In Relevance: Communication and cognition, Sperber and Wilson (1986, 1995) present a new approach to the study of human communication. Relevance Theory is based on the view that human cognition is geared towards the maximization of relevance, and that communicated information comes with a guarantee of relevance. This is what Sperber and Wilson name the Principle of Relevance. The theory has sparked a great deal of research since it was presented, either supporting or criticizing the entire theory or some of its main arguments. The following presents an overview of Relevance Theory (henceforth RT) and outlines the main tenets of the theory. The overview outlines definitions of the main concepts and tenets which were originally presented by Sperber and Wilson (1986; 1995) and mainly comprised the originality of the theory, such as mutual manifestness, optimal relevance, and ostensive inferential communication. That is followed by a discussion of RT as a post-Gricean theory and how far it adopts or deviates from the views of Grice (1975).
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Sperber and Wilson present RT as a post-Gricean theory (Grice 1975). It takes as a starting point the inferential model of communication developed by Grice as opposed to the code model of communication. Sperber and Wilson (1995) argue that communication cannot be achieved by the code model alone, i.e. encoding and decoding messages, nor by the inferential model alone. They maintain that verbal communication exploits both kinds of process, as the outcome of the decoding process serves as the input to the inferential process by which the speaker’s intentions are recognized. According to the code model of communication, human languages are codes and verbal communication is achieved by encoding and decoding messages. The speaker encodes his/her message into a signal which is decoded by the hearer. Grice (1975) developed a different model of communication which is the inferential model. According to that model, the speaker provides evidence of his/her intention to convey a specific meaning and the hearer infers that meaning according to the evidence provided. Following the inferential model, communication is successful when the hearer interprets the evidence provided by the speaker as she intended it to mean. In cases where a single utterance provides evidence for different interpretations, this could lead to communication failure if the speaker does not inferentially derive the meaning intended by the hearer. Grice suggested that a speaker would observe what he called the Co-operative Principle and maxims of conversation to make his/her communicative intention clear for the hearer who would choose the interpretation that conforms to these maxims. The maxims are Quality, Quantity, Relevance and Manner.
Coded communication, as one of the processes involved in verbal communication is viewed by Sperber and Wilson not as autonomous but subservient to the inferential process. Nevertheless, the inferential process is autonomous as it functions in essentially the same way whether or not combined with coded communication. Sperber and Wilson (1995) argue that the code model is not sufficient to account for human communication because comprehension of utterances involves more than merely decoding linguistic signals. There is a gap between the semantic representation of sentences and the thoughts which are actually communicated by the speaker’s utterances. They claim that this gap is filled by inference. Nevertheless, they argue that the inferential model is not enough on its own to explain human communication. As they reject the code model as insufficient to account for communicational understanding, Sperber and Wilson (1995) propose a modified view of inferential communication in which “communication is achieved by the communicator providing evidence of her intentions and the audience inferring her intentions from the evidence” (Sperber and Wilson 1995: 24). Hence, verbal communication involves both coding and inferential processes.
RT goes beyond Grice’s (1975) Co-operative Principle with its four maxims and sub-maxims, and claims that relevance, as a cognitive principle, is enough on its own to account for human communication and utterance interpretation. The central claim of RT is that expectations of relevance raised by an utterance are precise and predictable enough to guide the hearer towards the speaker’s intended meaning (Sperber and Wilson 2006: 607).
Sperber and Wilson suggest that humans pay attention to the most relevant phenomenon available, and that they construct the most relevant possible representations of these phenomena, and process them in a context that maximises their relevance. They claim that relevance and the maximisation of relevance is the key to human cognition. The important consequence their idea has for a theory of communication, according to Sperber and Wilson, is that a communicator, by the very act of claiming an audience’s attention, suggests that the information he is offering is relevant enough to be worth the audience’s attention. They suggest that this idea – that communicated information comes with a guarantee of relevance – is enough on its own to yield an explanatory pragmatic theory. They claim that information is relevant if it interacts in a certain way with the person’s existing assumptions about the world.
If it’s raining I’ll stay at home.
