Open Journal of Philosophy
2011. Vol.1, No.1, 22-25
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ojpp.2011.11004
Pretense Theory and the Imported Background
Department of Philosophy and Religi on, James M adison University, Harrisonburg, USA.
Received June 22nd, 2011; revised July 15th, 2011; accepted July 20th, 2011.
Kendall Walton’s pretense theory, like its rivals, says that what’s true in a fiction F depends in part on the im-
portation of background propositions into F. The aim of this paper is to present, explain, and defend a brief yet
straightforward argument—one which exploits the specific mechanism by which the pretense theory says propo-
sitions ar e imp or ted into fictions—for the falsity of the p r etens e theory.
Keywords: Fiction, Truth in Fiction, Pretense, Make-Believe
One of the most influential accounts of truth in fiction is
pretense theory, and the foremost proponent of this account is
(Walton, 1990)1. All of the major theories of truth in fic-
tion2—Walton’s included—say that it is crucial to understand
the mechanism by which propositions which constitute a back-
ground for a fiction are imported into the story. That is, all of
the major theories say that for ever y fiction F, there is some set
of propositions S that plays a fundamental role in determining
what is true according to F, yet the members of S are not di-
rectly constitutive of F nor are they entailed3 by any proposition
(or set of propositions) directly constitutive of F. A proposition
p is directly constitutive of a fiction F, let’s say, when p is ex-
pressed by a token of a sentence in an F story-copy. (For sim-
plicity’s sake, I will focus my discussion on literary fictions,
but my remarks will apply to non-literary fictions as well.)
Background propositions, then, are propositions that may bear
on the content of a fiction in an indirect way. On the pretense
theory (as well as its rivals), a proposition p in the background
set S may become true in a fiction F in virtue of p’s being im-
ported into F by any person or group appropriately related to F.
When p is not directly constitutive of F or entailed by any of
the propositions directly constitutive of F, but rather when p is
true in F in virtue of being imported into F, let’s say that p is
indirectly constitutive of F.
The aim of this paper is to present, explain, and defend a
brief yet straightforward line of reasoning—one which exploits
the specific mechanism by which the pretense theory says
propositions are imported into fictions—for the falsity of the
preten se t heory4.
Here is the argument I have in mind:
1) If the pretense theory is correct, then for every literary fic-
tion F, what’s true in F and what’s not true in F will be deter-
mined in part by what background propositions are imported
into F by those people appropriately related to F.
2) If what’s true in F and what’s not true in F is determined
in part by what background propositions are imported into F by
those people appropriately related to F, then it’s possible that
there be some fiction F such that it’s true in F that p and it’s no t
true in F that p.
3) It is not possible that there be any fiction F such that it’s
true in F that p and it’s not true in F that p.
4) Therefore, t he preten se theory is no t correct.
Premise 1 is supported by some pretheoretic intuitions as well
as Walton’s account of truth in fiction. Pretheoretically, what’s
true in a fiction F is not merely a matter of which propositions
are directly constitutive of F. For instance, it is true in A Study
in Scarlet th at Sherlock Holmes’ pip e was not manufactured by
a wizard, yet the sentence, “Holmes’ pipe was not manufac-
tured by a wizard”, is neither tokened in any story-copy of A
Study in Scarlet nor is it entailed by any of the sentences in any
story-copy of A Study in Scarlet. According to the pretense
theory (as well as its rivals), the proposition that Holmes’ pipe
was not manufactured by a wizard is true in A Study in Scarlet
because it is a proposition in the background for the story that
is imported into the story. What does the pretense theory say
must occur for a proposition to become true in a fiction in vir-
tue of being imported into that fiction from the background?
And when is it not the case that some proposition is true in a
fiction? In order to answer these questions, let us first briefly
state some of the fundamental tenets of the pretense theory.
1Other prominent defenders of (some version of) pretense theory include
(Byrne, 1993), (Kroon, 2000), (Crimmins, 1998), and (Kim &Maslen,
2The main ri vals being those of (Lewis, 1983) and (Cu rrie, 1990).
3When I say “entai led” here, I mean : deriva b le using eithe r classi c al or some
non-classical (e.g., relevance) logic.
4Other philosophers have criticized Walton at length, e.g., (Richard, 2000).
