LINGUIST List 15.2535

Sat Sep 11 2004

Review: Philo of Lang/Semantics: Recanati (2003)

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  1. Luca Storto, Literal Meaning

Message 1: Literal Meaning

Date: Sat, 11 Sep 2004 16:48:58 -0400 (EDT)
From: Luca Storto <>
Subject: Literal Meaning

Author: Recanati, Fran�ois
Title: Literal Meaning
Subtitle: The Very Idea
Year: 2003
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Announced at

Gianluca Storto, Center for Language Sciences, University of Rochester


Recanati's monograph's purpose is two-fold. On the one hand, the book
aims at reviving the debate between two opposite philosophical views
concerning the semantics/pragmatics of natural language - Literalism
vs. Contextualism - and at providing an overview of the logical space
between these two extremes. Recanati's contention is that, while
Literalism is currently the dominant view, the central tenet of this
view - the contrast between literal truth conditions and speaker's
meaning - must be rejected. Thus, some version of Contextualism must
be adopted. On the other hand, the book aims at presenting the
author's particular theory of the semantics/pragmatics of natural
language (a Contextualist one, of course), and at distinguishing it
from alternatives that have been proposed in the literature.

In the INTRODUCTION, Recanati traces the historical roots of the
debate - the two opposite camps of Ideal Language Philosophy and
Ordinary Language Philosophy - and introduces the fundamental tenet of
the Literalist view: the basic unit of meaning in natural language is
the literal content of a sentence, which is conceptually distinct from
what the speaker conveys with an utterance of the sentence itself.

CHAPTER 1 opens with the observation that the simple dichotomy between
sentence and speaker meaning is insufficient and a basic ''triad'' of
notions of meaning is required: on the one hand the
context-independent meaning of a sentence type must be distinguished
from ''what is said'', i.e. the context-dependent proposition
expressed by the sentence in a given context; on the other hand,
''what is said'' must be distinguished from what is merely
''conveyed'' by an utterance of the sentence, which includes more than
what is literally said (''what is implicated''). The essence of the
debate between Literalism and Contextualism lies in how to map this
basic triad onto the dichotomy of sentence and speaker meaning, and in
particular in whether the crucial level of ''what is said'' has more
in common with the sentence-type meaning or with ''what is
implicated''. Literalism maintains that ''what is said'' is very close
to the sentence-type meaning: taken together, the two constitute the
literal meaning of a sentence used in context, a semantic object which
contrasts with the pragmatically-determined speaker's meaning, i.e.
what the speaker intends to convey with the utterance of the sentence.
Contextualism maintains that ''what is said'' has much in common with
''what is implicated'': both are pragmatically determined, and as such
they constitute the speaker's meaning, a pragmatic object that
contrasts with the purely semantic sentence(-type) meaning.

In the remainder of the chapter Recanati presents the reader with the
basic assumption of Literalism that is the main target of criticism in
the book and with his alternative Contextualist
position. ''Minimalism'' maintains that ''what is said'' differs from
the context-independent sentence meaning only in that it incorporates
contextual elements that are required in order to ''complete'' the
meaning of the sentence and make it propositional: only mandatory
contextual processes like saturation contribute to ''what is
said''. This implies that in many cases the Minimalist has to maintain
that there is a divergence between the literal truth conditions of a
sentence and the truth conditions that speakers would intuitively
ascribe to a given utterance of the sentence. Recanati argues that
this divergence is a problem: not all the material that the Minimalist
would place outside of ''what is said'' displays the ''conscious
availability'' property of prototypical implicated meanings. In many
of these alleged implicatures speakers are aware only of the ''final
result'', not of the inferential processes that lead to this result or
of some level of ''literal meaning'' on the basis of which such
inferences are drawn. The alternative approach proposed by Recanati
takes conscious availability to be constitutive of ''what is said'': a
theory of language understanding should capture the level at which
''normal interpreters'' have intuitions concerning the
truth-conditional content of utterances. Within this alternative
proposal, ''primary'' pragmatic processes - i.e. contextual processes
that take place below the level of conscious availability (the ''sub-
personal level'') - contribute to the determination of ''what is
said'', irrespective of whether they are mandatory or optional. Thus,
contrary to Minimalism, truth-conditional interpretation is assumed to
be pragmatic to a large extent.

