Relevance and the interpretation of literary works by Deirdre Wilson

In considering this question, I will start from the following working assumptions. First, the interpretation of literary works draws on the same basic cognitive and communicative abilities used in ordinary, face-to-face exchanges. Second, theoretical notions which apply to the interpretation of ordinary utterances – the notion of inferential communication itself, the distinction between explicit and implicit communication, strength of implications and implicatures, the analysis of metaphor and irony, stylistic and poetic effects, expressions of attitude, and so on – should carry over to the interpretation of literary texts. Third, the cognitive and communicative principles of relevance, the theoretical definitions of relevance and the relevance-theoretic comprehension heuristic, which are central to relevance theory’s account of ordinary cognition and communication, should also apply to the interpretation of literary texts. I assume, that is, that literary works are not entirely sui generis, but exploit at least some of the same abilities used in other varieties of verbal communication.

These working assumptions raise issues of two types. First, how far can they take us in analysing the interpretation of literary texts? and second, what (if anything) do they leave out? For instance, relevance theory is an explicitly cognitive account, on which a communicator is seen as intending to inform her audience of something, or, more generally, to alter their cognitive environment, or possibilities of thinking.


According to E.D. Hirsch (1967), by contrast, any word sequence can be interpreted in indefinitely many ways, and textual meaning is hopelessly indeterminate unless the author’s intentions are taken into account:

“unless one particular complex of meaning is willed (however ‘rich’ and ‘various’ it may be), there would be no distinction between what an author does mean by a word sequence and what he could mean by it. Determinacy of meaning requires an act of will.” (Hirsch 1967/1992: 16).

For Hirsch, it was therefore legitimate to look beyond the text itself for evidence of the author’s intentions.


It is perhaps worth emphasising that, as Pilkington et al. (1997: 141) point out, the relevance-theoretic comprehension heuristic is not a discovery procedure designed to take a text or utterance as input and yield an interpretation in which all ambiguities or indeterminacies are resolved in the way the communicator intended.


What relevance theory aims to do is not to produce better interpretations than actual hearers or readers do, but to explain how they arrive at the interpretations they do construct, whether successfully or unsuccessfully.


Sperber & Wilson (1981, 1982) distinguish utterance comprehension – recognition of the communicator’s informative and communicative intentions – from the broader process of utterance interpretation, whose goal is to derive enough implications to satisfy the audience’s expectations of relevance.


They start from the assumption that an author may be simultaneously performing acts of communication on two different levels: a lower-level act of describing a fictional world, and a higher-level act of showing this world to the reader as an example of what is possible, or conceivable. The expectations of relevance raised by the lower-level act would be ‘internal’, while the higher-level act would communicate an ‘external’ presumption of relevance.


(3) a. The communicator’s informative intention is an intention to modify the audience’s cognitive environment – that is, their possibilities of thinking – rather than directly affecting their thoughts b. In recognising the communicator’s informative and communicative intentions, the audience must necessarily go beyond them c. Communication is not a yes-no matter but a matter of degree d. In the case of weak communication much of the responsibility for constructing a satisfactory interpretation falls on the audience’s side.


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