The Fiction / Nonfiction Distinction

Hermeneutics and Aesthetics
June 2018

It is a difficult task drawing a suitable point of demarcation that divides fiction from nonfiction. A literal construal of fiction as an imaginary construction, and nonfiction as genuinely real and factual, is problematic as the boundary line remains unclear. For instance, what distinguishes seemingly clear works of fiction, such as Albert Camus’ L’Etranger or Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, to a seemingly clear piece of nonfiction, such as a photograph with veridical contents corresponding with reality? Both categories prompt imagination, and so the literal criteria for fiction is all-encompassing: any text that functions to prompt a degree of imagining and make-believe falls under the category. As a result, attempts have been made to redefine fiction in a narrower sense. Notably, Kendall Walton provides a restricted definition, presenting the argument that certain props are fictional if they necessarily perform an “authorised” function (1990, p. 51). However, Walton’s concept of function and intentionality remains indeterminate, relying on relativistic criteria (Friend 2008, p. 3). Therefore, Walton’s definition of fiction cannot be sustained.

In this essay, I explore various definitions of ‘fiction’, establishing two senses of the term: fiction as prompting imagination, and fiction as not real. I suggest the two senses are erroneously conflated, and are mutually exclusive. I then argue that all engagements with sensible things in the world (‘props’) prompt an imagination of possible worlds,¹ but this does not necessarily entail fictionality in the ‘not real’ sense. A basic shaping of the process of understanding is then drawn: all understanding involves narrative posits. I will discuss the nature of these possible world narratives and how these posits are realised. Where does modality stand in a causally determined world,² in light of fictionality and reality? Are some possible world narratives ‘more true’ or ‘more real’ than others if they accurately predict the world? These challenges will be addressed.

§1. Fiction, Reality, and Imagination

The distinction between fiction and nonfiction ultimately depends on how fiction is defined. If fiction is defined as the prompting of imagination, then it follows that every engagement involves imagination, for all understanding prompts the construction of mental narratives. For instance, when I engage with a prop, such as Rothko’s Untitled (Red), Darwin’s The Origin of Species, or with another human through dialogue, I am invited to conjure mental representations (Adam & Aizawa 2017). All props disclose themselves to us something to imagine about their content and nature.  

Alternatively, if fiction is construed as something that is not real and untrue, then it seems that not all acts of imagination are necessarily fictional. Fictionally imagining that Gregor metamorphoses into a giant insect in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, or that I am on the banks of the Seine by looking within Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, are not equivalent to nonfictionally imagining and recalling the coq au vin I had for dinner yesterday, or anticipating a phone call in the near future. Nonfictional imagination recalls corresponding veridical events that at some point in time and space existed, and anticipates potentially realisable events within a causally determined system. Whereas in this reality, Gregor never metamorphosed into an insect.

Defining fiction as not real nevertheless presents its challenges. An imagination is an aggregate of veridical and non-veridical contents. Kafka’s Metamorphosis may be fictional, but on Walton’s ‘reality principle’ this fictional world largely adheres to the determinant mechanisms of the real world, as far as the fictional world permits (1990, pp. 142 – 145). Fictional props incorporate nonfictional elements. Gregor, like any son, has a mother and a father, and is a salesman which is a job that exists in and corresponds to reality. Conversely, whilst my memory of yesterday’s coq au vin dinner prompts me to recall eating chicken in red wine, although this memory is largely veridical, it may be that I am mistaken and ate bœuf bourguignon featuring beef in red wine instead. Therefore imagination as recollection, hinging on the fallibility of memory, may involve some fictional constructs. Furthermore, imagination as anticipation necessarily entails degrees of possibility, and therefore fallibility, as perfect predicative power cannot be assumed nor guaranteed.³

And so, if fiction is construed as prompting imagination, then the boundary line is nonexistent: everything is a fiction in this sense. If fiction is construed as not real, then despite seemingly clear paradigmatic cases on either side, the boundary line between fictional (not real) and nonfictional (real) remains blurry, as the truth-content of nonfictions may not be in total accord with reality, and fictions may contain substantial truth-content. Hence, ‘real’ and ‘not real’ cannot be defined based on this false equivalence where truth corresponds with reality (Popper 2002, pp. 37, 156). These two definitions must be separated and treated as mutually exclusive.

