The Case of the Missing Category Error

Much discussion about fictional literature implicitly invokes a category error. A category error is where you apply a concept that has developed to work with one kind of thing and instead apply it to another kind of thing, where there might be important differences. In this case, most of the concepts discussed in literature have been developed to apply to biological entities (i.e., humans) or real situations, but they are being applied to fictional ones.

For example, in a fictional murder mystery, did suspect so-and-so really murder so-and-so? This question has no answer. You can answer: what the author intended, what fictional ‘facts’ presented cohere better with one hypothesis or another, and so on. Yet, there is no answer to the question, because ‘murder’ is meant to apply to a real-world situation, and this is fiction.

Debates like these are like a joke. The setup is a debate about some part of a fictional book or play and so on, and the punch-line is the realization that one is making a category error.

Being aware of category errors could be useful in thinking about various thought-experiments in philosophy, because thought-experiments are fiction.

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