But I ha ve seen no on e make the very straight forward criticism that I make
here. (Walton, 1990) himself addresses the main issue I raise in this paper,
ut his c omments, n o matt er how th ey’re un derst ood, see m not t o constitut e
an adequate response to my argument against pretense theory (or so I shall
According to Walton, a literary fiction (like all fictions) is a
prop in a game of make-believe. (A copy of) A Study in Scarlet,
e.g., is a prop that we use to engage our imagination about a
fictional detective; we make-b elieve that Hol mes is a flesh and
blood, pipe-smoking crime-solver via some novel (just as a
child may, via the use of mud, make-believe he is making a
genuine chocolate pie). Via certain conditional principles,
Walton explains how props generate truths in fiction. That is,
for every fictio n there are pri nciples that prescri be what is to be
J. GOODMAN 23
imagined, hence what is to be true in a fiction, when certain
circumstances obtain. The principles that generate fictional
truths appeal to the germane conventions (conversational, be-
havioral, etc.) present in the population of people engaged with
the story. So, for example, it may be prescribed that one imag-
ine that there exists a pipe-smoking detective named ‘Holmes’
whenever one reads a sentence in A Study in Scarlet that ap-
parently quantifies over such a detective (just as it may be pre-
scribed that one imagine that there exists a chocolate pie
whenever one sees a round clump of mud).
So, any proposition p that is rightly prescribed to be imag-
ined by the conventions present in the population engaged with
a literary fiction F is something that is true in F. Some of these
propositions will be directly constitutive of F (e.g., the ones
expressed by sentences originally tokened by Sir Conan Doyle),
but not all of them. Some of the propositions that a population
is prescribed to make-believe are propositions that are culled
from the background. One rightly imagines that London is the
most populous city in England when reading A Study in Scarlet
even if “London is the most populous city in England” is no-
where tokened in any story-copy. In virtue of its being imported
in this way into the story, this proposition is just as true in the
fiction as a ny proposition tha t is dire c tly c onstitutive of the story .
Of course, not all propositions in the background of a story
ought to be imagined by those engaged with the story. The
propositions that are not prescribed to be imagined are those
that the conventions in place make irrelevant to the subject
matter of the story; if there is no convention that generates the
approp riate imagin ative acts i n the po pulat ion engaged with th e
story regarding some background proposition p, then p is not
true in the story. For example, one ought not imagine that
Holmes’ pipe was manufactured by a wizard when reading A
Study in Scarlet. The relevant proposition is utterly irrelevant to
the subject matter of the story. Thus, the proposition is rightly
not imported into the story, is thus not indirectly constitutive of
the fiction, and is thus not true in A Study in Scarlet5.
So, it is via the appropriate conventions present in a popula-
tion that propositions in the background for a fiction F become
true in F. We should also note that the members of the back-
ground that are eligible for importation need not be true propo-
sitions; some false propositions may rightly be imported into
some stories6. What’s central to the pretense account is simply
whether the person engaged with the fiction is indeed pre-
scribed to imagine p by the appropriate conventions of the
game of which that fiction is a prop. A person may be engaged
with a fiction F and mistakenly think that p ought to be im-
ported, but let us say that when p is rightly imported by some-
one into F given the germane co nventions in place, that p erson
is compet ently engaged with F.
Premise 2 is obviously the crux of the above argument, and
its force can now be made clear. It’s possible that there be dis-
tinct people, each of whom are competent readers of some fic-
tion F, yet some proposition p is prescribed by F given the
relevant conventions in the population to which the first person
belongs, while it is simultaneously not the case that p is pre-
scribed by F given the relevant conventions in the population to
which the second person belongs. On Walton’s account, it thus
follows that p will be both true in F and it will not be the case
that p is true in F7. (I of course will not be arguing for the claim
here that there are no fictions in which p is both true and not
true; of course there are “fictional worlds” that internally in-
volve contradiction in this way. But if there is any case in
which ‘in fiction F, p’ is true yet it’s also not the case that “in F,
p” is true, then we are left with a “real world” contradiction.
And dialetheist8 views notwithstanding, this seems to me be to
be an intolerable breach of lo gic.)
Consider the following short work of fiction. Call it Earth
“Once upon a time on planet Earth, the very planet we live
on, there were intelligent non-human creatures that walked,
talked and behaved very much like we behave. The end”.
Suppose Alex is part of a population of people here on Earth
and Alex engages himself with Earth Story. And suppose fur-
ther that everyone in Alex’s population has reason to believe
that Earth is the shape of a flat disc roughly 10,000 miles in
diameter resting on the back of a turtle. The above copy of
Earth Story never includ es any sent ence token s about the shape
of the Earth, nor do any of its sentence tokens entail anything
about its shape. Part of what’s true in Earth Story, though, by
virtue of what’s directly constitutive, is the proposition that
intelligent non-humans once lived on Earth. Given the relevant
conventions present in Alex’s population, Alex is competently
engaged with Earth Story; he thus rightly imports into the story
the background proposition that intelligent non-humans once
lived on a disc that is roughly 10,000 miles in diameter resting
on the back of a turtle. So, the proposition that intelligent non-
humans on ce walked o n a disc t hat rests on t he back o f a turtle,
e.g., will be true in Earth Story .
