The Theory of Relevance (Sperber and Wilson)

The Theory of Relevance (Sperber and Wilson)

The theory of relevance is based on the dimensioning to one of Grice’s maxims. However, it is not only an extension or modification of Grice’s theory, but it proposes a different way of explaining the process of linguistic communication. In short, the theory of relevance is very much in line with the intuition that all of us have as users of language.

This theory can be considered, simultaneously, as a reaction and a development of Grice’s theories. Based on an overview of human cognition, the central thesis of the theory is that the human cognitive system works in such a way that it tends to maximize relevance in the communication process. Therefore, the communicative principle of relevance is responsible for the recovery of both the explicit and implicit content of a statement. In addition, the great novelty is that this theory is inserted in a general theory of mind and cognition.

We owe the theory of relevance to Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson who published The relevance. Communication and cognitive processes in 1986 Relevance Communication and  cognition). Although not without criticism, the theory of relevance has gained many adherents and is one of the most valued theories in the field of pragmatics.

The advantage of the principle of relevance with respect to Grice’s theories, in the opinion of Sperber and Wilson, is that this principle applies without exception. Therefore, the principle of relevance applies without exceptions, so it is not about communicators following, violating or mocking the principle.

When listeners and readers make sense of a text, they interpret the connections in a text as meaningful based on their own knowledge of the world. For that reason, the purpose of communication is to expand the cognitive environments common to the interlocutors.

Relevance (or relevance) is the principle that explains all linguistic communicative acts, without exception: we pay attention to our interlocutor because we assume that what he says is relevant.

Sperber and Wilson think we are cooperative because, with that, we have something to gain: knowledge of the world. For that reason, to initiate a communication supposes dedicating attention, time and effort to understand what they tell us. In return, we receive “cognitive effects,” that is, a modification or enrichment of our knowledge of the world. And we expect our interlocutor to be relevant, to tell us something that contributes to enrich our knowledge of the world without demanding an excessive effort of interpretation. A statement is more relevant the more cognitive effects a statement produces and requires less effort to interpret.

The degree of relevance is governed, then by contextual effects and processing effort.

  • The contextual effects include such things as adding new information, reinforce or contradict an existing assumption or weaken the above information. The more contextual effects, the greater the relevance of a particular event. It is not worth processing a new fact that is not connected with anything already known, while it is worth processing a new fact with something already known.
  • Regarding the processing effort , the theory says that the less effort is needed to recover a fact, the greater the relevance. The listener interprets what is said by finding an accessible context that produces the maximum amount of new information with the minimum amount of processing effort.

The principle of relevance in communication

The principle of relevance in communication can be studied from different perspectives. Without a doubt, the principle of relevance arises from the pragmatic approach of communication , consequently, it is necessary to establish the parameters that are established in the communicative process. We will analyze these factors:

In a communicative dialogue between two or more people, numerous factors that affect communication come into play but, above all, the willingness to understand each other must prevail , that is, the willingness to cooperate in the communication so that the expressive intention of the issuer match the sense interpreted by the receiver. The fact that we are able to understand each other despite the difference between what we express literally and what we want to communicate has been studied from various fields of knowledge. The philosopher Paul Grice made one of the best known proposals in this regard. According to Grice, in a communicative exchange the interlocutors behave as if there were a tacit agreement of collaboration between them with the aim of understanding each other, that is, the issuer evidences in his message the intention to convey a certain meaning – above the specific meanings of the words – for the recipient to infer that meaning from that evidence provided. It is the so-called Principle of Cooperation : “Make your contribution to the conversation as required, at the stage in which it takes place, the purpose or direction of the exchange you hold” (Grice, 2005: 516).

This principle is developed in four maxims (Grice, 2005: 516-517):

1. Maximum amount:

That your contribution contains as much information as is required
That your contribution does not contain more information than is required

2. Maximum quality (truthfulness)
Do not affirm what you believe is false
Do not affirm anything that does not have sufficient evidence

3. Maximum relation (of relevance)

That what he speaks opportunely is relevant

4. Mode maxims (modality, essentially try to be clear) 

Avoid expressing yourself darkly

Avoid being ambiguous

Be brief

Be tidy

Although the maxims proposed by Grice are to be understood as a series of principles that are not mandatory for the interlocutors, the continued violation of the maxims in any conversation makes Grice’s theory insufficient; consequently, two of his disciples, Sperber and Wilson , elaborated, from the maximum of relation the Theory of relevance. “The central thesis of the theory of relevance is that the expectations of compliance with the maximum relevance raised by a statement must be so precise and predictable that they guide the listener to the meaning of the speaker” (Sperber and Wilson, 2004: 238- 239). That is, the issuer must transfer in the statement its communicative intention in order for the receiver to be able to interpret it according to the terms of the issuer. In this way, the recipient’s interpretation is based on choosing the hypothesis that best responds to the speaker‘s intentions among other interpretations that are less relevant. This information processing is inserted within a context where statement, nonverbal language, interpersonal relationships and other factors that influence the final meaning converge. There is, therefore,a communication failure . This has special relevance in the interpretation of silences in a communication ; If what is expressed verbally can lead to an interpretation different from that inferred by the issuer, what interpretation is correct for silence, for what is not said?

Indeed, the silence that is emitted as an ostensive stimulus communicates and if, in addition, we take into account that this is accompanied by a non-verbal language, that is, gestures, kinesic and proxemic elements and a situational and textual context that complement its interpretation, We can determine that silence infers an ostensive meaning of greater complexity than that of verbal expression. In this way, silence is used in communication with different purposes such as manipulating, assaulting or hiding ( Herewe explain them to you). Likewise, we can establish that the principle of relevance is a fundamental element in the communication because it determines that the will and the communicative intention of the issuer are the main guarantors for the success or not of the communication. Therefore, every good communicator has to place special emphasis on transferring his ultimate intention to the receiver or receivers.

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