Audiences, Relevance, and Cognitive Environments CHRISTOPHER W. TINDALE (1992)

Cognitive environments are pretty important to my current work, because I’m thinking so much about how a communication is received by a mass audience, and the degree to which it can achieve relevance in dramatically more- or less-suited cognitive environments. This paper is a philosopher writing about relevance in a fairly loose way, though drawing upon Sperber and Wilson’s cognitive environment work.

The author distinguishes ‘in a provisional
way between premise-relevance (internal among the components of an argument),
topic-relevance (the relation of the argument to the topic or issue), and audience relevance. This last involves the relation of the information-content of
an argument, stated and assumed, to the framework of beliefs and commitments
that are likely to be held by the audience for which it is intended.’ p.177-8. This discussion focuses on the third.

In addition, where new ideas are being presented to an audience
and argued for, audience-relevance would require that as much as possible of the
information being given in support of those ideas be related to (relevant to)
assumptions which we know are manifest in that audience’s cognitive environment.
This must occur even when audiences are introduced to a new body of
information. When the Physics professor first confronts a freshman class he or
she expects that certain things are manifest to the class. One of these is the
professor’s own authority as a knowledgeable person, the recognition of which
serves as a warrant (in Blair’s sense) for the relevance of the information
disseminated. In addition to this, the professor assumes as manifest a set of facts
that is prerequisite for the level of study the class has reached, and tries to
introduce the new ideas in relation to those facts. The prerequisite facts include
those with which students are expected to be familiar, although individual
students may have gaps in their backgrounds that prevent them from grasping
the relevance of some of the professor’s remarks.3
What I have explained above is close to what Sperber and Wilson call
“contextual effect” (1986, pp. 108-109). Something has an effect on a context if
it modifies or improves a context. That is, in my terms, modifies what facts and
assumptions are manifest or implicates new facts or assumptions. As stated
before, these are mediate goals that we try to achieve in the process of attempting
to affect the actual thought processes of an audience. p. 183



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