This is the second of a few posts having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press). You should start at the beginning.
The second and third chapters of Palmer’s book represent the kind of groundskeeping that all academic books must do early on: defining terms, acknowledging the work of rivals, preparing the playing field to facilitate the daring maneuvers to come. It’s fascinating work if you can give it the time it deserves, deadly dull if you only came to watch the game. (And in that way, it’s just like the ritual of the poolroom I described a few days ago.)
One thing Palmer does to lay out the background is to assert that judgments only make sense in certain contexts. We say that a child is pretending to ride a horse, but we do not say that an actor is pretending to be a character. He uses the analogue of a person playing the role of a middle-forward in soccer: her actions only make sense within the context of the game and its rules, but it makes no sense to say that she is pretending to be a midfielder, nor that she is in a make-believe game. The game and her role are both absolutely real, but only within that context. In fact, the agreed-upon reality are what give the game and her actions their meaning, are what prevent her from using her hands to block a pass, from tripping a rushing ballhandler.
Palmer also lays out some characteristics of imagination, one of the most interesting being that we can imagine something being true without actually asserting that it is true. I can imagine that it’s raining right now, without actually perceiving that it is.
… when we apply this distinction to the problem of fiction the bare fact that we neither believe, nor are required to believe, that fictional occurrences are actual occurrences constitutes no impediment to our ability to understand them… Since it it literally inconceivable that a non-existent man should perform the deeds of Hamlet, in attending to the play we think of Hamlet as an existent man without thinking that there is any such person. (53)
He then follows that with the imaginative attitude that readers or viewers take when encountering a work of fiction:
… we are led through a writer’s handing of his chosen medium to experience characters and their circumstances within some sort of Gestalt. In order to accept the invitation to the imagination we therefore must be prepared to enter into a relationship with the work, such that our understanding of the characters needs to be as genuine and convincing as our understanding of actual people. (59)
Finally, he asserts that we bring the same sorts of contextualized judgments to fictional characters’ behavior as we do to that of “real” people. Actions are never merely neutral, they exist within a context of history and motive and circumstance that utterly change their meanings.
Suppose that I discover a friend has betrayed a confidence… Suppose I now discover circumstances which suggest he is not the rogue I thought he was. The words slipped out while he was drunk, or he was talking in his sleep, or perhaps his wife was depressed and, in a desperate attempt to get her to see things in perspective, he found himself revealing my long battle against alcoholism or the brave face I had been putting on a terminal illness. Discovering this, I may feel inclined to say that I no longer blame him, But this lessens my inclination to say that he ‘betrayed’ a confidence. Perhaps the changed description is ‘he revealed my secret’. At any rate I shall be seeing his act under some different description. I shall have a different conception of what he has done. (63)
And of course, we do exactly this when we consider the actions and statements of any fictional character. We encounter them within the context of the story as well as within the context of our understanding of how people behave in daily life, and both sets of rules shape our meaning and our judgments. That is, we treat those characters as though they had normal human agency, and we treat the world of the novel as analogously real to the world we otherwise inhabit. Fiction would not matter otherwise, just as people running up and down a soccer pitch would not matter without our acceptance of the rules and rituals and history of the sport. The fictional world is real. The fact that its reality is enclosed within the context of that particular story makes it no different than the reality of any workplace, any economic system, any religious belief. All of those worlds have internal facts that are crucial within them, irrelevant or inapplicable beyond them.