Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

New from Oxford University Press!


The Language Hoax

By John H. McWhorter

The Language Hoax "argues that that all humans process life the same way, regardless of their language."

New from Cambridge University Press!


Language and Development in Africa

By H. Ekkehard Wolff

Language and Development in Africa "discusses the resourcefulness of languages, both local and global, in view of the ongoing transformation of African societies as much as for economic development.. "

The LINGUIST List is dedicated to providing information on language and language analysis, and to providing the discipline of linguistics with the infrastructure necessary to function in the digital world. LINGUIST is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported primarily by your donations. Please support LINGUIST List during the 2016 Fund Drive.

Review of  Oratio Obliqua, Oratio Recta

Book Title: Oratio Obliqua, Oratio Recta
Book Author: François Recanati
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 12.480

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting

Recanati, Fran�ois (2000) Oratio Obliqua, Oratio Recta, MIT
Press, 360 pp., $24.95.

Asuncion �lvarez, Universidad Complutense (Madrid)

This book deals with oratio obliqua or metarepresentation,
the phenomenon by which linguistic and mental
representational processes take as their object linguistic
and mental representations themselves (i.e. as in "John
thinks that I will come", as opposed to oratio recta: "I
will come", or "John thinks: 'She will come'"). Its main
premises are the following:

(i) metarepresentation has two levels: the content of the
object-presentation (the representations metarepresentation
is about) and the content of the metarepresentation itself.
The metarepresentational content includes the content of
the object-presentation;

(ii) the traditional view that the object-representation is
"mentioned" or "opaque" rather than "used" or "transparent"
in metarepresentational contexts must be rejected.
Metarepresentations are "semantically innocent", i.e. they
cause no change in the content of the object-
representation, which remains "transparent". Thus "The
Earth is flat" would represent the same state of affairs
when uttered in isolation and when embedded in "John
believes that the Earth is flat".

These two premises have rather far-reaching consequences
for philosophy and cognitive science, which M. Recanati
proceeds to discuss in the six parts of his book. The first
half of the book consists of a general analysis of
metarepresentational structures.

Part I: Iconicity.
In Part I, M. Recanati discusses the notions of
extensionality, innocence, and iconicity concerning
metarepresentation. He argues that metarepresentational
operators (the "John believes that" component in "John
believes that the Earth is flat") are not extensional: the
extension of an expression is not a function of the
extensions of its parts. However, he argues that
metarepresentations are both iconic and semantically
innocent. Iconicity is the property in virtue of which
metarepresentations contain the object-representation both
syntactically and semantically. Semantic innocence is the
property by which metarepresentations do not alter the
content of the object-representations they include.

Part II: Simulation 1: Circumstance-Shifting.
In Part II the author examines the theories which capture
the iconicity of metarepresentation, distinguishing two
groups among them: theories which argue that the content of
the object-representation is a part of the content of the
metarepresentation proper (among which he counts modal
theories of metarepresentation); and theories which deny
the existence of any difference between the contents of the
object-representation and the metarepresentation, locating
the difference between them in some other dimension, (among
this group Recanati includes simulation theories, which see
metarepresentation as a pragmatic function). M. Recanati,
while acknowledging the usefulness of the simulation view,
finds it however incomplete, and aligns himself with the
first group of theories. His position is based on an
analysis of cognition by which entities can be seen either
in terms of their relations to other entities or in terms
of their own properties. Thus, entities can be seen both
"from outside", as simple entities, related to other
entities; and "from inside", as complex micro-universes,
containing other entities. This cognitive duality allows
for simulation and world-shifting, which the author deems
essential to his account of metarepresentation.

Part III: Opacity.
Part III expounds the classical view of opacity or the
quotational paradigm, held by Russell, Quine, and Frege.
According to this view words in their normal use are
transparent and serve to talk about some external reality,
but in certain circumstances -- including
metarepresentational contexts -- they are not used by
mentioned, becoming opaque and no longer serving to
represent reality. M. Recanati opposes this view as regards
metarepresentation. He rejects Quine's account of unitary
opacity, arguing for a non-unitary concept of opacity as a
family of related but distinct notions, and introducing a
distinction between cumulative and non-cumulative opacity.

