Introduction: Representation and metarepresentation

“Utterances and thoughts have content: They represent (actual or imaginary) states of affairs.” This is the opening statement of François Recanati’s most sustained work on kinds of representation, Oratio Obliqua, Oratio Recta (2000) and it presents the core phenomenon which it is the task of the philosophy of language to explain. A primary function of language and thought, though not their only function, is to represent how things are or might be. As well as descriptively representing entities, properties, and states of affairs in the world, our thoughts and utterances may metarepresent other linguistic or mental representations and to several levels of representational embedding. For a full understanding of how language represents (and metarepresents) we need to understand how each of the different kinds of expression in the language contributes to the proposition or thought expressed by a particular utterance. Over the last century, the philosophy of language has swung between two poles in addressing the representational properties of natural human language. Broadly speaking, at the one pole are those whose main focus is on the language system itself, rather than its users, and who emphasize the semantic power of the system, while at the other pole are those for whom it is speakers, specifically their mental states, and what they do with words that is fundamental. The two different orientations naturally lead to different ways of conceiving of the roles of semantics and pragmatics in language use. One manifestation of the division is the opposition between the ‘literalist’ view according to which the proposition expressed by an utterance of a sentence is entirely mandated by components of the sentence and the ‘contextualist’ view according to which what is said often goes beyond what is linguistically anchored. From his earliest work on pragmatics, specifically on speech acts and explicit performatives (1979, 1981, 1987), Recanati has taken a non-literalist position, which he has developed over the past 20 odd years, culminating in the publication of his latest book, Literal Meaning (2004a)..
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