CHAPTER 2 details Recanati's view of how ''what is said'' is
determined. According to Recanati, the literal meaning of the
constituents of a sentence does not have a privileged status in the
process of semantic composition: both literal meaning and meanings
derived through the application of primary contextual processes -
which include not only mandatory bottom-up processes like saturation,
but even optional top- down processes like free enrichment, loosening,
and semantic transfer - compete in parallel, and the most accessible
interpretation (i.e. the interpretation that fits best in the broader
context of the current discourse) is selected for semantic
composition. Differently from Grice (1989), the derived interpretation
is ''associatively'' derived from the ''literal'' interpretation, but
it is not ''inferentially'' derived, since the literal interpretation
of the whole sentence need not be calculated in order for its derived
interpretation to be determined. Overall, the interpretive process is
characterized as an interactive search for a coherent interpretation
of the sentence with respect to the context of utterance, a process in
which semantic frames/schemata play a crucial role in determining
which among the possible (literal or derived) meanings of the
constituents of a sentence are selected for semantic composition.

In CHAPTER 3 Recanati points out an important difference between his
proposal and the view of semantics/pragmatics advocated within
Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1986). While Recanati's theory
draws a sharp distinction between non-inferential primary pragmatic
processes and inference-based secondary pragmatic processes, Relevance
Theory takes communication to be constitutively inferential: even the
pragmatic processes involved in the derivation of the ''explicature''
of a sentence (the Relevance Theory name for ''what is said'') are
based on inferences, albeit of a spontaneous, automatic and
unconscious sort. Recanati argues that Relevance Theory's distinction
between spontaneous inferences and explicit reasoning is correct, but
that this does not correspond to the crucial distinction between
unconscious (sub- personal) and conscious processes: even spontaneous
non-explicit inferences can be consciously available to speakers in
that not only the result of the inference, but also the inferential
chain itself and its point of departure are available to the
speaker. The result of such conscious processes, however, is not part
of ''what is said''. In order to maintain the viability of his view,
Recanati tackles some apparent counterexamples raised by proponents of
Relevance Theory - the observation that the computation of ''what is
said'' does not necessarily precede the derivation of implicatures (an
inferential secondary pragmatic process), the phenomenon of mutual
adjustment of explicature and implicature, and the case of
''implicated premisses'' - and further refines his notion of secondary
pragmatic processes, by pointing out that the inferences on which
these are based need not be conscious and explicit but can be tacit in
a ''personal'' sense (compare: primary processes are based on
inferences that are tacit in a ''sub-personal'' sense - the
personal/sub-personal distinction is from Garcia-Carpintero 2001).

CHAPTER 4 discusses a position that is in a way intermediate between a
strict Minimalist approach and Recanati's own proposal. The
''Syncretic View'' holds that two legitimate notions of ''what is
said'' can be distinguished, a purely semantic one and a pragmatic
one, within a system that provides for four (rather than three)
notions of meaning. According to Recanati, a position along these
lines has been defended by various authors in the literature: the
proposals by Salmon (1991), Bach (1994) and Soames (2002) are given as
specific examples. Recanati argues that this position rests on a
fundamental weakness: the very notion of ''what is said'' in a
Minimalist sense cannot be maintained. Indeed, semantic
interpretation - i.e. the deductive bottom-up computation of the
meaning of a sentence based on the conventional meaning of its parts -
does not deliver complete propositions. Semantic undeterminacy (beyond
simple indexicality) is a constitutive feature of most
natural-language expressions and constructions, thus it is either the
case that the result of ''purely semantic'' interpretation is
something gappy that must be complemented by pragmatic interpretation,
or that semantic interpretation can be run only after pragmatic
interpretation has pre-determined the values of semantically
undetermined expressions. According to Recanati, ''minimal
propositions'' has no real role to play in the analysis of language:
they do not seem to have any psychological reality, and it is not even
clear that they can be determined (by abstraction or otherwise) by
inspecting the range of meanings expressed by a sentence in different
contexts of utterance. The only purely semantic notion of ''what is
said'' that seems viable is the ''reflexive proposition'' of Perry
(2001), but this is virtually undistinguishable from the
context-independent sentence-type meaning: the system collapses back
into one that provides only for three notions of meaning.