5The issues surrounding which propositions are relevant or irrelevant to a
story and the mechanisms by which a proposition gets rightly imported o
rightly fails to get imported are ones that are incredibly complex. At the very
least, Gricean conversational maxims and other subtle conventions of com-
munication and behavior must be appealed to in order to do these issues
ustice. However, I do not think these matters are hopelessly complex, and
they are ones that, in principle, could be dealt with coherently and com-
pletely. For my purposes here, however, all we will need is an example
whereby—no matter what the specifics are surrounding the germane con-
ventions in the relevant populations—Walton’s theory entails that some par-
ticul ar proposition bo t h s ho uld a n d s ho uld no t be im po r t e d in to some s to r y.
6Philos ophers ofte n speak of background facts th at get import ed into stori es.
However, as (Lewis, 1983: p. 274) points out, the proposition that there
exists an animal that breathes fire, e.g., may rightly be imported into a typi-
cal story about dragons. Lewis would call this a case of “inter-fictional
carry-over” of a proposition into a story rather than a case of importation o
a proposition from the background. However, the false proposition that
something breathes fire, I assert, may be true in a fiction F even when that
proposition is not imported from any other fiction G (or even any genre o
fiction). A population may (wrongly) believe in fire-
reathing animals for
scientific reasons. What seems to matter is merely whether or not the proposi-
tion in question is relevant in the right sort of way to the subject matter of F.
Now consid er Boris. He en gages h imself with Earth Story as
well, yet Boris is part of a population who (reasonably) all be-
lieve that Earth is an oblate spheroid. Given the relevant con-
ventions present in Boris’s population, Boris is competently
engaged with Earth Story; he thus rightly imports into the story
the background proposition that intelligent non-humans once
lived on an oblate spheroid. Further, it will not be prescribed by
any convention in Boris’s population that Boris imagine that
intelligent non-humans once lived on a flat and finite disc
roughly 10,000 miles in diameter resting on the back of a turtle.
So, the proposition that intelligent non-humans once walked on
7(Lewis, 1983: p. 272) addr esses thi s sort of problem for hi s own view, but
manages to cut off this worry by rigidly tying what’s imported into a story to
the prevailing beliefs of the community in which the story originated.
8See, e.g., (Priest, 1987) .
a disc that rests on the back of a turtle, e.g., will not be true in
Earth St o r y .
Objections and Replies
By my lights, there are only two sorts of replies that can be
made to premise 2. Let us call the first the non-competency
reply. On this rep ly, premise 2 is false b ecause it’s n ot tru e that
the relevant proposition is both true in Earth Story and not true
in Earth Story. It must be the case that ei ther Alex or Boris fails
to be competently engaged with the fiction.
I can’t see any way to make this reply plausible. No matter
what the relevant (conversational, behavioral, etc.) conventions
are in the populations of Alex and Boris which govern what
they ought to imagine, I can see no reason to suppose that ei ther
must be violating any of those conventions when they engage
with Earth Story .
The second sort of reply to premise 2 we may call the con-
text-dependency reply. Walton goes to great lengths to explain
this line of response9; his reasoning has been summarized by
(Kim and Maslen, 2006):
Sometimes there are two (or more) incompatible yet per-
fectly reasonable readings of a novel. Applying Walton’s term
“auth orized game” to th ese cases, there are two kind s of games
authorized by the story, and in each kind of game, different
background facts are imported.
…[T]he facts th at are impo rted into a stor y are generated in a
similar way to the way that facts that are merely implied in a
conversation are generated. Sometimes the context in which a
conversatio n occurs determines on e readi ng over anoth er… In a
similar way, different contexts in which a story occurs may
determine different readings of the story by determining which
background facts are legitimately imported or brought into the
story in t hat context 10.
A nice example is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
Some literary critics argue that the ghosts in the story are real,
and others that the ghosts are the governess’s hallucinations.
These two incompatible readings may well both be reason-
I have a hard time figuring out the most charitable way to
understand this reply. However, no matter what Walton means
by “authorized games”, and no matter how different contexts
generate different conventions governing what we ought to
imagine, it seems to me that there are o nly three po ssible ways
to construe this response to premise 212.
