Sunday, April 03, 2011

Does Sherlock Holmes exist?

Earlier I discussed Peter van Inwagen's view of quantification in fiction. Van Inwagen holds that the existential quantifier expresses the meaning of 'there is' and 'there exists' in ordinary English. Since he holds that some existentially quantified sentences involving fiction are true, including 'Ex, x is a fictional character', it follows that he holds the paradoxical thesis that fictional characters exist. But what, he asks (p. 246), about our firm conviction that Tom Sawyer and Sherlock Holmes do not exist?

His answer involves distinguishing between properties that fictional characters 'hold', and those which they 'have'. Sherlock Holmes 'holds' the property of being a detective. He does not 'have' that property. The only properties that fictional characters have are existence and self-identity. Thus one interpretation of 'Sherlock Holmes does not exist' is 'no one has all the properties the fictional character Sherlock Holmes holds'.

This is not a comfortable solution for a few reasons. Here are two. (i) The distinction between 'have' and 'hold' is arbitrary and the only reason for making seems to be to avoid a serious difficulty with his theory. (ii) The primary motive for Inwagen's theory was the principle that formal logic is simply a regimentation of ordinary English. But then it turns out we cannot express perfectly arguments in ordinary English such as

Fictional characters exist, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, therefore, Sherlock Holmes exists

by any simple translation or 'regimentation'. Indeed, according to Inwagen, the argument above should not even be valid.

1 comment:

David Brightly said...

Interesting. This is quite close to Zalta. He, I think, would say that SH is an abstract object that encodes (PVI: 'holds') all the properties that Conan Doyle's stories say he exemplifies (PVI: 'has') and that no concrete object exemplifies all the properties that SH encodes. Where lies the discomfort? We can't say of the concept Man that it exemplifies the property Animal---this would be open to the Reidian objection---so we say it encodes Animal, Rational, etc. Hardly arbitrary. Rather well-motivated, I'd say.

Could you expand a bit on your second point regarding PVI's position wrt 'Fictional characters exist, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, therefore, Sherlock Holmes exists'? You lose me here.