From Sherlock and Buffy to Klingon and Norrathian Platinum Pieces: Pretense, Contextalism, and the Myth of Fiction1


An Interlude on Presentism and the Problem of Cross Temporal Relations



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4. An Interlude on Presentism and the Problem of Cross Temporal Relations
The problems with pretense theory sketched above are analogous to those faced by presentists when they encounter cross temporal relations. Presentists believe that the only things that genuinely exist, exist right now. There may be difficulties in formulating this thesis clearly with tensed predicates only (see Ludlow 2004), so we may chose to formulate the thesis this way, where I distinguish the tensed and untensed versions of predicates like ‘exists’:
Presentism: The only things that exist(untensed) exist presently(tensed)
The presentist doesn’t believe in past tense objects and so uses a primitive past tense operator and ensures that all quantification over such objects is safely inside the scope of the past tense operator. In this respect, the proposal mirrors the pretense strategy above.
Despite thinking that the past and the future do not exist, the presentist does not want to dispute the truth of ordinary past and future tensed claims. So, for example, we have (5).
(5) The author of The Hasheesh Eater had a vivid imagination
The author of The Hasheesh Eater, one Fitz Hugh Ludlow, passed on over 100 years ago, so what is the Presentist to say? Well, it's simple: the past tense morpheme takes scope over the entire sentence and we give a Russellian analysis to the description, so that the logical form of (5) is something like (5a) and the truth conditions are something along the lines of (5a').
(5a) PAST([The x: x is the author of The Hasheesh Eater] x has vivid imagination)

(5a') 'PAST([The x: x is the author of The Hasheesh Eater] x has vivid imagination)' is true iff '([The x: x is the author of The Hasheesh Eater] x has vivid imagination)' was true


