Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Fictional Worlds

Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Fictional Worlds

A Reflexive Report from The XIV Prague Interpretation Colloquium

Enrico Terrone
fictional world; analytic aesthetics; fiction theory; narrative semantics; visual narratives

From the 8th to the 10th of April 2019 philosophers and scholars in literature, film studies, and media studies met in Prague to discuss the notion of fictional worlds in the XIV Prague Interpretation Colloquium, “Thinking and Speaking about Fictional Worlds”, organised by Tomáš Koblížek on behalf of the Czech Academy of Sciences (Institute of Philosophy, Department of Analytic Philosophy). The event nicely complements the editions of the Colloquium on aesthetic illusion (in 2015) and pretence (in 2018), two notions which seem to concern our attitudes towards this year’s theme of fictional worlds. However, this edition of the Colloquium also reveals interesting connections to the recent editions focusing on writers who created outstanding fictional worlds, namely, Beckett (in 2016) and Kafka (in 2017).

The key methodological feature shared by all these editions is the dialogue between aestheticians in the analytic tradition and scholars who investigate and theorise specific forms of art or media. In the 2019 edition, such duality was perfectly exemplified by the presence of Gregory Currie and Tomas Pavel. On the one hand, Currie is a leading figure of contemporary analytic aesthetics who significantly contributed to connecting narratology to contemporary research in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, in particular in his book The Nature of Fiction. This was published in 1990, the same year another milestone of contemporary philosophy of fiction, Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts appeared. On the other hand, Pavel is the author of Fictional Worlds (1986), which like Marie-Laure Ryan’s Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (1992) and Lubomír Doležel’s Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds (1998) is a milestone of “fiction theory”.

In his book, Pavel applied possible world theory to literature, arguing that the key difference between fictional worlds and the actual world is that the latter is complete whereas the former are incomplete. Realist writers like Balzac or Flaubert try to minimise such incompleteness whereas modernist writers such as Kafka and Beckett bring it to the fore. But in both cases incompleteness remains an essential feature of fictional worlds. This involves a sharp difference between novels, which build up incomplete fictional worlds, and works of history, which are about the complete actual world. Thus, works of fiction are not constrained by empirical evidence in the way works of history are. In his Prague talk, Pavel claims that this specificity allows works of fiction to configure characters and events in order to focus on human actions and norms and to explore a variety of moral attitudes.

Just as Pavel’s talk discusses the specificity of fiction with respect to history, Currie’s discusses the specificity of fiction with respect to science. He argues that scientists also create fictional worlds when they conceive thought-experiments such as Maxwell’s demon or Einstein’s elevator. However, these worlds essentially differ from those created by works of fiction since in the former only propositional content matters whereas in the latter the mediation of style is crucial.

The duality of approaches exemplified by Pavel’s and Currie’s talks also characterises other contributions to the conference. On the philosophical side, Marion Renauld, Anders Pettersson, Petr Koťátko, and Carola Barbero directly address the notion of fictional world. Renauld begins by considering a series of reasons that lead us to speak of fictional world, then criticises them, and finally suggests that it would be better to give up this notion in order to focus on the symbolic contributions whereby works of fiction can shed light on the actual world. Pettersen also expresses scepticism of the notion of fictional worlds, which he sees as undue objectification of the meaning of a work. In a similar sceptical vein, Koťátko argues that works of fiction are not about fictional worlds but rather concern the actual world itself, though considered in the “as-if mode”. Barbero, instead, defends Pavel’s view that fictional worlds are different from the actual world in virtue of their incompleteness, and, by relying on Roman Ingarden’s The Ontology of the Work of Art (1962), she highlights the ontological underpinnings of this view and its relevance for appreciation.

Moving from the ontology of fictional worlds to the philosophy of language, Enrico Grosso, Fredrik Stjernberg, and Lee Walters investigate the meaning of names and propositions that constitute works of fiction. Grosso conceives of fictional names as enabling a vicarious way of thinking similar to that whereby we represent the conception that a certain individual X has of another individual Y (for instance, Michelet’s conception of Robespierre). In the special case of fictional names, Grosso contends, X is a work of fiction and Y a fictional character. Stjernberg, instead, denies that fictional names are genuine names by arguing that they lack the essential feature of names, which is reference, that is, the actual connection between the name and its bearer. In the case of fictional names, reference is replaced by a shared cognitive attitude whose focus of attention is not occupied by anything. Finally, Walters analyses the way in which sequels such as Star Wars: Episode VThe Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980, USA) can affect which propositions are true according to a fiction. For instance, the sentence “Luke is Vader’s son” uttered by a spectator of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977, USA) in 1977 seems to express a false proposition whereas it seems to express a true proposition if uttered by a spectator of the same film in 2019.

