Nini Praetorius (2002) Basic Conditions for Knowledge and Description of Real Things vs. Fictional Entities.. Psycoloquy: 13(023) Cognition Action (8)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).

BASIC CONDITIONS FOR KNOWLEDGE AND DESCRIPTION OF REAL THINGS VS. FICTIONAL ENTITIES.
Reply to Hutto on Praetorius on Cognition-Action

Nini Praetorius
Department of Psychology
University of Copenhagen
Njalsgade 88
DK - 2300 Copenhagen S
Denmark

nini.praetorius@psy.ku.dk

Abstract

In his review, Hutto suggests that meaningful and true claims about "fictional entities", and entities which in retrospect prove to be "fictional", seem to question the generality of "the principle of the correctness of knowledge and language". By sorting out some misunderstandings of the "Correctness Principle", and clarifying the conditions for description and knowledge of "real" vs. "fictional" entities, I hope to show that the Correctness Principle does indeed apply to knowledge and description of both "real" and "fictional" entities.

Keywords

Cognition, Language, Reality, Facts, Fictional Entities, Conventions, Truth, History of Science, Scientific Theorising.
1. Hutto endorses the four principles proposed in my book, but suggests that meaningful and true claims about "fictional entities", as well as "entities" which in retrospect proves to be "fictional", seem to call into question the GENERALITY of one of the principles, namely "the principle of the general correctness of knowledge and description" (for short: the Correctness Principle). Before embarking on a reply to this suggestion, I find it essential to point out some inaccuracies in his summary of the consequences of this principle. Hutto writes:

"Throughout her book Praetorius defends the idea that our ability to identify objects and situations is a point of departure for more advanced scientific inquiries. As such she regards our ordinary descriptions of things as having equal legitimacy with scientific ones. For example, she rightly holds that the same notion of truth operates in both contexts. Read simply therefore the principle of the correctness of language seems to follow from the fact that anything we talk about 'truly' must exist as described," (paragraph 1).

Now, it is quite correct that I defend the idea that scientific enquiries rest on knowledge, identification and determination of things which exist in our ordinary every day world of things. And true that I defend the idea, therefore, that we shall have to assume that ordinary everyday knowledge and descriptions of things in our everyday world have the same status of correctness and truth as do knowledge and descriptions acquired from scientific enquiries of them. However, I do not defend the idea that the general principle of the correctness of knowledge and description - be this knowledge and description everyday or scientific - "FOLLOW from the fact that anything we talk about 'truly' MUST EXIST AS DESCRIBED".

2. First, the assumption of the principle of the general correctness of language and description does not FOLLOW from any fact whatsoever. On the contrary, the assumption of this principle is a condition for talking CONSISTENTLY and CORRECTLY about facts. Thus, without presupposing that we have knowledge of and a language in which we may talk correctly about reality and facts in reality, and hence that reality and facts in reality exist as things that we may have knowledge of and put forward true - or false - propositions about, we would not know what we were talking about when we talk about REALITY or facts in reality, nor when talking about KNOWLEDGE of and PROPOSITIONS about reality and these facts, which may be true or false. But neither does it FOLLOW from the Correctness Principle that ANYTHING we may talk about 'truly' must exist as described. As pointed out time and again in my book, the Correctness Principle does not mean or guarantee that all or every proposition put forward in language about reality is true or correct, nor that things described do in fact EXIST in reality as described. On the contrary, our description of them may be false or incorrect. Indeed, we may very often discover and determine that they are. However, no such determination of the truth of any PARTICULAR description of reality could be carried out, let alone would make sense, without presupposing that GENERALLY, the language in which the determination is conducted may be used to say something which is correct, true or false, about that which we talk, and hence is a language to which the Correctness Principle applies. If this point is not immediately obvious, just consider the case in which, mistakenly, we describe the thing on the table as an apple - in spite of the fact that it is not an apple, but an imitation apple. And just think about how many correct implications of descriptions of both APPLES and IMITATION APPLES we would have to know in order to determine that "this is an apple" is an incorrect description of the thing on the table.