From the existing assumption (a), and the new information (b), some further information that is not deducible from either of them alone, can be deduced which is:
I’ll stay at home.
Here, both the old and the new information are used as joint premises in an inference process. The new information (b) would be relevant in a context containing assumption (a). Sperber and Wilson suggest that it is relevant because it enables such a joint inference process to take place. So, (a) is the context in which the new information (b) is processed, and (b) contextually implies (c) in the context (a).
It is argued that every utterance has at most a single interpretation consistent with the principle of relevance, and whatever the procedures used in disambiguation, the first interpretation tested and found consistent with the principle of relevance is the only interpretation consistent with the principle of relevance (Sperber and Wilson 1987: 32, Wilson 1995: 46). Furthermore, the notion of relevance is a “constraint powerful enough” (Sperber and Wilson 1982: 73) to warrant the selection of that single interpretation for any utterance in context. It is suggested that assumptions of relevance guide the hearer to select from all the propositions that an utterance could convey, i.e. the combinations of sense and reference that the utterance could express, the most relevant one and assume it is the one intended by the speaker.
As explained above, Sperber and Wilson account for RT as a post-Gricean theory, as their notion of relevance is derived from one of the four conversational maxims suggested by Grice to form the Co-Operative Principle which, according to Grice (1975), constitutes the condition which interlocutors should follow and abide by to achieve successful communication. However, they identified a number of differences between RT and Grice’s Co-operative Principle (CP) and conversational maxims. Sperber and Wilson claim that, contrary to Grice’s CP and maxims, communicators cannot choose whether to follow or obey the principle of relevance or violate it. Rather, it is an innate feature of the human mind to pay attention only to relevant phenomena. They claim that, whereas Grice’s CP is presented as an advisory account providing guidance for interlocutors on how to achieve effective communication, RT is not. Sperber and Wilson claim that the search for relevance is a basic feature of human cognition and that the principle of relevance applies without exceptions: “Communicators do not ‘follow’ the principle of relevance; and they could not violate if even if they wanted to. The principle of relevance applies without exception” (Sperber and Wilson 1995: 162).
This idea is the basis for the first generalization Sperber and Wilson present about human communication and cognition, the Cognitive Principle of Relevance: ‘Human cognition is geared towards the maximization of relevance’. This first principle of relevance applies mainly to the hearer, as it illustrates the criterion which directs or guides the hearer to a correct processing, and hence a correct interpretation, of the speaker’s utterance, i.e. the search for relevance.
One of the key concepts presented within the framework of RT is ostension. Ostensive behaviour is any behaviour which makes manifest an intention to make something manifest. Since information-processing involves effort on the part of the hearer, he  would expect with every act of ostension, or in other words, in each time the speaker invites his attention, that he will gain relevant information, Sperber and Wilson (1995) argue that drawing the hearer’s attention in a manifestly intentional way guarantees that there is some relevant information to be obtained, i.e. ostension comes with a tacit guarantee of relevance. A communicator who produces an ostensive stimulus aims at fulfilling two intentions: First, the Informative Intention, or the attempt to make manifest to the audience a set of assumptions, Second, the Communicative Intention which is the attempt to make the informative intention mutually manifest, i.e. the intention to make it mutually manifest to the audience and communicator that the communicator has this informative intention. Hence, ostensive stimuli must satisfy two conditions: First: they must attract the audience’s attention; Second: they must focus it on the communicator’s intention. According to RT, understanding is achieved when the communicative intention is fulfilled, that is when the hearer recognizes the informative intention.
So, whenever a speaker is involved in ostension, the hearer should engage in inference to derive the speaker’s intended meaning. Not only should the informative intention be mutually manifest for successful communication to take place, but for Sperber and Wilson the communicator’s interest in knowing whether fulfilling the informative intention was successful should also be mutually manifest. Hence, the aim of an ostensive stimulus is to attract the audience’s attention and focus it on the speaker’s intended meaning. They claim that in certain situations, the success of communication, i.e. the success of fulfilling the informative intention, is mutually manifest in advance such as in cases where the communicator is in a position of authority over the audience. Sperber and Wilson (1995) claim that ostensive behaviour succeeds in providing evidence of one’s thoughts because it implies a guarantee of relevance.
