Explanation and Quasi-Miracles in Narrative Understanding: The Case of Poetic Justice
Caddick Bourne, Emily
Narratives provide understanding of the events they represent, organising them, as David Velleman (2003) puts it, into an intelligible whole. Saying what kind of understanding this is, and how narratives furnish it, is a matter of debate. One influential proposal (Carroll (2001)) is that narratives provide understanding by offering causal explanations of events. But, it has been argued, the phenomenon of poetic justice – where fictional characters get their due apparently by happy accident – shows that this account is wrong. Gregory Currie (2006) proposes that in cases such as poetic justice, we take the fictional world to be inherently responsive to reasons; geared, for example, towards reward and retribution. In other words, audiences see the connections between the fictional events as instantiations of normative laws. We shall argue that while it may be right to treat some fictional worlds as governed by such laws, this is not what is fundamental to poetic justice. We suggest a new account of this feature of narratives, based on a development of the notion of a ‘quasi-miracle’ introduced by David Lewis (1986a). A quasi-miracle is a particular kind of extraordinary and striking event. Whilst Lewis’s intention was to solve a problem concerning the semantics of counterfactuals, we propose to take the notion of a quasi-miracle outside that debate, and use it in a new way. There is much philosophical work to be done by examining how quasi-miracles function – including, importantly, the responses they invite when we encounter them. Exploring this allows us to pinpoint what it is to regard certain events – such as those involved in poetic justice in narratives – as cases of remarkable coincidence.