Monday, April 25, 2011

Vehicles of assertion

I read Creatures of Fiction* more carefully over the break, and I now see I have fundamentally misunderstood Inwagen's position. I had assumed that he saw no fundamental difference between sentences like this

(i) She was a fat old woman, this Mrs. Gamp, with a husky voice and a moist eye, which she had a remarkable power of turning up, and only showing the showing the white of it (Martin Chuzzlewit, XIX)
and sentences like this:
(ii) Mrs. Sarah Gamp was, four-and-twenty years ago, a fair representation of the hired attendant on the poor in sickness (From Dickens's preface to an 1867 edition of Martin Chuzzlewit)
The first is a sentence from the novel itself, and so belongs in English literature. The second is from an essay about the novel, and so belongs in English literary criticism.  It turns out (p. 301) that while Van Inwagen regards the second type of sentence, i.e. the sentence belonging to the genre of literary criticism, as being the vehicle of assertion and thus capable of truth and falsity (the second one is probably true, for example), he does not regard the first type as being a vehicle of assertion.  He writes:
There is no point in debating what sort of thing Dickens was writing about when he wrote (i) or debating what sort of fact or proposition he was asserting, since he was not writing about anything and was asserting nothing. Sentence (i) does not represent an attempt at reference or description.
He mentions (in a footnote) that this is an important point and that the reader who does not concede it will get little out of reading further.  He says that the arguments establishing it will be found in Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford, 1974) Ch. VIII, pp. 153-163 especially, and J. O. Urmson, "Fiction," American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 4 13 (1976), pp. 153-157.  Much of what Plantinga says is visible on limited preview here.

Thus the two positions that I have defended in many places here, namely (a) that sentences in fiction are the vehicles of assertion, and that what is asserted is mostly false and (b) that proper names refer even in a fictional context, are inconsistent with Van Inwagen's position.  For he says in the passage cited above that an author of fiction asserts nothing, and he says that there is no attempt at reference. And later (p.307) he says that we can only denote fictional characters, by means of descriptions which are true only of them.
How it is we are able to use the proper name "Mrs. Gamp" to refer to a certain creature of fiction ? Normally, an object gets a proper name by being dubbed or baptized. But no one ever dubbed or baptized the main satiric villainess of Martin Chuzzlewit "Mrs. Gamp."There is no corresponding problem about how it is this creature of fiction is denoted by "the main satiric villainess of Martin Chuzzlewit," for this is a quite straightforward definite description that names what we also call "Mrs. Gamp" for the same reason that "the tallest structure in Paris in 1905" names what we also call "the Eiffel Tower" : in each of these cases, a definite description denotes a certain object in virtue of a certain property that that object has uniquely. I think that if we are to have a satisfactory theory of how it is that we manage to refer to particular creatures of fiction, this theory will have to treat such descriptions as "the main satiric villainess" as the primary means of reference to these objects, and proper names as a secondary (though more common) means of reference.
 In subsequent posts, I will clarify and add to my earlier views on the two positions (a) and (b) above.

* Page references that follow are to American Philosophical Quarterly 14, October 1977.

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