A person with Asperger Syndrome tries to understand Santa Claus

I have a non‐standard perspective on fiction, which I attribute to my having Asperger Syndrome. This page consists of a Socratic Dialogue that I composed in 2002, a Commentary on it that I wrote at the same time, and an Update explaining how my views have developed since then.

Dialogue

Commentary

The above Dialogue reads as though it has a timescale of a few minutes. To write it took a few hours. But really it is a distillation of decades of puzzlement and discovery in my own mind, starting when I was quite a small child.

The word that gave me the most trouble when I was composing the Dialogue was text. I needed a word that meant a piece of language, written or spoken, without regard to any series of events that that piece of language might recount. At first narrative seemed the natural word to me. But when I checked it, I found that narrative means “an account of a series of events”. Most certainly therefore it would not do. (Indeed, the very fact that I had misunderstood the word narrative for 50 years is clear evidence of a non‐standard perspective.) After I had considered several other words, the choice narrowed to discourse or text. Both these words are used by linguists with the meaning I wanted. Discourse has a slight bias towards spoken language, while text has a slight bias towards written language. However, to the layman, text has a very strong bias towards written language. I would therefore have plumped for discourse: but to the layman it is an unusual word with connotations of academia. I have therefore used a hybrid solution. I use piece of language where full generality is required, and I use text where the language is written, or may as well be written.

In the next three paragraphs, to make myself understood I have to fall into line with the mainstream philosophy that a fictional text can be understood as an account of a series of events.

If you have a text recounting a series of events, does the word story properly refer to the text, or to the series of events? General dictionaries give its primary meaning as the text. I was surprised to discover that, in linguistics, it invariably means the series of events, as contrasted with the text. In my Dialogue, the “series of events” meaning eventually prevails. In the next two paragraphs, I use the word story to mean the series of events.

It may be quite revealing that, when I wanted to quote the first sentence of a typical novel, I had to search for one on the Internet. I have over 400 books in my house, but there is not a single one of them that consists of a novel or other fictional text. On second thoughts, there is one: Stephen Leacock’s Nonsense Novels. I love that book. The stories are trivial, and the fun is in the language.

My two snatches of confused‐level dialogue, where the character Eric is confused with the author Eric, were put in to make a point. The point is that, true to form, I was writing a piece of language: not a story. As pieces of language, the snatches of confused‐level dialogue are quite unexceptionable. As pieces of story, they are absurd. If my reader reads them as story and finds them silly, then I have made my point.

Update

I wrote the above Dialogue and Commentary in 2002. In the Dialogue I confessed, honestly, that I did not “get” the phrase “fictional character”. From 2008 I studied linguistics and philosophy at university for 2½ years, and I feel that that experience has equipped me to develop my understanding of the phrase “fictional character”. I will now try to explain my current understanding. I will use Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights as a model.

Ontology is the study of existence. In the context of a work of fiction such as a novel, what can be said to exist? Plainly the novel exists, and the text of the novel exists. Plainly also the text of the novel expresses propositions, which exist. Philosophers widely hold that the novel expresses what they call a “possible world”, but they are divided as to what such “possible worlds” consist of. Many philosophers take what I will call the conservative view, that a possible world merely consists of propositions. Others take what I will call the liberal view, that a possible world includes things like events, states of affairs, and persons. In the Socratic Dialogue above, I take the conservative view and I refuse to acknowledge anything beyond the propositions. My “friend” takes the liberal view, and considers it to be obvious that what is expressed by a story includes events and persons.

We must be careful not to be misled by the adjective fictional. The possible world expressed by a work of fiction is often called a fictional world. But nobody is saying that it doesn’t exist. The general consensus of philosophers is that possible worlds do exist, even if only as collections of propositions. In the same way that a fictional text exists and is a work of fiction, so a fictional world exists and is a possible world that is expressed by a work of fiction.

Language is very peculiar. We speak and write all the time as though there were entities that there are no good ontological grounds for positing. In particular most philosophers, whether or not they embrace the liberal view that a possible world includes things like events and states of affairs and persons, nevertheless accept that the most convenient way of discussing possible worlds is to talk as if they do. For example, we could take the conservative view and say:

The text of the novel includes the sentence “Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling,” and nowhere does the text include any sentence that expresses a contrary proposition.

But it is much more convenient to adopt the liberal view, regardless of our ontological beliefs on the matter, and say:

In the novel, Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling.

In this Update I remain agnostic as to the composition of fictional worlds. I will mostly take the conservative view, to show that the liberal view is not necessary. But I will sometimes adopt the liberal view if that significantly simplifies what I have to say.