CHAPTER 5 addresses a potential issue with Recanati's own
proposal. Can the intuitive folk-theoretical distinction between
literal and non- literal uses of language be accounted for within a
system in which ''what is said'' already incorporates the result of
optional primary pragmatic processes? Recanati argues that
non-literalness involves a perceived ''duality'' in the use of
language: this can be either internal to the output of primary
pragmatic processes (as in the case of figurative uses of language) or
due to the perceived inferential link between ''what is said'' by a
sentence and the somewhat different meaning derived in context through
secondary pragmatic processes. These cases of perceived duality are
''exceptional'' situations even within a pragmatic approach to
meaning: in normal cases the pragmatic processes that determine ''what
is said'' do not generate such perceived duality. In effect, Recanati
contends that the objection that a pragmatic stance to meaning
obliterates the intuitive notion of non-literal uses of language rests
on the mistaken Minimalist assumption that words in context usually
express just what the rules and conventions of language mandate,
i.e. something than can be determined in a purely bottom-up way.

In CHAPTER 6 Recanati surveys the logical space of alternatives that
could be pursued between Literalism and Contextualism. The extreme
Literalist position holds that the truth conditions of a sentence are
fixed by the rules of language independently of the speaker's meaning.
Given the semantic undeterminacy that characterizes natural language,
Recanati argues, this position is a definite non-starter. Weaker forms
of Literalism obey Minimalism: we need to appeal to the speaker's
meaning determining truth conditions only when the sentence itself
demands it. The Syncretic View is a weak instance of this weaker
Literalism: albeit optional pragmatic process affect ''what is said'',
a narrower notion of semantic content - ''what is literally said'' -
can be distinguished. A stronger instance of this weaker Literalism is
the position that Recanati calls ''Indexicalism''. Indexicalism can be
thought of as a research program: the attempt to re-analyse purported
cases in which optional pragmatic processes contribute to truth
conditions as instances of saturation, in which an open slot in the
logical form of a sentence is contextually filled. Contextualist
positions do not postulate a level of meaning which is unaffected by
top-down factors. A weaker position - the position endorsed by
Recanati, who calls it ''Quasi-Contextualism'' - considers such a
level as theoretically useless and as lacking psychological reality,
thus as dispensable. The stronger position - full-fledged
Contextualism - denies that such a notion even makes sense: there can
be no level of meaning that is both propositional and unaffected by
top-down factors, since background assumptions (and thus pragmatic
processes) are always necessary in order to determine truth
conditions. Within full-fledged Contextualism the very distinction
between mandatory and optional pragmatic processes becomes somewhat

