Exploding stories and the limits of fiction


It is widely agreed that fiction is necessarily incomplete, but some recent work postulates the existence of universal fictions—stories according to which everything is true. Building such a story is supposedly straightforward: authors can either assert that everything is true in their story, define a complement function that does the assertoric work for them, or, most compellingly, write a story combining a contradiction with the principle of explosion. The case for universal fictions thus turns on the intuitive priority we assign to the law of non-contradiction. My goal in this paper is to show that our critical and reflective literary practices set constraints on story-telling which preclude universal fictions. I will raise four stumbling blocks for universal fictionalists: (1) the gap between saying and making true, (2) our actual interpretive reactions to story-level contradictions, (3) the criteria we accept for what counts as a story in our literary practices, and (4) the undesirability of the universal fictionalist’s closure principles.

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  1. 1.

    See e.g. Wildman and Folde (2017), Estrada-González (2018), and Wildman (2019).

  2. 2.

    See e.g. Routley (1979: 8), Deutsch (1985: p. 209, fn. 16), and Estrada-González (2018).

  3. 3.

    Wildman (2019, §2). I have adapted the following diagram from the same source, as it is the clearest way of illustrating the complemental strategy.

  4. 4.

    The snorkasaurus is not, in fact, a real species of dinosaur, but Dino’s phenotype clearly classes him somewhere in the clade Plateosauria.

  5. 5.

    Understood standardly to mean that for every story s and every proposition p, if p is true according to s, then ¬p is false according to s. I am leaving aside the issue of whether fictional inconsistencies should be treated as proper logical contradictions, or simply logical inconsistencies. For more on that topic, see Woods (2018: esp. Chs. 1 & 9).

  6. 6.

    i.e. inconsistencies are ambiguous, and could support either possibility; contradictions, however, are quite definite.

  7. 7.

    See also Badura and Berto (forthcoming), who offer a formal semantics for which logical closure fails for fictional truth.

  8. 8.

    Almost all are agreed that fiction is necessarily incomplete, since texts under-determine the properties of their associated worlds and characters. There is, however, some question as to whether this incompleteness is of a merely epistemic or of an ontological nature. I am aware of only two exceptions: William D’Alessandro (2016) proposes that we reject implicit content altogether, and Wildman and Folde (2017) argue that at least some stories (universal phictions) are complete. See also Motoarcă (2017), who strikes several decisive blows against explicitism.

  9. 9.

    See, e.g., Lewis (1978, 1983), Byrne (1993), Currie (1990), and Priest (2005)

  10. 10.

    This is at the heart of Marie-Laure Ryan’s ‘principle of minimal departure’ (1980), Stacie Friend’s ‘reality assumption’ (2017), and John Woods’s ‘world-inheritance thesis’ (2018), prefigured by his ‘fill’ conditions (1974: pp. 63–5).

  11. 11.

    The term comes from Lewis (1978, 1983), but I am not assuming any particular analysis of background here. It suffices for my purposes that we simply recognize the essential role background considerations play in our engagement with fiction.

  12. 12.

    Although I am happy to concede that it is our habit to do so as far as we plausibly can.

  13. 13.

    An anonymous referee rightly observes that the Says-Is Gap could be read as an objection to making anything at all true in fictions. To my mind, our best defence against such big-box skepticism comes from our critical and reflective literary practices, which simply are not organized that way. Perhaps they could have been, or perhaps they are, once upon a time and in a galaxy far, far away; but not in the here and now.

  14. 14.

    See, e.g., Woods (1974: pp. 49 and 51), Lewis (1978, 1983), and Harman (1984).

  15. 15.

    Cruz et al. (2017).

  16. 16.

    See Prentice et al. (1997) and Wheeler et al. (1999).

  17. 17.

    See, e.g., Woods (1974: p. 49), Lewis (1978, 1983), and McKoon and Ratcliffe (1992).

  18. 18.

    With the exception, of course, of paraconsistent logicians. If they are correct, then the Reality Assumption will not see the law of non-contradiction actually storified as background, even though it represents a belief that most people take with them into their engagement with stories. My money is on non-contradiction.

  19. 19.

    Friend (2017: p. 31). Just what a story includes/excludes will depend on our principles of generation, which are themselves underlain by the Reality Assumption. A detailed exploration of these mechanisms would take us too far afield; suffice it to say that inclusion is usually thought to be the automatic result of our principles of generation; exclusion, by contrast, is effected primarily through explicit story-content, reflection on the story’s content, goals, etc., and perhaps also through whichever closure principles are applicable to fiction (itself a matter of some debate). The interpretive norms established by genres, too, may affect our principles of inclusion and exclusion (see, e.g. Friend 2012 and Evnine 2015).

  20. 20.

    Readers who find the naming case implausible are invited to consider, instead, the placement of Watson’s war wound, which is in either his shoulder or his leg, but surely not both. Such inconsistencies are clearly accidental, and easily resolved.

  21. 21.

    Nolan (2007) does just this, in fact, by treating Sylvan’s Box’s high intrinsic implausibility as dispositive.

  22. 22.

