M&R Chapter 1–Introduction: Pragmatics

This is my colleague Chris Cocchiarella’s summary of the first chapter of Wilson and Sperber’s (2012) Meaning and Relevance. We previously posted a summary of the book’s preface and an intro to some of the terms and concepts of Relevance Theory. I also posted a claim that Relevance Theory matters to rhetoric and TC.

This summary has two parts: part I explains the basics of Relevance Theory (RT for short); part II teases out some implications of RT (especially for professionals in rhetoric and technical communication) and then concludes the summary.

I. Basics of RT

While Sperber and Wilson define semantics as “the study of linguistic meaning,” they define pragmatics as “the study of how contextual factors interact with linguistic meaning in the interpretation of utterances” (1). Or, as they say later, “semanticists deal with decoded meaning, pragmaticists deal with inferred meaning, and pragmatic inference makes a substantial contribution to truth-conditional content” (9). As noted, this turn to pragmatics follows Grice’s lead, particularly the recognition that speakers use utterances as pieces of linguistic evidence to mean particular intentions, which hearers interpret by making inferences based on adjusting that evidence to the context in which it occurs. Central to this recognition is the notion of “implicitly communicated propositions, or implicature” (4). (To this notion S&W will add the notions of ‘explicature’ and ‘mutual adjustment’ between implicatures and explicatures, as we shall soon see.) Implicature has played a large role in pragmatics by giving rise to what S&W call “a contextualist approach,” in contrast to a literalist approach:

a major development in pragmatics . . . has been to show that the explicit content of an utterance, like the implicit content, is largely underdetermined by the linguistically encoded meaning, and its recovery involves a substantial element of pragmatic inference (3).

In other words, literally understood utterances too often underspecify meaning. In terms of semantics and pragmatics, linguistic semantics is “a highly schematic logical form,” which is fleshed out into fully propositional form by pragmatic inferences that go well beyond what is envisaged on a literalist approach” (9). (In Chapter 7, S&W will have more to say about linguistic semantics such as speech-act analysis versus pragmatically oriented semantics of conceptual representations like the cognitive approach of RT, or linguistic decoding and explicature versus inferential comprehension and implicature.) Literalism, unlike contextualism, is limited to “explicature,” or “logical form encoded by the utterance,” and cannot explain “implicature,” or “proposition communicated by an utterance, but not explicitly” (12). Literalism thus does not explain how to communicate or interpret figurative and loose talk, which is of much interest to rhetoricians and technical communicators.

Granted, then, “Most current pragmatic theorists share Grice’s view that inferential comprehension is governed by expectations about the behavior of speakers, but differ as to what these expectation are,” S&W propose their own theory, which they call Relevance Theory (RT). S&W follows Grice’s contextual insight that communication and interpretation are inferential, and that the function of linguistic coding is to provide input to that inferential process. However, S&W break from Grice in at least a couple ways.

First, in RT, explicature or “the explicit side of communication is just as inferential and worthy of pragmatic attention as the implicit side” or implicature. Second, RT “also departs substantially from Grice’s account of the expectations that guide the comprehension process” (5). While Griceans believed these expectations derived from maxims or rules of behavior under which speakers and hearers somehow cooperated, S&W propose what they call “expectations of relevance”: “An input is relevant to an individual when it connects with available contextual assumption to yield positive cognitive effects” (or what in later chapters S&W call ‘acceptability’)—i.e., confirming, disconfirming, or modifying assumptions, which respectively strengthen existing assumptions, eliminate old assumptions, or yield new assumptions.

Moreover, these positive cognitive effects are achieved through minimal processing effort (or what in later chapters S&W call ‘accessibility’): “the greater the positive cognitive effects achieved, and the smaller the mental effort required . . . the greater the relevance” (6). This combination of cognitive effects and processing effort yield what S&W will call optimal relevance (to be explained below).

S&W therefore propose two principles based on their account of relevance as the governing expectation of communication and interpretation: first, the “Cognitive Principle of Relevance” states that “Human Cognition tends to be geared toward the maximization of relevance”; second, the “Communicative Principle of Relevance” says that “Every act of overt communication conveys a presumption of its own optimal relevance” (6). By “optimal relevance,” S&W mean that the “utterance is relevant enough to be worth processing” and “is the most relevant one compatible with the communicator’s abilities and preferences” (7). (According to this definition, we might quibble with S&W’s choice of the word ‘optimal’ here, which would better be replaced by Herbert Simon’s coinage of ‘satisfice.’)