§2. Walton: Fiction and Function

Walton directly addresses the worry that if the function of a prop is to elicit imaginings, then this definition too broadly encompasses many works as valid fictions. Prima facie, this goes against the intuitive split between fiction and nonfiction, for it seems that Darwin’s The Origin of Species is categorically different to Magritte’s surrealist painting The Philosopher’s Lamp. Walton cannot dismiss that anything may elicit imaginings, insofar that to “believe something [necessarily] involves imagining it” (Walton 1990, p. 70).⁴ Walton restricts this definition, suggesting that a prop qualifies as a fiction if it functions in a certain way: for despite the fact that all props may play a role in imagining, only certain games of make-believe are authorised if the prop intentionally functions to prescribe certain imaginings (ibid., pp. 4, 51). The function of the prop itself is determined by an “imprecise” combination of authorial intention and its proper usage (ibid., p. 91). For instance, Walton argues that although Darwin’s The Origin of Species has the intention to prompt beliefs (and hence imaginings) about its content, Darwin himself did not intend for the text to generate fictional truths, and therefore the text cannot be said to prescribe believings or imaginings. Rather, the function of Darwin’s text, in addition to similarly classed artefacts such as biographies and textbooks, et al., are to “establish truth claims for certain propositions rather than to make propositions fictional” (ibid., pp. 70 – 71). So, while props may elicit imaginative responses, there is an ideal of appropriateness which both guides and constraints these imaginative responses (Friend 2008, pp. 2 – 3). Props are fictions when the prop is appropriately generative. This is therefore a stricter definition: when a prop functions to prescribe authorised imaginings about their content in a game of make-believe, it qualifies as a fiction. It is on this basis that Walton attempts to establish a point of demarcation.

‘Functionality’ nevertheless retains its ambiguities. An imprecision of function’s criteria means that definitions will remain substantially broader than an “ordinary conception” of fiction (ibid., p. 2). Walton’s narrowed definition still produces a blurry boundary line, as ‘function’ is anthropocentrically defined by how the community at large “typically treats” a work (ibid., p. 3). The distinction is thus relativised (ibid.). For example, the Bible can be treated as something corresponding exactly to reality, intended to generate authorised truth claims (nonfictional),⁵ or as a collection of fictional myths. This is dependant on the receptivity of the given audience. Any work of nonfiction, especially over extended periods of time, is disposed to the risk of this sort of constructivism: the function of a prop is prone to change as social attitudes change. Walton therefore does not fix the boundary line inasmuch that by inserting function into the definition, he problematises the fact that paradigmatic cases are liable to change as its socially determined function changes.

§3. Understanding and Possible World Narratives

Considering this, is it acceptable to bite the bullet and accept that all engagements involve imagination? As argued, indeterminacy is ineradicable. It is thereby convenient to accept fiction as an all-encompassing category: all understanding requires a degree of imagination. However, it does not necessarily follow that all imaginations are ‘not real’ (Walton 1990, p. 13). So, the fundamental question is revised: if understanding is imagination, what then is the distinction between ‘real imagination’ and ‘not-real imagination’?

Firstly, how is it that all understanding involves imaginative narrative posits? All props disclose something to imagine about their content and nature. Props invite us to engage with them, inviting us to imagine their content and form beliefs about them, either about the real world (Darwin’s The Origin of Species), the fictional world (such as the superstate ‘Oceania’ in Orwell’s 1984), or a composite of both (Walton 1990, p. 13). It is the ‘composite of both’ that is of importance here. Although Orwell’s 1984 is not real, it provides readers with a useful life lesson by imagining themselves challenging authoritarian regimes and becoming aware of the dangers of blind adherence and widespread surveillance. This can only be achieved by imagining the experiences from the inside (ibid., p. 29). ‘Real’ texts intend for us to integrate their imaginative representations with real world beliefs, whereas ‘not-real’ texts prompt imagining about the fictional world it discloses, incidentally or purposefully inviting consequential belief (ibid., pp. 70 – 71) (Friend 2008, pp. 6 – 7).⁶ Both continue to prescribe imaginings, albeit to different means. The challenges presented in §2 remain: often the distinction is subtle, and prone to change as it hinges on the receptivity of the audience. There is no point being precise here, however there is a salient requirement to balance authorial intention with the audience’s interpretive subjectivities with respect to belief acquisition.

