Basic definitions and concepts from Relevance Theory

To assist readers following our series of posts on Wilson and Sperber’s Meaning and Relevance (2012), and to assist us, too by providing a place to refer to in future posts for definitions of terms, I’m posting here a summary of a book chapter W&S published in 2006:

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

Wilson and Sperber describe relevance theory as “a cognitive psychological theory” (p. 625). This chapter provides an introduction of the theory as W&S currently espouse it. It differs in some material respects from earlier formulations, including Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1996) (Relevance: Communication and Cognition (2nd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. And the earlier edition.)

First, I’ll summarize some of W&S’s definitions.

  • “Code model” of communication, where the “communicator encodes her intended message into a signal, which is decoded by the audience using an identical copy of the code” (p. 607).
  • “Inferential model” of communication, where the “communicator provides evidence of her intention to convey a certain meaning, which is inferred by the audience on the basis of the evidence provided” (p. 607)
  • “Relevant input” is an “input (a sight, a sound, an utterance, a memory) [that] is relevant to an individual when it connects with background information he has available to yield” a “positive cognitive effect” (p. 608).
  • “Positive cognitive effect” is “a worthwhile difference to the individual’s representation of the world: a true conclusion, for example” (p. 608). BNL notes that some theories of cognition, for example, some views of “extended cognition” challenge the existence of “representations” at all.
  • “Contextual implication” is “a conclusion deducible from input and context together, but from neither input nor context alone” (p. 608). (In the example of the train and train timetable, I’m having difficulty deciding what is “input” and what is “context.” Is context the agent’s representation of the situation up to the moment of the input? After that point, does the input become part of the context for further inputs?)
  • Ostensive-inferential communication requires two intentions:
    • “The informative intention,” which is “[t]he intention to inform the audience of something”  and
    • “The communicative intention,” which is “[t]he intention to inform the audience of one’s informative intention” (p. 611).
    • Ostensive stimulus is an overt act by the communicator “designed to attract an audience’s attention and focus it on the communicator’s meaning” (p. 611).
  • Optimal relevance, with regard to an ostensive stimulus, means:
    • “The ostensive stimulus is relevant enough to be worth the audience’s processing effort” and
    • “It is the most relevant one compatible with the communicator’s abilities and preferences” (p. 612)
  • Strong implicature exists where a proposition’s “recovery is essential in order to arrive at an interpretation that satisfied the addressee’s expectations of relevance” (p. 620).
  • Weak implicature exists where a proposition’s “recovery helps with the construction of… an interpretation” that satisfies the addressee’s expectations of relevance, “but is not itself essential because the utterance suggests a range of similar possible implicatures” (p. 620).
  • Interpretive use of an utterance occurs when it is used to “(meta)represent another utterance or thought that it resembles in content. The best-known type of interpretive use is in reported speech or though” (p. 621).
  • Echoic use of an utterance is an interpretive use that “achieves most of its relevance by expressing the speaker’s attitude to views she tacitly attributes to someone else” (p. 621). The extended example is verbal irony.

Second, I’ll present some of the claims/principles that W&S argue for:

  • “The central claim of relevance theory is that the expectations of relevance raised by an utterance are precise and predictable enough to guide the hearer toward the speaker’s meaning” (p. 607). In other words, it is not necessary to assume or accept Grice’s Cooperative Principle. (See below.)
  • Measuring Relevance
    • “Other things being equal, the greater the positive cognitive effects achieved by processing an input, the greater the relevance of the input to the individual at that time” (p. 609).
    • “Other things being equal, the greater the processing effort expended, the lower the relevance of the input to the individual at that time” (p. 609).
  • “Relevance is… a matter of degree” (p. 609).
  • It is “preferable to treat effort and effect (and relevance, which is a function of effort and effect) as non-representational dimensions of mental processes: they exist and play a role in cognition whether or not they are mentally represented; and when they are mentally represented, it is in the form of intuitive comparative judgments rather than absolute numerical ones” (p. 610).
  • “[T]he search for relevance is a basic feature of human cognition, which communicators may exploit” (p. 608).
  • We maximize relevance because of the way our brains are evolved (p. 610).
  • “The universal cognitive tendency to maximize relevance makes it possible (to some extent) to predict and manipulate the mental states of others” (p. 611). This provides a link between cognitive science and rhetoric-as-persuasion.
  • “According to relevance theory, use of an ostensive stimulus may create precise and predictable expectations of relevance not raised by other inputs” (p. 611).
  • Cognitive (First) Principle of Relevance: “Human cognition tends to be geared to the maximization of relevance” (p. 610).
  • Communicative (Second) Principle of Relevance: “Every ostensive stimulus conveys a presumption of its own optimal relevance” (p. 612).
  • Relevance-theoretic comprehension procedure:
    • “Follow a path of least effort in computing cognitive effects: Test interpretive hypotheses (disambiguations, reference resolutions, implicatures, etc.) in order of accessibility.”
    • “Stop when your expectations of relevance are satisfied (or abandoned)” (p. 612).
    • My note: The easy interpretation should be the first; and by definition, it will be the best (though it might not be correct).
  • Relevance theory takes the interpretation both of implicatures and “explicatures,” or the “identification of explicit content,” as inferential, and happening simultaneously online according to these subtasks in the (first step of the) comprehension procedure:
    • “Constructing an appropriate hypothesis about explicit content (explicatures) via decoding, disambiguation, reference resolution, and other pragmatic enrichment processes.”
    • “Constructing an appropriate hypothesis about the intended contextual assumptions (implicated premises).”
    • “Constructing an appropriate hypothesis about the intended contextual implications (implicated conclusions)” (p. 615).
    • Unlike Grice and Searle, W&S hold that these activities happen simultaneously, online. Grice and Searle expect that something like the “literal meaning” (more on that another time) is calculated first, and only if necessary does the hearer engage in inferential work (based on conventional and conversational implicatures).
  • Interpretations/accounts
    • Metaphor and hyperbole: See under “Challenges to Grice” below.
    • Verbal irony: See under “Challenges to Grice” below.
  • Challenges to Grice’s Cooperative Principle and maxims.
    • W&S argue the cooperative Principle is unnecessary. Example: You ask me a question, and I remain silent. If the silence is ostensive, it means I’m unable or unwilling to answer, an implication you may draw from the presumption that the ostensive stimulus is optimally relevant, but if you are able to conclude from the ostensive stimulus that I’m unwilling, you’ve made a communicative inference in a situation where I am not cooperating. BNL note: I wonder whether there is not still cooperation in the communication of the unwillingness to answer, even if there is not in the answering. (p. 613)
    • Loose uses of language are a problem under Grice’s maxim of quality or truthfulness. “He has a square face” is not strictly true, but it does not fit into categories of maxim violation (covert ones like lies, overt ones like flouting) that Grice recognizes. (p. 619) W&S argue for abandoning the maxim of quality and “treat[ing] whatever expectations of truthfulness arise in utterance interpretation as by-products of the more basic expectation of relevance” (p. 619). They would treat metaphor and hyperbole the same way.
    • Grice does not account for need for second order metarepresentation to interpret irony. Per W&S, verbal irony involves “the expression of a tacitly dissociative attitude—wry, skeptical, bitter, or mocking—to an attributed utterance or thought”; it also calls for “a higher order of metarepresentational ability than metaphor” (p. 622; with reference to Happé’s research on theory of mind in children with autism—note that Happé’s work has been criticized, ask in the comments if you want links to that work).
    • The way that people reply to a request for the time (for example, “11:58” or “just about noon” or “noon,” given that the time is actually 11:58) is richly context-sensitive based on communicator’s expectation of questioner’s needs. W&S say this is inconsistent with Grice’s maxim of quality, but is it?

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