The novel Wuthering Heights, then, expresses a fictional world featuring a girl called Catherine. Now, we say “Catherine is a fictional character.” What do we mean by that?

That is a very tricky question. In the fictional world of the novel, Catherine is not anything that we might call a “fictional character”: she is a regular person. In the fictional world of the novel, if someone asks “Who is Catherine Earnshaw?” then the answer might be “She is the girl who fell in love with Heathcliff;” the answer could never be “She is a fictional character who fell in love with Heathcliff.” But in the real world, the name Catherine Earnshaw refers to no one at all, indeed no entity at all. It is by no means clear that there is any world, fictional or not, in which we can say “Catherine exists and is not a regular person.”

We might be tempted to explain “Catherine is a fictional character” by saying, for example, “Catherine is not real.” But what could we mean by that? Surely every person is real! Do we mean she’s not a person? Well, if not a person, what sort of thing is she? She’s certainly not a duck or a basketball. It doesn’t advance the explanation to repeat “She’s a fictional character,” because “fictional character” is the very phrase we’re trying to explain. We seem to be getting nowhere.

We need to borrow a couple of words from the discipline of semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, what they mean, and how they are used. When I read in a newspaper the words “Mount Etna,” the printed words “Mount Etna” are known as the signifier, the concept in my mind that the words evoke is known as the signified, and the mountain itself is known as the referent. When I read in Wuthering Heights the printed words “Catherine Earnshaw”, those words are a signifier, the concept in my mind that the words evoke is the signified, and on the conservative view that the fictional world of the novel consists solely of propositions, there is no referent. I won’t be using the word signified any further, and I won’t be using any semiotic theory: I will merely be borrowing the words signifier and referent.

In discovering what we mean by “Catherine is a fictional character,” I believe the correct approach is to look at the scope of the references to Catherine within the novel. Within the novel, Catherine is of course referred to by name, eg as Catherine or as Catherine Earnshaw. Now these names for her – these signifiers – have a scope that is local to the fictional world of the novel. In the real world outside of the novel, if someone asks “Who is Catherine Earnshaw?” then in strict philosophy the answer can only be “I don’t know who you are talking about,” because the signifier Catherine Earnshaw is out of scope. So I believe that part of the meaning of “Catherine is a fictional character” is that The scopes of the signifiers of Catherine are local to the novel. By contrast, the first paragraph of the novel contains the word England as the signifier of a country, but even though that signifier is part of the fictional text of the novel we do not say “England is a fictional country,” because the signifier has global, real‐world, scope.

Now that shows, I believe, that the phrase “fictional character” is linguistically complex. As I say in the Socratic Dialogue, “fictional character” certainly doesn’t mean a character of some particular sort. If I say that John is a cheeky character, I am specifying an attribute of John. If I say that Mary is a dour character, I am specifying an attribute of Mary. But when I say that Catherine is a fictional character, I am specifying an attribute not of Catherine but of her signifiers.

But I believe there is a second part also to the meaning of “Catherine is a fictional character.” And here I have to introduce the concept of outscoping. I think I can introduce this concept more vividly in the context of pictures than I could in the context of stories.

Look at Figure 1:

Prince Harry
Figure 1

Figure 1 is a picture of a man. But we can say more than that. Prince Harry is a member of the British Royal Family, and Figure 1 is a picture of him. The picture – the pattern of pixels on the computer screen – is the signifier, and Prince Harry is the referent. Since Prince Harry inhabits the real world, the scope of the signifier is the real world.

By contrast, look at Figure 2:

Generic line drawing of a frying pan
Figure 2

Figure 2 is a picture of a frying pan. I presume that the artist was competent enough to create the picture from his memory of what frying pans in general look like, without having any particular frying pan in view, or in mind, as he did so. I therefore assert:

Figure 2 is a picture of a frying pan, but there is no frying pan that Figure 2 is a picture of.

That assertion uses simple, direct, low‐level language. It does not use any phrases such as “generic frying pan”, “specific frying pan”, “hypothetical frying pan”, “imaginary frying pan”. These phrases involve higher‐level concepts that I wish to avoid at this stage. Nor does it use the concept of a “possible world”. I’ll say it again in simple, direct, low‐level language: Figure 2 is a picture of a frying pan, but there is no frying pan that Figure 2 is a picture of.

Now look at Figure 3. Things get more complicated here.

Mowgli
Figure 3

Again I might assert:

Figure 3 is a picture of a boy, but there is no boy that Figure 3 is a picture of.

