Following the aesthetics-challenge my first question on this site:

In several episodes of "The Big Bang Theory" Wil Wheaton appears. enter image description here

In the credits it is stated that he plays "himself". But I have problems with that statement. It seems to me that there are two different entities: The A-ctor on the set of Big Bang Theory and the C-haracter he portrays. They must be different entities because they have different properties: A has no friend named Sheldon Cooper. C was never actor in a show named "The Big Bang Theory". So following Leibniz A and C cannot be the same entity.

But there are very strange consequences of this. For one the character he plays is said to be Wil Wheaton. If someone asks me, which character is played by Liam Neeson in "Schindler's List" I would answer "He plays Oskar Schindler, a historic person of the third Reich". Accordingly if someone asks me which character is played by Wil Wheaton in "The Big Bang Theory" I'd answer "He plays Wil Wheaton, an actor known from Star Trek". I would not answer "He plays a character very familiar to Wil Wheaton". If a character in a show is introduced as Mr. So-and-so he is Mr. So-and-so, not a character very similar to Mr. So-and-so. If we need to drop this "rule", we were also forced to say: "In Skyfall Daniel Craig plays a character similar to James Bond." That sounds most weird to me. And it feels wrong.

Also with this approach we create a whole new set of entities: To every C there is also an A then, and that's not exactly ontological parsimony.

Are there any theories dealing with cameo-problem? And if so: How is it dealt with?

  • 1
    "Who represents Wil Wheaton in “Big Bang Theory”?" That would be the Stone Manners Salners Agency... (ducks and runs) Aug 30, 2014 at 7:09
  • Btw you could certainly say, "the character that Daniel Craig plays in Skyfall is (arguably) similar to the character that Sean Connery plays in Dr. No". After all, they have differences that would, if referring to real humans, make them not the same entity. For example height, or the fact that their age falls in a certain range at incompatible dates. As such, whatever you mean by "James Bond", it is probably not a single entity in that sense, and it is certainly not a real human. As far as that goes, the fictional WW is not WW, but they do have the same name. Aug 31, 2014 at 0:45
  • i'm going to watch inception again and formulate an answer while i watch.
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 29, 2017 at 16:56

4 Answers 4


I generally take characters on shows to be a different instance of the same person, that is, the name doesn't matter, but in the context of the show the actor is that same actor but in the context of the parallel universe developed for the show.

Let's use object orientated because that is freakishly easy notation for this problem.

(Consensus Reality).(Wil Wheaton) portrays (The Big Bang Theory).(Wil Wheaton).

So if someone asked me what character Wil Wheaton plays in the The Big Bang Theory, I would say "He plays Wil Wheaton" which is the verbal representation of the statement above in OO notation because context is reasonably clear from the discussion.

For example, my name is Calvin. Moreover, the protagonist of my perception of reality is Calvin. So I have two Calvins.

(Consensus Reality).Calvin and (Calvin's Perception).Calvin.

In Consensus Reality, Calvin is portrayed by the same Calvin as in Calvin's Perception, so I would say that the credits of Consensus Reality could list Calvin as played by himself.

However, there are certain differences. For example, (Calvin's Perception).Calvin was not born, but just slowly emerged into consciousness over time (due to the nature of memory). However, this difference can be reconciled by viewing these different Calvins as different instances of the same Calvin across multiple abstractions of reality.

Or at least, that makes sense to me.

  • 1
    Not the easiest way to explain or understand it, I think, but the "parallel universes" idea seems right on target.
    – Rex Kerr
    Aug 29, 2014 at 19:01
  • I think it's a great way to explain and understand it.
    – AndrewC
    Aug 31, 2014 at 19:45

It seems to me that playing yourself and being yourself are two very different things. Even in real life we often portray some version of our selves that are neither wholly distinguishable from the selves we really are, nor wholly capable of being identified with those true selves.

Clearly this requires a conception of identity that might be characterized as unconventional, but there's ample precedent for it in the philosophical tradition. For example, a Platonist might consider all of us to be portraying illusive characters in light of the Platonic belief that we are all poor copies of a more ideal reality.

From this point of view, Wil Wheaton playing "himself" on television is not so very different from him "playing" himself at a fan convention, or from what any other public figure does to develop a public persona distinguishable from his or her private self.


"Himself" seems to take care of the problem. If it said "Wil Wheaton" is played by "Wil Wheaton", then you get all recursive - like "why is the character not talking to 'Johnny' and 'Jim' and talking about members of the studio audience?" 'Himself' is a colloquial shorthand for "in this story, our characters crossed paths with famous-person Wil Wheaton, who portrayed himself in order to create a more realistic story."

An ironic counterpoint is Louis C.K., who has various actors portray him and his friends and family. It's fascinating to see yet another actor playing C.K. at a different stage of his life. He has a black actress portray his wife. I wonder, is his wife black? But in a recent show, he showed a white woman and yet another male actor playing him and his wife, a decade earlier. I love when he does that, because he drives that philosophical nail in with a feather. Delightful!


Wheaton's wikipedia page calls his role "a fictionalized version of himself". That takes care of the problem, I'd say - the differences between the fictionalized version and the real one are pretty obvious, so there's no need to call him a "fictionalized version" in the credits.

Related: The celebrity paradox, which points out that actress Jeri Ryan enabled Obama to become president, but not in the Star Trek universe...

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