The second half of the book discusses the notion of the
contextual shift, by which the context with respect to
which the object-representation is evaluated is distinct
from the context with respect to which the global
metarepresentation is evaluated.

Part IV: Context-Shifting and Oratio Recta.
Part IV deals with the possibility of context-shifting. The
author here studies in detail Kaplan's thesis that there
are no context-shifting operators (i.e. no context-shift
can be caused by some operator within the sentence).
Recanati grounds his criticism of Kaplan on quotation
within oratio recta (e.g. "John said: "The Earth is flat"",
as against "John said that the Earth is flat"). Kaplan,
Recanati believes, is wrong in postulating that in such
cases the quoted material does not really belong to the
sentence in which it is quoted. According to him, there is
context-shifting in such cases, as there also is in non-
cumulative opaque oratio obliqua.

Part V: Simulation 2. Context-Shifting as Pretense.
In Part V, however, M. Recanati salvages Kaplan's thesis by
revising it, relocating it within a distinction between
circumstance- and context-shifting. According to Recanati's
reformulation, the context may shift following a
circumstance-shift, yet the metarepresentational operator
only shifts the circumstance by which the internal sentence
is evaluated -- not its context.

Part VI: Deference and Metarepresentation.
Part VI is an excursus into the relationship between the
context-shifting which underlies many natural-language
phenomena and the more general cognitive ability of
deference, which according to M. Recanati plays a central
role in learning and theorizing. Recanati defines deference
as the capacity by which, in Kaplan's words, we can
"entertain thoughts through the language that would not
otherwise be accessible to us" due to our imperfect mastery
e.g. as when we "quasi-believe", that is, deferentially
believe something which we don't quite understand because
we trust our source of information. (Amusingly, one of the
examples the author chooses to illustrate this with is the
Lacanians' belief that the unconscious is structured like a
language they are not sure what this means, but Lacan said
so, and Lacan must be right. M. Recanati himself figures as
having taken prominent part in Lacan's 1972 Seminar XX, so
one must assume either that there has been a turnaround in
his views on the subject, or that he now finds Lacan's
followers distastefully servile.)

The book's main asset is the clarity of M. Recanati's
style. He expounds his own views, as well as those of
theorists he agrees with or attempts to refute (including
Quine, Davidson, Russell, Frege, Barwise, Perry, Kaplan,
Ducrot, and Sperber) with great simplicity and concision,
avoiding the use of unexplained technical terms. Also, it
covers a wide range of topics, from philosophy of language
(singular terms, opacity and substitutivity, quotation),
through modal logic (world shifting, context shifting) and
discourse analysis (direct and indirect discourse, belief
reports, fictional discourse), to cognitive science
(simulation and pretense, the stages of mental development,
deference). This last aspect is particularly intriguing,
and one wishes the author had extended what he himself
terms psychological "digressions", "sketchily argued for",
to a more sustained discussion of mental development,
fictionality, and belief. Despite this lack of digression,
the wide range of the topics in Recanati's book, manifest
also in the fact that it is based on previous papers on
several interrelated topics, sometimes causes the thread of
the main argument to seem lost. However, this very variety
is also one of the attractions of the book, which is often
fascinating in, and due to, the many aspects it touches on.

Asuncion �lvarez is a Linguistics graduate. Her research
interests include philosophy of language and of mind,
writing systems, and the relationship between linguistic
and psychoanalytic thought.

D. Terence Langendoen, Dept of Linguistics, University of Arizona
PO Box 210028, Tucson AZ 85721-0028 USA
phone: 520-621-6898; fax: 520-626-9014
dept. homepage:
Editor, Linguistics Abstracts; Book Review Editor, Linguist List


Amazon Store: