Fiction, Non-Factuals, and the Principle of Minimal Departure
In the late seventies I read James McCawley’s book Everything Linguists have Always Want to Know about Logic (But Were Afraid to Ask) and was fascinated by his presentation of David Lewis’ analysis of the truth conditions of counterfactuals. I then read Lewis’ book on counterfactuals and his important article "Truth in Fiction." These readings inspired a long-lasting interest in the literary applications of modal logic and in the concept of possible world. This article is the first in a series that eventually led to my book Possible Worlds.
Fiction is commonly viewed as imaginative discourse, or as discourse concerning an alternative possible world. The problem with such definitions is that they cannot distinguish fiction from counterfactual statements, or from the reports of dreams, wishes and fantasies that occur in the context of conversational discourse. This paper attempts to capture the difference, as well as the similarities, between fiction and other language uses involving statements about non-existing worlds by comparing their respective behavior in the light of an interpretive principle that I call "the principle of minimal departure." This principle states that whenever we interpret a message concerning an alternative world, we reconstrue this world as being the closest possible to the actual world. This means that we will project upon the world created by the text everything we know about the real world, and that we will make only those adjustments that are imposed by the text. In non-factual discourse the referents of the pronouns I and you are reconstrued as retaining the personality of the actual speaker as fully as possible, but in fiction they are immune to the principle of minimal departure.
The Pragmatics of Personal and Impersonal Fiction