I recently read about encoding and exemplifying.

From what I understand - Detective Smith (a real person) exemplifies detectiveness, but Sherlock Homes does not.

Sherlock Homes isn't real - and if, upon first learning of the character, I was told 'Sherlock Homes is a detective' - that information (that he's a detective) wouldn't tell me much about detectives - it wouldn't 'exemplify' detectives very well.

However, if someone first told me everything about Sherlock Homes, but did not tell me that he is a detective - and then revealed to me that he was. When I learned that Sherlock Homes is a detective, now knowing everything about him (especially, now that I know about his work routine) - I'd have to say I have an exemplification of a detective.

So, why do fictional characters not exemplify properties?

  • 1
    Could you provide the source? :)
    – Lukas
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 11:49
  • mally.stanford.edu/theory.html its an interesting article.
    – Hal
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 2:27
  • Ernst Mally does not seem relevant nowadays. I think, you can ignore his thoughts and/or works without any disadvange for your knowledge of filosophy.
    – c69
    Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 22:36
  • I guess I don't understand this. Doesn't Captain Ahab exemplify the fanatic driven to his doom? And not only the fanatic ... but the persuasive fanatic. He is not captain of a slave ship or a military ship. The Pequod is a commercial venture in which each crew member is part owner. (Remember they're paid in shares of the profits). Ahab convinces the entire crew to follow him on his mad mission. It seems to me that Ahab most definitely exemplifies a certain personality type that's all too common in real life. That's why there's more truth in fiction than in history. Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 21:14

4 Answers 4


I think the key issue here is that there is no necessary connection between fiction and reality to validate an exemplification. Sherlock Holmes is in fact a very potent case: he has many behaviours and characteristics not seen in most detectives, because he is a fictional character and not bound by reality. Thus it is fallacious to say that he exemplifies detectives because as a fictional character, he cannot be used to represent real things.

A more obvious instance of this is with animals. Suppose I describe to you a fictional horse. This horse does not exemplify real horses because by virtue of its fiction, I can attach to it properties like "runs at Mach 7" and "does calculus in his head," and this is perfectly valid within my context, while it certainly does not help to describe real horses.

Now, this may seem malicious on my part, and the natural response is "but so long as you stick to what's really possible, everything should be fine!" However, therein lies the problem: we have no reliable way of guaranteeing that our fiction totally reflects reality. No matter how hard we try, fictional characters may behave in unrealistic ways because our attempts to model their actions are ultimately speculative to some degree, unless we make them congruous to observed real world behaviour, in which case the character is no longer fictional.

Of course, this means that fictional characters exemplify fictional characters. Sherlock Holmes exemplifies fictional detectives, but here is where I'm not so certain: one might need to be careful by setting bounds depending on context. For example, Sherlock Holmes exemplifies fictional detectives in his fictional world may be the more accurate formulation. Batman is also a fictional detective, but I'd be reluctant to say that they both exemplify the same sort of fictional detective.

  • Okay. I understand. But, couldn't I just as easily as a write about a not-yet-existant horse, point to fighter-jet and say "that's a horse". Thus the fighter jet would come to exemplify a horse. From another perspective: barring logical impossibilities in the fictional exemplification (say, the remarkable Sherlock Homes - who we (for the sake of argument) understand to be an exaggeration of the admirable qualities of detectives) is still recognizable as a detective, and thereby might represent the 'outermost' bounds of detectiveness in our conception.
    – Hal
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 1:56
  • What I mean to say, is that if the author is going to lie, or make impossible statements, or otherwise depart from reality - can't the same thing happen in real life (the fighter-jet labelled as horse). Examples like S.H. are exaggerations, but recognizable exaggerations. They have not been exaggerated so much that, say - remarkable powers of deduction become clairvoyance (at which point,S.H. wouldn't be a detective anymore -not in my mind anyway). And if S.H. is recognizable in fiction as a detective, wouldn't such a character(if there ever came to be one)be recognized as a detective in fact.
    – Hal
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 2:02
  • By that, doesn't S.H. also exemplify what we might consider a detective. In that way, I don't see a fiction being much different than a real exemplification that would still be conceived of as what it exemplifies - but that has not yet happened. In other words: it seems to me that fictions provide a tool of exploring the possibilities of exemplification without the necesssity of having that possible thing manifest. <-- I don't assume I'm right. I wrote my thoughts only to make it easier to show me where I went wrong and why. Thank you.
    – Hal
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 2:11
  • @Hal I think you're correct in general, except that the definition of exemplification is much stricter than how you're using it. Certainly S.H. is a good "example" of a detective, however in the most technical sense he does not "exemplify" detectiveness because as a fictional character, there is no necessary connection between his actions and real detectiveness. With regard to your fighter/horse example, I think you're delving more into semantic territory there, while I'm talking about meanings. You might say "horse", but you mean "fighter" and that's what matters.
    – commando
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 15:06
  • The difference with Sherlock Holmes is that no matter what you say about him, you can never mean "real detective" because he isn't a real detective, unless you're calling a real detective Sherlock Holmes (which is a different matter entirely).
    – commando
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 15:07

Sherlock Holmes, although a fictional detective is actually - in literary terms - a symbol of rationality.

