Fiction and Language

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Fiction and Language
Convenor: Dr Stacie Friend
This module focuses on a central problem in the philosophy of language posed by fiction: how to understand the names of fictional characters. In order to lay the groundwork for addressing this problem, in the first two weeks (Part I) we look at background issues in the philosophy of fiction. In Week 1we consider various approaches to defining fiction, and in Week 2 we consider the notion of ‘truth in fiction’ and look at the ways in which we determine what is so according to a story. We spend the rest of the term examining issues concerning reference and how they relate to fictional characters. It seems as if we can make true statements about such characters, for instance ‘Hamlet is melancholy’ or ‘Hamlet is a fictional character’, or even ‘Hamlet does not exist’. How can such statements be both meaningful and true if there is no Hamlet? ‘David Cameron is the prime minister’ if and only if the individual in question – the one referred to by ‘David Cameron’ – is in fact the prime minister. But if there is no individual designated by a name, it looks as if statements using that name cannot be either true or false. We begin with background on reference and ‘empty’ (non-referring) names (Part II), then move to consider various accounts designed to address fictional names, including those that postulate fictional entities and those that invoke pretence (Part III).
Lectures: The lectures for this module will be held in **, on Mondays from 2-3pm in the Spring Term. The lecturer is Dr Stacie Friend (
Seminars: The seminars for this module will be held in **, on Mondays from 3-4pm in the Spring Term. They will be led by the lecturer and by **.
Readings: Every week we focus on one reading in the seminar. One of the purposes of the seminar is to help you to understand the reading, so do not worry if you have not fully understood it in advance. However, the lecturer will assume that you have read it, so it is essential that you do so to follow the lecture and participate in discussion. All of the seminar readings are available electronically (most through journals that can be accessed via the library website directly or through the links on Moodle). The ‘additional readings’ listed under each week’s topic will deepen your understanding of the issues. These are optional for each week. However, you are advised to read at least some of the additional reading for those topics on which you are planning to write. Most of these readings are also available electronically. Ask the lecturer if you would like any further reading suggestions for essay topics.
Essays (BA): This module is assessed by one essay of around 3,000 words. It must be written in response to one of the set questions listed below, except with permission from the module convenor. For details concerning submission of the essay including deadlines, see the BA Handbook.

Prior to this assessed essay, you may also write up to two essays during the course, taken from the titles below, and receive feedback on them from your seminar leader. These can be useful practice for your eventual assessed essay. You should submit the first such essay by the first seminar after reading week, and the second by one week after the last seminar of term. [Notes: 1) You are always welcome to submit an essay earlier than these dates; 2) the seminar leader should not be expected to comment on the same essay more than once.]

Essay (MA): This module is assessed by one essay of around 3,500 words. It must be written in response to one of the set questions listed below, except with permission from the module convenor. For details concerning submission of the essay including deadlines, see the MA Handbook.
Moodle: Electronic copies of course materials are available through Moodle, at You will need your ITS login name and password to enter.


For background on the issues in the philosophy of language, a good introduction is:

A classic text in philosophy of language and metaphysics that will come up several times is this:

  • Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity Lectures I and II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1980)

More reading:

The following gives a good overview and discussion of issues to do with fiction and fictional characters:

  • R. M. Sainsbury, Fiction and Fictionalism (Routledge, 2009) – Chapters 1-6

The following are classics in the philosophy of fiction:

  1. Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1990)

  2. Gregory Currie, The Nature of Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990)

The following are excellent defences of different positions on reference to fictional characters:

  • Amie Thomasson, Fiction and Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999)

  • Anthony Everett, Nonexistence (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013) – eBook

Week 1. Defining fiction

Seminar reading: John Searle, ‘The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse’, New Literary History 6 (1975): 319-332
Additional readings for week 1:

  • Gregory Currie, The Nature of Fiction Chapter 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990), esp. §1.5 and §§1.7-1.11

  • Margit Sutrop, ‘Imagination and the Act of Fiction-Making’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 80 (2002): 332-344

  • Kathleen Stock, ‘Fictive Utterance and Imagining I’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 85 (2011): 145-161

  • Stacie Friend, ‘Fiction as a Genre’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 112 (2012): 179-209

Essay question for week 1:

  • Should fiction be defined by the communicative intentions of authors?

