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RELEVANCE THEORY
Robyn Carston Linguistics, University College London CSMN, University of Oslo

1.

INTRODUCTION

Relevance theory (RT) is best known for its account of verbal communication and comprehension, but it also sets out a general picture of the principles driving the human cognitive system as a whole and this plays a crucial role in underpinning the particular claims made about communication and the pragmatic theory that follows from them. The various post-Gricean accounts of the principles and processes that mediate the gap between sentence meaning and speaker meaning can be divided broadly into three classes based on their orientation: linguistic, philosophical and cognitive-scientific. Linguisticallyoriented theories tend to focus on those pragmatic processes which are the least contextsensitive and most code-like, reflecting default or general patterns of language use (Levinson 2000; Horn 1984, 2004). Philosophically-oriented accounts tend to follow Grice closely in maintaining his system of conversational norms and providing rational reconstructions of the ‘conversational logic’ that delivers speakers’ implicated meaning (Neale 1993, chapter 3; Recanati 2001, 2004). Given its cognitive-scientific orientation, relevance theory pragmatics is concerned with the on-line processes of utterance interpretation and the nature of the mental system(s) responsible for them (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995a, Wilson and Sperber 2004). So it is responsive to research in evolutionary psychology on the nature of human cognitive architecture, empirical work on children’s communicative development and experimental measures of adults’ on-line comprehension, investigations into the relation between pragmatic competence and theory of mind (the ability to attribute intentions and beliefs to others), and clinical studies of people with impaired communicative capacities. For a survey of the ways in which Relevance Theory engages with these issues, see Wilson and Sperber (2004), Wilson (2005). Given the philosophical nature of this volume of papers, I will focus less in this article on the cognitive theorising and experimental work that has built up around relevance theory than on those issues which have brought it into direct contact with debates in the philosophy of language. These include the meaning and function of singular terms (names, indexicals, demonstratives) and definite descriptions, the apparent occasion-sensitivity of word meaning

2 and the extent to which pragmatics may affect the truth-conditional content of an utterance. These are all issues that bear on the distinction between the meaning provided by the linguistic system and the meaning that arises through the pragmatics of human communicative interaction. Broadly speaking, philosophers of language fall into two camps: semantic minimalists, who maintain that natural language sentences provide a propositional content that is essentially pragmatics-free, and semantic contextualists, who insist that it is only utterances (or speech acts) that express propositional contents and these are irremediably context-sensitive. Although RT is usually classified as a contextualist theory, it will be suggested that, on the basis of its cognitive underpinnings and its emphasis on minds in communication, it occupies a distinct position, which I call ‘pragmaticism’. These philosophically-oriented issues are taken up in section 3, but first, in section 2, I lay out the main tenets of the theory.

2.

RELEVANCE THEORY – PRINCIPLES AND PROCESSES

2.1

Relevance theory and cognition According to the RT framework, human cognitive systems quite generally are geared

towards achieving as many improvements to their representational contents and to their organisation as possible, while ensuring that the cost to their energy resources is kept as low as reasonably possible. At the centre of the theory is a technically defined notion of relevance, where relevance is a...
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