    To see that this is so, one need look no further than Daniel Nolan’s (2007), which offers a consistent reading of Sylvan’s Box according to which the narrator and his friend mistakenly believe that the box embodies a contradiction. Priest anticipates this strategy in the original article, arguing that it ultimately mischaracterizes the story and its content. But if we pay attention to the structure of our literary practices, we will see that we cannot simply take authors at their word concerning intended story-content; the Reality Assumption will see our principles of generation encode the world as it is, not as we believe it to be. And if the logic of the world truly is paraconsistent, then so be it, and so much the worse for our actual critical and reflective literary practices.

  23. 23.

    In this connection, see Currie (1990). It is also worth emphasizing that’s Priest’s preferred logic of fiction is paraconsistent, and thus not explosive in the first place (Priest 2005: p. 122).

  24. 24.

    John Woods and Peter Alward draw similar conclusions in their (2004), and Mark Pinder makes this argument in his (2017).

  25. 25.

    My thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this concern.

  26. 26.

    Indeed, this is exactly how proponents of background tackle the problem—see e.g. Lewis (1978: pp. 42–3) and Currie (1990: Sects. 2.5 and 4.10).

  27. 27.

    Walton (1990: p. 39). Many thanks to an anonymous referee, who pointed out this parallel.

  28. 28.

    See McKoon and Ratcliffe (1992). This may also, as an anonymous referee observed, have to do with issues of memory, especially if the relevant claims occur far apart in the story. Derek Matravers (2014) provides a useful survey and analysis of the state of the literature in the psychology of text processing.

  29. 29.

    To be clear, I do not think so. True Story is rather dull, but Maximum is ingenious, and the author of The Exploding Nebula was no slouch, either!

  30. 30.

    As Douglas Adams puts it in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987), if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.

  31. 31.

    Following David Davies’s observations about ‘literature’ (2007: Ch. 1), I think we can usefully distinguish between the broad, artistic, and extended senses of ‘story’. My contention is not that universal phictions are not stories in the broad sense; rather, it is that they cannot count as stories in the artistic or extended senses of the term; they are not literary works, except in the broadest possible sense of having been written down.

  32. 32.

    See Lamarque and Olsen (1994: Ch. 2) and Davies (2007: Ch. 1).

  33. 33.

    Lamarque and Olsen (1994: pp. 33–34).

  34. 34.

    The main exception is Lewis’s Analysis 2, which he presented as an alternative to Analysis 1 for anyone squeamish about obscure facts being made true in fictional worlds (e.g. quantum mechanics in Beowulf).

  35. 35.

    That said, it may well be that the more promising analysis of background indexes it to a community’s beliefs about the world, in which case a commune of paraconsistent logicians could generate a truly contradictory story. I would only add that, on the evidence, present-day Western audiences are not so constituted.

  36. 36.

    Lamarque and Olsen (1994: p. 37).

  37. 37.

    The notion of an artistic or interrogative interest was introduced by Davies in his (2011: pp. 14–17); it is prefigured in his (2007: pp. 10–13).

  38. 38.

    Lest readers think these interpretations the risible product of my own overactive imagination, I hasten to direct them to Mark Kermode’s (2015), which details and defends several such interpretations.

  39. 39.

    Although, if the universal phictionalist is to be believed, it is true in each story that it is (but also isn’t) a duck.

  40. 40.

    Woods (2018: p. 142; see also 33–36).

  41. 41.

    The same arguments will apply to putatively universal works in other art-kinds, too: so, e.g., there are no universal poems because such a piece of writing could not communicate or exclude anything, and thus should not count as a poem in the first place.

  42. 42.

    For more on the failure-conditions of ‘art’ in general (and to see how these might be applied to stories in particular), see Mag Uidhir (2010, 2013: Ch. 1).

  43. 43.

    This is not to say that the intention must be direct, where an act of Φ-ing is said to be directly intention-dependent iff the agent intends to Φ. Intention-dependence also comes indirectly: an act of Φ-ing is said to be indirectly intention-dependent iff the agent intends to Ψ, where Ψ-ing entails the satisfaction of the conditions for Φ.

  44. 44.

    Priest (2005: p. 122). A very few paraconsistent logics—not Priest’s—do allow for ex falso, but limited so that it only holds for entailment, not inference.

  45. 45.

    See, e.g., Wildman and Folde (2017: p. 77).

  46. 46.

    In fact, it seems important to the story that they not be thought literally true in the story-world, since they are pieces of propaganda produced by INGSOC for the purpose of controlling Oceania’s population (and are thus ostensibly false or at best misleading).


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I owe particular thanks to Melanie Coughlin, David Friedell, Maiya Jordan, and John Woods for helpful comments on drafts of this paper. This research was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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Correspondence to Michel-Antoine Xhignesse.

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Xhignesse, MA. Exploding stories and the limits of fiction. Philos Stud 178, 675–692 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-020-01451-w

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  • Auctorial say-so
  • Contradiction
  • Interpretation
  • Story-telling
  • Says-is gap
  • Truth in fiction
  • Universal fictions