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I work in the field of information systems and cultural heritage. A significant part of my work is related to the description of things that are of interest to cultural heritage specialists such as archaeologists or anthropologists. These things include objects such as paintings, tools or utensils; structures such as buildings or caves; places such as mountains or towns; etc. Most of the time, the things we need to describe are real, i.e. we can perceive them through our senses and thus give a conventional account of them. However, sometimes we need to deal with things (of the above mentioned kinds) that are imaginary, such as Atlantis (an imaginary place) or Excalibur (the sword which Merlin supposedly got from the Lady of the Lake).

The consensus between researchers seem to be that a sword is a sword is a sword, and thus imaginary swords are described in terms of their purported physical properties, use, chronology and other attributes very much like any real sword. Of course, one would note down that this particular sword happens to be imaginary, and one should not expect to find it in a museum.

However, places are trickier to deal with. The essence of a place seems to be its spatial location, and imaginary places often lack that, i.e. they don't have a well-defined or known location. For this reason, researchers rarely describe imaginary places in the same terms as they would describe real places. Rather, they use accessory attributes (such as what happened there or who lived there) instead of their physical location in the world.

After thinking for a while about this, I am wondering about the nature of imaginary things. For objects (such as the sword in my example), imaginary and real don't seem to differ that much. For places, however, the difference is crucial.

So my question is, are there any works on the ontology (and/or epistemology) of the imaginary that I can look at? Are there any mainstream or accepted takes on this problem? Thank you.

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    Very interesting problem. I deal with this question too in my research field. Maybe you can read Aleida Assmann´s "Erinnerungsräume" (Espacios de recuerdos). On the other side, maybe the idea of "imaginary object" has something to do with the notion of "symbol". See for example Jean-Jacques Wunenburger "La vie des images", Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 1995. Regards. – Strabo Sep 13 '13 at 16:34
  • @Strabo: Thank you. I will look at the references that you mention. – CesarGon Sep 13 '13 at 19:48
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    Great question. Essentially, the answer depends on who you ask and what their metaphysical framework of things is. I would start with Meinong and his ideas on non-existence, then to Russel, Kripke, etc. What we can say today is that there are two large categories: realism and irrealism. In the prior, imaginary (fictitious) things exist, and for the latter, they don't. Depending upon which camp you begin with, you will find different opinions on the matter. – jacob Sep 14 '13 at 3:22
  • @jacob: Are you saying that irreal and imaginary are different? – CesarGon Sep 14 '13 at 11:29
  • @jacob: BTW, I'm checking out Meinong and it looks promising. Many thanks. – CesarGon Sep 14 '13 at 18:28
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To say that existence is determined by an aggregate of qualia is to take a stand, is not a "neutral" position. One can easily defend, actually with quite solid empirical evidence, that there is an indissociable imaginary (even fictional, without any concession) ingredient in the construction/perception of every object we deem perfectly real.

I would look for literature in the cognitive sciences that could help you strenghen you position, bypassing ontology and epistemology for now (we don't need too big guns here). What comes to my memory right now is the book by Varela, Thompson and Rosch, "The embodied mind" (http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/embodied-mind).

More practically, I'd say that if you are in a position to deliberately include fictional stuff in your data model, as if they were real, and get away with it, my advice is only one:

Have fun.

  • Many thanks for your answer. I'll look at the book you suggest, definitely. – CesarGon May 11 '15 at 13:04
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This SEP article contains a review of contemporary positions and arguments, regarding fictional (imaginary) objects. Four main positions are discussed:
Possibilism: fictional objects are possible entities,
Meinungianism: fictional objects are actual entities,
Creationism: fictional objects are author dependent entities,
Anti Realism: fictional objects are not entities (they do not exist).

Fictional locations are not discussed separately. It is remarked that with locations it is common that a real location is contained in a fiction. For example, Sherlock Holmes lived in London. There is some controversy whether Holmes's London is the real London, or a fictional counterpart of the real London.

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One 'mainstream' take on this problem is Jung's analysis of archetypes. From a psychoanalytic point of view, imaginary qualities of cultural artifacts are psychological hooks to a shared library of tropes.

So, for instance, in describing the machinery of the "Great Work" in alchemy, a collection of mythical laboratory equipment, his focus was on cultural resonance with other philological details.

I don't know how settled the catalog of tropes about one's environment can be, but it seems like a productive way of attempting to categorize mythical places. Proximity to woods, seas or mountains; weather; brightness or darkness; cultural choice of bright colors, etc. are aspects of real places with psychological impact, and they would be mapped onto fake places to shape those places' intended impact.

I would presume that the intended psychological impact the culture expects a thing to have is the real meaning that one would wish to capture when cataloging imaginary objects.

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