Standing in the last ditch: on the communicative intentions of fiction-makers

Title: Standing in the last ditch: on the communicative intentions of fiction-makers

Publication: Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 72: 351–363

Date: 2014


Abstract: Some of us have suggested that what fiction makers do is offer us things to imagine, that this is what is distinctive of fiction and what distinguishes it from narrative-based but assertive activities such as journalism or history. Some of us hold, further, that it is the maker’s intention which confers fictional status. Many, I think, feel the intuitive appeal of this idea at the same time as they sense looming problems for any proposal about fiction’s nature based straightforwardly on the identification of fiction with the to-be-imagined. I formulate a very weak version of the proposal which is not vulnerable to some objections recently presented. My formulation is in terms of supervenience. But while this version is weak, it is also quite precise, and its precision brings into view certain other problems which have not so far been attended to. To the extent that these problems are serious, the prospects for an intentional theory of fiction look, I am sorry to say, poor; the version susceptible to the objections is weak, and anything weaker still but not so susceptible could hardly be thought of as a theory of fiction, though it might supplement such a theory.

Emotions fit for fictions

Title: Emotions fit for fictions

Publication: S. Roeser and C. Todd (eds) Emotion and Value, Oxford University Press, 146-168

Date: 2014


Abstract: This chapter discusses an apparently simple idea. Emotions are appropriate in just the way that beliefs are: when they get things right. Of course more needs to be said, and some of that will complicate matters. What is it for emotions to get things right? The main aim of this chapter is to answer that question in a way which respects the difference between the emotions we have in response to real situations and those provoked by fictional or imaginary ones. The chapter argues that one must also bear in mind that, for emotions of both kinds, there is more than one way to be appropriate. Throughout, this chapter leans heavily on the idea of representations: emotions represent, and the emotions of fiction represent representations.

Aliefs Don’t Exist, Though Some of their Relatives Do

Title: Aliefs Don’t Exist, Though Some of their Relatives Do

Author: Joint author with Anna Ichino

Publication: Analysis, volume 72, issue 4, pages 788–798

Date: 28 September 2012


Abstract: Tamar Gendler argues that some of us have too easily assuming that, if belief cannot explain a class of human behaviours, imagination will do the job. She gives a number of examples of problematic behaviours (“Gendler cases”, as we shall say), which in her view can be explained only by appeal to a previously unrecognised mental state: alief, different from belief and from imagination, and from any other mental kinds we are familiar with.

We argue that it’s a mistake to explain Gendler cases in terms of a single mental state of the kind alief is supposed to be; we should appeal instead to a variety of representational states, including familiar ones such as belief, desire, imagination and perception. While a few of these cases do plausibly require us to acknowledge representations at different levels, none require us to acknowledge the existence of aliefs, at least as those states are officially characterised by Gendler. We then turn to one of Gendler’s more general arguments for the new category of alief: the argument from hyperopacity. We reject that argument. But all this is not simply die-hard conservativism: we conclude by elaborating the idea (somewhat in the spirit Gendler’s proposal) that various representational states not acknowledged by folk-psychology have a role to play in explaining behaviour, emotion and cognition.

Actual art, possible art, and art’s definition

Title: Actual art, possible art, and art’s definition,

Publication: Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 68, 235-241

Date: 2010


Abstract: Levinson’s historical theory of art is the most elaborated version, and the most clearly committed to the project of defining art. Much of the dispute about this theory has centred on how precisely it is to be formulated. I will be careful to distinguish ways of formulating the theory’s central claim. No formulation I come up with provides a satisfactory definition. I characterize Levinson’s attempt to avoid circularity by means of a technique of collapse. I show that using collapse makes the definition offered by the historical theory unacceptably parochial. I suggest a way in which a new historical definition might be crafted that is a bit more cosmopolitan, though not, perhaps, cosmopolitan enough. I also note that the historical theorists need to take a stand on what seems to me a difficult question concerning how we are to interpret our intuitions about what would, in counterfactual circumstances, be art.


Title: Tragedy

Publication: Analysis, 70, 1-7

Date: 2010


Abstract: We demand our money back if a rogue theatre director has Desdemona alive at the end of Othello – not merely because it contradicts Shakespeare’s intentions, but because it seems dramatically wrong. At the same time, and for the same people, her death is deeply upsetting. While we want the fiction to go a certain way, and certainly to include the death of Desdemona, we don’t, it seems, want Desdemona to die. We are, as Hume said, ‘pleased in proportion as [we] are afflicted’. Put generally:

  1. We desire the fiction to be such that something, E, occurs in it, while
  2. we react in ways which make it tempting to say that we desire E not to occur.

I’ll call such a combination of states a tragic response, and the fiction to which it is a response tragic or a tragedy. Is the tempting thing to say the right thing? No. The right thing to say is we desire-in-imagination that E not occur. I argue that other proposals concerning the right thing to say fail. I offer a principled ground for distinguishing desires from desires-in-imagination.