The notion of ostension is the basis for the second principle of relevance which Sperber and Wilson identified as the Communicative Principle of Relevance: ‘Every act of ostensive communication communicates a presumption of its own optimal relevance’. Their claim is that to communicate is to claim the hearer’s attention. Hence, to communicate is to imply that the information communicated is relevant. They present the second principle of relevance as grounded in the first one, and also in the further assumption that the first principle makes the cognitive behaviour of another human predictable enough to guide communication. The communicative principle of relevance is related to both the speaker and the hearer. It relates to the speaker as it proposes that for each utterance produced by her, there is a specific cognitive effect which she intends to effect in the hearer. Nevertheless, it relates to the hearer as it attributes to every utterance directed ostensively to him, not only a message (a proposition) intended to be communicated, but also a promise of a worthwhile extent of cognitive rewards. In other words, ostensive communication, or utterances ostensively directed to the hearer, create expectations of optimal relevance. This principle was presented as essential to explaining human communication, with the claim that it is enough on its own to account for the interaction of linguistic meaning and contextual factors in utterance interpretation.
One of the necessary conditions for efficient information processing to take place, according to Sperber and Wilson, is to recognise the speaker’s intention behind the ostension. When failure to recognize this intention takes place, failure to notice relevant information will follow. Moreover, it is not sufficient for the speaker to choose a stimulus that appears most relevant to the hearer, but she should also appear to be choosing the stimulus that is most relevant to the hearer. They state that in normal conditions, appearance and reality are likely to coincide (Sperber and Wilson 1995: 270).
The role of gaining the hearer’s recognition of the speaker’s intention as a condition for the success of communication was further explained by Escandell-Vidal (1998: 50), who states that “With every utterance a set of assumptions is made manifest. Presumably, some of these assumptions will be salient enough to be worth the hearer’s while, so they will be processed and interpreted. However, not all the assumptions conveyed by an utterance – not even those that are found relevant – need to have been ostensively communicated”. In other words, even if the hearer finds a certain assumption delivered by the speaker’s utterance relevant, he can conceivably guess that the speaker is not intending to ostensively transmit it; it was merely communicated by the speaker’s utterance. Hence, there is a distinction between what is intentionally communicated and what is unintentionally communicated, as only some of the assumptions that an utterance makes manifest are intentionally communicated. As such, and “for real communication to take place, it is necessary that the transmission of assumptions is both intentional and overt” (Escandell-Vidal 1998: 52), i.e. ostensive and mutually manifest. That view was to follow Wilson’s (1995) contention that communication in RT means overt intentional communication, and understanding as to mean recovering the overtly intended interpretation.
A crucial notion in this context is ‘optimal relevance’ which is to be achieved by the production of an ostensive stimulus. Sperber and Wilson proposed the presumption of optimal relevance as follows:
The ostensive stimulus is relevant enough to be worth the addressee’s effort to process it.
The ostensive stimulus is the most relevant one compatible with the speaker’s abilities and preferences.
These two points summarize the basic conditions that must be met for an ostensive stimulus to be optimally relevant, and clarifies the criteria for evaluating the degree of relevance for any utterance. Relevance theory presents a view of human communication and cognition based on the contention that cognitive resources tend to be allocated to the processing of the most relevant inputs available, whether from internal or external sources, from among the vast array of inputs that an individual is exposed to, ostensively and otherwise. A cognitive effect (or contextual effect) is one of the two factors which determine the relevance of an input; the greater the positive cognitive effects achieved by processing an input, the greater its relevance will be. According to RT, an input is relevant to an individual when it connects with his background information to yield “conclusions that matter to him” (Sperber and Wilson 2002: 251) or in relevance-theoretic terms when it yields ‘positive cognitive effects’. A positive cognitive effect is, according to Sperber and Wilson (1995), a worthwhile difference to the individual’s representation of the world. They also define it as “a cognitive effect that contributes positively to the fulfilment of cognitive functions or goals” (1995: 265).
