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Review of  Literal Meaning

Reviewer: 'Gianluca Storto' ['Gianluca Storto'] Gianluca Storto
Book Title: Literal Meaning
Book Author: François Recanati
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Book Announcement: 15.2535

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Date: Fri, 10 Sep 2004 07:16:27 -0700
From: Luca Storto <>
Subject: Literal Meaning

Author: Recanati, François
Title: Literal Meaning
Subtitle: The Very Idea
Year: 2003
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

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

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

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

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 blurred.

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 Szabö, 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 explicitly.

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 meaning.

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. Synthèse, 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 Szabö 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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521792460
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 187
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