Of course it might be objected that this solution relies upon a descriptive theory of names (at least for past tense cases) and this is indeed a worry that the pretense theorist will have too, but for now let's suppose that something like the solution just given is serviceable for a case like (5). Like pretense theory, in simple cases the theory works splendidly.
The problem is that in cases analogous to our “quantifying out” cases, the presentist strategy runs into trouble. Consider a sentence like (6), which uses the present tense to express a relation between me and Fitz Hugh Ludlow.
(6) P.J. Ludlow resembles F.H. Ludlow
This time it won't do to throw everything into the scope of a past tense operator, even if we convert both names into descriptions.
(6a) PAST[the author of Semantics, Tense, and Time resembles the author of The Hasheesh Eater]
This doesn't say that I resemble the author of The Hasheesh Eater, it says that I resembled him -- past tense. (6a) will be a perfectly fine thing to say after I pass away or otherwise cease to resemble Fitz Hugh, or it may be fine if we have a particular salient stage of me in mind (for example when I attended last year's big Come as Fitz Hugh Ludlow Party) but otherwise (6a) just doesn't work.
Now we have just scratched the surface of the troubles that presentism has faced (and which pretense theory will also face). If you want more, you can read up on presentism and its troubles – almost every problem case will be translatable into an analogous case for the pretense theorist. I don’t mean these problems are insurmountable (after all, I’m on record as a defender of presentism), but I do think it might be useful for us to consider other possibilities – if only to hedge our bets.
People offer various solutions to this class of problems (I myself have one in the works), but the most popular solution is this: don’t be a presentist! If you allow that everything that existed still exists (tenselessly) and you allow that there is a particular time when the thing existed (tenselessly) then you can stand in relations to it, quantify over it, do whatever you want with it. Tucking things inside the PAST operator just won’t work for these cases.20 But here is the kicker. Once you reject presentism and its temporal operators you are also in a position to reject the idea that there is anything metaphysically special about the difference between past, present, and future. There is the notion of true-at-a-time-t and there are events which may hold at a time t, and these events are all equally real. It’s just that some of them are located (hold) before the time of utterance, and others are located after it. The events are – as it were – not different in any interesting way, but are in different spatio-temporal relation respect to us.
5. Learning from Klingon, Norrathian Platinum Pieces, and the trials of Presentism
A similar moral might be taken up by the aesthetician. Given the existence of cross-narrative entities (things that can apparently inhabit both “fictional” and real worlds) here is a bit of advice: don’t be a pretense theorist! Just as most philosophers of time will have a truth predicate that is relativized to times (true at t), so too the aesthetician might offer a truth predicate that is relativized to (non-temporal) contexts. So, for example, ‘is a vampire slayer’ will be true in contexts where Sarah Michelle Geller is acting or we are watching her act, but false in others (like when she goes to her martial arts class). And just as there is nothing metaphysically special about the future or the past (at least according to most philosophers of time) so too we needn’t take the contexts in which ‘is a vampire slayer’ are true as being metaphysically special. They are obviously special in *some* respects, of course, but what makes them special are certain social facts and not deep metaphysical differences between fictional and non-fictional existence.
We can illustrate this alternative perspective by considering cases like Norrathian Platinum Pieces and Klingon. Consider the following sentence.
(4) Norrathian Platinum Pieces were fictional but now they are real
Given the existence of props in pretense theory, you might think that the talk of currency here is a bit of a red herring, since what one really is interested in is how certain representations in a computer program (for current purposes, the props) once had no value and now have a value. That is, what we really mean when we say that they were fictional but are no longer is something like the following:
(4a) Norrathian Platinum Pieces always had value in the game and now they have real world value
So revised, this now appears to be similar to the case of Sherlock Holmes being smarter than any living detective discussed above. For example, if we try to deploy a PRETEND operator explicit and give it scope over the whole sentence we have the following
(4b) PRETEND (Norrathian Platinum Pieces always had value in the game and now they have real world value)21
But this isn’t right because it says that we are pretending that the Platinum Pieces have real world value. But that isn’t a pretense; they do have real world value. Accordingly, following our strategy with Sherlock Holmes (quantifying over degrees of intelligence) we might quantity over values – understood as monetary values – and data structures as in (4c).
(4c) There is a value v, s.t. PRETEND (Norrathian Platinum Pieces (the data structures) had v) and now they have v
Assuming we are prepared to go along with the reduction of Platinum Pieces to electronic data structures (would we do the same with US Dollars?) the analysis fails in one important respect: the pretend value of Platinum Pieces may bear little relation to the value that they eventually come to have. Consider the case of Simoleans, which are the currency of the Sims Online. A million simoleans will make you quite wealthy in the game, with the ability to build homes etc., but you can buy that amount of simoleans on eBay for $40 US.