3. The Principle of the General Correctness of Cognition and Language is a principle, so I argue, which applies not only to things existing in physical, material reality, but to anything about which we may have knowledge and may use language to talk about. That is, it applies that things in reality - and whatever else we may use language to talk about - that these things exist as things about which we may have knowledge and put forward propositions which are true - or false. With this contention in mind I shall now turn to the concerns raised by Hutto about the

"problems about such classes of things as fictional entities [...] for it seems we can talk sensibly about these, indeed that we can make true claims about them, despite our knowing that they don't exist. Therefore it is possible to talk sensibly and correctly about fictional objects without such items existing in reality. THIS BEING SO IT WOULD SEEM POSSIBLE TO DRIVE A WEDGE BETWEEN OUR CORRECT USE OF AN ENTIRE CLASS OF TERMS AND REALITY ITSELF" (emphasis mine, paragraph 4).

4. But why should the fact that we may talk sensibly and correctly about fictional entities or "objects", i.e. "objects" which do not exist in REALITY drive "a wedge between our correct use of an entire class of terms and reality itself"? As far as I can see, sensible and correct talk about fictional entities would only present a problem and hence "drive a wedge" between correct use of terms of language and reality itself, if it is wrongly assumed that what does not exist IN REALITY does not exist as something we can talk correctly about and, conversely, that "anything we talk about 'truly' must exist [IN REALITY] as described", (cf. Hutto, op. cit.). That is, it only presents a problem and produces a "wedge" of the above nature if it is wrongly assumed that the Correctness Principles only applies to descriptions and knowledge of things existing in physical reality - and not to descriptions and knowledge of e.g. fictional "objects" and entities. As this mistake lies behind Hutto's subsequent discussion of the problem concerning the status of descriptions of reality which in retrospect are disclosed as purely "fictional", it is necessary for me briefly to outline the argument for the existence of a necessary relation between knowledge and language, and that which our knowledge and language concerns, as well as an extract of my account (in Chapter 11) of the condition for description and knowledge of things existing in material reality as opposed to description and knowledge of fictional "objects" and entities.

5. The Correctness Principle is based on the arguments that it would be impossible to talk consistently about both things in reality and fictional entities independently of or without assuming that these things and entities exists as things or entities we may have knowledge of, and to which propositions put forward in language may REFER. Conversely, it would be impossible to talk consistently about our KNOWLEDGE and PROPOSITIONS about either things in reality or fictional entities independently of or without REFERRING to these things or entities; i.e. impossible to talk about WHAT our knowledge and descriptions concern, without at the same time talking about and referring to THAT which our knowledge and description concern. According to these arguments, rather than assuming a "divide", it would seem that, generally, an interdependency or NECESSARY RELATION exist between, on the one hand, our knowledge and descriptions of things in reality and fictional entities and, on the other, these things and entities that our knowledge and descriptions concern.

6. But how could it sensibly be maintained in the case of fictitious entities or "objects" - such as e.g. Santa Claus or unicorns - that a necessary relation exist between description and knowledge about such entities or "objects" and those "objects" and entities themselves? Indeed, granted that fictitious entities and "objects" are the kind of "things" which do not exist, how could it be maintained about this sort of "things" that it is impossible to talk consistently about knowledge and descriptions of them independently of or without at the same time REFERRING to them? For, indeed, how could one refer to non- existing things? Furthermore, how could it be maintained that the Correctness Principle apply to description and knowledge of these non-existing entities or "objects", and hence that we have to presuppose that such entities and objects (nonetheless) EXIST as "things" which we may have knowledge of and may talk correctly about? Against these doubts I argue that although Santa Claus and unicorns do not exist in physical material reality, they do exist as FICTIONAL FIGURES or entities in some collectively shared FICTIONAL WORLD of the kind narrated in adventures and folklore; i.e. adventures and folklore which are passed on from generation to generation by story tellers or printed in books for all who can read to share. Moreover, in the fictional worlds of such adventures, unicorns and Santa Claus exist as "things" about which something is the case and something else is not the case, and about which true and false assertions may be made - just as is the case for real existing things. That is, they exist as fictional figures the existence and identity of which are firmly based in those narratives or fictitious contexts. According to such contexts it would be false to say about e.g. Santa Claus that he is only three inches high, and that he has a body of a lion, but we would have to say that he looks like an old man with a long white beard. If beliefs about Santa Claus could not be true or false, and thus that assertions about Santa Claus did not have necessary implications and correct uses, there would be no beliefs about Santa Claus, nor could we talk sensibly or truly about him - not even as a fictitious figure. Indeed, there would be no fictitious figure or entity to talk about - in contradistinction to physical figures and events in material reality.

