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Topics: Pragmatics, Semantics, Linguistics Pages: 23 (7448 words) Published: April 8, 2013
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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...

References: Allott, N. (2008) Pragmatics and Rationality. PhD thesis, University of London. Bach, K. (1994) “Conversational Impliciture,” Mind and Language 9: 124-162. Bach, K. (2006) “The Excluded Middle: Semantic Minimalism without Minimal Propositions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 73 (2): 435-442. Bezuidenhout, A. (1997) “Pragmatics, Semantic Underdetermination and the Referential/ Attributive Distinction,” Mind 106: 375-409. Borg, E. (2004) Minimal Semantics, Oxford: Clarendon Press. Borg, E. (2007) 2Minimalism Versus Contextualism in Semantics,” in G. Preyer and G. Peter (eds) Context-Sensitivity and Semantic Minimalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 339-359. Cappelen, H. and Lepore, E. (2005) Insensitive Semantics: A Defense of Semantic Minimalism and Speech Act Pluralism, Oxford: Blackwell. Carston, R. (2002) Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication, Oxford: Blackwell. Carston, R. (2008a) “Linguistic Communication and the Semantics/Pragmatics Distinction,” Synthese 165 (3): 321-345. (Special Issue on the Semantics/Pragmatics Distinction.) Carston, R. (2008b) “A Review of E. Borg, 2004. Minimal Semantics Oxford: Clarendon Press,” Mind and Language 23: 359-67. Carston, R. (2009) “The Explicit/Implicit Distinction in Pragmatics and the Limits of Explicit Communication,” International Review of Pragmatics 1 (1): 35-62. Carston, R. (2010) “Explicit Communication and ‘Free’ Pragmatic Enrichment,” in B. Soria and E. Romero (eds) Explicit Communication: Robyn Carston’s Pragmatics, Palgrave Macmillan. Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. (1994) “Origins of Domain-Specificity: the Evolution of Functional Organization,” in L. Hirschfeld and S. Gelman (eds) Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 85-116. Donnellan, K. (1966) “Reference and Definite Descriptions,” Philosophical Review 75: 281304. Gigerenzer, G., Todd, P.M., & the ABC Research Group. (1999) Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Grice, H.P. (1989) Studies in the Way of Words, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
18 Hall, A. (2008a) “Free Enrichment or Hidden Indexicals?” Mind and Language 23(4): 426-56. Hall, A. (2008b) Free Pragmatic Processes and Explicit Utterance Content. PhD thesis, University of London. Hall, A. (2009) “‘Free’ Enrichment and the Nature of Pragmatic Constraints,” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 21: 93-123. Horn, L. (1984) “Toward a New Taxonomy for Pragmatic Inference: Q-based and R-based Implicature,” in D. Schiffrin (ed.) Meaning, Form and Use in Context (GURT '84), Washington: Georgetown University Press, 11-42. Horn, L. (2004) “Implicature,” in L. Horn and G. Ward (eds) Handbook of Pragmatics, Oxford: Blackwell, 3-28. King, J. and Stanley, J. (2005) “Semantics, Pragmatics, and the Role of Semantic Content,” in Z. Szabo (ed.) Semantics vs. Pragmatics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 111-64. Levinson, S. (2000) Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Martí, L. (2006) “Unarticulated Constituents Revisited,” Linguistics and Philosophy 29: 135166. Neale, S. (1993) Descriptions, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Origgi, G. and Sperber, D. (2000) “Evolution, Communication and the Proper Function of Language,” in P. Carruthers and A. Chamberlain (eds) Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language and Meta-Cognition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 140-169. Powell, G. (1998) “The Deferred Interpretation of Indexicals and Proper Names,” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 10: 143-172. Powell, G. (2001) “The Referential-Attributive Distinction – a Cognitive Account,” Pragmatics and Cognition 9 (1): 69-98. Powell, G. (2003) Language, Thought and Reference. PhD thesis, University of London. Powell, G. (2010) Language, Thought and Reference, Palgrave Macmillan. (Substantially revised version of Powell 2003.) Recanati, F. (1993) Direct Reference: From Language to Thought, Oxford: Blackwell. Recanati, F. (2001) “What is Said,” Synthese 128: 75-91. Recanati, F. (2004) Literal Meaning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Seale, J. (1978) “Literal Meaning,” Erkenntnis 13: 207-24.
19 Searle, J. (1980) “The Background of Meaning,” in J. Searle, F. Keifer and M. Bierwisch (eds) Speech Act Theory and Pragmatics, Dordrecht: Reidel, 221-32. Sperber, D. (2000) “Metarepresentations in an Evolutionary Perspective,” in D. Sperber (ed.) Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 117-137. Sperber, D. (2002) “In Defense of Massive Modularity,” in E. Dupoux (ed.) Language, Brain and Cognitive Development: Essays in Honor of Jacques Mehler, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 47-57. Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (1986/95a) Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Oxford: Blackwell. Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (1995b) “Postface,” in Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Oxford: Blackwell. Second edition 1995a, 255-279. Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (2002) “Pragmatics, Modularity and Mind-Reading,” Mind and Language 17: 3-23. (Special Issue on Pragmatics and Cognitive Science.) Stanley, J. (2000) “Context and Logical Form,” Linguistics and Philosophy 23: 391-434. Stanley, J. (2005) “Semantics in Context,” in G. Preyer and G. Peter (eds) Contextualism in Philosophy: Knowledge, Meaning, and Truth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 22153. Travis, C. (1985) “On What is Strictly Speaking True,” The Canadian Journal of Philosophy 15 (2): 187-229. Reprinted in C. Travis 2008, 19-64. Travis, C. (1997) “Pragmatics,” in B. Hale and C. Wright (eds) A Companion to the Philosophy of Language, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 87-107. Reprinted in C. Travis 2008, 109-29. Travis, C. (2008) Occasion-Sensitivity: Selected Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Wilson, D. (2005) “New Directions for Research on Pragmatics and Modularity,” Lingua 115: 1129-1146. Wilson, D. and Carston, R. (2007) “A Unitary Approach to Lexical Pragmatics: Relevance, Inference and Ad Hoc Concepts,” in N. Burton-Roberts (ed.) Advances in Pragmatics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 230-260. Wilson, D. and Sperber, D. (2002) “Truthfulness and Relevance,” Mind 111: 583-632. Wilson, D. and Sperber, D. (2004) “Relevance Theory,” in L. Horn and G. Ward (eds) The Handbook of Pragmatics, Oxford: Blackwell, 607-632.
20 Biographical Note Robyn Carston is Professor of Linguistics at University College London. She works on the semantics/pragmatics distinction, the explicit/implicit communication distinction and the interpretation of metaphor. She has published Thoughts and Utterances (2002, Blackwell) and a collection of her papers Pragmatics and Semantic Content is forthcoming (Oxford University Press).
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