Week 2. Fictional truths and fictional worlds

Seminar reading: David Lewis, ‘Truth in Fiction’ (with postscript), in Philosophical Papers: Volume I (New York: Oxford University Press 1983), 261-280
Additional readings for week 2:

  • Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe Chapter 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1990)

  • Gregory Currie, The Nature of Fiction Chapter 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990)

  • Alex Byrne, ‘Truth in Fiction: The Story Continued’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 71 (1993): 24-35

  • Richard Hanley, ‘As Good as It Gets: Lewis on Truth in Fiction’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 82 (2004): 112-128

Essay question for week 2:

  • How do we determine whether a proposition is true-in-a-fiction?

*Introductory text: A good overview of the issues we discuss in the following weeks is in Lycan, Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction, 2nd edition, Chapters 1-4
Week 3. Descriptivism

Seminar reading: Gottlob Frege, ‘Sense and Reference’, Philosophical Review 57 (1948): 209-230
Week 4: Criticising Descriptivism

Seminar reading: Keith Donnellan, ‘Proper Names and Identifying Descriptions’, Synthese 21 (1970): 335-358

Week 5: Direct Reference Theory

Seminar reading: Genoveva Martí, ‘Reference’, in Manuel García-Carpintero and Max Kölbel (eds.), The Continuum Companion to the Philosophy of Language (London: Continuum 2012), 106-124
[Reading Week]
Week 6: Empty Names

Seminar reading: Marga Reimer, ‘The Problem of Empty Names’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 79 (2001): 491-506
Additional readings for weeks 3-6:

  • Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity, Lectures I and II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1980)

  • David Braun, ‘Empty Names’, Noûs 27 (1993): 449-469

  • Fred Adams, Gary Fuller and Robert Stecker, ‘The Semantics of Fictional Names’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 78 (1997): 128-148

  • Heidi Tiedke, ‘Proper Names and their Fictional Uses’, Australasian Journal of Philosohpy 89 (2011): 707-726

Essay questions for weeks 3-6:

  • Can descriptivism be defended against the objections of Donnellan and Kripke?

  • Can the direct reference theory account for the meaning and truth of statements containing empty names?

Overviews: A good overview of the issues over the next weeks is in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on ‘Fiction’ by Fred Kroon and Alberto Voltolini, online. Another overview on a more limited range of theories is Stacie Friend, ‘Fictional Characters’, Philosophy Compass 2 (2007): 1-16.

Week 7. Kripke on Names in Fiction

Seminar reading: Saul Kripke, Reference and Existence: The John Locke Lectures (New York: Oxford University Press 2013) – This is an eBook, but we will focus on parts of Lectures 1 and 3, so an edited version is also available on Moodle
Week 8. Realism about Fictional Characters

Seminar reading: Peter van Inwagen, ‘Creatures of Fiction’, American Philosophical Quarterly 14 (1977): 299-308
Week 9. The Pretence Theory

Seminar reading: Anthony Everett, ‘Against Fictional Realism’, Journal of Philosophy 102 (2005): 624-649
Week 10. Comparing the Theories

Seminar reading: Amie Thomasson, ‘Speaking of Fictional Characters’, Dialectica 57 (2003): 205-223
Additional readings for weeks 7-10:

  1. Defending realism about fictional characters:

  • Terence Parsons, ‘Referring to Nonexistent Objects’, Theory and Decision 11 (1979): 95-110

  • Amie Thomasson, Fiction and Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999)

  • Amie Thomasson, ‘Fictional Characters and Literary Practices’, British Journal of Aesthetics 43 (2003): 138-157

  • David Braun, ‘Empty Names, Fictional Names, Mythical Names’, Noûs (2005): 596-631

  • Nathan Salmon, ‘Nonexistence’, Noûs 32 (1998): 277-319 – a very long, dense text

  1. Critiquing realism/defending pretence theories:

  • Anthony Everett, The Nonexistent (see above)

  • Richard Hanley, ‘Much Ado About Nothing: Critical Realism Examined’, Philosophical Studies115 (2003): 123-147

  • Anthony Eagle, ‘Telling Tales’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 107 (2007): 125-147

  • Kendall Walton, ‘Fictional Entities’, in Peter McCormick (ed.), The Reasons of Art (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press 1985), 403-13

Essay questions for weeks 7-10:

  • What do the names of fictional characters contribute to the truth conditions of sentences in which they appear?

  • Does our discourse about fiction involve pretence?

  • Are there any good reasons to postulate the existence of fictional characters?

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