Fiction, semantics of

19 January, 2021

Howell R.
First pub. in: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 3. 1998. pp. 659–663.

Taken at face value, ‘Anna Karenina is a woman’ seems true. By using Tolstoi’s name ‘Anna Karenina’ and the predicate ‘is a woman’ we appear to refer to the character Anna and to attribute to her a property which she has. Yet how can this be? There is no actual woman to whom the name refers. Such problems of reference, predication and truth also arise in connection with representational art and with beliefs and other attitudes.

Meinong distinguishes the ‘being’ of objects (including fictional objects) from the ‘existence’ of actual objects such as Napoleon. ‘Anna Karenina’ refers to a concrete, particular, nonexistent object that has the property of womanhood. However, Meinong’s distinction seems to many ontologically suspect. Perhaps, then, being is existence and ‘Anna Karenina is a woman’ is actually false because ‘Anna Karenina’ has no referent. Russell in ‘On Denoting’ (1905) agrees. But how can we explain the apparent contrast in truth between this sentence and the unquestionably erroneous ‘Anna Karenina is from Moscow’? Or is it that being is existence but ‘Anna Karenina’ refers to an abstract, not a concrete, thing – an existent, abstract thing that does not have the property of being a woman but has merely the property of being said, by Tolstoi’s novel, to be a woman? Then, however, the meaning of our sentence about Anna no longer parallels that of ‘Emily Dickinson is a woman’. Perhaps, as many argue, we only pretend that ‘Anna Karenina’ refers and that the sentence is true. This position may not adequately explain the intuitions that support Anna Karenina as a genuine object of reference and predication, however.

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