Since optimal relevance is processed spontaneously to yield positive effects through minimal effort, S&W propose a cognitive mechanism to explain how expectations of relevance guide interpretation, which they call the “Relevance-guided comprehension heuristic.” It works accordingly: “Follow a path of least effort in constructing an interpretation of the utterance”; “Stop when . . . expectations of relevance are satisfied” (7). Hence, for “relevance-theoretic pragmatics,” linguistically coded utterances (explicatures) are processed in parallel with implicit propositions (implicatures) until a positive cognitive effect for the least necessary effort (optimal relevance) is reached that satisfies the hearer (interpretation from relevance-guided comprehension).

This parallel processing of explicature—or the “logical form encoded by the utterance”—with implicature—or the “proposition communicated by the utterance” (12)—is a cognitive process that S&W call “mutual adjustment” (14-15). This mutual adjustment process, in sum, emerges from three sub-tasks:

(a)   Constructing an appropriate hypothesis about explicatures by developing the linguistically encoded logical form.

(b)  Constructing an appropriate hypothesis about the intended contextual assumptions (implicated premises).

(c)   Constructing an appropriate hypothesis about the intended contextual implications (implicated conclusion) (13).

Explicatures include the first sub-task (a), and implicatures include the second (b) and third (c), all of which are mutually adjusted to yield relevant interpretations, or meanings with positive cognitive effects that come from minimal processing effort. This comprehension process of communication and interpretation is the essence of RT.

II. Implications of RT

One of the consequences of RT is that explicature and implicature in no way form a dichotomy of literal versus figurative, factual versus rhetorical, or philosophical versus aesthetic. Instead, a continuum exists between explicature and implicature, which come in ‘weaker’ and ‘stronger’ varieties. ‘Weaker’ implicatures have ‘broader’ ranges of meanings, or greater indeterminacy of interpretation; ‘stronger’ implicature have a ‘narrower’ range of meaning. The same ‘weaker’ and ‘stronger’ meanings apply to explicature. Consequently, in weaker or broader implicature, more processing effort is required of the hearer to produce greater cognitive effect; less effort, and thus smaller cognitive effect, is required in stronger or narrower implicature, and even less is required in weaker explicature and stronger explicature, respectively. S&W call this continuum “Degrees of explicitness”: “The greater the relative contribution of decoding, and the smaller the relative contribution of pragmatic inference, the more explicit an explicature will be (and inversely).” That there exist degrees of explicitness in communication and interpretation is more than a theoretical nod to rhetoric; there is also empirical support for this claim:

Apart from creative literary metaphors and aggressive forms of irony . . . ordinary language use is full of tropes which are understood without attracting any more attention than strictly literal utterances. This familiar observation has now been experimentally confirmed: reaction-time studies show that most metaphors take no longer to understand than their literal counterparts (19).

In relation to rhetoric and technical communication, weaker implicatures include tropes such as metaphor and irony: “metaphor and other tropes are the most obvious cases where the meaning conveyed by the use of a word goes beyond the linguistically encoded sense” (16). (S&W will elaborate in Chapter 4, 5, and 6 with specific references to the rhetorical tradition.)

Stronger implicatures involve loose uses of language—e.g., in the sentence “I must run to the bank before it closes,” the word “run” is used loosely and not literally; S&W note, “‘Run’ . . . and many other words have sharp conceptual boundaries, frequent loose interpretations, and no ordered series of successively broader extensions which might be picked out by raising or lowering some standard of precision” (19-20).

Illocutionary-force indicators exemplify weaker explicatures, which S&W also call “higher-level explicatures,” because “their semantic function is to guide the hearer in the inferential construction of higher-level explicatures by narrowing the search space, increasing the salience of certain candidates.”

Stronger explicatures are explicit codes, since “conceptual encoding leads to stronger communication than linguistic indication” (24). Degrees of explicitness in RT thus lend theoretical and empirical support to rhetoric and technical communication, especially compared to earlier speech-act theories, which S&W criticize for their literalism.

To conclude the first chapter of M&R, S&W recapitulate RT as part of the turn to inferential pragmatics, but they also note that this turn to pragmatics reflects the shift from philosophy of language to philosophy of mind, or from linguistic focus to cognitive focus. While S&W admit, “there is a tension between more linguistically oriented and more cognitively oriented approaches,” they nevertheless try to resolve this tension: by “focusing on aspects of interpretation . . . which exhibit a kind of code-like regularity, it is possible to extend the methods of formal semantics to a sub-part of the pragmatic domain” (27). In other words, explicit codes, which are described linguistically by formal semantics, should be seen as pieces of evidence that interact with implicit assumptions, which are described cognitively by pragmatics. In this light, S&W pave the way for the next chapter, which details the relationships (or cognitive ‘mappings’) between words and mental concepts.


Wilson, Deirdre and Sperber. (2012). Meaning and Relevance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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