Logic, Philosophy - Will the Real Kripke Stand Up Fiction Philosophy and Possible Worlds...

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Transcript of Logic, Philosophy - Will the Real Kripke Stand Up Fiction Philosophy and Possible Worlds...

Textual Practice 17(2), 2003, 225251

Christopher Norris Will the real Saul Kripke please stand up? Fiction, philosophy and possible worlds


In Rebecca Goldsteins novel The Mind/Body Problem1 there is a character named Saul Kripke who so far as one can tell bears no resemblance to the actual Saul Kripke, that is to say, the US (Princeton-based) philosopher whose book Naming and Necessity has had a major inuence on recent debates about philosophical semantics and modal logic.2 Meanwhile there is another character who does (as it happens) bear a marked resemblance to the real-world Saul Kripke in terms of life history, philosophical outlook, career details and so on but who goes under a different name and thus provides Goldstein with a handy pretext for all kinds of neatly turned narrative trickery. As concerns the latter we glean quite a lot in the way of knowledge-by-description, that is, the sort of knowledge that accrues typically through latching onto this or that range of identifying features. As concerns the former we have less to go on beyond the fact of his being thus named for philosophically clued-up readers and his presence in a likewise clued-up novel that makes great play with questions of naming and personal identity. It is a nice conceit and one that, besides, throws an interesting light on Kripkes ideas about sense, reference and truth. Those ideas have lately been taken up by philosophically minded literary theorists who nd them useful for thinking about ctive possible worlds and the ways in which modal logic (i.e. the logic of possibility and necessity) might help to resolve certain long-standing problems with the notion of ctive reference.3 Much has been said on this topic by philosophers in the mainstream analytic tradition, starting out with Bertrand Russells classic essay On Denoting where he raised the question as to how any denite truth-value (true or false) could be assigned to sentences containing some empty or nonreferring expression, such as The present King of France is bald.4 On the face of it this sentence is neither true nor false since in the absence of anyTextual Practice ISSN 0950-236X print/ISSN 1470-1308 online 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/0950236032000094827

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referent France being a republic it asserts no proposition that could bear such a value, any more than does the sentence The present King of France is not bald. Russells solution took the form of his celebrated Theory of Descriptions whereby the sentence was conceptually unpacked or subject to further analysis so as to reveal the logical structure of its underlying presuppositions. In this case the analysis ran (and here I paraphrase Russell): There exists one and only one entity such that that entity is the present King of France and is bald. Then of course the sentence comes out false insofar as it asserts an unwarranted existenceclaim. Thus for any Russellian denite description one that purports to pick out some unique individual there is always the implicit rider: and whats more, X exists. Still this leaves a problem about ctive referents such as Sherlock Holmes since clearly it is true in some sense of true to say of Holmes that he lived in Baker Street rather than Tottenham Court Road, or that he solved the mystery of the Hound of the Baskervilles rather than the puzzle of Who Killed Roger Ackroyd. The theory of descriptions works well enough with identity statements such as Scott is the author of Waverley, which may come as news to some since although the two terms Scott and the author of Waverley make reference to the same individual they do so under different descriptions and can hence be informative for anyone who happens not to have known that fact. However, it does little to resolve the problem about Sherlock Holmes or the issue concerning that peculiar realm of ctive persons, objects and events where statements about them would seem to have a denite truth-value even though they refer to historically non-existent entities. To be sure, this was not the kind of problem that Russell had chiey in view, since his theory set out to clarify the logical status of properly referring expressions, rather than to tackle questions with regard to the ontology of ctive worlds. Still, as we shall see, it is one that loomed large in his early thinking and which the theory of descriptions effectively shelved for want of any adequate alternative approach. Frege might seem to offer some assistance here since he allows that ctive statements such as Odysseus stepped ashore at Ithaca are perfectly intelligible despite our presumed knowledge that the name Odysseus refers to no real individual.5 Hence Freges cardinal distinction between sense and reference, where the sense of a term (Sinn) is given by some associated range of attributes, features, imputed characteristics and so on, while its reference (Bedeutung) is the object or person uniquely specied by that term. So we may say that the name Odysseus has sense but not reference, or that the cluster of attributes attached to it those that we have acquired through a reading of Homer or other relevant sources fails to pick out any such historical personage. In which case it is possible (as with the Holmes example) to be right or wrong in making statements about him but only insofar as those