CHAPTER 7 is devoted to the rebuttal of what Recanati considers the
strongest Literalist alternative to his Contextualist position: the
Indexicalist position held by Stanley and colleagues (Stanley and
Williamson, 1995; Stanley, 2000; Stanley and Szab�, 2000). In order
to evaluate the two proposals it is crucial that some criterion is
agreed upon in order to distinguish between the truth-conditional
effects of saturation - the mandatory pragmatic process allowed for by
Indexicalists - and other optional primary processes. Recanati
compares his own Optionality Criterion and the alternative Binding
Criterion proposed by Stanley: the two criteria converge in some cases
but diverge in other cases, where the Optionality Criterion
categorizes the pragmatic process at hand as optional while the
Binding Criterion categorizes the same process as an instance of
saturation. Recanati argues that the Binding Criterion is not
reliable. He gives examples of utterances in which uncontroversially
optional contextual ingredients of meaning can be intuitively
''bound'' by some operator, which according to the Binding Criterion
should lead to the unpalatable conclusion that even those ingredients
of meaning are linguistically articulated by a variable that is
contextually saturated. The conclusion is that intuitive binding per
se does not entail the presence of a free variable in the logical form
of a sentence. Indeed, Recanati goes even further and claims that
Indexicalist arguments against optional contextual ingredients of
content rest on a basic fallacy: the assumption that the open variable
which e.g. represents the location in the logical form of a
quantificational sentence like ''Everywhere I go it rains'' is present
even when the simple sentence ''It rains'' is uttered in
isolation. Recanati shows that this implicit assumption is
questionable, and - in particular - it is clearly wrong if e.g.
locative modifiers are treated as constituents that contribute at the
same time both a ''variadic function'' and the object that fills the
new argument role introduced by the function itself.

In CHAPTER 8 Recanati expounds further details of his own view of
meaning in natural language and of the role played by context in
determining meaning. Meaning in natural language has an irreducibly
contextual nature because semantic evaluation requires not merely a
content to evaluate, but also a ''circumstance'' against which to
evaluate that content. This circumstance of evaluation is not part of
the content articulated by a sentence, and must be provided by the
context of utterance of the sentence itself. The basic unit of meaning
in natural language is not the semantically incomplete content
articulated by a sentence, but the semantically complete ''Austinian
proposition'' consisting of this content and the circumstance against
which this content is evaluated. Generalizing on modal and tense
logic, Recanati sketches the basis of a Situation Theory in which (i)
anything can count as a situation, provided that it makes sense given
some sentence S to ask whether or not what S expresses is true in it,
and (ii) sentences in general express only relativized propositions,
absolute propositions and truth values being the domain of utterances
(which provide a circumstance of evaluation). The chapter concludes
with a comparison between Recanati's Situation-Theoretic view and the
Syncretic View: while both postulate two distinct levels of content -
the content articulated by the sentence and the richer content
expressed by an utterance of the sentence - only Recanati's view
allows for the articulated content to be a relativized proposition
and/or to be affected by optional primary pragmatic processes.

CHAPTER 9 is entirely concerned with the phenomenon of ''meaning
modulation'', the process whereby the meaning of words are affected by
the nature of the situation they are used to talk about. Recanati
argues that (i) meaning modulation is truth-conditionally relevant,
since words contribute their modulated senses to truth conditions, and
not their pre-modulation meanings, and that (ii) modulation cannot be
reduced to (pre-semantic) disambiguation and is essentially a top-down
phenomenon, which is pragmatically rather than linguistically
controlled. As such, the very existence of meaning modulation is by
itself an argument against a Literalist approach to natural language
meaning. Recanati reviews four Contextualist alternative approaches to
meaning modulation, which progressively get further away from
Literalism and move towards an extreme Contextualist conception of
meaning in natural language. Of these four, only the ''Strong
Optionality'' view takes meaning modulation to take place for
contingent reasons, while the others take meaning modulation to be an
ineliminable component of natural language semantics, either because
it is required by the process of semantic composition that applies to
word meanings (''Pragmatic Composition'' view), or because word
meanings are not used at all in semantic composition, be it because
they are not the right kind of object for it to apply to (''Wrong
Format'' view), or because they do not really exist as such (''Meaning
Eliminativism'' view). The second half of the chapter sketches in
detail the basic ingredients and consequences of Meaning
Eliminativism, and emphasizes a further dimension with respect to
which context contributes to the determination of meaning: the central
role of similarity (a context- dependent notion) in determining the
extension of words. Recanati's contention is that Meaning
Eliminativism, albeit probably too radical, is surprisingly very
viable, and the alleged knock-down arguments that are usually raised
against this view do not sound that devastating once they are stated

