Book Symposium: Langkau Commentary and Response

Julia Langkau is a research fellow (Swiss National Science Foundation) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Her main research areas are epistemology, philosophical methodology, aesthetics and philosophy of mind.

Julia Langkau is a research fellow (Swiss National Science Foundation) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Her main research areas are epistemology, philosophical methodology, aesthetics and philosophy of mind.

This week at The Junkyard, we're hosting a symposium on Kathleen Stock's recent book:  Only Imagine: Fiction, Interpretation, and Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2017).  See here for Kathleen's introduction.  Additional commentaries and replies will run each day this week.

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Commentary From Julia Langkau: Extreme Intentionalism and Testimony-In-Fiction

In the last part of chapter 3, Stock applies her view, extreme intentionalism (the thesis that fictional content is determined by the author’s intentions), to the question of how true beliefs we acquire through reading fiction can be justified. According to Stock, some fictional utterances are not only intended to be imagined, but are also intended to communicate true belief: they are instructions to imagine that p and to believe that p at the same time (which is compatible with Stock’s view of propositional imagination). A reader’s belief that p thus acquired is justified through testimony: it is justified by the fact that the author communicates that p to the reader. Stock endorses a model of testimony which sits well with extreme intentionalism, according to which the intention of the utterer of p plays a role in p’s justification: the reader is justified in believing that p because they know that the utterer of p (the author) intends them to believe that p and takes responsibility for the truth of p. Extreme intentionalism, according to Stock, can explain testimony in fiction thus understood better than its rivals hypothetical intentionalism and value-maximizing theory, because ascribing responsibility for the truth of p to anything but the real author doesn’t make sense.

In chapter 4, Stock argues against the view, put forward by Friend 2014, that true beliefs which we acquire from fiction are “unsafe”, roughly similar to true beliefs about real barns in Goldman’s Fake Barn Country (Goldman 1976). The reason why fiction provides an “unsafe” environment for true beliefs is that the true contents in fiction are surrounded by made-up contents which the reader could too easily have endorsed (according to Friend, one way for a true belief to be “unsafe” is that there are nearby possible worlds in which the belief-processes which actually produced the belief that p, produce a false belief that q). Given that we know that fiction contains made-up content, we should be particularly careful when forming beliefs on the basis of fiction. However, Friend quotes psychological studies which suggest that in fact we are less careful in the context of fiction than in the context of non-fiction: we easily endorse made-up content presented in a fiction (see, e.g., Gerrig and Prentice 1991).

Stock, however, claims that a practiced reader can reliably distinguish the speech act of testimony from non-testimonial utterances in fiction and fiction thus provides a “safe” environment in Friend’s sense. To identify a speech act of testimony, the reader makes reasonable, evidence-based assumptions about the author’s intention. Evidence includes, amongst other things, the following: a) “it should appear to the reader as being likely to concern real existents: perhaps, that the reader has already heard of, or has some other reason to judge as actual (…). Perhaps the utterance appears to complement or extend other information the reader already possesses; it may even (though does not have to) say some things the reader already knows to be true. Truth is good evidence of the relevant intention, since a plausible motive for including true content is that the author wishes the reader to believe that content.” (p. 117) Moreover, b) “the utterance should be reasonably conceived as containing information that, if true, would be of potential use, interest, or relevance to the reader.” (p. 117)

While according to Friend, the reader has to distinguish between true content and made-up content, Stock has it that the reader has to distinguish between different intentions of the actual author: their intention for us to either only imagine, or to also believe the content. I will give some reasons to believe that extreme intentionalism and the version of testimony Stock endorses make fiction an even less “safe” environment. 

Note that the class of true content and the class of intended-to-be-believed content are not necessarily the same. We have to distinguish accidentally true content from non-accidentally true content. Only the latter can be intended to be believed by the reader. We also have to distinguish non-accidentally true content that is intended to be believed from non-accidentally true content that is not intended to be believed. The class of true content is thus likely to be wider than the class of content intended to be believed.

Now, imagine I’m reading, say, a contemporary romance which takes place in London and thus contains true propositions about actual London. Since I’m planning a trip to London, I’m interested in learning about the city, but it is not the author’s intention to teach the reader about London. Say, the author lives in London and it was easiest for them to let the events of their story unfold in a city they know very well. I form true beliefs about London, but according to Stock, my beliefs are not justified because the author didn’t intend me to acquire them. However, the case seems to be one where I should be able to gain justified true beliefs about London.

Given this example and the fact that the main purpose of a contemporary romance is usually not to communicate true beliefs about a city, truth of the content doesn’t seem to be good evidence of the author’s intention (see a) above). Moreover, that I am interested in facts about London is not good evidence of the author’s intention to communicate true beliefs about London (see b) above). Of course, Stock doesn’t say that a) and b) are the only ways to identify testimony in fiction. However, the example given is not unlikely or unusual. It is very plausible that an author of a fiction doesn’t intend to communicate true beliefs. First, their main intention is usually for the reader to imagine the content. It is moreover plausible to assume that they simply don’t care whether the reader only imagines or also believes certain true contents, especially empirical content such as information about a certain city. They could have included true content because it was convenient or easy to do so, or because they assumed that it would help the reader to better imagine the background of a story by filling in familiar details. Second, an author may intend to communicate true content that is relevant to most readers, but it is very unlikely that they meet every interest the reader might have in the true content of a particular fiction. The interest of a particular reader thus cannot be good evidence for the intentions of the author.

