Sunday, July 05, 2009

How rich is truth in fiction?

According to orthodoxy, what's true in a fiction goes beyond what's entailed by the text making up the story. Although fictions are gappy (there's no fact about whether Hamlet had an even number of hairs), some things are determinately true without being stated, or being entailed by thugs that are stated (Hamlet was not a leprechaun). This orthodoxy is pretty much universal, I think, and I've relied on it in my work on thought experiments.

In the past few months, I've worried a bit about that orthodoxy. I don't think orthodoxy here should be abandoned, but I do think it faces an important challenge that hasn't, to my knowledge, been articulated before. The challenge begins with a consideration of non-fiction.

Not all non-fiction is true; some works of non-fiction are mistaken, and some are fraudulent. (All biographies are non-fiction, but not all biographies are true.) What determines whether a non-fiction is true? The key to the challenge is this: we can and should distinguish between whether a work of non-fiction is true, and whether it is merely misleading. I could write a very deceptively misleading biography of David Lewis, such that anyone who read it would walk away with rampant false beliefs about him. But if I did so using only true sentences, relying on pragmatic implicatures and natural assumptions to generate the misleading nature of my non-fiction, then, I claim, the biography I have written is true.

Now take a fiction made up of just the same sentences I used in my misleading autobiography of Lewis. This is just the sort of situation where, according to orthodoxy, principles of generation for truth in fiction will generate false propositions and add them to the set of fictional truths. But this, given what we've said in the previous paragraph, is inconsistent with the truism that contents of fictions don't work in ways radically different from those of non-fictions. A non-fiction's content is true if its sentences are. Can we really deny that a fiction, sentence-by-sentence identical with a non-fiction, has true content if its corresponding non-fiction does? That's the puzzle.

Here, as I see them, are the options:

  1. Reject orthodoxy. What's true in the fiction does not, after all, go beyond what's given in the literal text.

  2. Posit a stark disanalogy. Their obvious forms of similarity notwithstanding, fictions and non-fictions get content in radically divergent ways.

  3. Bifurcate 'content'. (Brian Weatherson suggested this to me when I posed the puzzle to him.) Agree with the conclusion about 'content' of fictions in some sense, while insisting that there's a richer 'true in the fiction' that goes beyond content.

I guess I'm inclined to agree with Brian that, of these choices, (3) is the best way to go. But I'd be interested to hear if anyone thinks I'm selling the other possibilities short, or have overlooked additional possible solutions.


  1. Hi Jonathan,

    I am not sure I share the same intuition as you in your non-fiction case. In particular, I am not seeing why, if you wrote a very deceptively misleading biography of David Lewis, such that anyone who read it would walk away with rampant false beliefs about him, using only true sentences then the biography would still be true, just misleading.

    Here is how I thought of the distinction. With misleading biographies, there are multiple equally-eligible interpretations, some of which result in fictional worlds that does not match the actual world, but some others result in fictional worlds that do match the actual world (save for "silly questions" stuff). In contrast, with outright false biographies, the most eligible interpretation results in a fictional world that does not match the actual world. So if you wrote a biography of David Lewis such that anyone who read it would walk away with rampant false beliefs about him, that seems outright false to me. (Of course, there are more complications from how beliefs come from narratives, even non-fictional ones, but we can ignore that for now.) Do you think this distinction I'm drawing is unfair to people's common understanding?

    So I guess what I am inclined to reject is simply the claim that "A non-fiction’s content is true if its sentences are."

  2. Yeah, that's a way to go. I'm just not sure it's going to hold up. Is one guilty of libel if one writes the merely misleading?

    What about a newspaper story? Suppose everything in it is true, but (maybe unbeknownst to the journalist who wrote it), something that is strongly suggested by it is false? I think it's a true non-fiction, even though a fictional version of it would be the sort of thing that, according to orthodoxy, would have falsehoods true in the fiction.

  3. Well, I think it's okay even if the legal definition of libel comes apart from what we ordinarily think of the distinction between misleading and outright false.

    Speaking of the newspaper story, I wonder what you think about the following example. Apparently the FOX News Anchor Neil Cavuto often gives outrageous headlines, phrased as a question, like "Isn't it obvious that Barack Obama is the devil?" So suppose he wrote the following news story, containing two lines: "Barack Obama is the president of USA. Isn't it obvious that Barack Obama is the devil?"

    In that case, every assertion in the story is true. But it seems that we would have good reasons to call it not just misleading, but outright false because of the presupposition of the question. I just don't get the intuition that that news story ought to count as true, except in some super-literal sense unfamiliar to ordinary speech. (Similar examples, I am sure, can also be constructed with, say, imperatives.)

    The bigger point is that it seems your argument turns importantly on this intuition, and the intuition doesn't seem obvious. So, given the potentially disastrous consequences, why not preserve the sensible, coherent theory?

  4. I guess in my case, the intuitions are quite strong. I don't think the problem with that news story (if indeed it qualifies as such) is falsity.