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Basic Assumptions of Relevance Theory

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D. Sperber, D. Wilson and Relevance Theory



1. Carston R. Relevance Theory, Grice and the Neo-Griceans : A Response to Laurence Horn’s “Current Issues in Neo-Gricean Pragmatics” / Robyn Carston // Intercultural Pragmatics. – 2005. – vol. 2/3. – P. 303-319.

2. Recanati F. Literal Meaning / François Recanati. – Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2004.



Issues Discussed:

1. Basic assumptions of relevance theory

2. The principles of relevance

3. Implicated premises and conclusions


Following Grice's model, understanding what someone means by an utterance is a matter of inferring the speaker's communicative intention: the hearer uses all kinds of information available to get at what the speaker intended to convey. The semantic information obtained by decoding the sentence uttered is but one example of such information. But much more information has to be used to infer what the speaker meant — that includes both what he said and what he implicated — by his utterance. So central is intention-recognition to understanding language that the code model, with autonomous semantics at its core, should largely be abandoned in favor of the inferential model. One kind of pragmatic reasoning pervades language use, near-side and far-side, and the areas in which the code model is applicable are basically marginal.

The need for supplementary information is too pervasive and too important to be a matter of something specifically linguistic, as might be suggested by Grice's conversational principle and maxims. Dan Sperber and Deirde Wilson see the fundamental mechanism of such inferences as going well beyond language, and beyond humans [7]. In terms of Carston's distinctions, relevance theory departs from Grice's philosophical project, and aims at an empirical psychological theory of human cognition and communication [1]. Sperber and Wilson see the phenomenon they call ‘relevance’ as a psychological phenomenon basic to the lives not only of humans but of all animals with a cognitive repertoire sophisticated enough to have choices about which environmental cues to attend to. Evolution shapes the phenomenon of relevance; an animal's attention is drawn to environmental cues that provide the most crucial information. Sounds of an approaching cat grabs a bird's attention away from a worm; parents are alert to the sounds of their baby's crying. The phenomenon is extended through learning; the squeal of brakes grabs a driver's attention away from a pretty sunset. And the cues can be conventional; the dinner bell grabs the attention of the hungry child. The phenomenon of relevance in language is another manifestation of this very general phenomenon. ‘Relevance’ in relevance theory, then, should not be taken to be just our ordinary conception of relevance; nor should it be equated with the ‘relevance’ of Grice's maxim, although it is connected to that and intended to provide a deepened understanding of what underlies the maxim.

Relevance theory emphasizes that the rules of language leave all sorts of issues open. Some words have too many meanings: ambiguity. Others have too little meaning: ‘he,’ or ‘that.’ Decoding alone won't determine which meaning the speaker is using, or which object he intends to refer to with a pronoun. So even before we get to what is said, communication involves intentions on the part of the speaker that go beyond what he "codes-up" into language, and inferences on the part of the hearer that go beyond decoding. And of course when we consider what is conveyed beyond saying, the coding model is even less adequate. In all of these ways in which knowledge of convention falls short, relevance fills the gap.

A second difference rooted in the psychological conception of pragmatics is reliance on the representational theory of mind. The tenets of relevance theory are couched in talk of processing representations, rather than, and sometimes in addition to, the ordinary terminology of philosophical psychology.

Thus, instead of Grice's cooperative principle and conversational maxims, relevance theory postulates principles of relevance, which stem from the applicability of the general phenomenon of relevance to linguistic situations in the context of a representational theory of mind.

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