M&R Ch. 4: Rhetoric and relevance

This is my colleague Chris Cocchiarella’s summary of the fourth chapter of Wilson and Sperber’s (2012) Meaning and Relevance. We previously posted Chris’s summary of the book’s preface, an intro to some of the terms and concepts of Relevance Theory, and a his summary of the introductory Chapter 1. All the other chapters  before the present one have also received summaries. (Click on the “Relevance Theory” tag link on any of these, and you’ll get the whole list.) I also posted a claim that Relevance Theory matters to rhetoric and TC.

Since the first three chapters of Meaning And Relevance are fairly dense, let’s briefly highlight what Wilson and Sperber have argued so far and where it will take us next.  In Chapters 1 through 3, W&S argued that inferential pragmatics (and not merely code models of semantics) explains how communication and interpretation are cognitive (and not merely linguistic) processes.  In their version of inferential pragmatics, which they call Relevance Theory (RT), explicit words (explicatures) and implicit concepts (implicatures) are mutually adjusted via the relevance-guided comprehension heuristic/process.  The relevance-guided comprehension process creates positive cognitive effects (e.g., confirming, disconfirming, or changing assumptions) with minimal processing effort (e.g., minimum strain on memory or mental inference).  This process also results in interpretations that may vary according to degrees of explicitness—from strong and weak explicatures to strong and weak implicatures—which allows communication to be true on literal, loose, and figurative levels of meaning. 

W&S are now in a position to look more closely at figurative language (or what rhetoricians call ‘tropes’) such as metaphor and irony.  In other words, W&S will address the study of rhetoric that goes back to Classical Antiquity.  To address Classical rhetoric, they begin with a paradox and a dilemma that many students of rhetoric may encounter. 

A paradox and a dilemma for students of rhetoric today

According to W&S, a paradox that students of rhetoric may encounter is the contradiction between Romantic and Classical conceptions of rhetoric.  The Classical conception of rhetoric tended to reduce rhetoric to one of its five canons, namely, to the study of style (elocutio) or figures of speech—ignoring the other four canons of invention (inventio), arrangement (disposition), memory (memoria), and delivery (pronuntiatio).  Reducing the study of rhetoric only to the stylistic use of figures made it a matter of ‘ornateness’:

In classical[1] rhetoric, figures were seen as ornaments added to a text, which made it more pleasant and therefore more convincing, but without altering its content.  In particular, tropes were described as achieving their ornamental effect through the replacement of a dull literal expression of the author’s thought by a more attractive figurative expression (i.e. an expression whose literal meaning is set aside and replaced by a figurative meaning) (84).

In other words, figurative language is just using fancy words to decorate content. Tropes do not add content to communication, which can always be conveyed literally, without metaphors.  Thus, for Classical rhetoricians, “every figure has a non-figurative paraphrase” (85).  In sum, the Classical view of rhetoric says that figurative language is unnecessary, only decorating literal statements and never contributing substance.

The Romantic conception of rhetoric opposes this Classical view.  Romantics like Coleridge disagreed that figures of language were mere ‘ornaments’ that could be paraphrased literally.  W&S believe the Romantics were correct when they said that metaphor, irony, and other tropes have “unparaphrasable effects,” but W&S criticize the Romantics for not properly theorizing why:

The Romantic critics were unquestionably right to point out the richness and importance of those effects of figures of speech which are not maintained under paraphrase.  These effects were merely noted by classical rhetoricians, who did not describe, let alone explain them.  But for all their well-taken criticisms and subtle observations, the Romantics were content to talk about metaphor in metaphorical terms, and provided no explicit theory . . .”  (85).

So while the Classical rhetoricians had a theory that inaccurately reduced rhetoric to the study of ornamental language, the Romantics had a much more accurate appreciation of figurative language but never formulated an appropriate theory.  And here, say W&S, lies the paradox: “The incorporation of Romanticism into academic theorising led—paradoxically—to a resurgence of classical rhetoric” (85).  So the paradox is that students of rhetoric today must synthesize a Classical theory of rhetoric with a Romantic appreciation of figurative language.