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The processing effort expended by the hearer is the other factor which affects the degree of relevance of the input; the greater the processing effort expended, the less rewarding the input would be to process, and hence the lower the relevance of the input to the individual. Thus, relevance is assessed in terms of cognitive effects and processing effort. However, when similar amounts of effort are required, the effect factor is decisive in determining degrees of relevance, and when similar amounts of effect are achievable, the effort factor is decisive. Hence, the assessment of relevance is a matter of balancing output against input, i.e. contextual effect against processing effort. Wilson (1995: 45) identifies the two main factors on which processing effort depend as: 1) the memory and imagination needed to be supplied by the hearer to construct a suitable context; and 2) the complexity of the utterance itself.
This view of relevance, as determined by the effect vs. effort balance, could render the processing of some utterances unworthy if the benefits of achieving contextual effects were not enough to offset the cost of the processing effort of deriving those effects, then optimal relevance could not be achieved. Moreover, the hearer processes the speaker’s utterance only for as long as he thinks it is worth the effort, and stops as soon as his expectations of relevance are fulfilled.
Thereby, the presumption of relevance is different on the effect and effort sides. On the effect side, the presumption is that the level of achievable effects is never lower than is needed to make the utterance worth processing. On the effort side, the level of effort required to process the stimulus is never gratuitously higher than is needed to achieve these effects (Sperber and Wilson 1987). Accordingly, the optimal relevance of an utterance amounts to recovering the intended combination of content, context, attitude, and implications (Wilson 1995: 46). According to RT, a cognitive effect is a contextual implication, which is deducible from the input and the context. It cannot be achieved by processing the input or the context alone. In other words, it can only be derived in the context of the set of assumptions that constitute the individual’s state of mind. An input may convey a variety of different types of cognitive effects. Sperber and Wilson enumerate the three types of contextual effects that could emerge in conversation as a result of combining new input to already existing assumptions. New assumptions could (a) combine with existing assumptions to yield new conclusions, or (b) provide evidence to strengthen existing beliefs, or (c) contradict and eliminate existing information. These three kinds of interaction are grouped together and called: contextual effects. So, the claim is: new information is relevant in any context in which it has contextual effects; and the greater its contextual effects, the more relevant it will be. Hence, a hearer forms an assumption with the expectation that he will be able to combine it with existing assumptions to form a new assumption (Blakemore 1992).
As Sperber and Wilson (2006) point out, relevance is not an all-or-none matter but there are degrees of relevance. As any input would have at least some degree of relevance to an individual at any certain time, they state that interlocutors are not interested in obtaining just relevant information, but the most relevant information. Relevance theory explains that what makes a specific input worth attending to from a wide range of competing stimuli is not just that it is relevant, but that it is more relevant than any other input available to the individual at that time and more optimally relevant (Sperber and Wilson 2006).
The selection of a particular context in which the utterance is processed is determined by the search for relevance. The degree of effort exerted by a hearer to interpret an utterance is not limited to the cognitive effort he exerts to process the utterance and infer the intended meaning. It also involves the effort required for accessing a context in which the utterance is to be interpreted. Sperber and Wilson (1995: 142) state that a crucially important point for RT is that accessing a context involves some effort as much as processing an item of information. A speaker who wants to achieve a certain range of contextual effects must make sure that they are as easy as possible for the hearer to recover: that is, he must make sure that his utterance puts the hearer to no unnecessary processing effort. This is in the speaker’s interest as well as the hearer’s, since any increase in processing effort detracts from overall relevance, and a speaker who puts the hearer to unnecessary processing effort runs the risk of failing to achieve an acceptable level of relevance. The less accessible a context is, the greater the effort involved in accessing it and conversely which affects the overall degree of relevance. Therefore, achieving maximal relevance involves selecting the best possible context in which to process an assumption, i.e. the context enabling the best possible balance of effect against effort to be achieved.
