One of our aims in this paper is to show that building an adequate theory of communication involves going beyond Grice’s notion of speaker’s meaning. Another is to provide a conceptually unified explanation of how a wider variety of communicative acts than Grice was concerned with – including both cases of ‘showing that’ and ‘telling that’ – are understood. (This is a draft – Please do not quote!)
Abstract: In “The evolution of testimony: Receiver vigilance, speaker honesty, and the reliability of communication,” Kourken Michaelian questions the basic tenets of our article “Epistemic vigilance” (Sperber et al. 2010). Here I defend against Michaelian’s criticisms the view that epistemic vigilance plays a major role in explaining the evolutionary stability of communication and that the honesty of speakers and the reliability of their testimony are, to a large extent, an effect of hearers’ vigilance.
Abstract: From an evolutionary point of view, the function of moral behaviour may be to secure a good reputation as a co-operator. The best way to do so may be to obey genuine moral motivations. Still, one’s moral reputation maybe something too important to be entrusted just to one’s moral sense. A robust concern for one’s reputation is likely to have evolved too. Here we explore some of the complex relationships between morality and reputation both from an evolutionary and a cognitive point of view.
“…We argue that the function of reasoning is primarily social and that it is the individual benefits that are side-effects. The function of reasoning is to produce arguments in order to convince others and to evaluate arguments others use in order to convince us. We will show how this view of reasoning as a form of social competence correctly predicts both good and bad performance in the individual and in the collective case, and helps explain a variety of psychological and sociological phenomena…”
A new essay on irony, chapter 6 in Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber (2012) Meaning and Relevance, pp. 123-145.
Short commentary on: Asher Koriat (2012) When Are Two Heads Better than One and Why? Science 336, 360 (2012);
Abstract: Reasoning is generally seen as a mean to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Much evidence, however, shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests rethinking the function of reasoning. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given human exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology or reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis.
Abstract: Obscurity of expression is considered a flaw. Not so, however, in the speech or writing of intellectual gurus. All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp. Here I try to explain this “ guru effect ” by looking at the psychology of trust and interpretation, at the role of authority and argumentation, and at the effects of these dispositions and processes when they operate at a population level where, I argue, a runaway phenomenon of overappreciation may take place.
Abstract: Humans depend massively on communication with others, but this leaves them open to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misinformed. We claim that humans have a suite of cognitive mechanisms for epistemic vigilance to ensure that communication remains advantageous despite this risk. Here we outline this claim and consider some of the ways in which epistemic vigilance works in mental and social life by surveying issues, research and theories in different domains of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology and the social sciences.
Abstract: We propose a principled distinction between two types of inferences: ‘intuitive inference’ and ‘reflective inference’ (or reasoning proper). We ground this distinction in a massively modular view of the human mind where metarepresentational modules play an important role in explaining the peculiarities of human psychological evolution. We defend the hypothesis that the main function of reflective inference is to produce and evaluate arguments occurring in interpersonal communication (rather than to help individual ratiocination). This function, we claim, helps explain important aspects of reasoning. We review some of the existing evidence and argue that it gives support to this approach.
Abstract: Vigilance towards deception is investigated in 3- to-5-year-old children: (i) In study 1, children as young as 3 years of age prefer the testimony of a benevolent rather than of a malevolent communicator. (ii) In study 2, only at the age of four do children show understanding of the falsity of a lie uttered by a communicator described as a liar. (iii) In study 3, the ability to recognize a lie when the communicator is described as intending to deceive the child emerges around four and improves throughout the fifth and sixth year of life. On the basis of this evidence, we suggest that preference for the testimony of a benevolent communicator, understanding of the epistemic aspects of deception, and understanding of its intentional aspects are three functionally and developmentally distinct components of epistemic vigilance.
Abstract: Most human beliefs are acquired through communication, and so are most misbeliefs. Just like the misbeliefs discussed by McKay & Dennett (M&D), culturally transmitted misbeliefs tend to result from limitations rather than malfunctions of the mechanisms that produce them, and few if any can be argued to be adaptations. However, the mechanisms involved, the contents, and the hypothetical adaptive value tend to be specific to the cultural case.
(Traduction française par Nicolas Pain de “The Guru effect”, inédit de 2005.)
“Une énonciation obscure est considérée comme défectueuse. Tel n’est pas le cas pour les discours et les écrits des gourous intellectuels. Le problème n’est pas que des lecteurs manquant de compétence s’abstiennent, à raison, de porter un jugement sur ce qu’ils ne comprennent pas ; mais que trop souvent ces lecteurs jugent profond ce qui leur échappe. L’obscurité inspire le respect… Je voudrais expliquer ici cet « effet-gourou »…”
Abstract: On the relevance-theoretic approach outlined in this paper, linguistic metaphors are not a natural kind, and “metaphor” is not a theoretically important notion in the study of verbal communication. Metaphorical interpretations are arrived at in exactly the same way as literal, loose and hyperbolic interpretations: there is no mechanism specific to metaphors, and no interesting generalisation that applies only to them. In this paper, we defend this approach in detail by showing how the same inferential procedure applies to utterances at both ends of the literal-loose-metaphorical continuum, and how both literal and metaphorical utterances may create poetic effects
Abstract: This work examines how people interpret the sentential connective “or”, which can be viewed either inclusively (A or B or both) or exclusively (A or B but not both). Drawing on prior work concerning quantifiers (Noveck, 2001; Noveck & Posada, 2003; Bott & Noveck, 2004) and following a relevance-theoretic line of argument, we hypothesized that conditions encouraging more processing effort would give rise to more pragmatic inferences and hence to more exclusive interpretations of the disjunction. This prediction was confirmed in three experiments.