First interpretation of context-dependency reply: whenever
contexts of interpretation differ in the way that I described
above regarding Alex and Boris, it turns out that one is dealing
with two distinct stories. Premise 2 is not supported by the ex-
ample above because in such a hypothetical case you wind up
with one story that Alex is competently engaged with and a
distinct story that Boris is engaged with. We may have just one
name for both stories, and the stories may have much in com-
mon, but it’s just not the case that it is both true and not true
according to some unique story that intelligent non-humans
once walked on a disc that rests on the back of a turtle. When-
ever different conventions are in place that prescribes different
imaginings to different people engaged with a fiction, this is
enough to make for a difference in the stories that each en-
This interpretation of the context-dependency reply seems to
accord well with the idea t hat fictio ns are socially de fined enti-
ties. But this reply does violence to the idea that there can be
two incompatible yet reasonable interpretations of one and the
same fiction. It seems perfectly reasonable to say that both Alex
and Boris are engaged with a unique fiction, viz., Earth Story,
and they are in disagreemen t about what i s true in it.
Second interpretation of the context-dependency reply: when-
ever contexts of interpretation differ in the way that I described
above regarding Alex and Boris, it turns out that each must be
dealing with two distinct background propositions. Premise 2 is
not supported by the example above because in such a hypo-
thetical case you wind up with one proposition that Alex rightly
imports into Earth Story in virtue of the prevailing flat-earth-
belief circumstances he is in, and a distinct proposition that
Boris rightly fails to import into Earth Story in virtue of the
prevailing spheroid-earth-belief circumstances he is in. So, it’s
just not the case that it is both true and not true according to some
unique story that intelligent non-humans once walked on a disc
that rests on the back of a turtle; it’s true according to Earth Story
that intelligent-non-humans-once-walked-on-a -dis c -that-rests -on-
the-back-of-a-turtle-in-Alex’s-context but it’s not the case that
this very proposition is a ls o not tru e in the s tory.
This version of the context-dependency reply seems to be the
one that is best supported by the Kim and Maslen summary
from above. However, this version of the reply seems to me to
fare no better than the first. If this reply were correct, then it
would turn out that two reasonable people—whenever they
disagree about the correct interpretation of a work of fiction in
virtue of being in different circumstances where different con-
ventions are generated—can never be disagreeing about whe-
ther or not one and t he same proposi tion is true in some fiction
F. Suppose Alex and Boris meet. The question is posed to them:
“Is it true in Earth Story that intelligent non-humans once
walked on a flat disc with a 10,000 mile circumference resting
on the b ack of a turtle?” One will say yes, one will say no . This
seems to me to be reflective of a genuine disagreement about
the inclusion or non-inclusion of a unique proposition in Earth
Story by two people competently engaged with the fiction.
Third interpretation of the context-dependency reply: when-
ever contexts of interpretation differ in the way that I described
above regarding Alex and Boris, it turns out that the unique
fiction each is competently engaged with is one that makes two
incompatible background propositions true. Premise 2 is not
suppo rted by the example abo ve because in such a hypoth etical
case you wind up with a story in which it is true that intelligent
non-humans once walked on a flat disc with… and it is also
true in the story that no intelligent non-humans ever walked on
a flat disc with … Whenever two people di sagree based on con-
text in the way the example relies on, each is competently en-
gaged with an impossible fiction; Alex rightly imports one
proposition p into Ea rth St ory while Boris rightly imports not-p
into Earth Story.
9See (Walton, 1990: pp. 285-287).
10(Kim & Ma sl en, 2006: p. 90).
11(Kim & Maslen, 2006: p. f22).
12Let us note fi rst, th ough, that however th is rep ly is to b e const rued, it simp l
cannot amount to the claim that “in fiction F, p” and “not: in fiction F, p”are
both true whenever either the right understanding of proposition por the whole
fiction F is context dependent. No matter how context dependency is construe
that w o ul d s till am o unt to t he endorsement of a true c o ntra diction.
J. GOODMAN 25
This version of the reply does, of course, allow the pretense
theorist to avoid the contradiction. Negation does not always
push throu gh “acco rdin g to” or “it is true in the sto ry” operat ors,
so if it is true in Earth Story that no intelligent non-humans
ever walked on a flat disc…, that does not entail that it is not
true in Earth Story that intelligent non-humans once walked on
a flat disc… However, this version of the context-dependency
reply just does not present a plausible account of what’s going
on in the case of Alex and Boris. There are many impossible
fictions to be sure, but Earth Story is just not one of them. Alex
and Boris are in disagreement in a very straightforward sort of
way regardi ng the shape o f a thing t hat, accordin g to the story,
was once walked on by some intelligent non-humans; neither
would assent to the idea that the story says that such creatures
both did and did not walk on a flat disc…
My aims here were not to introduce any novel account of
truth in fiction or argue for any alternative to pretense theory.
My goal was a more modest one; I simply wished to maintain
that that while Earth Story is a unique fiction, the lesson to be
learned from it is perfectly general. The example demonstrates
that t he pretense account of truth in fiction cann ot be correct.
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