Ontological Rules

Authored by: Marie-Laure Ryan

The Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds

Print publication date:  October  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138638914
eBook ISBN: 9781315637525
Adobe ISBN:


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Ontology, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as the philosophical study of “the nature of being and of the kind of things that have existence,” provides a useful approach to the classification and differentiation of imaginary worlds. In a possible worlds perspective, imaginary worlds can be situated at variable distances from the world we regard as actual or primary; for instance, the world of a realistic novel such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) stands closer to the actual world than the world of a fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955) because its description requires fewer modifications from the assumed description of reality than the description of the world of The Lord of the Rings. We can build the storyworld of Freedom by adding a few individuals to the inventory of the real world, while leaving everything else unchanged (physical laws, natural species, history, geography), but we can only build the world of The Lord of the Rings by adding species (orcs, elves, hobbits), changing natural laws, and creating a brand new geography. Ontological rules specify what can and cannot exist, what is and isn’t possible in a particular type of storyworld, thereby determining its distance, or conditions of accessibility, from the Primary World in which we live. When a number of texts share the same ontological rules, we can speak of genre.

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