7. In CONTRADISTINCTION to, indeed, for there are crucial differences between knowledge and descriptions of fictitious things existing in fictitious worlds and knowledge and descriptions of things existing in material reality. One of these differences concerns the difference in procedures for determining the truth and correct application of description of real versus fictitious things. Indeed, to be able to hold and fabricate beliefs about fictitious things and worlds, and thus to distinguish descriptions and beliefs of such things and worlds from descriptions and beliefs of things in physical material reality, requires that we know these differences of procedure. Thus, whereas the application or truth of an assertion about real existing objects may be determined by checking whether it holds true of some materially producible things, the determination of the implications and truth of knowledge and assertions about fictitious things can only be carried out by VERBAL means. - Two people discussing whether the horns of unicorns are one meter or rather two meters long, or whether they are made of ivory or some other "stuff", will, as part of their knowledge of unicorns as fictitious figures, know that the dispute cannot be settled by going to the Zoo - nor by searching anywhere else for a materially producible exemplar. Nor will they be able to determine the truth of any description or assertion about unicorns by confronting the assertion with a unicorn so produced. The only way to settle the dispute will be to consult a storyteller, or an expert folklorist who knows how unicorns are described in transcripts of original stories or depicted in paintings or ancient tapestries. Moreover, it is part of being able to hold and fabricate beliefs about fictitious things and worlds - and to distinguish such things and worlds from real things and worlds - that we know that we cannot carry out physical acts or manipulate "things" which inhabit fictitious worlds, nor carry out empirical investigations in the world of fictitious things, e.g. in order to test whether fictitious things or figures have the properties and features they are believed to have. Although the features which "make up" Santa Claus and unicorns are those of an old white bearded man and a small horse-like creature with a horn on its head respectively, it is part of being capable of fabricating and holding beliefs about such fictitious things that one knows that one cannot ask whether Santa Claus or unicorns have digestive systems like human beings or small horses, and hope to get an answer by empirical investigations of the sort which brought about knowledge of digestive systems in human beings and small horses.

8. Hence, to be able to hold and fabricate narratives of fictitious things and worlds requires knowledge about the differences in procedures for determining the truth of beliefs and assertions in real versus fictitious contexts. Indeed, to be able to distinguish fact from fiction, and thus to determine the implications and truth of beliefs and assertions about real as opposed to fictitious phenomena, requires that one can distinguish between something which may EXIST and about which something is TRUE AND FALSE IN MATERIAL REALITY, and something which may EXIST and about which something is TRUE AND FALSE IN A FICTITIOUS OR ABSTRACT CONTEXT. Furthermore, it requires knowledge that, unlike material things which exist independently of our beliefs and the circumstances in which we find ourselves in material reality, fictitious things and events do not exist independently of the circumstances in which they are MADE to exist as FICTITIOUS things and events by us. That is, independently of persons sharing a language in which they may make CONVENTIONS about such fictitious things, events and worlds.