Here are some conclusions. First of all, if it is true that we are easily persuaded by fiction (as some psychological studies suggest, see Friend 2014), this is the case no matter how we ought to distinguish between what we should believe and what we shouldn’t, and it will make our true beliefs “unsafe”. Second, not only having to distinguish the intended-to-be-believed content from made-up content but also from different kinds of true content adds an extra step to the process of deciding which contents to endorse and thus makes it more susceptible to mistakes. If the reader happens to form a true belief with intended-to-be-believed content, they might easily have formed a belief which is true but not justified through testimony according to the intentionalist model Stock endorses. One might wonder whether this affects the justification of true belief with intended-to-be-believed content.


Gerrig, Richard J. and Deborah A. Prentice (1991). ‘The Representation of Fictional Information’, Psychological Science, 2: 336-40.

Goldman, Alvin I. (1976). ‘Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge’, The Journal of Philosophy, 73: 771-91.

Friend, Stacie (2014). ‘Believing in Stories’ In: Greg Currie, Matthew Kieran, Aaron Meskin & Jon Robson (eds.), Aesthetics and the Sciences of Mind. Oxford University Press. pp. 227-48.

Response to Julia Langkau from Kathleen Stock

In Julia Langkau’s post, she casts doubts on the claim, made in Chapter 4 of my book, that a practiced reader of fiction can distinguish “testimonial” statements from other sentences within the text.

Some sentences within fictions, I argue, intentionally function both to provide material for the imagination, and information for a reader. In their latter capacity, these sentences function as a kind of “testimony”, in the philosopher’s technical sense: which is to say, roughly, that the information they contain is to be believed largely on the author’s say-so, without additional evidence being provided. Now, Stacie Friend (2014) has argued that sentences like this, when they occur within a fiction, might easily have been false – after all, they occur in the context of lots of sentences with wholly invented, false content. She then worries that this fact might make such sentences less than “safe” as a route to belief. (In the end, she concludes that such sentences are safe nonetheless, but for a different reason to mine).

In response to Friend’s worry, I argue that it’s not in fact true that testimonial sentences within fictions might easily have been false. In the course of arguing for this, I make the claim that practiced readers normally can distinguish testimony-in-fiction from other sentences which are non-testimonial and whose content is invented. I identify certain criteria as relevant to this identification: being in the declarative mood, being about real existents, being true, and containing information of conceivable use to the reader.

If this is right, then there’s no particular reason to think that the surrounding presence of invented content threatens the epistemic safety of testimony-in-fiction. Only where one cannot reliably distinguish the two does it become compelling to say that the true statements “might easily have been false” (at least, for all the reader knows).

At this point Langkau’s objections enter. She argues that an author might include true content in a fiction for reasons other than to intentionally promote belief in the reader. For instance, an author of a romance might situate a story in a place she knows – London - and describe London accurately, because it’s easier for her to write that way, and not because she wants to pass on beliefs to the reader about London.  So “being true” is of little help, Langkau implies, in our identifying testimony-in-fiction. She seems equally sceptical that “containing information of conceivable use to the reader” is a good sign of testimony-in-fiction, apparently partly on the grounds that the author can’t plausibly be thought able to anticipate what information would be of use to individual readers. The upshot is that “not only having to distinguish the intended-to-be-believed content from made-up content but also from different kinds of true content adds an extra step to the process of deciding which contents to endorse and thus makes it more susceptible to mistakes”.

I’m not so sure. As Langkau notes, I don’t claim to have offered sufficient conditions for identifying testimony-in-fiction. Nor do I mean to suggest that the presence of any of the criteria I list, on its own, would be enough to justify an attribution of testimony-in-fiction. I take it they tend to occur in a group. It is true that I haven’t offered any criteria by which the reader might distinguish true content, included in a fiction for reasons other than truth-telling, from testimony-in-fiction, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Though I haven’t given an account of it, I actually feel confident that a practiced reader has a reliable sense of when an author wants to inform readers of something, and when, in contrast, she’s including true details for reasons other than truth-telling (such as a desire for realism or vividness).

In any case, a further question for Langkau is why the reader would need to distinguish these two from one another, as she implies we do, in order to preserve the safety of any beliefs based on testimony-in-fiction. For it seems we might get true beliefs from either (and indeed, Langkau describes her original example as one where we “should be able to gain justified true beliefs about London”). Perhaps the answer is that for every true piece of testimony included in a fiction, an identical true sentence might easily have been included for reasons other than truth-telling; and that this is a threat to its safety. If so, though I cannot discuss this here, I refer the reader to my forthcoming essay “Fiction, testimony, belief and history” in Art and Belief, where I discuss this matter in some detail (Section 6).