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date: 28 May 2020

Summary and Keywords

The concept of possible worlds (PW) originated in the metaphysics of Leibnitz and had its greatest impact on philosophy, as well as on other disciplines, through its recurrence as a powerful tool of modal logic in the 1960s. PW were named in order to attribute semantic content to the (modal) difference between necessity, possibility, and impossibility. The concept later wandered into other disciplines, principally into literary theory around the subject of fiction and fictional worlds. The conversion of a strictly analytic tool into an interdisciplinary concept serving literary theorists is striking, especially because this pairing of the idea of PW, as a logical tool, with a primarily literary problem, has proven to be prolific.

PW suggest several ideas that account for their interdisciplinary appeal: the acknowledgment of multiple realities, the privileging of one world from a plurality of worlds, and the assigning of truth value to assertions about nonexistents. A possible world, in which horses fly, includes assertions about an alternative (actualized) reality, and these assertions have a nonexistent as their referent, whether this nonexistent is interpreted intensionally, as the semantic content of the assertion, or extensionally, as a real thing that inhabits a world. This divergence of interpretations, between a semantic and a realistic understanding, figures in the whole range of philosophical topics discussed in relation to PW.

The concept of PW as a philosophical tool is associated with theories of reference that aim to loosen up an alleged dependence of successful reference on the prior existence and/or prior knowledge of the referent. Concepts such as counterfactuals and rigid designation—reflect this orientation and nourish philosophical ways of addressing the problems posed by modal possibilities, such as fiction.

PW appear to offer literary theory straightforward sources of fascination: multiple realities and the relations among them, and the possibility of referring to imaginary or semi-imaginary entities. PW suggest commitment to multiple realities, whether possible or impossible, that are actualized as fiction, without losing sight of an ontological center (i.e., the primacy of one world as actual). The fictional world can hence be considered as real as the world accepted as reality, while the boundary between the actual-fictional world and other modalities is sustained. PW and the worldly character of fiction they suggest explain the intimacy readers feel with narrative persons and events. PW further explain how a fictional world can both be distinct (i.e., autonomous) and imbued with reference to real-world counterparts. The interdisciplinary exchange around PW developed in productive ways, which yet accentuate that the explanatory potential of PW is specific to each of the disciplines.

Keywords: possible worlds, realism, counterfactuals, modal logic, fictionality, rigid designation, actuality

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