Unicorns, Language, and Ontology

A while ago now – maybe 6 months ago, yeesh! – I listened to an episode of The Partially Examined Life (PEL) at work. Then on my lunch break I went to The Old Bar and got rather tight guzzling high quality alcoholic cider. While in this state I scrawled a bunch of notes about one of the problems brought up on the show. I just now found those notes* and figured I should blog my half-baked philosophical ramblings seeing as no reputable source would publish them. Enjoy!

The episode of PEL in question was #34 “Frege on the logic of Language”. At some point in the podcast, the lads start discussing the rather strange question of the ontological status of fictional characters and objects. So, for example, it seems slightly odd that we can all understand the sentence “the unicorn jumped over the fence gracefully” even though it refers to something that doesn’t exist.

Furthermore, we can make true and false statement about unicorns, which when you think about it, is actually kinda weird. If someone said that unicorns have razor sharp fangs and six legs we would all see this as a false statement about unicorns. But unicorns don’t exist, so what does it mean to be ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ about unicornian properties?

I think these questions are interesting. Not because we should seriously consider that anything we speak coherently about must therefore exist (fun notion though), but because they shed light on the nature of language.

I think the only reason this problem seems like a problem is because words are all useful fictions. The word ‘horse’ and the word ‘unicorn’ have the same status – they are both simplified abstractions of commonly held, fairly complex ideas. The difference is that ‘horse’ refers to commonly held ideas about an actually existing species, while ‘unicorn’ refers to commonly held ideas about a fictional one. In this sense, they both refer to realities: ‘horse’ to physical realities, ‘unicorn’ to mental realities.

The word ‘horse’ refers to a theoretically infinite collection of distinct animals, so long as they all meet certain criteria that make them fit that species. No one horse is exactly the same as another, but no useful language could have a separate word for each slight variant, and so we abstract away to ‘horse’ and people understand.

To take another useful example, we count using our fingers. Now, this wouldn’t make sense without the abstracting power of language, because fingers are obviously not identical. The word ‘finger’ makes something uniform of all the flesh and bone messiness of real fingers, so that we say “I have five fingers on my right hand” without a thought. But without the word ‘finger’ to transform them into single units, this would be like declaring that 1 + 1.34 + 1.42 + 1.30 + 0.98 = 5.

Because language exists in this abstract realm and doesn’t refer to reality directly, there is no great mystery in the fact that it can be taken apart and recombined in new ways and that the resulting concepts make sense to us. It’s really no different than taking elements from Spiderman and Batman and combining them to make a new superhero.

We can say something true or false about a fictional entity because the concepts are widely known enough and uniform enough. So we know that a unicorn has four legs and a horn on its forehead just as we know that a horse is a mammal, because the concept linked to the word ‘unicorn’ is very widely understood. These concepts can change of course, both in fiction and the real world – Batman has several mutually exclusive life stories, and I hear tell Pluto is no longer a planet.

So, to finish my ramble, wondering about the ontological status of fictional characters is maybe missing the point. The coherence of talk about fictional characters reflects far more about the nature of language than the nature of reality.

*They’re literally all I’m going off here so there may be revisions in order…

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