9. And now, let us return to the serious issues envisaged by Hutto concerning the

... "hard cases in which it is not stipulated in advance, but only retrospectively, that we have been talking about fictions. Thus, it is instructive to consider situations in which we have simply been wrong about the existence of certain things, despite our being able to talk 'about them' sensibly and despite the fact that we employ the very same 'procedures for determining truth and correct applications' in these cases as we do in others involving real objects. The history of science is replete with examples of apparent reference to such non- existent things. These appear to be cases in which not only are our descriptions of reality incorrect - despite having been, at the time, within the cannons of correct usage. Are these also to be treated as cases in which we are dealing not with reality but with our own conventions?" (paragraph 4)

Hutto's problem, as far as I can see, is that he contends that when retrospectively determined as INCORRECT descriptions or theories of things in reality, such descriptions and theories must then be "fictions", and what they concern must be the fictitious product of our conventions. In view of the conditions for talking correctly about and holding beliefs about fictitious "things" and circumstances as opposed to talking about and having knowledge of things in reality, this is at best a misuse of the term 'fiction', at worst a serious misunderstanding of the different conditions for talking about and determining the truth of descriptions and the existence of real versus fictional things and circumstances. The description "this is an apple" about the thing on the table in the example above, does not turn FICTIONAL just in case the description is FALSE about the thing on the table - nor does what it refers to turn into some non-existing thing inhabiting a fictional world fabricated by conventions. The description is quite simply a false or incorrect description of what actually exists on the table IN THE REAL PHYSICAL WORLD. And the way its falsity is established - just as was e.g. the theory positing the existence of Flogiston - is by carrying out investigations and tests of the kind which are relevant for determining the truth of description of real things and their existence in the real physical world.

10. However, according to Hutto,

"Praetorius does not give much attention to this question, but I suspect she would regard [such cases] as particular instances in which language and reality have come apart and that these conditions do not, indeed could not, hold GENERALLY." (paragraph 5)

On the contrary. These cases of false descriptions, and in particular the possibility for determining their falsity, rely precisely on the generality of these conditions. That is, they rely on the Correctness Principle and the assumption it implies of a necessary relation between our descriptions and cognition of things and that which our descriptions and cognition concern - be those things real or fictional. And these cases rely on our knowledge of the general procedures and conditions for determining the truth of description of things existing in reality as opposed to those employed for determining the truth of descriptions of things and circumstances created by conventions. This is how we distinguish between real existing things and their descriptions and those made by convention.

11. The final issue raised by Hutto (paragraph 7) concerns the conflict he sees between, on the one hand, my disposing of "the idea that it is sensible to postulate 'reality-in-itself' as something that is beyond possible description", and, on the other, my contention that "our descriptions of things will never succeed in exhausting reality". According to Hutto it is not possible to hold that our descriptions will never exhaust reality, "unless it is accepted that at least some aspects of reality are beyond description". I do not agree. For one thing, unlike Hutto I think that it is neither legitimate nor meaningful to use the term 'reality' to refer to something beyond POSSIBLE description. Notions such as 'reality beyond description' and 'aspects of reality beyond description' are quite simply void. For another, there are obvious - though not PRINCIPLED - reasons for holding it an impossibility that any number of description of reality could finally COMPLETELY and EXHAUSTIVELY describe reality, i.e. without having to accept such notions. One of these reasons, listed in my book, is the impossibility of imagining that, one day, there will be no more questions to ask nor new enquiries to carry out concerning reality, ourselves and the situations in which we find ourselves in reality.

REFERENCES

Hutto, D.D. (2002) A Principled Basis for Psychological Research. Book review of Praetorius on Cognition-Action. PSYCOLOQUY 13(020). http;//www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/psyc- bin/newpsy?13.020

Praetorius, N. (2000). Principles of Cognition, Language and Action. Essays on the Foundations of a Science of Psychology. Dordrecht/London/New York: Kluwer Academic Press.

Praetorius, N. (2001). Precis of "Principle of Cognition, Language and Action. PSYCOLOQUY12 (027). http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/psyc-bin/newpsy?12.027


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