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Fictional entities

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M021-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved March 31, 2023, from

Article Summary

By ‘fictional entities’, philosophers principally mean those entities originating in and defined by myths, legends, fairy tales, novels, dramas and other works of fiction. In this sense unicorns, centaurs, Pegasus, the Time Machine and Sherlock Holmes are all fictional entities.

A somewhat different category of fictional entities is associated with empiricist philosophy. It includes entities apparently assumed by common discourse but which admit of no direct empirical experience. Thus Jeremy Bentham classified as ‘fictitious entities’ motion, relation, power and matter, as well as, notoriously, rights, obligations and duties. David Hume called substance, the self, even space and time ‘fictions’ and Bertrand Russell thought ordinary things, such as Piccadilly or Socrates, were fictions, on the grounds that they are ‘constructed’ out of simpler, more immediate objects of acquaintance.

Philosophical interest in fictional entities thus covers a surprisingly wide area of the subject, including ontology and metaphysics, epistemology, logic, philosophy of language, and aesthetics. The first question that arises is how the distinction should be drawn between fictional and nonfictional entities. As the examples from Bentham, Hume and Russell show, this is by no means a straightforward matter. The next question concerns what to do with fictional entities once they have been identified. Here the primary philosophical task has been to try to accommodate two powerful yet apparently conflicting intuitions: on the one hand, the intuition that there are no such things as fictional entities, so that any seeming reference to them must be explained away; on the other hand, the intuition that because ‘things’ like Sherlock Holmes and Anna Karenina are so vividly drawn, so seemingly ‘real’, objects of thoughts and emotions, they must after all have some kind of reality. Broadly speaking, we can discern two kinds of philosophical approach: the first or ‘realist’ kind inclines towards the latter intuition, being in different ways hospitable to fictional entities; and the less hospitable or ‘eliminativist’ kind, which inclines towards the former and seeks only to show how fictional entities can be eliminated altogether in the strict regime of rational discourse.

Citing this article:
Lamarque, Peter. Fictional entities, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M021-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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