Truth in Fiction and Imaginative Resistance

Kengo Miyazono is an associate professor at Hiroshima University. His main research areas are philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of psychiatry, and early modern philosophy. He is currently working on a monograph on delusions (Routledge) and an introduction to philosophy of psychology with Lisa Bortolotti (Polity).

Kengo Miyazono is an associate professor at Hiroshima University. His main research areas are philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of psychiatry, and early modern philosophy. He is currently working on a monograph on delusions (Routledge) and an introduction to philosophy of psychology with Lisa Bortolotti (Polity).

A post by Kengo Miyazono.

Philosophical discussion of truth-in-fiction begins with the observation that what is true-in-fiction cannot simply be identified with what is explicitly stated in the fictional text. For example, being explicitly stated is not necessary for being true-in-fiction. It is not explicitly stated in the texts of Sherlock Holmes stories that Holmes lives nearer to Paddington Station than Waterloo Station, but it is true-in-Holmes. (What is explicitly stated is that Holmes lives in Baker Street.) In this post, however, I discuss another issue which is less frequently discussed; being explicitly stated in the text is not sufficient for being true-in-fiction. 

Can it be the case that a fictional text states that P but P fails to be true-in-fiction? The answer is yes. The examples are found in the literature on so-called “imaginative resistance” (e.g., Gendler 2000, Weatherson 2004);

Death on a Freeway (Weatherson 2004)

Jack and Jill were arguing again. This was not in itself unusual, but this time they were standing in the fast lane of I-95 having their argument. This was causing traffic to bank up a bit. It wasn’t significantly worse than normally happened around Providence, not that you could have told that from the reactions of passing motorists. They were convinced that Jack and Jill, and not the volume of traffic, were the primary causes of the slowdown. They all forgot how bad traffic normally is along there. When Craig saw that the cause of the bankup had been Jack and Jill, he took his gun out of the glovebox and shot them. People then started driving over their bodies, and while the new speed hump caused some people to slow down a bit, mostly traffic returned to its normal speed. So Craig did the right thing, because Jack and Jill should have taken their argument somewhere else where they wouldn’t get in anyone’s way.

Death on a Freeway (Death) evokes “imaginative resistance”, which has several components. A component is the author’s failure to establish a truth-in-fiction. The author explicitly states in the text that Craig did the right thing, but it does not seem to be true-in-Death. As Weatherson says, “[i]ntuitively, it is not true, even in the story, that Craig’s murder was morally justified” (Weatherson 2004, 1).

I believe that Death and other stories evoking imaginative resistance provide a new challenge to the previous accounts of truth-in-fiction. In short, the previous accounts falsely predict that it is true-in-Death that Craig did the right thing. Here I discuss three accounts by Lewis (1978), Currie (1986) and Byrne (1993) respectively.

According to Lewis’s account (“Analysis 1”), P is true-in-S iff P would have been true if the story S had been told as known fact. It is true-in-Holmes that Holmes lives nearer to Paddington Station than Waterloo Station because if Holmes stories had been told as known fact then it would have been true that Holmes lives nearer to Paddington Station than Waterloo Station. It is obvious that this account falsely predicts that it is true-in-Death that Craig did the right thing; if Death had been told as known fact then it would have been true that Craig did the right thing[1]. Lewis offers an alternative account (“Analysis 2”), which is slighly more complicated[2]. But the differences between these accounts have nothing to do with our problem. 

Currie’s account is that P is true-in-S iff it is reasonable for the informed reader to infer that the fictional author of S believes that P. Informed readers are the ones who know the relevant facts about the community in which the story was written. The fictional author of a story is the fictional agent who is a reliable, historically situated writer of the story. It is true-in-Holmes that Holmes lives nearer to Paddington Station than Waterloo Station because it is reasonable for the informed reader to infer that the fictional author of Holmes stories believes that Holmes lives nearer to Paddington Station than Waterloo Station.

