Relevance: Communication and Cognition by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (1986)

This theory is extremely useful to me, and a valuable tool for looking at almost any communicative act. A summary:

Relevance Theory rests on a communicative principle of relevance, which suggests that by making an utterance or ‘ostensive act’, a speaker is conveying that what they are saying will provide cognitive effects that will justify the effort needed to process them; ostensive acts are therefore assumed to have been chosen for optimal relevance, and metaphors are understood by “using linguistic and contextual clues to create new ‘ad-hoc’ (occasion-specific) concepts” using the features that give the greatest cognitive benefit for the least mental work.

Chapter 1 looks at the communicative intention and the informative intention, and looks at the ostensive side of a model of ostensive-inferential communication.

Informative intention: to make manifest or more manifest to the audience a set of assumptions I.

Communicative intention: to make it mutually manifest to audience and communicator that the communicator has this imformative intention.

Chapter 2 moves on to the inferential process involved in comprehension, which is ‘global’ and, in this study of communication, spontaneous and non-demonstrative (there can be confirmation of an interpretation but not proof). This chapter is pretty difficult to summarise. There’s a cool bit about ideology, Nelson Goodman and ‘grue’ on p. 69. Fodor (1983) – systems in the mind are input systems and central systems. They draw distinctions between fact, proposition and logic. Strength of an assumption is comparative not quantitative. They argue for a role for deduction in comprehension which is economical in storage terms, provides a tool for guaranteeing the accuracy of deduced conclusions, and for exposing inconsistencies p. 85, and explain how such deductive rules would work p. 90. p. 93: when an inference is drawn it is possible to show how the hearer could have derived it via deductive rules, but other conclusions could normally also have been possible.

An informal system thus leaves an important part of the deductive process unspecified: it is left to the intelligent user of the system to decide how best to exploit it. p. 93

An effort is made therefore to outline a formal system.

The only deductive rules available for  use in the spontaneous processing of information – the only rules which in any interesting sense form part of the basic deductive equipment of humans – are elimination rules. p. 96

That’s an interesting one, and well argued. Also checks for contradictions, p. 102. On p. 109 contextual effects are introduced, and their interaction with confirmation value follows.

2016-02-19 19.40.38

Chapter 3 begins by distinguishing a technical from a colloquial usage of the word ‘relevance’ (though the following definition isn’t final):


An assumption is relevant in a context if and only if it has some contextual effect in that context. p. 122.

 Add this:

Extant condition 1: an assumption is relevant in a context to the extent that its contextual effects in this context are large.

Extant condition 2: an assumption is relevant in a context to the extent that the effort required to process it in this context is small. p. 125

To be continued.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s