Speaking About Fictional Entities

What if I, glancing up at the sky, see a large object flapping its wings and flying. What if I also take it for a moment to look like a horse. I might say, “There’s Pegasus!” because, as I’m wont to reason aloud in public, “Pegasus is a flying horse.” However, I’m not actually seeing a winged horse (of course, of course). But what about my claim that “Pegasus is a flying horse”—isn’t it a meaningful claim? That is, naively speaking, don’t we understand what it is saying? We do not, after all, get confused at the utterance, even if it fails to refer (if perhaps I don’t see anything at all).

So the sentence “Pegasus is a flying horse” can be thought to have meaning, even if the name ‘Pegasus’ refers to nothing.

So what sort of meaning might it have, or how might its meaning function? Suppose we consider that features of things, such as being winged or being a horse, are instantiated or have their being in particular things. Moreover, suppose we hold that, in order for a claim involving something’s having a feature to be meaningful, something or other must be picked out as having such features.

If so, then, on the face of it, “Pegasus is a flying horse” is meaningless, at least in the context where the name would fail to refer, such as in the case that I see nothing. And so nothing at all is picked out as having such features.

We might remedy this result by re-examining whether nothing at all is referenced by the name ‘Pegasus’. We may readily think that something or other must be referenced by ‘Pegasus’. And this is reasonable. Pegasus is a character of Greek mythology, after all. If this is true, which it would I think be difficult to deny, ‘Pegasus’ indeed must refer to something, particularly some character of Greek Mythology. From here, it might do us well to get clearer about what it is to be such a character. For one, we tend to think of them as being made up. Having characters that are made up is one feature of fiction. But what is it to be made up? Being made up involves an initial exercise of the mind of the fiction writer or inventor, definitely (where the mind is roughly speaking our ability to think, typically about things).

But there is a distinction in the activity of a fiction writer’s mind between their looking at a horse and their making up a horse. What might the distinction be? There are a lot of possible considerations here. We might talk about the will of the fiction writer, and how, if their eyes are open they cannot help but see an object that is in front of them, whereas the writer has a great deal of willpower in imagining or considering an object that may be nowhere else visible (I know putting ‘else’ here is provocative; we can leave it out if you wish as I won’t here provide an account of visible mental objects).

Instead of getting into a person’s willpower, however, I find it is sufficient to consider the objects of thought themselves. Thus, Pegasus is made up in the negative sense that he is not a visible object that might be viewed by someone who has never heard of Pegasus. In the positive sense, Pegasus is a collection of things heard or said. Perhaps without hearings and sayings, Pegasus would cease to be. However, of course there must be times when no one speaks or hears of Pegasus. But Pegasus is also conceptual, or having to do with thoughts themselves. We all know what it is to imagine a horse. And there must be moments when no one anywhere is either imagining Pegasus, or hearing about or reading about or telling about Pegasus. In such cases, it might just be that Pegasus ceases to exist. We can also widen our account to talk about dispositional beliefs that we have about Pegasus. With this, Pegasus may continue to exist in that the mention of Pegasus will readily invoke the thought that Pegasus is a winged horse and so on, conceptually speaking. But absent people or their conceptual apparatus, Pegasus would cease to be.

Now, important for my theory thus far is that Pegasus remain a particular, albeit one that is a collection of concepts. This will probably be controversial to some trained philosophers so let me make some points explicit that I find are in favor of such a position. First, beginning with an exemplar particular object, the ball in my backyard is a particular. And so is the chopping block. Is the thing that is exactly the ball and the chopping block a particular? Perhaps we take particulars to be singular items. However, a ball is definitely made up of constituent parts, as is the chopping block. So why not take both to be a particular sort of object that just is composed of the chopping block and the ball? We definitely do not think of the ball as being any less of a particular for being composed of things. More to the point, the seeing relation is a particular as well. Thus, if I see the ball, this is a particular occurrence that is composed of various parts, including, I take it anyway, light reflectance off of rubber, chemical reactions, and what-it-feels-like happenings, none of which could be done without while still upholding that the ball is seen. Seeing the ball just is this collection of various parts, causally interacting with one another continuously as long as the seeing occurs. In line with this consideration, imaginings are also particular. So when I imagine a horse, this imagining has any number of parts as constituents (some, but of course not all, of which may also be involved when seeing a horse). And these parts are also particulars. Thus, considering Pegasus to be conceptual or tied to sayings and hearing is not to make Pegasus into a non-particular. Concepts are particulars.