Beside ontology and language, fictional worlds raise interesting philosophical issues as regards their creation by authors and their appreciation by audiences, which are addressed by Zsófia Zvolenszky and Göran Rossholm. Specifically, Zvolenszky focuses on creation by highlighting how authors can inadvertently create some objects and features of a fictional world while Rossholm focuses on appreciation by arguing that our reception of fiction consists of experiencing ourselves as being informed of what is going on in a fictional world; he thus characterises immersion as a mode of reception in which we experience ourselves as being directly informed instead of through words or any other media.

The key link between creation and appreciation is the notion of narrative, the topic of the talks given by Enrico Terrone and Josep Corbí, who both rely on Currie’s proposals in Narrative and Narrators (2010). Terrone conceives of narrative as a representation of events whereby an author provides an audience with points of view on the world in which those events occur while Corbí analyses the notion of point of view and argues that this involves not only a representation of what happens in the fictional world but also an expression of how to respond to those events, especially in emotional terms.

All those philosophical contributions are counterbalanced by six talks focused on specific forms of art or media: Espen Aarseth and Paweł Grabarczyk on videogame and virtual reality; Niklas Forsberg and Radomír Kokeš on film, and Bohumil Fořt and Ondřej Sládek on literature. Considering the real financial gains or losses that can occur within a videogame, Aarseth argues that they are an important and growing part of our real world rather than fictions. In a similar vein, Grabarczyk claims that the objects that constitute a virtual reality environment are real things made of computer states just as ordinary tables and chairs are real things made of wood or plastic; what matters is their function, not their structure.

Drawing on some insights by Stanley Cavell, Forsberg takes a sequence from Alien: Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997, USA) as an example of how a cinematic fictional world can teach us something by virtue of, rather than in spite of, being fictional. Kokeš focuses instead on a peculiar cinematic genre that he calls “spiral narrative”, which essentially involves time loops. This is a genre whose paradigm is Harold Ramis’ 1993 film Groundhog Day, with Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011, USA), Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014, USA) and Before I Fall (Ry Russo-Young, 2017, USA), and the TV show Russian Doll (Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, 2019 – , USA), as more recent instances. Relying on a taxonomy introduced by Doležel in Heterocosmica, Kokeš points out that spiral narratives involves four modalities: an alethic one that makes the fictional world different from ours as regards space, time, and causation; an epistemic one that enables the hero to know more than the other characters about the spiral; an axiologic one that provides the hero with the opportunity to become a better person thanks to the experience of the spiral; a deontic one in which the experience of the spiral leads the hero to challenge certain norms.

Kokeš’s reference to Doležel’s theory leads us to Fořt’s and Sládek’s talks, which both reflect on literature by drawing on the contributions of the great Czech literary scholar who died in 2017. Fořt develops Doležel’s idea that gaps in the fictional world are produced by missing information in the narrative texture while Sládek highlights the methodological background of Doležel’s narrative semantics, which rests upon the notions of structure (how the elements of a narrative are related) and function (which role each elements plays in the narrative). Doležel, who gave one of his last talks at the X Prague Interpretation Colloquium in 2015, is also commemorated in the inaugural address that Petr Koťátko gives as Faculty Member of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. As Koťátko points out, the fiction theory has is roots in central Europe thanks to Doležel, born in Czechoslovakia, and to Pavel, born in Romania.

During this XIV Prague Interpretation Colloquium, which was dedicated to the memory of Doležel and featured Pavel as keynote speaker, fiction theory has profitably interacted with analytic aesthetics. The two approaches share the interest for fictional worlds. Yet, as pointed out by Currie’s comments on Sládek’s talk on Doležel’s methodology, they essentially differ since fiction theory focuses on textual structures and functions whereas analytic aesthetics ascribes a key role to mental states, in particular intentions and imaginings. This methodological gap is equally relevant when one moves from literature to visual narratives such as films or videogames. The XIV Prague Interpretation Colloquium not only made us aware of this gap but also provided helpful insights in order to overcome it.

Enrico Terrone

Universitat de Barcelona


Dr Terrone is a philosopher who works on issues concerning fiction and depiction. His primary area of research is philosophy of film. He published papers in British Journal of Aesthetics, The Monist, Erkenntnis, and Film and Philosophy. He is writing a book on the aesthetics of TV series (under contract with Lexington Books).


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Jeunet, Jean-Pierre. 1997. Alien: Resurrection. Brandywine Productions, Twentieth Century Fox.

Jones, Duncan. 2011. Source Code. Summit Entertainment, Vendome Pictures, The Mark Gordon Company.

Kershner, Irvin. 1980. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. Lucasfilm.

Liman, Doug. 2014. Edge of Tomorrow. Warner Bros.

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Lyonne, Natasha, Poehler, Amy, and Headland, Leslye. 2019. Russian Doll (TV show). United States.

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Suggested Citation

Terrone, Enrico. 2019. Review: “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Fictional Worlds: A Reflexive Report from The XIV Prague Interpretation Colloquium.” Fiction in Central and Eastern European Film Theory and Practice (ed. by J. Alexander Bareis and Mario Slugan). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 8. DOI:


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