First English translation of : Dan Sperber (1975) Rudiments de rhétorique cognitive, Poétique: Revue de Théorie et d’Analyse Littéraire (23) 389-415. Deirdre Wilson’s book Presuppositions and non-truth conditional semantics (1975) and this paper were the starting points of our collaboration in developing relevance theory.
Version française de: An Evolutionary perspective on testimony and argumentation. Philosophical Topics. (2001). 29. 401-413
“Although a few pioneers in psycholinguistics had, for more than twenty years, approached various pragmatic issues experimentally, it is only in the past few years that investigators have begun employing the experimental method in testing pragmatic hypotheses (see Noveck & Sperber 2004). We see this emergence of a proper experimental pragmatics as an important advance with a great potential for further development. In this chapter we want to illustrate what can be done with experimental approaches to pragmatic issues by presenting one case, that of so-called ‘scalar inferences’, where the experimental method has helped sharpen a theoretical debate and has provided uniquely relevant evidence…”
” …pragmatics contrasts with semantics, the study of linguistic meaning, and is the study of how contextual factors interact with linguistic meaning in the interpretation of utterances. Here we will briefly highlight a range of closely related, fairly central pragmatic issues and approaches that have been of interest to linguists and philosophers of language in the past thirty years or so. Pragmatics, as we will describe it, is an empirical science, but one with philosophical origins and philosophical import.”
“…Une nouvelle branche de la linguistique, la pragmatique, s’est développé au cours des dernières décennies. Elle étudie la compréhension des énoncés en contexte. Qui adopte une perspective pragmatique est amené à concevoir les énoncés non tant comme des moyens qu’utilise le locuteur pour transmettre au moyen de sons le sens qu’il veut communiquer, mais plutôt comme des indices riches et complexes que le locuteur fourni à l’auditeur afin de lui permettre de reconstruire le sens voulu… Nous nous interrogerons ici sur les conséquences de la perspective pragmatique pour l’étude de l’évolution du langage…”
The studies reported in this chapter test predictions directly inspired by central tenets of relevance theory and, in particular, by the cognitive and the communicative principles of relevance.
This volume lays down the bases for a new field, Experimental Pragmatics, that draws on pragmatics, psycholinguistics and also on the psychology of reasoning.
We outline the main assumptions of the current version of the theory and discuss some of its implications for pragmatics
We begin, with a short presentation of Cosmides’s social contract hypothesis, of Wason selection task, and of Cosmides’s reasons to use the task in order to test the theory. In a second section, we present the relevance-theoretic analysis of the selection task proposed by Sperber, Cara and Girotto (1995) which cast doubts on the appropriateness of the task to study reasoning. In a third section, we present Fiddick, Cosmides and Tooby’s (2000) defense of the use of the selection task as a tool to test evolutionary theories of reasoning, and argue that it is methodologically flawed. In a fourth section, we present three experiments designed to test contrasting predictions deriving from the two approaches. In the conclusion, we come back to Cosmides’s hypothesis and reflect on how it might be really tested…”
Abstract: Sperber, Cara, and Girotto (1995) argued that, in Wason’s selection task, relevance-guided comprehension processes tend to determine participants’ performance and pre-empt the use of other inferential capacities. Because of this, the value of the selection task as a tool for studying human inference has been grossly overestimated. Fiddick, Cosmides, and Tooby (2000) argued against Sperber et al. that specialized inferential mechanisms, in particular the “social contract algorithm” hypothesized by Cosmides (1989), pre-empt more general comprehension abilities, making the selection task a useful tool after all. We rebut this argument. We argue and illustrate with two new experiments, that Fiddick et al. mix the true Wason selection task with a trivially simple categorization task superficially similar to the Wason task, yielding methodologically flawed evidence. We conclude that the extensive use of various kinds of selection tasks in the psychology of reasoning has been quite counter-productive and should be discontinued.
Abstract: Someone asked ‘What time is it?’ when her watch reads 3:08 is likely to answer ‘It is 3:10.’ We argue that a fundamental factor that explains such rounding is a psychological disposition to give an answer that, while not necessarily strictly truthful or accurate, is an optimally relevant one (in the sense of relevance theory) i.e. an answer from which hearers can derive the consequences they care about with minimal effort. A rounded answer is easier to process and may carry the same consequences as one that is accurate to the minute. Hence rounding is often a way of optimising relevance. Three simple experiments give support and greater precision to the view that relevance is more important than strict truthfulness in verbal communication.