Secondly, how do imaginative constructions constitute understanding and belief? In positing certain imagined narratives, one gains a sense of playing new roles and coping with real situations, as well as achieving a firmer sense of self-understanding (Walton 1990, p. 12) (Carroll 1991, pp. 384 – 385). Vivacious and largely veridical forms of imagining are a rehearsal for real life, and in rehearsing, one tunes their expectations and predicts causal outcomes according to the assumptions held about the real world, whilst being quarantined from the repercussions of the real world. This includes engagements with others.⁷ These acts of understanding are thus a sort of interpretation.⁸ Causal uncertainties are posited in imagination, as individuals cycle through the possible outcomes all with varying degrees of realisable success, according to the logic of the possible worlds they imagine. As a result, one gains predictive power in anticipating outcomes.

Individuals develop a proficiency of interpretation as they engage with the entity and its situatedness in the world, uncovering its nature and rendering it more intelligible to them (Wheeler 2017). In doing this, the individual is able to more accurately predict and anticipate outcomes. For example, an individual understands a hammer by engaging with it and forming beliefs about it (Heidegger 2010, p. 69). Resultantly, their predictions concerning the nature of the hammer become more fine tuned and accurate. This can be extrapolated: the more an individual understands the intrinsic logic of a text, the chemical properties of water, or another individual’s beliefs and desires, the more accurate their predictions become (Dennett 1989, pp. 15 – 22). They nevertheless remain fallible, for there is “no hope of refining the simple pattern of explanation on the basis of reasons into such a calculus”, namely concerning understanding others (Davidson 1980, p. 233). This uncertainty necessitates that a series of possible worlds are projected, as some outcomes are more realisable and likely than others, and each potential outcome presents a distinct reality. Maximally agreeable realisations requires ‘charity’: to be a good interpreter, one assumes rational explanations behind causes (Davidson 2001, p. xix).

On this account, even seemingly ‘real’ imaginings are never perfectly veridical; they are verisimilar at best. Possible word narratives can be largely accurate in their realisability, but it would be erroneous to call any imagining ‘real’, ‘true’ or ‘accurate’ in an absolute sense. Hence, all engagements are a fiction to a certain degree. Therefore, it is important to engage with all props with an attitude to discern which [possible] world is pertinent, for despite their fictionality, props can affirm substantial and valuable truth-content for the real world and the many possible worlds it creates.

¹ That is not to say that there is not a directly apprehensible world ‘out there’; rather, in an indirect realist sense, our understandings of the phenomenal world are necessarily mediated through the narratives that we imagine.

² Causal determinacy allows for predictive power of effects by looking at causes (i.e. physical behavioural states and mental intentional states). I construe this adhering to Daniel Dennett’s explication of the “Intentional Stance” (1989, pp. 15 – 22).

³ Both an ‘underdeterminacy’ and ‘indeterminacy’ of relevant causes in an explanation is an ineradicable problem (Quine 2013, pp. 266 – 268) (Davidson 2001, pp. 153, 240 – 241).

⁴ Notably, there is an “independence of imagining from truth and belief … Imagining something is entirely compatible with knowing it to be true”, but not necessarily so (Walton 1990, p. 13).

⁵ A ‘sola scriptura’.

⁶ i.e. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Berkeley’s Three Dialogues.

⁷ I borrow Davidson’s argument for physicalism here. Mental states (beliefs and desires) are physical states, and therefore take part in strict causal relations (1980, pp. 230 – 231).

⁸ i.e. ‘Will my dinner guests like the main course?’ or ‘Will Poirot solve the murder mystery?’.

Works Cited:

Adams, F. & Aizawa, K. 2017, ‘Causal Theories of Mental Content’, in  E Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <;.

Carroll, N. 1991, ‘Review: On Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 51, No. 2, pp. 384 – 385.

Davidson, D. 1980, ‘Psychology as Philosophy’, in Essays on Actions and Events, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp. 230 – 233.

Davidson, D. 2001, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 2nd ed., Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Friend, S. 2008, ‘Imagining as Fiction’, in K Stock, K Thomson-Jones (eds), New Waves in Aesthetics, Palgrave Macmillan, UK.

Heidegger, M. 2010, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, State University of New York Press, New York.

Popper, K. 2002, Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge, New York.

Quine, W. V. 2013, ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, in M Curd, J Cover, C Pincock (eds), Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, Norton, New York, pp. 266 – 268.

Walton, K. L. 1990, Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of Representational Arts, Harvard University Press, United States of America.

Wheeler, M. 2017, ‘Martin Heidegger’ in E Zalta (ed), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <;.


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