Possible Worlds of Art
Jānis Taurens, philosopher
Daniel Birnbaum, the Director of the Venice Biennale 53rd International Art Exhibition entitled ‘Making Worlds', introduces his vision of art, as set out in the opening article of the catalogue, with the words: "A work of art is more than an object, more than a commodity. It represents a vision of the world, and if taken seriously must be seen as a way of making a world."
However, the story of worlds goes back further. Let's imagine a pond into which a stone is thrown - the circles in the water will gradually spread across the surface until they subside. An analogy with the ocean, where the slightest movement will spread to the most distant quarters, was utilised by Leibniz in his ‘Theodicy', first published in full in Amsterdam in 1710. In this ‘apology for God' he argued that, having compared all possible worlds, God chooses and creates the best of them, since in our world and in the other - possible - worlds all is connected as in an immense mass of water, and we cannot improve something in one part of the world without changing the world in its entirety. Thus, in order to choose the best of all possible worlds, they need to be seen together - something that, of course, only God can do.

The concept ‘pos-sible worlds' was a technical aid for Leibniz, providing the grounds for his assertion that our world is the best of the possible worlds that are considered in the mind of omniscient God. In 1758, three years after the devastating Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire wrote his philosophical novel ‘Candide', in which he ridicules the optimism inherent in Leibniz's idea of the possible worlds. (In the novel, Voltaire's character Pangloss, who asserts that Leibniz "could never be wrong; and besides, the pre-established harmony is the finest thing in the world", witnesses the Lisbon earthquake and experiences what it means "to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to row in the galleys".) Although perhaps not directly because of this criticism, Leibniz's idea receded into obscurity, until the 20th century American philosopher Saul Kripke - sometimes dubbed a child prodigy, since he wrote his first work on modal logic at the age of 16 - reinstated the idea of possible worlds in philosophical discussion.

Initially, the term was used to define the conditions of truth for sentences in which we use the terms ‘possible' and ‘impossible' and ‘necessary'. (For example, ‘necessary' means that something is true in all possible worlds, while ‘possible' means that it is true in at least one of them.). However, soon the question arose as to the nature of these possible worlds. Kripke himself, in his lectures in 1970 entitled ‘Naming and Necessity', asserts that a possible world isn't a distant country that we are viewing through a telescope. Even if we travel faster than light, we won't get to it. "A possible world is given by the descriptive conditions we associate with it" - for example, we might imagine and describe a situation in which Kripke's lectures are not held.

However, another American philosopher - David Lewis - developed a realist version of the theory of possible worlds, which turned out to be well-founded and successfully fulfilled its functions specifically in the logical and semantic context, although many would find it fantastic and quite impossible to accept. In the work ‘Counter-factuals' (1973), he asserted that the word ‘actual' is similar to such words as ‘I', ‘here' and ‘now', whose meaning changes, depending on who utters them, when they are said and where. Thus, if we say ‘actual', we are referring to our world, while other worlds are only possible to us, while for beings inhabiting some possible world, it is their world that is actual, while we are only possible.

With this, metaphysics regained the poetic atmosphere it had lost, and it was not long before the concept of possible worlds began to be used in literary and artistic interpretation. Thus, in August 1986, marking the bicentennial of the Swedish Academy, a Nobel Symposium was held, the theme of which was ‘Possible Worlds in Humanities, Arts and Sciences'. The section devoted to literature and art was dominated by papers on literary works, and particularly the ontology of imaginary or fictional proper names. One of the participants, Lubomír Doležel, pointed out that the first attempts to interpret the fictional worlds of literature in the terminology of possible worlds had appeared already in the 1970s, and he himself proposed that, in contrast to the so-called ‘one-world model frame', the fictional characters of literature might be considered in a ‘possible-worlds model frame'.

