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The Logic of Make-Believe

Grant A. Marler
Department of Philosophy
Claremont Graduate University
March 2002

Readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories would surely deny that Holmes lived at 221A Baker Street, for according to the stories he lived at 221B. But is it true to say that Holmes lived at 221B, since there never was such a person as Sherlock Holmes? My research in the philosophy of language centers on whether it is appropriate to speak of 'truth-in-fiction', and how this truth fits with the ways people actually talk, both inside fictions and when talking about them. I focus on 'pretense theory', which is concerned with the language and actions we engage in once we pretend that something is true. I hope to strengthen the theory by pairing it with new tools for modeling the logic of fiction.

My research in the philosophy of language is an attempt to understand the nature of fiction. By fiction I mean not only works of literature--novels, poems, dramas--but also those visual arts, scientific and mathematical hypotheses, children's games, and other statements, practices, and art forms that are not based solely on fact. The concern here is not with grasping the philosophical or poetic meanings of fictional works, but rather with understanding what fictional characters and things supposedly do when they exist, talk, act, etc. A related question is, "How do we talk about fiction?" I am especially interested in whether it makes sense to say that there is 'truth-in-fiction'.

Philosophers who study language have been puzzled by fiction for over 125 years. The first task of my research is thus to provide a much needed historical survey of the problems and proposed solutions. What puzzles are posed by fiction? The main difficulty is that it appears to raise contradictions. For example, does Sherlock Holmes live at 221B Baker Street? According to the story he does. But things get sticky when we ask whether "Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street" is really true. Here philosophers take widely divergent views. Some claim that any sentence that contains a fictional name must be literally false. Others claim that such sentences may be true because fictional things really exist--though only as abstractions. Still others claim that the question is incomplete unless it is understood as beginning with the prefix "in this world." It is important to understand how these puzzles and their many proposed solutions have been influenced by, and have themselves influenced, general theories in the philosophy of language.

Among current theories, the viewpoint I adopt is known as pretense theory. Like children's games of make-believe, it is concerned with what we do and say once we agree that something is true. After setting up the pretense, we may pretend to say, pretend to question, and pretend to act in certain ways, all in accordance with that pretense. In such games, anything may act as a 'prop' for make-believe: the words in a book, a costume, completely unrelated objects, etc. Pretenses need not have an author, though many do.

Pretense theory is useful for describing the similarities and differences between fiction and reality, but it lacks the rigor that philosophers demand. The second stage of my research is to provide this rigor by pairing pretense theory with model theory, the branch of mathematics that studies logical structure in sets of sentences. Just like a pretense, a 'model' sets up an interpretation of objects and relations between them so that certain sentences come out true in that model. The combination of pretense and model theories will be called 'model-theoretic pretense'.

When trying to understand how any structure works, it often helps to build a model of it. In model-theoretic pretense, we say that a sentence 'works' in a model when it is true in that model. To understand the relations between true sentences, we build a 'model' in which those sentences are all true. These logical models are like Legos for the mind. Given certain objects and certain ways of connecting them, we show the logical structure of a pretense. With other pieces and other ways of connecting them, we build other structures, and so on. We can then see which structures 'work' and how they work.

Model-theoretic pretense does more than address narrow logical problems; it changes, perhaps enriches, the way we look at fiction. Using this tool, we can evaluate and compare competing theories of fiction. In addition to philosophers, I hope the new methods will interest literary theorists, linguists, logicians, and mathematicians.