Parsons 1980; Kroon 1994; Bonomi 2008 and Thomasson 2010.

  10. As one referee has pointed out, literary genre is important in determining the amount of deviation from reality before we might be willing to say we are no longer dealing with the real person, but with a fictional character. Victorian novels tolerate less deviation than science-fiction or comic books.

  11. Perhaps this historical link is sufficient to say that we also have the same lexeme.

  12. Recall also that I am presupposing fictional realism.

  13. Lewis (1983:262) acknowledges this.

  14. Cf. Evans on sentences containing empty names: “the recognition of such an operator cannot provide a general solution to the general problem posed by the conniving use of empty but Russellian singular terms. For if a sentence fails to be properly intelligible when used on its own, the same will hold of any more complex sentence in which it is embedded.” (Evans 1982: 364).

  15. One may doubt this, because of the following analogy: if a squeaky door sounds like a person saying ‘I’m hungry,’ does that mean the door is uttering a sentence or making an assertion? But whatever the case with the door, I think computer fiction is much less controversial (partly because computers are more like human brains than doors are). There have been important initiatives in artificial intelligence concerning computer storytelling over the last few decades. For an overview of some of the major programs, and the way creativity is implemented in each, see Pérez y Pérez and Sharples 2004. Another worry is that whether we take something to be fiction does not entail it is fiction. This is correct. Again, however, my basic intuition is that what MEXICA or BRUTUS are producing is clearly fiction (albeit rudimentary), just as their designers claim.

  16. Thanks to an anonymous referee.

  17. As I mentioned in the Introduction, I do not think this is an implausible view for an importation theory to take. Perhaps the name, in Voltaire’s use, functions like a nickname.

  18. Maybe this could happen if, for example, Leibniz got up on stage and played the role of Pangloss. But we are not talking about that situation here.

  19. The two characters converge, as it were, on the same real person. The question is whether the reference of the names also converges.

  20. For example, consider two large disjoint finite subsets, θ and Φ, of the set of properties of the real Napoleon III. The story could assign the properties in θ to Charles-Louis and those in Φ to Bonaparte.

  21. So that ‘Batman is a famous fictional character’ would be true not because of there exists a fictional character, but in virtue of some activities of the reader.

  22. It may be suggested that if the speaker uses the same name in the same language, semantic reference is preserved. But there is a problem specifying what counts as the same name. That is why in my discussion of the sequence of stories in the “Distorting Napoleon” section, I relied only on tokens of the same orthographic type. There are other issues with the notion of ‘same name’ that I cannot go into here. For example, if names are individuated semantically by causal chains and by speaker’s intentions to use the name in the same way as those she picked it up from, will we still be able to preserve a meaningful distinction between speaker’s reference and semantic reference?

  23. (Friend 2000).

  24. My comments on Friend, due to writing-space considerations, cannot do complete justice to her essay. I have developed a more extensive criticism of her position elsewhere.

  25. That is probably insufficient in order to be imagining about him. But we need not worry about that here.

  26. I need not commit myself as to the question whether we are to imagine de re of the real Everett, or only of a fictional Everett. I suspect these acts of imagining are not mutually exclusive, but will not argue this here.

  27. An anonymous referee has suggested this argument.

  28. Neale (1990: 205) suggests that this might be the model for all cases of pronouns anaphoric on referring expressions.

  29. See Lewis 1968 and 1986.


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I wish to thank two anonymous referees for their insightful comments. Special thanks to Walter Edelberg for many an illuminating discussion.

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Correspondence to Ioan-Radu Motoarca.

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Motoarca, IR. Fictional Surrogates. Philosophia 42, 1033–1053 (2014).

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  • Fictional characters
  • Fiction and reality
  • Literature
  • Metaphysics
  • Surrogates