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

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8. Identity Statements
If there is a worry about this analysis it seems to come when we start making identity statements that hold between, for example, actors and their characters. I wanted to say that Sara Michelle Geller is not merely playing a slayer – she is a slayer in that context. The first thought is that a kind of identity statement holds.
(7) Sara Michelle Geller is Buffy Summers (The Slayer)
We certainly say things like this (or at least we certainly hear things like this), and two questions naturally arise: can we avoid treating this as an identity statement, and if we can’t how badly will things go for us? The answer to the first question is “probably”, and the answer to the second question is “not badly at all.”

One could treat names of fictions as being exclusively predicational.25 So for example ‘Hamlet’ is short for the predicate ‘is Hamlet’ and this predicate is true of anyone one that (for example) puts on tights and reads the Hamlet part in Shakespeare’s play. There are difficulties with this view that are familiar to any theory that attempts to deploy a predicational theory of names. I don’t doubt that such theories can be defended, and indeed perhaps that is the proper analysis of names once one works out technical issues about accounting for the rigidity of names across possible worlds. (Presumably rigid properties are deployed.)

I wouldn’t want to tie this theory to the predicational theory of names, however, so it is worth considering what one might say about identity statements here. On such a view, both the terms ‘Sara Michelle Geller’ and ‘Buffy Summers’ would refer, albeit to distinct individuals with different modal profiles that just happen to overlap spatio-temporally.
On this view identity statements would work just like familiar accounts of the statue and the clay. A number of authors have held that the statue and the clay from which it is made are distinct entities with temporarily overlapping space time worms and radically different modal profiles. Sara Michell and Buffy would be a similar case, albeit with one interesting difference. There are many actresses that could potentially play Buffy (indeed another one did in the pilot), but a given statue made from a particular lump of clay could not have been made from some other lump of clay. Fictions, unlike statues, can be realized over and over in many different substrates.
While ordinarily in the case of the statue and the clay we suppose that only that piece of clay could have made that statue, fictional characters appear to be able to survive the destruction of their physical hosts and reappear elsewhere with a new host. That is a fancy way of saying that, for example, different actors can be Hamlet. This doesn’t introduce new conceptual difficulties unless one can isolate a single context in which two actors are the same character, and only then if one assumes transitivity to hold in this context (and that a character can’t have multiple instantiations in a single context).
Finally, what of actors themselves? On this theory they are not individuals that represent or pretend to be things like kings and vampires and slayers; they are rather individuals who, in certain contexts, just are kings and vampires and slayers. A successful actor is one who is able to expand the context in which these predicates hold true (or perhaps it is better to say that they lead their audience into the relevant contexts). Actors do not imitate, nor even create realities, so much as they are context expanders. Similar considerations apply to authors of literary and other non-performance based “fiction.” The authors do not describe or represent states of affairs nor are they engaged in a pretense that these states of affairs hold. They are simply people who expand the contexts (or lead us into contexts) in which the states of affairs described in the work are true.

9. Conclusion
The line I have been advancing in this paper is that there really are no fictions per se, and that “fictional” statements are merely statements that hold true in a limited class of environments. What then of the case of the fictions that became real? As we have seen, it might make more sense to think that they were always real, but that a kind of change did take place in which, over time, predicates like ‘is money’, ‘is a newspaper’, ‘is a language’ could be truly said of things in a broader and broader class of contexts.
Thus it is not so much that Norrathan Platinum Pieces or Klingon suddenly (or gradually) became real. Rather the context in which predicates (including ‘exists’) could truly be uttered of them gradually expanded. This might be driven by any number of factors, ranging from the interests of people, to the number of persons entering into the context, to the entrance of recognized political and legal institutions into the context.
Now I fully recognize that a pretense theorist can tell a story similar to this. Perhaps the interests of persons or institutions license our dropping of the PRETEND operator, but it is I think worth pondering whether the basic notion here is really one of pretending or whether there might not be many ways in which one can engage in artistic, scientific, and legal pretense. Do these all really answer to a single primitive property? Or is it rather the case that all of these cases are different, and that their reach and application are fluid – just like the contexts that they inhabit. I would suggest that the more fruitful line of investigation might lie with setting aside operators like PRETEND and thinking about the dynamic nature of these predicates and the conditions and contexts in which they truly apply to real world objects and situations.
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1 An earlier version of this material was presented at the Philosophy and Popular Culture conference at SUNY Albany in April, 2004. I am indebted to the many participants in that conference for helpful discussion and to Bill Irwin both for discussion and for encouraging me to write up my talk. Thanks for additional helpful discussion go to Stacie Friend, Hanna Kim, Jason Stanley, Kendall Walton, and Dean Zimmerman. Special thanks go to Hanna, since it was the work in her forthcoming dissertation on the semantics of metaphor that started me thinking about these issues.