Accordingly, one might think that the proper analysis should be to incorporate the idea that the platinum pieces had pretend value but now have real value. (Think about “real value” as meaning a recognized value outside of the game in the broader marketplace).
(4d) There is a value v, s.t. PRETEND (Norrathian Platinum Pieces -- the data structures-- had v) and now there is a value v’, such that they -- the data structures -- have v’
The interesting thing about this move is that it effectively drops the notion that Norrathian Platinum Pieces were ever fictions – they were real world objects which played a role in our pretense (as props) and which now have been invested with real world value.
But now we need to pause and ask what if anything the PRETEND operator is doing at this point. It just is the case that the data structures (more accurately the rights to access and use these data structures) had a value v when the game began (and in the context of the gameplay only), and now they have a value of v’ (outside of the narrow game context). We aren’t really engaged in any pretense at all at this point. The shift from “pretend” to “real” is really just a shift from a narrow context of value assignment to a broader context.
The same idea holds in cases where the props were merely linguistic – as in the case of Klingon. Intuitively, one wants to say that there was something which we pretended to be part of a language (a handful of utterances in a few episodes on the Star Trek show) and which are now fragments of a real language. So, for example, we might say that the utterances made by actors in the original Star Trek show were mere sounds that we pretended to be a language, and now we take them to be part a real language. But what work is the talk of pretense doing here? It is surely harmless to say that the predicate ‘speaking Klingon’ was initially true only in the narrow context of their uttering certain things on the television show, and that now the predicate ‘speaking Klingon’ is true of those utterances (and many others) in a much broader social context.
Notice that in both the case of Platinum Pieces and the case of Klingon, the so-called fictions themselves didn’t undergo any intrinsic change. The few utterances in the Star Trek episode did not change, but the greater world changed: people began speaking a language that incorporated those fragments (and that was based on those fragments). The Platinum Pieces did not undergo an intrinsic change either; the markets (eBay etc) simply began to invest a value in them (put another way, people were willing to pay for them).
If this line of thinking is correct, then we don’t need to think about fictional objects becoming real; we should rather think about objects which have values in certain narrow contexts but come to have possibly different values which hold in a broader class of contexts.
This general line of thinking works smoothly when we consider cases in which props are available, even if those props are just data sctructures, but what of other cases where there are no props and where it is less clear that we are engaged in a kind of context-sensitive value assignment. As we will see, the cases like Klingon and Norrathian Platinum Pieces can be illuminating here. Indeed, if we return to the cases that puzzled us I section 3, we find that a PRETEND operator can be dispensed with in these cases as well, and indeed that once we do so we can make a bit more headway (if not resolve the puzzles once and for all).
Here is one way to thing about the more traditional cases of cross-narrative discourse. When we truly utter a sentence like (1),
(1) Sherlock Holmes is smarter than any living detective.
we are simply considering a hybrid context which includes both the actor who portrays Holmes and all the living detectives, and we are saying that in this context it is true that the actor is Sherlock Holmes and that he is smarter than any living detective.
Of course we might not base our utterance of (1) on a performance, which means we may not have an actor available to predicate these things of. Two possible moves are now available to us. We can either follow Walton (1980, ch. 2) and argue that there is still a relevant object which could serve as a prop for Holmes, or we could simply say that in such a case we are making a general claim: there is an individual who is Sherlock Holmes and who is smarter than any living detective. In this case our main prop is perhaps the world itself or a relevant situation. In the relevant context, it is true to say (of the world/situation) that there is an individual who is Sherlock Holmes etc. I’ve left out details here, because there are numerous directions one can go at this point. Once could say that there is a property of being Sherlock Holmes, or one could say that the name ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stands proxy for a description, etc. For current purposes I am indifferent as to which choice is made on this question.
Similar considerations apply to (2).
(2) Bertrand Russell resembled the Mad Hatter
If the sentence is true, then there is a context broad enough to include both Russell and some actor that, in the context, is the Mad Hatter. Or, if (2) is based simply upon our reading or an illustration, then the relevant context includes a general state of affairs in which it is true that there is an individual who is the Hatter and has certain properties.
Of course if we move in the direction of treating (1) and (2) as being general claims,

