Is Relevance Theory relevant to rhetoric?

Chris Cocchiarella and I are working on a book review of Meaning and Relevance (M&R), the 2012 collection of scholarly essays in linguistic pragmatics by Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber, who present relevance theory (RT), a cognitive, as opposed to merely linguistic, theory of communication.  By a ‘cognitive’ theory, they mean not only the process of decoding meaning, which would be a purely ‘linguistic’ theory, but also the parallel process of inferential comprehension, which involves constructing conceptual representations of meaning based on adjusting linguistic codes to a cognitive environment.  Wilson and Sperber’s most complete treatment of the subject prior to this volume occurs in Relevance: Communication & Cognition (Sperber & Wilson, 1986), which is now not entirely up-to-date; the second edition of that work (1995) is also unsatisfying, particularly for scholars and practitioners in related fields like rhetoric and technical communication, because its only substantive revisions consist of a new 24-page “Postface.”

As both scholars of rhetoric and practitioners in technical and professional communication, we’d like to make the case that RT has relevant implications for our theoretical and practical disciplines—professionals in our fields can certainly benefit from understanding this theory.  However, it’s difficult to find a way to introduce rhetoricians and technical communicators to RT without requiring them to read Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995), which unfortunately gives a version of RT not entirely consistent with the version they now espouse.  Our question, then, is if last year’s Meaning and Relevance (M&R) can serve as a good introduction to RT for professionals in rhetoric and technical communication.  If not, how should they come to know this important theory?

Before proceeding, we must make the case that RT is relevant to rhetoric and technical communication.  We believe so in a number of respects.  First, RT addresses rhetoric head-on, including figures and loose talk in implicatures, metaphors, verbal irony, and bridging assumptions vis-à-vis speaker’s intention and hearer’s interpretation (see especially Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 9 of M&R).

Second, RT offers a critique and extension of Austinian/Gricean/Searlean pragmatics and speech act theories, especially their literalist assumptions that relegate rhetoric at best to secondary status, and at worse to merely to ornamental or decorative status.  Speech act theory has figured widely in rhetoric and technical communication scholarship.  (Examples here are too numerous to cite in a blog post.)

Finally, rhetoric has already recognized a role for Dan Sperber’s work in slightly different contexts, but without addressing RT, the portion of his work probably most applicable to rhetoric.  For example, Sperber made a splash among argumentation theorists in his work with Hugo Mercier (Mercier & Sperber, 2011), which addresses the rhetorical nature of human reason by making the case that reason evolved in human beings for social argumentation purposes.  Most of the articles in the Winter 2012 issue of Argumentation & Advocacy were responses by leading scholars in argumentation theory (and rhetoric) to Mercier and Sperber’s hypothesis.  A related and earlier instance of Sperber’s work entering rhetoric and technical communication was in 2007, when RSQ ran a recent translation of a 1975 article by Sperber, which Sperber and Wilson acknowledge as a precursor of RT, but which is also a bit confusing to the contemporary reader and is not strictly RT  (Sperber & Cummins, 2007). In the introduction to that RSQ issue, Randy Harris (2007) argues for the application of the name cognitive rhetoric to the subject matter of Sperber’s article.  (We’ll propose instead to use cognitive-pragmatic rhetoric or “CPR” to distinguish it from the other versions of cognitive rhetorics.)  Sperber, meanwhile, expressed some bewilderment that anyone would be interested in “this old text of” his (Sperber & Cummins, 2007, p. 361)—I suspect because there are many more useful, later formulations of what he was attempting to do in the 1975 article.

We invite our colleagues in rhetoric and technical communication (as well as other related fields) to join us as we work through M&R.  So here’s how we will do this.  Chris and I will post chapter-by-chapter synopses of M&R over the next few weeks.  We invite you to do any of the following:

  • Just read the summaries and ask questions or make comments on this blog based on your response to them.
  • Read M&R along with us and critique or engage with our summaries by commenting on this blog.
  • Do either of the foregoing on your own blog, and post a comment here to let us know we should check out what you are saying.

Works cited

Harris, R. A. (2007). Foreword to “Rudiments of Cognitive Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 37(4), 357–359. doi:10.1080/02773940601173071

Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 57–111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968

Sperber, D., & Cummins, S. (2007). Rudiments of Cognitive Rhetoric. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 37(4), 361–400. doi:10.1080/02773940701658104

Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1996). Relevance: Communication and Cognition (2nd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.

Wilson, D., & Sperber, D. (2006). Relevance theory. In L. Horn & G. Ward (Eds.), The Handbook of Pragmatics (pp. 607–632). Wiley-Blackwell.

Wilson, D., & Sperber, D. (Eds.). (2012). Meaning and Relevance. Cambridge  U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

12 thoughts on “Is Relevance Theory relevant to rhetoric?”

  1. Donald Ross pointed to this article as an example of the treatment of Grice’s pragmatics in the context of rhetoric: Dascal, M., & Gross, A. G. (1999). The Marriage of Pragmatics and Rhetoric. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 32(2), 107–130. doi:10.2307/40238023

    This article does not treat RT specifically, but I look forward to assessing whether Dascal and Gross’s treatment of the marriage (or at least romantic dalliance) between pragmatics and rhetoric would be altered by application of RT.

    1. Oh, and while I’m at it, I should definitely offer a link to a later article that considers the relationship of pragmatics to rhetoric:
      Liu, Y., & Zhu, C. (2011). Rhetoric as the Antistrophos of pragmatics: Toward a “Competition of Cooperation” in the study of language use. Journal of Pragmatics, 43(14), 3403–3415. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2011.07.010

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