2 Thanks to Stacie Friend for bringing these cases to my attention.

3 Klingon is perhaps not the ideal example since large portions of the language were specified at the outset by Marc Okrand. This raises the question of whether Klingon might not have begun its career as a real world language. The worry is a bit of a distraction, I think, since however complete the original creator of Klingon intended it to be, it is not clear that he (or, more importantly, the show’s creators) intended it to have any sort of life outside of the Star Trek fictional universe. It began its career as a fiction, although perhaps in a form that made it real world apt. Of course like artificial languages that came before it (e.g. Esperanto), Klingon is a dynamic object that is subject to change with the practices of fandom.
The other thing to note is that in this parenthetical discussion we are working with an artificial (if commonly held) conception of language according to which it is a set of rules, established by convention, for purposes of communication. Recent work in generative linguistics has suggested that, to the contrary, the language faculty is part of our biological endowment, and is a parametric state of an innate representational system. If this is right, then most official grammars and dictionaries are just collections of hints about the language supposedly being described; albeit hints that humans are quite adept at successfully utilizing.
Another thing to consider is the relationship between fragmentary “official” languages that a population is exposed to and the resulting language that is acquired. In effect, an actual human language probably cannot be brought into existence by stipulation. It is only when children in a critical stage of language development are exposed to the “official” hints and clues that the children flesh out what will in fact become the language.
For Klingon to become real then, it would be necessary for children to be exposed to Klingon and form their own language. It would, in effect, be like the cases reported in Pinker (1994) where deaf children are exposed to the very limited sign language deployed by their parents, and yet locking onto a robust sign language only partly grounded in the data picked up from their parents. The result in that case and in our hypothetical Klingon case would be something like a creolization process. Children would be exposed to bits and pieces of prescriptive Klingon and emerge with something much more robust and in some ways very different. The result would, of course, really be a human language, but of course that doesn’t mean it can’t serve as the Klingon language in the fiction. The actors, after all, are humans.
This having been said, other cases include the uptake of Elvish ( and Gorean ( by their respective fandoms. The case of Gorean is perhaps the most interesting case since not only has there been uptake of the language, but more significantly of the social relations in the game. In this case the uptake is apt to raise eyebrows, since certain master/slave relations in the Gor books of John Norman are recapitulated in real life.

4 There’s even a word to cover the general case where developments in fan fiction (a.k.a. fanfic) feed back into the show’s canon: ‘fanon’. For a general discussion of fanfic, see Jenkins (1991).

5 Lineage is online at Another extremely popular Korean game is Ragnarok Online (

6 Available online at The newspaper began its life as The Alphaville Herald.

7 EverQuest is a MMORPG run by Sony Online Entertainment with approximately 400 subscribers. Information is available online at

8 Gaming Open Market is online at eBay has an entire category devoted to online game currency, fully leveled avatars and virtual objects here: Unquestionably the largest dealer in virtual currencies is IGE, online at

9 For information, see and

10 For information on Star Wars Galaxies, see For information on There, see For Second Life, see For illustrations of guilds or social groups that have expanded their operations to other MMORPGs see the Alphaville Herald Interviews with Snow White of the Simulated Shadow Government ( and Tony Gambino of The Gambino Family in The Sims Online (

11 Links to all of these articles are available on the front page of The Second Life Herald (

12 See, for example, Walton (1990, 2000), Crimmins (1998).

13 See Burgess and Rosen (1997) for discussion of this view.

14 See Nolan (2002) for a survey of recent work modal fictionalism.

15 See Kalderon (forthcoming) for a defense of moral fictionalism.

16 This is of course discussed in some classic 20th Century articles, including Quine (1980), and Kaplan (1969).

17 See Crimmins (1998) for detailed discussion of this issue.

18 There are of course cases where we can defeat this intuition. If I change my appearance so as to be more in accord with a particular picture, then we might say that I now resemble the picture. In this case there is a kind of figure-ground shift, where the picture has become the target of the resemblance relation and I have become the resembler.

19 The issue remains up in the air. See, for example, the readings in Beakley and Ludlow (1992; section 3).

20 If you don’t want to go that route, then you need to introduce E-type temporal anaphors (as in Ludlow 1999), where one has a way of using temporal anaphora without temporal reference.

21 If we are drawn to that idea that pretense should cover real world money too, we should recognize that this only obscures the distinction between fictional things and real things. We found it surprising that Norrathian Platinum pieces seemed as real as Argentinean Pesos. It doesn’t seem helpful to be told that both currencies are fictions and always were (along with Monopoly money). We want to know what accounts for the differences between these cases and why the relevant differences collapse on some occasions.

22 Stanley (2000, 2000a, 2002b), Stanley and Szabo (2000).

23 The importance and virtues of a compositional semantics are themselves issues that have been debated. For discussion, see Westerstahl (1998) and Zadrozny (1994).

24 Are there also cases in which ‘Sara Michelle Geller slew a vampire are true’ Probably so. This is a topic that we will consider in more depth in the next section of the paper.

25 Jason Stanley brought this possibility to my attention.

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