This paradox also creates a dilemma for students.  Since the Classical theory of rhetoric is incompatible with the Romantic appreciation of figurative language, students must often choose a side:

it seems we must either hold onto the relative rigour of a rhetorical approach and miss an essential—maybe the essential—dimension of language use, or start from the Romantic intuition that linguistic creativity cannot be reduced to a mere set of combinatorial rules, and give up any ambition to produce an adequate scientific theory (86).

W&S try to resolve this paradox and dilemma by showing how RT can synthesize Classical theories of rhetoric with Romantic appreciation of figurative language.

RT’s application to rhetoric

W&S believe that the dilemma between Classical and Romantic views of rhetoric comes from a misunderstanding about how human communication works.  As they’ve said since Chapter 1, this mistaken idea is the code model (in which a speaker encodes a message and sends it to a hearer, who then decodes it literally, word for word).  The code model does not help us understand how figurative language such as metaphor and irony creates rhetorical effects, which go beyond literal meaning.  Figurative language, as the Romantics pointed out, creates poetic effects that cannot be coded or paraphrased literally without losing something meaningful.  W&S remark, “The fact that communication achieves some unparaphrasable effects—which particularly interested the Romantics—strongly suggests that more is communicated than is actually encoded” (87).  Therefore, to get out of the dilemma between Classical and Romantic views of rhetoric, we must get out of the code model of communication.

Under an inferential model of communication like RT, figurative language in rhetoric, including metaphor and irony, is simply weak implicature.  Recall W&S’s discussion of “degrees of explicitness,” in which there is a continuum of explicature and implicature.  In this continuum, there are strong explicatures (explicit codes or words with literal meaning), weak explicatures (illocutionary force indicators such as word order or mood), strong implicatures (loose uses of language), and weak implicatures (figurative language like metaphor).  Figurative language is just an example of weak implicature, which requires more processing effort but, consequently, produces broader cognitive effects.

So what are metaphor and irony according to RT?  Metaphor is a kind of weak implicature in which a speaker produces a broad range of cognitive effects.  For example, when a mother says to her child, “You’re a piglet,” there is a broad range of meanings:

calling a child a piglet puts the hearer to some extra processing effort, which justifies a [mental] search for added effect.  For instance, young animals are endearing, even when the adults of the species are not; so the child may feel encouraged to derive not only the obvious contextual implication that he is dirty, but also the further implication that he is, nevertheless, endearing (91).

Irony (particularly verbal irony) is also weak implicature that echoes a discrepancy between the words that represent a situation and the situation itself.  W&S give the following example.  When a mother says to her dirty child, “You’re such a clean child,” she “is drawing attention to a discrepancy between the norm of cleanliness that the child is supposed to satisfy and his actual appearance” (94).  W&S will elaborate more on metaphor and irony in Chapters 5 and 6.

Concluding Chapter 4, they emphasize, “metaphor and irony are not rhetorical devices involving codified departures from the ordinary use of language, but ordinary exploitations of basic processes of verbal communication.”  Therefore, for the student of rhetoric, “The very notion of a trope is better abandoned” (96).  This sounds like a hyperbolic conclusion, but what W&S probably mean is that there is no dichotomy of literal vs. figurative.  There is only a continuum of explicature-implicature or literal-loose-figurative, because the tropes that rhetoric students study are just ordinary occurrences of weak implicature in human communication.


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

[1] Throughout Meaning And Relevance, W&S casually seem to alternate between “Classical rhetoric” (uppercase C) and “classical rhetoric” (lowercase c).  In both contexts, they refer to rhetoric beginning in Classical Antiquity, citing writers such as Quintilian.  I am not sure if the lowercase is a mistake or a spelling convention in Europe that I’m unfamiliar with.

2 thoughts on “M&R Ch. 4: Rhetoric and relevance”

  1. I can’t fault Chris’s summary, but I have to take issue with the way that W&S characterize contemporary rhetoricians. Since the “new rhetoric” that (at least arguably) arose in the mid-20th Century, contemporary rhetoricians (and their students) have not been obsessed with style. In fact, others have argued that they began neglecting style around that time.

    I think mischaracterizations like that are one reason that W&S have so little uptake in rhetoric.

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