In his lecture and in a book he wrote later on the same subject, Doležel identifies three essentials that characterise the possible-worlds model frame, as interpreted in literary works: first, fictional worlds are sets of possible states of affairs; secondly, the set of fictional worlds is unlimited and maximally varied, although it is not excluded that some might resemble our actual world; and, thirdly, fictional worlds are ‘accessible' from the actual world - even though they are not linked by any spatial or causal relationship - through semiotic channels by means of information processing or, to put it simply, by reading books. It follows from these ideas that the reference of proper names in literature, i.e. fictional objects and characters, cannot be simply identified with actual things, places and people bearing the same name. Even more than that, these possible worlds are incomplete, and even in the case of such major literary works as Marcel Proust's ‘Remembrance of Things Past' they can be described as small possible worlds, and moreover they can be unhomogeneous, even having internal contradictions and defying the traditional laws of logic. In other words, they can be impossible possible worlds.

In spite of Kripke's assertion that they cannot be viewed through a telescope, possible worlds in literature can best be imagined as small planets, similar to those described by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in ‘The Little Prince'. Drunkards' or businessmen's planets really are very small, but even if we situate the action of Proust's novels on them, they will only be relatively magnified - we will never learn what goes on beyond the bounds of the action described in the novel. Saint-Exupéry has drawn his planets, and indeed a natural step in utilising the concept of possible worlds would be to apply it to the sphere of visual art. Thus, at the above-mentioned symposium, Ulf Linde considers painting as a technique to manage visual signs, rather than as a technique to portray the actual world. Thus we may speak of the possible worlds of visual expression of individual artists, taking this to mean arbitrary combinations of any visual elements whatsoever. Moreover, remembering the possibility of ‘impossible possible worlds', we could imbue with meaning the state of things as they appear in Surrealist paintings.

However, it is precisely the relationship between possible worlds and our actual world which is one of the main topics of discussion in these new theories. This question is discussed more in the logical aspects of the theories, but the reader or viewer will always have an interest in the relationship between a world created in literature or art and our own actual world. One solution to this problem could be based on a strictly nominalist position, not recognising possible worlds even in terms of resolving the semantic problems of our mental constructs. Such a position has been taken by Nelson Goodman, from whose work ‘Ways of Worldmaking' (1978) Daniel Birnbaum borrowed the name for the concept of the Venice Biennale. Birnbaum quotes Goodman in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue: "Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand..." Indeed, for Goodman, worldmaking is rooted in our own world, and in ‘Ways of Worldmaking' he does not even mention the theories of possible worlds, since the art-istic making of worlds is in this case just another view of our world, commensurate with the scientific or everyday view.

Of course, it remains up to each particular viewer or reader to link a broad or narrow conceptual background to the term ‘worlds', and we may add that the theories of possible worlds seem to apply to art the outdated concept of representation. However, possible worlds also show a way of overcoming not only the physical, but also the logical boundaries of our everyday experience, and the return from this kind of remote field of meaning tends to be much more fruitful than mere activity in the frame of the accustomed world. Art should be able to provide that enticement and danger described by Vladimir Nabokov, for example, in his novel ‘The Luzhin Defence' as the "impossible, unaccep-table world". For the young Luzhin this would constitute "five lessons in a row and a bunch of boys even more terrible than those who, one July day, surrounded him on a bridge, pointed their tin pistols at him and shot him with wooden pegs whose rubber tips had maliciously been removed." But what about art?


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom on Man and the Origin of Evil. Translated by E. M. Huggard. - La Salle (IL): Open Court, 1985.

Voltaire. Candide. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1918.

Saul Kripke. Naming and Necessity. - Oxford: Blackwell, 1990 [1972, 1980].

David Lewis. Possible Worlds. In: David Lewis. Counterfactuals. - Oxford: Blackwell, 2001 [1973]. - Pp. 84-91. Also in: The Possible and the Actual. Ed. by Michael J. Loux. - Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979. - Pp. 182-189.

David Lewis. On the Plurality of Worlds. - Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1986.

John Divers. Possible Worlds. - London, New York: Routledge, 2002.

Possible Worlds in Humanities, Arts and Sciences. Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 65. Ed by Sture Allén. - Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1989.

Lubomír Doležel. Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds. - Baltimore, London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Nelson Goodman. Ways of Worldmaking. - Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978.

/Translator into English: Valdis Bērziņš/
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