That assertion is the strict truth. But it does not sit well with our social minds. The picture is just so real, so vivid, that our social minds impel us towards the illusion that there is a boy that Figure 3 is a picture of. We want to know: What is he looking at? Why is he in a jungle? Why is he so happy? How old is he? What is his name? (Mowgli) We know, intellectually, that we see a boy only because of a pattern of pixels on the computer screen. That pattern of pixels is a signifier. We also know that (in the real world) there is no such boy as Mowgli, so that the scope of the signifier here is local to the picture (or, more properly, local to the fictional world of The Jungle Book and other stories, of which the picture expresses a part). Philosophically we have no right to lift the signifier out of its scope, but psychologically we are impelled to do so. We move from “Figure 3 is a picture of a boy called Mowgli” to “There is a boy called Mowgli, and Figure 3 is a picture of him.”

I believe that that is an important psychological and linguistic process. It is called outscoping. The signifier – the pattern of pixels on the screen – has as its scope a fictional world, but we think and speak as though its scope is the real world. We have outscoped the signifier.

Now that we have seen that process happening in the context of pictures, I think it is easier to see it happening in the context of stories. In the text of Wuthering Heights, the name Catherine Earnshaw is a signifier. It has no referent in the real world, and so its scope is local to the novel. In the text of the novel, the name Catherine Earnshaw refers to a girl; but there is no girl that the name in the text of the novel refers to. But our social minds are impelled to lift the name out of its scope. “In the text of the novel, the name Catherine Earnshaw refers to a girl” becomes “There is a girl called Catherine Earnshaw, and the text of the novel refers to her.” We have outscoped the signifier.

Notice that we must outscope the name if we are even to use it outside of the fictional world of the novel. Without outscoping we cannot talk about Catherine outside of the fictional world of the novel at all.

Here I am encouraged by what I find in the literature. I discovered the above process by my own introspection, and I privately called it outscoping. Now I find that the process is discussed in philosophy of language, albeit not in the context of pictures or stories as far as I can discover, and outscoping is exactly what it is called. I seem to be on the right lines.

It is important to note that our minds do not do this psychological outscoping with every signifier whose scope is local to the novel. In Chapter 1 of the same novel we read:

…a lusty dame, with tucked‐up gown, bare arms, and fire‐flushed cheeks, rushed into the midst of us flourishing a frying‐pan…

I would guess that the minds of all of us are quite comfortable here with the strict truth, that in the text of the novel the phrase a frying‐pan refers to a frying pan, but there is no frying pan that the phrase a frying‐pan in the text of the novel refers to. We’re not interested in the frying pan. We don’t stop to wonder how many times it has been used. We don’t ask ourselves what shop it was bought in. Our minds are quite content to gloss over it and move on. We are not impelled to outscope the phrase a frying‐pan from the fictional world of the novel into the real world.

It should be plain, I think, that the reason we are impelled to outscope the phrase Catherine Earnshaw and not the phrase a frying‐pan is that we ourselves are persons and not frying pans. We have social minds that have evolved to care deeply about persons, and have not evolved to care much about frying pans. That is why we outscope signifiers of persons and not signifiers of frying pans. And that, in turn, I believe, is why we talk about “fictional characters” and we don’t talk about “fictional frying pans”.

So I propose that the sentence “Catherine Earnshaw is a fictional character” means something like:

The signifier Catherine Earnshaw in the text of the novel has a scope that is properly local to the novel, but for psychological reasons our minds outscope the signifier so that we imagine there is a person to whom the signifier Catherine Earnshaw in the text of the novel refers.

I’m not pretending that that’s easy, but I don’t think that the meaning of “fictional character” can be adequately explained in any other way.

Having outscoped the name Catherine Earnshaw from the novel into the real world so that we can speak in the real world of a girl called Catherine Earnshaw, why do we not go the whole distance and say “In the real world, Catherine Earnshaw is a girl”? We don’t do that, because the phrase “in the real world” would be understood as implying that we claim to outscope as a matter of ontological right. We have no such ontological right: we outscope as a matter of psychology and language. Saying “Catherine is a fictional character” appropriately hedges our claim to outscope.

At this point there are some who would posit a new category of being, the category of “fictional character”, bringing their ontology into line with their social thinking and their language. No doubt if I were a literary critic I would do that. But I am not.

And at long last it is clear to me why I grew up with no intuition of what is meant by “fictional character”. As a person with Asperger Syndrome, the social part of my mind is underdeveloped. So, with very few exceptions, when I am presented with a story, whether in a book or in any other medium, my mind has no impulse to outscope the signifiers of the persons in the story, any more than the frying pans.