LINGUIST List 12.480

Wed Feb 21 2001

Review: Recanati, Oratio Obliqua, Oratio Recta

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <terrylinguistlist.org>


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  1. A. �lvarez, Review: Oratio Obliqua, Oratio Recta

Message 1: Review: Oratio Obliqua, Oratio Recta

Date: Wed, 14 Feb 2001 05:40:58 -0800 (PST)
From: A. �lvarez <asun_alvyahoo.com>
Subject: Review: Oratio Obliqua, Oratio Recta

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: http://w3.arizona.edu/~ling/
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