Ficta and impossibilia

Continuing the discussion of the problems of fiction, Bill has an older post in which he says,
Purely fictional objects are most plausibly viewed as made up, or constructed, by novelists, playwrights, et al. It may be that they are constructed from elements that are not themselves constructed, elements such as properties or Castaneda's ontological guises. Or perhaps fictional objects are constructed ex nihilo. Either way, they have no being at all prior to their creation or construction. There was no Captain Ahab before Melville 'cooked him up.' But if Ahab were a merely possible individual, then one could not temporally index his coming to be; he would not come to be, but be before, during, and after Melville's writing down his description.

The issue could be framed as follows. Are novels, plays, etc. which feature logically consistent pure ficta, something like telescopes that allow us to peer from the realm of the actual into the realm of the merely possible, both realms being realms of the real? Or are novels, etc. more like mixing bowls or ovens in which ficta are 'cooked up'? I say the latter. If you want, you can say that Melville is describing something when he writes about Ahab, but what he is describing is something he has made up: a merely intentional object that cannot exist apart from the acts of mind trained upon it. He is not describing something that has ontological status apart from his mind and the minds of his readers. He is also not describing some real feature or part of himself as subject. So we could say that in describing Ahab he is describing an item that is objectively but not subjectively mind-dependent.
He then offers an argument to the conclusion that,
Ahab is not a merely possible human being, but a fictional human being where 'fictional' unlike 'merely possible' functions as an alienans adjective.
In this piece I want to try to get at just what I think has gone wrong in this.  My chief difficulty is that it's hard to know where to begin.  Bill couches the whole piece in language with which I am not comfortable.   He talks about 'fictional objects', 'impossible objects',  'intentional objects', 'incomplete objects', and so on, confident that these terms are meaningful and refer to something or things.  To engage him at all is to concede a good deal.   But here goes.

Bill says that Melville 'cooked up' Ahab.  What Melville cooked up was a description, a certain form of words, that he gives us in Moby Dick. On reading the novel, we cook up our own idea of a whaling captain from Melville's words.  Bill says, 'Melville is describing something when he writes about Ahab, but what he is describing is something he has made up'.  I demur.  Melville isn't describing anything.  He is transcribing his own idea of Ahab into words.  But this does not imply that he has not produced a description.  Perhaps this diagram helps.

At top left we have concrete people, past and present.  On the right we have concrete descriptions of some of these people, sentences thought up and written down or spoken by individuals attempting to say what certain people are or were like.  In the end these are combinations of words having a certain form that we recognise as descriptive.  But clearly there can be many more combinations than there are people, past and present. Such a combination, written or spoken, that does not arise from an attempt to describe a person, we can call a fictional description.  Now a problem arises.  In general, there is no way of telling from its words alone whether a given description is genuine or fictional. Of course, some descriptions will be sufficiently outlandish that we can be confident that they are fictional, but not all.  Again, some descriptions come wrapped in covers labelled 'Emma: A Novel' so we can be confident they too are fictional.    Nevertheless, on reading such a description we inevitably 'cook up' an idea of a person.  We need to be careful with this last term.  There is no implication that this is an idea of a particular person, one of the people in the upper left of the diagram.  In fact, I'm not sure one can have an idea that attaches to an external object in any way, but this opens questions about intentionality that I don't want to enter.  Rather, it's just a 'person-shaped' idea.  If asked to describe this person we just reiterate the description we have just read.  And, after all, this is how Melville got started, with a person-shaped idea for Captain Ahab.

This, I think, is about as far as we can go.   Bill would go further.  He wants to say either that this idea is an 'intentional object' in its own right, or that there is something it is an idea of, and this something he calls an intentional object.  I've never been clear on this, though I suspect the latter.  This strikes me as a theoretical postulate, rather than a given.  Bill thinks the phenomenology justifies it, and I do not.  Since the theory seems to run into trouble I'd rather do without its postulates. 

At bottom, the problem is that Bill makes a move from
Melville imagines a whaling captain
There is an imagined-by-Melville whaling captain
and hence to
There is an imaginary whaling captain,
and this 'imaginary whaling captain' Bill regards as an 'intentional object'.  This is exactly the move that Ed Ockham always objects to and which gives rise to the problematic terms 'imagined-by-Melville' and 'imaginary', which elsewhere I have been calling 'pseudo concepts'.

Is this a picture of an impossible object?
Of course not! Impossible objects are, well, impossible.  There can't be any, so we can't have a picture of one, surely?  What we have is a representation, or, better, a specification, that cannot be realised.  Just as 'round square' and 'married bachelor' are descriptions that cannot describe or predicates that cannot predicate, this is a representation that cannot represent.  Note the element of semantic ascent which is crucial to all of this.  In each case, something ontologically unexceptional, such as a bunch of words or marks on screen or paper has to be understood as a representation.  And sometimes it doesn't or cannot represent anything.  That's where the trouble starts.  For the temptation is to say that it represents a fictional person or an impossible object, and now we are on the slope to perdition.

Here is the argument that Bill offers in the cited post.
1. Pure ficta are made up or constructed via the mental acts and actions of novelists, playwrights, et al.
2. Ahab is a pure fictum.
3. Ahab came into being via the mental activity of a novelist or playwright. (from 1,2)
4. No human being comes into being via the mental activity of novelists, et al., but via the uniting of human sperm and human egg.
5. Ahab is not a human being. (from 3, 4)
6. A merely possible human being is a human being, indeed a flesh-and-blood human being, though not an actual flesh-and-blood human being.
7. Ahab is not a merely possible human being, but a fictional human being where 'fictional' unlike 'merely possible' functions as an alienans adjective.
Bill writes as if he finds the underlined terms transparent and unproblematic, functioning as ordinary concept terms.  Over the years he has come up with many aporia in which they appear.  My contention is that the source of paradox lies within these terms.  They are neither transparent nor unproblematic.  How to convince Bill of this?

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything you say here, but that goes without saying of course.