In the CONCLUSION Recanati summarizes his argument and addresses one
residual issue (I refer the reader to the last section of the book for
the latter). The conclusion (re-)states explicitly the core message
that the monograph wants to convey: (i) Contextualism is not dead,
since most arguments that have been made against it and in favor of
Literalism/Minimalism rely on unstated premises that essentially
amount to assuming Literalism, and (ii) once Contextualism is
considered among the possible alternatives, it is Literalism that
seems to face the most serious problems, since it is committed to a
substantial and highly controversial conception of word and sentence


Recanati's monograph constitutes an important contribution to the
debate on the nature of meaning in natural language. The monograph is
indeed quite successful in reviving a debate which is often taken to
be settled in favor of Literalism in the linguistic semantic
literature, and in characterizing in some detail the author's
Contextualist view of meaning. However it is my opinion that, albeit
quite successful, the monograph is not completely successful, and that
its main drawbacks are due to its ambitious ''hybrid'' nature.

As pointed out at the beginning, the monograph aims both at presenting
and defending the author's position and at providing an overview of
the logical space spanned by the debate between Literalism and
Contextualism. Now, while the monograph goes a substantial way towards
both aims, it can be argued that either aim could have been achieved
in a more successful way had it been pursued as a separate
endeavor. And this is not just because the two different aims could
require two rather different ways of organizing the material to be
presented (while the book is overall well-written, it might be hard at
times for the reader to weave the contribution of a chapter into the
''big picture'' depicted by the monograph). Indeed, while the two aims
definitely converge with respect to the discussion of Literalist
approaches, they might diverge with respect to the Contextualist side,
where a detailed overview of the logical landscape of alternatives can
in principle distract from the precise characterization of the
specific alternative that the author subscribes to, and vice versa.

At various places the monograph seems to try to strike a compromise
between these two contrasting requirements, with the result that while
the reader is left with the clear feeling that Literalism in general -
and Indexicalism in particular - cannot be maintained, she is not left
with a well-defined alternative in hand, but just with the (partly
uncharted) continuum of space that lies ''beyond'' the rejection of
Minimalism, a portion of logical space that is possibly daunting, but
is at the same time promising for future research.

Admittedly, however, this might have been the author's main aim in
writing this very inspiring monograph, which is bound to have a
prominent place on the linguist/philosopher's bookshelf, both for the
results that it achieves and for the issues that it raises (and in
part frames) for future research.


Bach, Kent 1994. Conversational implicature. Mind and Language, 9:124-

Garcia-Carpintero, Manuel 2001. Gricean rational reconstructions and
the semantics/pragmatics distinction. Synth�se, 128:93-131.

Grice, Paul 1989. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press.

Perry, John 2001. Reference and Reflexivity. Stanford, Cal.: CSLI

Salmon, Nathan 1991. The pragmatic fallacy. Philosophical Studies,

Soames, Scott 2002. Beyond Rigidity: The Unfinished Semantic Agenda of
'Naming and Necessity'. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson 1986. Relevance: Communication and
Cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell.

Stanley, Jason 2000. Context and logical form. Linguistics and
Philosophy, 23:391-434.

Stanley, Jason and Zoltan Szab� 2000. On quantifier domain
restriction. Mind and Language, 15:219-261.

Stanley, Jason and Tim Williamson 1995. Quantifiers and context-
dependence. Analysis, 55:291-295.


Gianluca Storto is a NIH post-doctoral fellow at the Center for
Language Sciences at the University of Rochester. His current research
focuses on probing the semantics/pragmatics interface using
psycholinguistic experimental methodologies (eye-tracking in
particular). More generally, he is interested in all aspects of
meaning and interpretation in natural language. His dissertation
(UCLA, 2003) investigated the semantics of possessive constructions.
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