Fiction, even when it works with what looks like the ordinary world, is not directly about it. It creates its own world where certain theses and ideas are explored.

A real detective will exemplify detectiveness and nothing more - whereas a fictional detective may exemplify detectiveness, but usually does more.

When you see a real detective - it is exactly you looking at that detective. Whereas when you look at a fictional detective it is you looking through the narrative (the authors eyes) at detectiveness. The author may not be actually all that interested in detectiveness despite appearances.

  • Isn't it much more likely that a real individual will have properties beyond their profession, than a fictional one whose profession (as in the case of Holmes) may be the filter through which the author will tend to present things to you? Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 10:08
  • Thats a fair point. I was trying to say that literature/art plays a lot of tricks that real things can't. One could argue that a real detective has to eat, sleep and watch tv as well as do detective things - and so these things should also be a part of detectiveness. Certain documentary-style films try to show that. Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 10:55
  • However, eating, sleeping, and other activities are also a part of just about any human's activities. Because of the commonality of human behaviour which has nothing to do with being a detective per se, we tend to abstract those properties away, so that "engaging in detective-like behaviour" doesn't really include "eating". (Perhaps it might involve drinking rye from a flask, if we're talking about film noir.) Also, we can imagine creating artificial intelligences which engage in activities that would incline us to call them detectives: would they have to sleep for them to really count? Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 11:07

According to the related text, fictional characters exemplify properties.

159) Definition: Characters of Stories. We say that x is a character of s just in case there is some property x exemplifies according to s: Character(x, s) =df EF(|= Fx)

Where E stands for the existential quantifier. As I understand the quote, in order to be a fictional charakter x, one has to exemplify some property according to s, where s is a story.

  • . Mally's idea, in essence, was that we should not represent sentences about fictional objects, such as ‘Sherlock Holmes is a detective’, ‘Pegasus has wings’, ‘King Lear had 3 daughters’, and ‘Zeus lived on Mt. Olympus’, in terms of the notation ‘Fx’ (only real, concrete objects can exemplify the properties of being a detective, having wings, having daughters, or living on Mt. Olympus)... Cont
    – Hal
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 10:40
  • Nevertheless, Mally reasoned in effect that there must be some mode of predication, some sense of the words ‘is’ and ‘has’ (German ‘ist’ and ‘hat’), for which it is true to say ‘Sherlock Holmes is a detective’ and ‘Pegasus has wings’ (we wouldn't understand the story and myth properly if we didn't imagine objects that, in some sense, were instances of the properties in question)... Cont
    – Hal
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 10:42
  • So Mally informally introduced the notion ‘x encodes F’ (German: F determiniert x) as a new mode of predication that is more appropriate for the logical analysis of sentences about fictions and other abstract objects. Whereas the real detective Pinkerton exemplifies detectivehood (‘Dp’), Sherlock Holmes encodes this property (‘hD’)
    – Hal
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 10:43
  • "As I understand the quote, in order to be a fictional charakter x, one has to exemplify some property according to s, where s is a story.". So, given the part of the article I pasted above - it seems that that a fictional character can exemplify, so long as it is 'according' to the character's story - what does he mean by 'according to' - and why is that exception consistent with the rest of his theory?
    – Hal
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 10:51
  • I am very confused about the structure of the mally.edu site. I will read some more and then edit this or post a new answer. It seems that this answer is based upon one part of that site, the principia metaphysica. Don't know how they are related.
    – Lukas
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 18:01

I think what Mally is getting at here is that the abstract object "detective" is derived (or properly derived) from what we observe in real detectives, while fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes are derived from our abstract "detective".

Detective Smith exemplifies detectiveness because we can observe real behavior from him, and combined with what we know from other real detectives construct a model of a detective in our mind.

Sherlock Holmes encodes detectiveness because the creator(s) of the persona of Sherlock Holmes create Holmes' detectiveness based on their mental model of a detective.

If we attempt to derive information for our model of a detective based on fictional detectives, our model may become flawed. For example, if we assume, because we see many fictional detectives smoking pipes, that the typical real world detective also smokes a pipe, we are probably incorrect. We see this all the time whenever people's mental model of an object is based mostly on what they see in fiction. A significant example of this is "Hollywood physics".

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