Geach’s case of Hob, Nob and Cob will remain problematic for us.


(3) Hob is pretending that a witch blighted his mare and Nob is pretending that she didn’t do that but that she put a pox on his sow and Cob is pretending that she considered doing those things but baked a cake instead
Since, in effect, the current analysis dispenses with pretense altogether, our analysis of (3) would be something along the following lines:
(3*) Hob is in a context c1, such that ‘a witch blighted Hob’s mare’ is true in c1, and Nob is in a context c2, such that ‘the witch didn’t blight Hob’s mare but did put a pox on his sow’ is true in c2 and Cob is in a context c3 in which ‘the witch baked a cake instead’ is true in c3.
What we need for this to work is a supercontext c, that will include all of the subcontexts in play in (3*). If we think it is “the same individual” in each of the sub-contexts, and if we don’t believe that there is actually an existing individual that is the subject of Hob, Nob and Cob’s concerns, then our super-context c introduces a general claim of the following form.
(3**) In the context c, it is true that ‘There is an individual x, such that Hob is in a subcontext c1, such that ‘x is a witch and x blighted Hob’s mare’ is true in c1, and Nob is in a subcontext c2, such that ‘x is a witch and x didn’t blight Hob’s mare but x did put a pox on his sow’ is true in c2 and Cob is in a subcontext c3 in which ‘x baked a cake instead’ is true in c3.’
Interestingly, Geach’s case turns out to be very similar in form to the cases of Sherlock Holmes being smarter than any living detectives and Russell resembling the Mad Hatter. All three cases involve a reporter being in a supercontext that includes both the “real” and the “fictional” object(s). Notice that dispensing with operators makes this operation go much more smoothly. Returning to the analogy with the temporal case, it is similar to what the non-presentist philosopher of time wants to say about relations holding between temporally dislocated individuals (for example one in the present and one far in the past). Since the philosopher of time rejects opacity-inducing temporal operators and considers the past and present individuals to be equally real, no conundrums need arise. The only difference is that the philosopher of time is evaluating the tensed claims from a kind of eternal position (the ultimate super-context), while we are imagining the possibility of many different (and certainly noneternal) super-contexts.

6. Some off-the-shelf resources (not tailor made)
Before I develop the positive proposal any further it will be useful to review a couple of ideas that have been circulating in the semantics literature, and which I at least have been drawn to for independent reasons.


