Sunday, May 01, 2011

Too long, didn't read

There is no greater enemy of theory that 'tl;dr' (Internet slang for 'too long: didn't read'). Schopenhauer wrote (I can't remember where) that the whole of his enormous work The World as Will and Representation was expressing a single proposition, presumably one that could not be expressed by any shorter proposition. That is bad. You should always have some shorter proposition up your sleeve for the day you are caught on a desert island and some brutish fellow requires you to defend your theory. What would Schopenhauer have done if marooned without his innumerable tomes?

So here is my 'short', three-part defence of the story-relative theory of reference which I have been discussing throughout this year in this blog (one day I will put all this into a book, but not yet).

(1) We can tell 'which' character is being talked about in a story. War and Peace has many hundreds of minor characters but we can always (assuming we have paid attention) tell which character the author is talking about or 'referring to'.

(2) There is no obvious difference between the semantics of a made-up story, and the semantics of a historical account which is perfectly true. E.g. we cannot tell from what is said in the Old Testament whether any of the characters really existed or not. Yet we can tell Adam from Eve, Cain from Abel, Moses from Isaiah and so on. Whatever explains reference in a story, also explains reference-in-history.

(3) All the objections which argue against proper names being concealed descriptions, also apply against proper names that are used in a story. Whatever features or accidents we ascribe to a character in a story, we can deny of that character using the proper name for that character, for example.

Which of these are you going to deny? Can Tolkien not tell us which hobbit threw the ring into Mount Doom? Is there any obvious semantic difference between a narrative which might be true (the Old Testament) and one which obviously isn't true (The Aeneid)? Is there any property signified by a fictional name except: being that very character?

There is more you could overlay on the theory. You would want to distinguish it from a Meinongian theory of reference, and thus defend it against objections to such theories. We would do this by the concept of the 'logically intransitive verb' which I described elsewhere. You would want to develop some account of the 'true logical form' of logical intransitivity. You would want to develop a deeper account of the distinction between singular and general terms. All this can be done, but it take time. And also may be just too long to read. We live in the barbaric world of the internet.

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