Mutual knowledge vs. Mutual manifestness
Sperber and Wilson reject the concept of mutual knowledge as a prerequisite for successful communication, a concept proposed by Schiffer (1972) and Clark and Marshall (1981). Mutual knowledge is rejected in RT on the grounds that to establish its existence, communicators must know that they share that knowledge and that it is genuinely mutual. Sperber and Wilson claim that speaker and hearer would have to perform an infinite series of checks to confirm that mutual knowledge does actually exist. They believe that time limits that constrain real-life communication do not allow for that sort of check to take place. Hence, mutual knowledge, according to Sperber and Wilson, can never be established. Consequently, “the mutual-knowledge hypothesis cannot deliver the guarantees it was set up to provide” (Sperber and Wilson 1995: 19), i.e. the guarantee of successful communication. Their conclusion is that as mutual knowledge must be certain if it is to exist at all, it can never exist (Smith 1982).
Following their rejection of the concept of mutual knowledge, Sperber and Wilson argue (1995: 38) that, despite mutual knowledge having no counterpart in reality, this is not to deny that the communication process gives rise to shared information and that some sharing of information is a prerequisite for communication to be achieved. As they believe that any account of human communication must incorporate some notion of shared information, they suggest as an alternative, a concept of ‘mutual manifestness’. They define as ‘manifest’ to an individual only facts that the individual is capable of representing mentally at that time and accepting its representation as true or probably true. However, shared knowledge is viewed in RT more as a result, rather than a prerequisite for, successful communication, and “it is mutual manifestness that turns a conveyed assumption into a communicated assumption” (Escandell-Vidal 1998: 54).
Sperber and Wilson believe that the notion of manifestness is more tenable than knowledge, in the sense that ‘manifest’ is weaker than ‘known’ or ‘assumed’, as something could be manifest without being known. Therefore, they believe that mutual manifestness does not suffer from the same psychological implausibility as mutual knowledge. Additionally, manifestness is a gradable concept that allows degrees; assumptions could be more or less manifest, and manifest assumptions which are more likely to be entertained are more manifest. The assumptions that are more manifest to an individual during a given period or at a given moment are a function of his physical environment on the one hand and his cognitive abilities on the other.
In the same vein, in their rejection of mutual knowledge in favour of mutual manifestness, Sperber and Wilson (1982: 36) further argue that, given the time constraints of utterance production and comprehension, and the speed by which they take place, mutuality must be easily and rapidly identified if it is to play a role in real-time production and comprehension of utterances. Given the size of the common ground shared by members of the same community, it is not possible that every proposition in the common ground to be checked for a possible role in utterance interpretation; the mutual knowledge requirement does nothing to explain how, for example, the choice of an actual referent is made (1995: 20). They suggest that there must be some other criterion that is to be used to determine the context actually searched and reducing it to a manageable size, other than merely belonging to the common ground. That criterion, they suggest, is the search for relevance.
In the light of the notions of cognitive effects and mutual manifestness, the concept of cognitive environment is introduced by Sperber and Wilson. This is defined as the set of all the assumptions that are manifest to an individual at a given time, whereas the total cognitive environment of an individual is the set of all the assumptions that he can infer or become aware of from his physical environment. Interlocutors could possess a mutual cognitive environment, which is a set of assumptions mutually manifest to a number of individuals at a given time, or any shared cognitive environment in which it is manifest which people share it. In a mutual cognitive environment, every manifest assumption is mutually manifest. They claim that the same facts and assumptions may be manifest in the cognitive environments of several people. In that case, these cognitive environments intersect and their intersection is a cognitive environment that the people in question share. They also claim that when the hearer knows the cognitive environment of the hearer (which one does when the environment is mutual), one can infer which assumptions he is likely to entertain and how a change in that environment might affect his train of thoughts.
Sperber and Wilson view communication as “enlarging mutual cognitive environment and not duplicating thoughts” (1995: 193), and the aim of communication in general as “to increase the mutuality of cognitive environments rather than guarantee an impossible duplication of thoughts” (p.200).