6.1 Contextualism
Recent work in epistemology, for example by Lewis (1979, 1996), DeRose (1992, 1995, 1999), and Cohen (1998) has advanced the thesis of contextualism in epistemology. In short, contextualism is the idea that the verb ‘knows’, and many other predicates, are context sensitive in a way that radically effects their truth conditions. Whether or not my knowledge claim is true may depend upon the context of utterance. Different contexts may have different standards of knowledge. For example, my claim that I have hands will hold up nicely in an ordinary conversation and in a court of law, but may not meet the standards of knowledge that hold in a philosophy classroom where Cartesian doubt is often on the table.
Other predicates are like this as well, of course. Whether the predicate ‘flat’ truly applies to a surface may depend upon our interests. Is the surface flat enough for us to take a leisurely hike? Flat enough to play bocce ball? Flat enough to play pool? Flat enough to be a frictionless plane?
Sometimes philosophers have fallen into the trap of thinking that like ‘flat’, ‘know’ is a linearly graded predicate and that the contexts differ only in how high the relevant standards of knowledge are. I don’t think this is right, for reasons that I outlined in Ludlow (2004); knowledge claims vary across many different dimensions. It’s not just the degree of justification that might be relevant, but other factors could be relevant as well, including the source of evidence, the interests of the conversational participants, etc. Some knowledge claims might hold up in a court of law but not a scientific journal, while others might hold up in a scientific journal but not a court of law. The standards do not form a natural gradient, but cross-cut each other.
6.2 Socially Dynamic Predicates
‘Flat’ and ‘know’ are species of what more generally we might call socially dynamic predicates: these are predicates whose contexts of application may be extremely subtle to the social environment, often with surprising results. A good example of this phenomenon is found in Chomsky’s (1995) discussion of ‘water’ and ‘tea’.
Consider a case where someone has dumped a great number of tea leaves in the water supply for your city. What comes out of the tap is still water – albeit impure water. It is water that has been adulterated with tea leaves. But if we are at a restaurant and order tea, we may receive something that is chemically identical that came out of the tap. This time we call it tea. How could it be that the same chemical substance could be water in one context and tea in another?
One plausible story is simply that the predicates ‘tea’ and ‘water’ are socially dynamic, in that whether a particular chemical substance falls under their extension will depend upon context – even down to social and institutional context. The exact same stuff is water in one context (at home, coming from the tap) and tea in another (served at a restaurant – even if water was ordered). Put another way, the term ‘tea’ is true of the substance in one context, but not both. In the restaurant context ‘tea’ is true of the substance. In the alternative context where the water supply has been compromised, ‘tea’ is not true of the substance, but ‘water’ is.
In this regard, predicates like ‘knows’ and ‘flat’ are also socially dynamic. There are contexts where ‘knows’ might be true of me in relation to a particular justified belief, but other contexts in which ‘knows’ is not true of me and the belief. As the contexts shifts so does the extension of the predicate.
6.3 Quantifier Domain Restriction
One might worry that the introduction of socially dynamic predicates effectively scuttles any hopes to have a compositional semantics for natural language. The reason for this worry is that the way in which predicates will combine cannot be established until the particular social context is resolved. So, imagine a semantics that works its way, bottom up, from the lexical items and computes the semantic value of the sentence as a whole. But if the semantic value of the predicate is sensitive to the context (a context that might incorporate other information from the sentence itself) then computing semantic values will not be compositional – it will not be possible to compute the semantic value of a complex constituent by knowing only about the semantic values of its immediate subconstituents.
In a series of recent papers, Jason Stanley has advanced the thesis of quantifier domain restriction to account for a number of puzzling phenomenon in the semantics of natural language.22 In a nutshell, the idea is this: most natural language predicates (‘water’ for example) have an implicit argument position which behaves as kind of quantifier domain restriction. Accordingly, in certain domains, when we say ‘There is water in the refrigerator’ the context restricts the domain of quantification in such a way that much of what might count as water in the ordinary context simply doesn’t make it into the domain of discourse. So, for example, my refrigerator may be full of water vapor, ice tea, and there may be water in the cells of those eggplants, but the domain is here restricted in such a way that these cases are not part of the domain. Given the relevant domain of discourse, there really is no water in the refrigerator.
If we wanted, we could incorporate quantifier domain restriction as a formal way of thinking about how context sensitive, socially dynamic predicates work. That is, we could say that water unrestrictedly includes everything with H2O as a constituent, but that in certain contexts many of these “impure” substances are “out of court” because they are not part of the domain of quantification. In the case where we are in the restaurant the domain is restricted in such a way that tea does not figure in the domain of quantification.
Whether the move to quantifier domain restriction is illuminating here can be debated, but it does have the virtue of being a well-understood mechanism and the greater virtue of making it easier to construct a strictly compositional semantics of natural language.23 Accordingly, I want to include the idea as an optional part of the package.
7. Putting the Pieces Together
Given the resources that we marshaled in the previous section we are now in a position to employ them in a more complete story about the myth of fiction. The basic idea is simple: the extension of ‘vampire’ is context sensitive and socially dynamic. Thus, there are contexts in which the predicates ‘x is a vampire’ and ‘x is a slayer’ are true of real world individuals. In particular, there are cases in which ‘x is a vampire’ is true of David Boreanz (Angel), and ‘x is a slayer’ is true of Sara Michelle Geller (Buffy). The same point holds for sentences which describe events and states of affairs. To wit: there are contexts in which ‘Buffy slew a vampire’ are true.24 Notice that in all these cases we can dispense entirely with the PRETEND operator for the simple reason that the PRETEND operator is adding nothing here apart from some philosophical conundrums. For similar reasons we can dispense with the supposition that pretense is playing a role in these cases. Whether we want to say that it’s true that in that context Buffy slew a vampire or that ‘Buffy slew a vampire’ is true in that context (I’m personally neutral on the formulations), pretense plays no role in the semantics.
What goes for so-called canonical cases of fiction also holds when we return to our cases of events within MMORPGs. What happened exactly? How did a pretend newspaper become real? How did the Norrathan Platinum Pieces become currency with a stable rate of exchange against major world currencies?
The key to understanding these questions is this: it is misleading to say that The Alphaville Herald or the Norrathian Platinum Pieces somehow changed their ontological status from pretend or fictional to real. What in fact happened is that the context in which ‘x is a newspaper’ could be truly said of The Alphaville Herald expanded by virtue of a shift in the domain of quantification, one triggered by the socially dynamic lexical semantics of the predicate ‘is a newspaper’. At some point it became clear (to some) that The Alphaville Herald was properly understood as being in the domain of quantification in default-contextual cases, and this in turn was licensed by features of the lexical semantics of the expression ‘is a newspaper’.
Clearly the Alphaville Herald could have undergone a number of changes without having this effect; they had to be the right changes – in this case a recognition that events were being reported in a (sometimes) serious way, and then a kind of uptake and recognition by the already recognized media institutions.
The contexts in which ‘x is a real currency’ could be said of Norrathian Platinum Pieces, not so much by undergoing changes, but via a kind of uptake by the markets. At some point, the markets recognized Platinum Pieces as entities that could be regarded as viable currencies, and the domain of discourse was thus expanded to include them in the default-contextual domain.
This is not to say that everyone is prepared to agree that The Alphaville Herald was ever a real newspaper -- witness the remarks from Jeff Brown in the epigraph above – nor is it to say that everyone recognizes Norrathian Platinum Pieces as a real currency. But uptake is not something that happens by consensus, and the opinions of individuals, no matter how well placed, don’t count as much as the markets and institutions that validate them as default-contextual.
There might be some temptation to object at this point that the contexts in question are precisely the fictional contexts – that is, contexts in which we are engaged in a kind of pretense. This move might have some merit if there was some single property or identifiable class of properties in which we could identify as the property (or class of properties) of being fictional. But what would this property or class of properties be? At best we can enumerate a number of circumstances that we might take to be canonically fictional, but even if we construct such a list (and what an extensive list it would be) what have we added when we label such context fictional? Have we really added anything? That is, once the relevant contexts are identified and we know that they are contexts in which ‘Buffy is a slayer’ might be true, what do we accomplish by insisting that the operator PRETENSE be invoked?
The point here can be given more force if we consider all the different ways in which we can engage in speech which is not true omni-contextually. Relevant contexts range from televisions shows to movies to Theater to children playing in the back yard to fanfic to discussion that are introduced as thought experiments to discussions where we humor someone who believes what we generally take to be a falsehood (e.g. talking to children about Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny) to the cases discussed above involving MMORPGs.

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