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Literature and Language between Fiction and Non Fiction: a Matter of Commitment. An interview with John Searle

(by Angela Condello and Tiziano Toracca)

The idea to ask John Searle what he thinks about fiction, reality and truth as they relate to literature stems from a growing and common interest that we have developed for issues that transversally cross literature, social sciences, and philosophy. Such issues – fiction, reality, truth – are now widespread and recurring also in public discourse since they concern language and forms of communication.

If many of the questions might sound unsophisticated, simple and straightforward, it is because they aim for unsophisticated, simple and straightforward answers. The themes in discussion are indeed broad and could have become confusing. From this perspective, we appreciated Searle’s choice to have the answers preceded by some preliminary remarks and distinctions. He writes a sort of short handbook – following the analytic tradition of philosophy. He makes few theoretical statements in order to clarify questions that might appear difficult. When we question the nature of literary objects, when we wonder about the difference between Napoleon and the Napoleon described by Tolstoj, or when we think of the function Don Quixote has or would have (considering that he did not exist historically), or when we wonder if and how literary fiction influences our perception of the world – what appears simple becomes indeed difficult because it concerns the basic relationship between language and reality.

Searle’s answers highlight the basic questions at stake in the relationship between language and reality. In particular, Searle seems to have a very clear idea of the difference between fiction and non-fiction. He insists that the distinction lies in the amount of truth involved in the discourse and consequently in the commitment of the subject that talks or writes. Different degrees of commitment produce, he claims, different forms of fictionality.


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