Christopher Norris Fiction, philosophy, possible worlds

statements are construed as involving a ctive suspension of disbelief or a willingness to grant poetic licence when assessing their truth-value. Thus the problem of ctive reference may be seen to disappear on condition that we take Freges point and not make the mistake of supposing that statements in poems or novels have reference to anything beyond the imaginary worlds to which such statements apply. Such has been the usual line of approach among philosophers in the analytic line of descent from Russell and Frege, albeit with minor variations along the way. Thus speech-act theorists (John Searle among them) prefer to make the point by saying that ctive utterances involve a departure from the norms of everyday or ordinary usage, one that is conventionally understood by any competent reader of novels or poems and which effectively lifts the standard conditions for good-faith, veridical statements.6 However, this argument is open to various objections, not least that mounted by Jacques Derrida when he demonstrates the sheer impossibility of xing criteria for what should count as a normal (sincerely meant or contextually warranted) sample of the kind.7 Besides, it falls far short of explaining how readers manage to negotiate their way through the various speech-act modalities factual, ctive, quasi-referential, counterfactualconditional and so on which are all to be found in even the most traditional realist forms of novelistic discourse, let alone in postmodernist narratives or what Linda Hutcheon has aptly described as pseudo-historiographic metactions.8 That is to say, these mainstream analytical approaches will be apt to strike most literary theorists as simply not up to the task, or as failing to meet the most basic requirements for a theory that would offer some adequate account of what goes on when competent readers engage with a ctional text. Least of all will they incline to take it on trust from Searle that any problems with the notion of ctive reference or with the distinction between ordinary and ctive speech-acts are much better dealt with by those, like himself, whose philosophical acumen enables them to see straight through the kinds of textualist sophistry indulged in by literary charlatans such as Derrida. For if one thing emerges very clearly from the otherwise bewildering cross-purpose sequence of exchanges between Derrida and Searle it is the latters obdurate failure to grasp how a deconstructive reading might in fact be more faithful or responsive to the subtleties of Austins text than an orthodox reading which perforce has to ignore so much of what Austin himself has to say about the complications of ordinary speech-act usage.9 Of course there is the standard post-structuralist line that language (or discourse) goes all the way down, that reality is itself a discursive (that is to say, ctive) construct, and hence that these problems just dont arise unless one buys into a wholly outmoded metaphysical notion of truth.10 At any rate, such was the radical doxa among literary theorists


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twenty years ago and one that lives on among some post-analytic philosophers (notably Richard Rorty) for whom truth is whatever counts as such according to the best, most creative or inventive modes of linguistic redescription.11 It has also taken a hold in some quarters of postmodern historiography where theorists routinely dismiss the idea of objective truthvalues that obtain quite apart from their modes of narrative emplotment or rhetorical construction.12 However, this approach very quickly runs up against a range of counter-arguments, not least the fact that it lies wide open to exploitation by right-wing revisionist historians who would seek to refashion the narrative record in accordance with their own ideological agenda.13 The issue becomes most highly charged when it arises in the context of Holocaust denial and the danger as some would maintain that postmodernist or strong textualist ideas about the discursive construction of historical events can easily provide a convenient cover (or a veneer of academic respectability) for claims that might otherwise be roundly refuted by a straightforward appeal to the mass of supporting evidence and by recourse to the best, most reliable methods of documentary scholarship.14 However, it is also a potential source of anxiety for engaged intellectuals (among them postcolonial critics and theorists)