Annie Thomasson, “Fictional Characters as Abstract Artifacts” [chap.] , in Fiction and Metaphysics (Cambridge UP 1999) - extracts

[Source: rep. in Philosophy of Literature: contemporary and Classic Readings: An Anthology, ed Eileen John & dominic McIver Lopes, Blackwell 2004, pp.144-54.]

[Pertaining to what she calls her “artifactual theory”]:


Suppose a student happens on two literary figures remarkably similar to each other; both, for example, are said to be maids, warding off attempts at seduction, and so on. Under what conditions would we say that these are works about one and the same fictional character? It seems that we would say that the two works are about the same character only if we have reason to believe that the works derive from a common origin - if, for example, one work is the sequel to the other, or both are developments of the same original myth. Literary scholars mark this difference by distinguishing “sources” drawn on by an author in composing a work from coincidentally similar characters, mere “analogs”. If one can show that the author of the latter work had close acquaintance with the earlier work, it seems we have good support for the claim that the works are about the same character (as for example Pamela Andrews of Richardson’s and Fielding’s tales). But if someone can prove that the authors of the two works bore no relation to each other or to a common source but were working from distinct traditions and sources, it seems that the student has at best uncovered a coincidence - that different individuals and cultures generated remarkable similar analogues [and] characters. [...]

Once created, clearly a fictional character can go on existing without its author ... for it is preserved in literary works that may long outlive their author. ..

Characters depend on the creative acts of their authors in order to come into existence and depend on literary works in order to remain in existence. .. It seems we should allow that one character may appear in more than one work, and if it can appear in more than one work, it must remain in existence as long as one literary work about it does. [Here cites instance of Sherlock Holmes.] (p.145.)

[Following Searle, Thomasson argues] it is a common feature of many cultural entities and institutions that they can be brought into existence by being represented as existing. ..

Human consciousness is creative. It is that creativity which enables us to increase our chance of survival by formulating plans and examining scenarios not physically before us. It is also that creativity that enables the human world of governments, social institutions, works of art, and even fictional characters to be constructed on top of the independent physical world by means of our intentional representations. (p.148.)

[Thomasson writes disparagingly of Meonongian theories which only allow the view that writers take an available object and make it fictional, arguing that] this .. is not robust enough to satisfy the ordinary view that authors are genuinely creative in the sense of creating new objects, not merely picking out old objects and therefore making them fictional. (p.150.)
[Also quotes and dismisses Sartre’s view of imagination as depended on “the faint breath of life we breathe into imaginary objects comes rom us, from our spontaneity. If we turn away from them they are destroyed.” In place of this she follows Ingarden’s suggestion that:]

[A] fictional character is a “purely intentional object” .. Having “the source of its existence and total essence” in intentionality.


Because these pieces of language are public and enduring, different people may all think of one and the same fictional character, and the character may survive even if no one is thinking of it [..]

Although that literary work requires the ongoing existence of a community capable of reading and understanding the text, it does not require that someone constantly be reading it or  thinking of it in order to remain in existence, just as the ongoing existence of money does not require that someone be explicitly thinking “this is money”. Thus literary characters on this model do not flt in and out of existence [and] are not created afresh with each person’s thinking of them; on the contrary, by reading the same work many different readers may all access one and the same fictional character. (pp.152-53.)

Refs. incl. John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (NY Free Press 1995); Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art, trans. Geo. Grabowicz, Northwestern UP 1973.

Note: Searle is also the author of Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge UP 1979, 1981, 1985 and num. edns. to 1999, &c.) - available at Google Books online; accessed 19.07.2010.)

BS - sent using BlackBerry® from Orange 07.07.2012.

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