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Truth in Fiction, by David Lewis

This is from David Lewis’s Philosophical Papers, Volume I (1983):

C. Fiction in the Service of Truth

There are some who value fiction mostly as a means for the discovery of truth, or for the communication of truth. Truth in Fiction had nothing to say about fiction as a means to truth. But the topics can indeed be connected.

Most simply, there may be an understanding between the author and his readers to the effect that what is true in his fiction, on general questions if not on particulars, is not to depart from what he takes to be the truth. (Indeed, such an understanding might extend to particular matters as well. Imagine a scandalous political exposé, by an insider, with characters called Nicksen, Hague, Wagoner, Bondsman, ….) Then the audience, if they know that the author is well informed, could learn the truth by figuring out what is true in his fictions. Further, the author might discover some truth in the course of trying to keep his side of the bargain.–Doubtless this is not quite what people have in mind when they speak of the cognitive value of literature! Let us find something a bit loftier for them to mean.

Fiction might serve as a means for discovery of modal truth. I find it very hard to tell whether there could possibly be such a thing as a dignified beggar. If there could be, a story could prove it. The author of a story in which it is true that there is a dignified beggar would both discover and demonstrate that there does exist such a possibility. An actor or a painter might accomplish the same. Here the fiction serves the same purpose as an example in philosophy, though it will not work unless the story of the dignified beggar is more fully worked out than our usual examples. Conversely, note that the philosophical example is just a concise bit of fiction.

More importantly, fiction can offer us contingent truths about this world. It cannot take the place of nonfictional evidence, to be sure. But sometimes evidence is not lacking. We who have lived in the world for a while have plenty of evidence, but we may not have learned as much from it as we could have done. This evidence bears on a certain proposition. If only that proposition is formulated, straightaway it will be apparent that we have very good evidence for it. If not, we will continue not to know it. Here, fiction can help us. If we are given a fiction such that the proposition is obviously true in it, we are led to ask: and is it also true simpliciter? And sometimes, when we have plenty of unappreciated evidence, to ask the question is to know the answer. Then the author of the fiction has made a discovery, and he gives his readers the means to make that same discovery for themselves.

Sometimes the proposition learned may be one that we could formulate, once we have it in mind, without reference to the fiction that drew our attention to it. Not so in general. Sometimes reference to a fiction is the only way we have, in practice if not in principle, to formulate the truths that the fiction has called to our attention. A schlemiel is someone such that what is true of him strikingly resembles what is true in a certain fiction of a certain character therein, Schlemiel by name. Temporarily or permanently, first for those who know the story and then for others (like myself) who don’t, the word schlemiel is indispensible in stating various truths.

So fiction can indeed serve truth. But we must beware, for also it can spread error. (1) Whatever understandings to the contrary might prevail, what is true in an author’s fiction might not be true, either because the author is mistaken or because he wishes to deceive those who rely on the supposed understanding. (2) Under the method of union, several things might be true together in a fiction, but not really compossible. Then the fiction might persuade us of a modal falsehood, leading us to believe in a possibility that doesn’t really exist. (3) If we have plenty of misleading evidence stored up, there may well be falsehoods that need only be stated to be believed.

–David Lewis, Truth in Fiction (1978), in Philosophical Papers, Volume I (1983), pp. 278–279.