In early accounts of the ideas presented by Sperber and Wilson on relevance, they state that understanding an utterance involves recovering the proposition it expresses and drawing certain inferences based on this proposition as premise (1982: 63). Following their rejection of mutual knowledge, they propose three mechanisms which function in the comprehension of utterances: 1) determining the context involved in the comprehension of an utterance; 2) determining the content of the basis of the context and of the linguistic properties of the utterance; 3) drawing the intended inferences on the basis of the content and the context. They suggest that there is one single principle which simultaneously determines content, context, and intended inferences with no appeal to mutual knowledge, namely optimal relevance. They view the fact of mutual information or knowledge as a result or outcome of comprehension rather than a precondition for it. Therefore, they believe, what they call ‘mistakes in comprehension’ are much more likely to cause a wrong assessment of mutual knowledge rather than the other way around.
They also (1982: 69) admit that, in some instances, it is true that ascertaining successful disambiguation, reference assignment and the recovery of intended inferences requires mutual knowledge of the context. Nevertheless, ascertaining mutual knowledge remains an implausible process, as the drawback of relying on mutual knowledge in such cases is that interlocutors would need to asses mutual knowledge and achieve certainty about its existence that the processing costs could outweigh the cognitive benefits, and hence some instances might not be worth the effort. They only allow a limited array of instances to benefit from ascertaining mutual knowledge more on the cognitive benefits side than the cognitive effort side. Only in instances where the risk involved in misunderstandings taking place is high, the extra cognitive effort exerted balances the cognitive gain.
The notion of context
Context is a key concept in RT. Contrary to the traditional approach to context, Sperber and Wilson do not restrict the context to the immediate physical environment or the immediately preceding text or discourse. Context is defined by Sperber and Wilson as a set of premises used in interpreting an utterance. “It is a psychological construct, a subset of the hearer’s assumptions, rather than the actual state of the world. It is these assumptions, rather than the actual state of the world, that affect the interpretation of an utterance” (Sperber and Wilson 1995: 15). In RT, the context is not pre-determined, but chosen and constructed during conversation. Moreover, and based this definition, context is related to the hearer only. It is a cognitive property of the hearer
According to RT, then, context for information processing is not ‘given’ but a consequence of communication. They believe that the conversation does not start with a specific context in mind, but it is built up as the conversation progresses and develops with each utterance produced in the conversation. That means that context in the view of RT is a dynamic entity that is in a state of constant change. Sperber and Wilson (1995) claim that achieving optimal relevance involves selecting the best possible context against which to process an assumption.
According to that claim, the task of a hearer, when a speaker produces an utterance, is not only to interpret the utterance to infer the intended meaning. The hearer has to establish the best context, or probably the context envisaged by the speaker, that would allow that interpretation relying on assumptions of the speaker’s preservation of relevance. Summing up the views of Sperber and Wilson and other proponents of RT regarding the context for utterance interpretation (Blakemore 1995, Carston 2002), they present the following claim. They argue that the speaker must attend to the hearer’s available contextual resources and mutually manifest assumptions, in addition to all aspects of his cognitive environment, in order to provide him with the appropriate context to interpret her utterance. Hence, context selection or construction is the task of the hearer and constitutes part of the comprehension process. That view is opposite to classic views of context, which suggest it is pre-determined by the speaker before utterance production and which depend fundamentally on assumptions of pre-existing knowledge, or mutual knowledge, between the speaker and the hearer.
Expanding on the notion of context in RT, Wilson (1995) argues that, as the hearer has to choose the context intended by the speaker, the question is: how can he recognize it? She maintains that, despite the importance of context and its significance in utterance interpretation, the problem of how the intended context is identified, despite being genuine and serious, was not seriously addressed prior to their theory. She suggests that what is needed, and what hearers seem to have, is some method of recognizing the intended interpretation as soon as it presents itself, without necessarily considering any alternatives at all. She further argues that interlocutors do not attend to or consider all of the environmentally relevant information available for utterance interpretation, but only some of it. And the only ‘filter’ for governing context selection is relevance, i.e. selection and/or construction of context is guided by the pursuit of relevance
Sperber and Wilson (1995) argue that the Principle of Relevance is enough on its own to account for the interaction of lingu
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