An important feature of Currie’s view is that it allows for the possibility that P is explicitly stated but it fails to be true-in-fiction. The examples come from the phenomenon called “unreliable narration”. Some fictional stories have explicit narrators. Huck Finn, for instance, is the explicit narrator of Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. It is possible that, in those stories, the explicit narrators express their opinions or views that we do not take to be true-in-fiction. For instance, Huck the narrator explicitly believes that handling a snake skin brings bad luck, but we do not take the belief to be true-in-fiction. Currie’s account allows for this possibility by distinguishing the explicit narrator from the fictional author. Huck the narrator believes that handling a snake skin brings bad luck, but the fictional author might not believe it. At least, we have no evidence that he or she does[3]. One might think that Currie’s account can explain Death in the same way. Unfortunately, this is not true because the following does not sound plausible; the explicit narrator of Death believes that Craig did the right thing, but the fictional author does not believe it. The explicit narrator and the fictional author are not very clearly distinguished in this case. And perhaps it is exactly because we (reasonably) infer that the fictional author seriously believes that Craig did the right thing that Death, unlike the stories with unreliable narrators, evokes imaginative resistance.

According to Byrne, P is true-in-S iff the Readers could infer that the Author of S is inviting them to make-believe that P. The Reader of a story is the reader who has sufficient background knowledge for interpreting the story accurately. The Author of a story is the ideal agent, constructed out of the interpretation by the Reader, who always intends to say what the Readers think the actual author intends to say. It is true-in-Holmes that Holmes lives nearer to Paddington Station than Waterloo Station because the Readers of Holmes stories could infer that the Author invites them to make-believe that Holmes lives nearer to Paddington Station than Waterloo Station.

Byrne’s account explains unreliable narration by distinguishing the explicit narrator from the Author; Huck the narrator says that handling a snake skin brings misfortune but the Reader could not infer that the Author is inviting us to make-believe it. But, just like Currie’s, this account is not applicable to Death because the following is not plausible; the explicit narrator of Death says that Craig did the right thing but the Reader could not infer that the Author is not inviting us to make-believe it. The explicit narrator and the Author are not very clearly distinguished in this case. And perhaps it is because we (reasonably) infer that the Author is inviting us to make-believe that Craig did the right thing that Death, unlike the stories with unreliable narrators, evokes imaginative resistance.

If my discussions above are correct, then we have a reason (or, perhaps, an additional reason) to reject, or at least revise, the previous accounts of truth-in-fiction. A successful account, whatever it is, needs to be able to deal with Death and other stories evoking imaginative resistance. I do not propose such an account in this post. But here is a rough suggestion. Previous accounts assume that truth-in-fiction is determined by some of the following factors; (a) what is explicitly stated, (b) what the actual world is like, (c) what is believed by the (actual or fictional) authors, and (d) what the (actual or fictional) authors are inviting us to make believe. But, what the stories like Death suggest is that the assumption is problematic. We need some more factors, and those factors might involve some kind of affirmative response by the (actual or idealized) readers, such as (e) the (tentative) endorsement of the author’s beliefs or (f) the acceptance of the author’s invitation to make believe.


[1] One might think that the antecedent of the conditional is impossible. If so, it is vacuously true that it is true-in-Death that Craig did the right thing, according to Lewis. But the antecedent is actually possible in the world where, for instance, “Jack and Jill had just stopped arguing with each other and were about to shoot everyone in sight when Craig shot them in self-defence” (Weatherson 2004, 21).

[2] The alternative account is that P is true-in-S iff the counterfactual conditional “P would have been true if the story S had been told as known fact” is true in every belief world of the author’s community. A belief world of a community is the one in which all overt beliefs of the community are true. 

[3] “What is true in such a story [with an unreliable narrator] is a matter of what beliefs it is reasonable to attribute to the unobtrusive narrator who, by putting words in the mouth of the explicit narrator in a certain way, signals his scepticism about what the explicit narrator says” (Currie 1986, 211).


References

  • Byrne, A. (1993) ‘Truth in Fiction: The Story Continued’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 71(1): 24-35.

  • Currie, G. (1986). ‘Fictional truth’, Philosophical Studies, 50(2): 195-212.

  • Gendler, T.S. (2000) ‘The puzzle of imaginative resistance’, The Journal of Philosophy, 97(2): 55-81.

  • Lewis, D. (1978) ‘Truth in Fiction’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 15(1): 37-46.

  • Weatherson, B. (2004) ‘Morality, Fiction, and Possibility’, Philosophers’ Imprint 4(3): 1-27.