Returning to my claims “There’s Pegasus! Pegasus is a flying horse”, they explicitly deny that Pegasus is a mere concept and rather say that Pegasus is visible by those who may not have heard of Pegasus. It says that the object I’m in a sense pointing at with the phrase “There’s” is Pegasus. But how to interpret the referent of ‘Pegasus’ here? If Pegasus is understood to be merely a concept, then it would be nonsense to point toward a publicly visible object and call it Pegasus, since Pegasus would be understood to be made up or merely conceptual. If only meaning were so linear or without context! Obviously, Pegasus is meant to name the object pointed to, and this name is given on the expressed grounds that what I take to fly there is a winged horse.

What is readily going on is that the object pointed to serves as evidence that what is commonly thought about Pegasus—that he is merely conceptual—just ain’t so. Look at the object and judge for yourself, I seem to express with my claims. Thus, we may speak of a fictional entity and claim that he is actually not fictional (i.e. is publicly perceivable by those who may never have heard of him).

If my somewhat rough sketch of the distinction between conceptual things and things viewable by whomever is on the right track for analyzing claims about fictional entities, then any ambiguity that may arise from such claims would rest with the predicates. For example, if I just blurt out “Pegasus is a flying horse”, without a lot of context, one apt reaction might be to accept that this is indeed true (in addition to the thought, “so what’s your point?”). This is because, merely and conceptually speaking, Pegasus is a flying horse. That is, the hearer did not understand the predicate “is a flying horse” as talking about publicly visible features that anyone, even those who have never heard of Pegasus, might see. Rather, the hearer takes the predicate as referring to a mere conceptual storehouse that constitutes the character Pegasus.

Again, in the same case, someone else might hear this claim and immediately think that there is no such thing as Pegasus, and aptly accept that my claim is false. And this is because this hearer in this case understands the predicate as being about a publicly visible flying horse that anyone may see, even if they had never heard of Pegasus. Thus, the hearer rightly accepts the claim as false. (Indeed, we should understand the phrase “There is such a thing as” as meaning that what is named is publicly accessible to any perceiving individual, and is not a mere concept.)

It is unsurprising that claims can be ambiguous (or might be taken to mean different things). Indeed, everyday conversation can be a back and forth about what a person is trying to say. What is useful about my analysis that the predicates are what are ambiguous is that this takes the weight of ambiguity off of ‘is’ or off of being itself. One premise of such discussions tends to be that Pegasus does not exist. From the premise that Pegasus does not exist, we might be led to conclude apparent nonsense, such as there being nonexistent entities. So, in “Pegasus is a flying horse”, we might consider that ‘is’ is ambiguous between being existent and being nonexistent. And since Pegasus does not exist, then in order for the sentence to have meaning, ‘Pegasus’ must be referring to some nonexistent entity.

But that just isn’t right. There aren’t any nonexistent entities. And we may circumvent this conclusion because Pegasus is not a being that may be viewed by those who have never heard of Pegasus. But that doesn’t mean that Pegasus is not a fictional character, or that we could not speak truthfully about Pegasus as such. Pegasus is a fictional character, and I have hopefully provided a way (albeit brief) that we may view fictional characters as particulars, and of claims about them as being meaningful and sometimes truthful. The dividing line between reality and fiction is between those things that are perceivable by those who have not heard any story, and those things that are merely a component of such stories.

If this is a correct division, then there are deeper realities portrayed in fiction—such as romance, courage, villainy, etc.—that are indeed real, since these are widely perceivable by those who have not heard such stories. This is a welcome result. Fiction often highlights elements that are already known and sometimes left unexpressed.

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