Abstract: This paper questions the widespread view that verbal communication is governed by a maxim, norm or convention of literal truthfulness. Pragmatic frameworks based on this view must explain the common occurrence and acceptability of metaphor, hyperbole and loose talk. We argue against existing explanations of these phenomena and provide and alternative account, based on the assumption that verbal communication is governed not by expectations of truthfulness but by expectations of relevance, which are raised by literal, loose and metaphorical talk alike. Sample analyses are provided, and some consequences of this alternative account are explored.
Abstract: The central problem for pragmatics is that sentence meaning vastly underdetermines speaker’s meaning. The goal of pragmatics is to explain how the gap between sentence meaning and speaker’s meaning is bridged. This paper defends the broadly Gricean view that pragmatic interpretation is ultimately an exercise in mind-reading, involving the inferential attribution of intentions. We argue, however, that the interpretation process does not simply consist in applying general mind-reading abilities to a particular (communicative) domain. Rather, it involves a dedicated comprehension module, with its own special principles and mechanisms. We show how such a metacommunicative module might have evolved, and what principles and mechanisms it might contain.
Contributo al convegno virtuale text-e, 2002, il primo convegno interamente virtuale dedicato all’impatto di Internet sul testo scritto, la lettura e la diffusione della conoscenza. Il convegno si è svolto dal 15 ottobre 2001 a fine marzo 2002. Su text-e troverete le dieci conferenze invitate e i dibattiti archiviati che hanno seguito ogni conferenza.
Texte écrit en anglais, français et italien pour le colloque virtuel text-e, organisé par l’Association Euro-Edu, la Bibliothèque Publique d’Information du Centre Pompidou et la Société GiantChair, colloque consacré à explorer l’impact de l’Internet sur la lecture, l’écriture et la diffusion du savoir. Le colloque s’est déroulé du 15 octobre 2001 jusqu’à fin mars 2002; les débats peuvent être consultés sur le site du colloque ou dans Text-e: Le texte à l’heure de l’Internet, Gloria Origgi & Noga Arikha eds., 2003 Paris: Bibliothèque Publique d’Information.
Text written in English, French and Italian for the virtual symposium text-e, organised by the Association Euro-Edu, the Bibliothèque Publique d’Information du Centre Pompidou and the Société GiantChair on the impact of the Web on reading, writing and the diffusion of knowledge. The symposium took place from October 15th 2001 until the end of March 2002. The debates can be read on the site of the symposium.
Abstract : When is a conclusion worth deriving? We claim that a conclusion is worth deriving to the extent that it is relevant in the sense of relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1995). To support this hypothesis, we experiment with “indeterminate relational problems” where we ask participants what, if anything, follows from premises such as A is taller than B, A is taller than C. With such problems, the indeterminate response that nothing follows is common, and we explain why. We distinguish several types of determinate conclusions and show that their rate is a function of their relevance. We argue that by appropriately changing the formulation of the premises, the relevance of determinate conclusions can be increased, and the rate of indeterminate responses thereby reduced. We contrast these relevance-based predictions with predictions based on linguistic congruence.
“…A significant proportion of socially acquired beliefs are likely to be false beliefs, and this not just as a result of the malfunctioning, but also of the proper functioning of social communication…”
Abstract: Most individuals fail the selection task, selecting P and Q cases, when they have to test descriptive rules of the form ªIf P, then Qº. But they solve it, selecting P and not-Q cases, when they have to test deontic rules of the form ªIf P, then must Qº. According to relevance theory, linguistic comprehension processes determine intuitions of relevance that, in turn, determine case selections in both descriptive and deontic problems. We tested the relevance theory predictions in a within-participants experiment. The results showed that the same rule, regardless of whether it is tested descriptively or deontically, can be made to yield more P and Q selections or more P and not-Q selections. We conclude that the selection task does not provide a tool to test general claims about human reasoning.
“Language is both a biological and a cultural phenomenon. Our aim here is to discuss, in an evolutionary perspective, the articulation of these two aspects of language. For this, we draw on the general conceptual framework developed by Ruth Millikan (1984) while at the same time dissociating ourselves from her view of language…”
“…La facilité avec laquelle nous communiquons peut nous dissimuler le problème d’explication que pose cette facilité même…”
“Just as bats are unique in their ability to use echolocation, so are humans unique in their ability to use metarepresentations. Other primates may have some rather rudimentary metarepresentational capacities. We humans are massive users of metarepresentations, and of quite complex ones at that…”
Roger-Pol Droit et moi avons publié en 1999 une discussion philosophique et politique entre nous en six parties, chacune introduite par un cour essai de l’un ou de l’autre. Voici le troisième de mes trois essais.
Roger-Pol Droit et moi avons publié en 1999 une discussion philosophique et politique entre nous en six parties, chacune introduite par un cour essai de l’un ou de l’autre. Voici le second de mes trois essais.
Roger-Pol Droit et moi avons publié en 1999 une discussion philosophique et politique entre nous en six parties, chacune introduite par un cour essai de l’un ou de l’autre. Voici le premier de mes trois essais.
“…In this brief reply, we will look at three main issues. First, is verbal irony necessarily echoic? Should a category of non-echoic irony be recognised, as Drs Seto and Hamamoto propose? Second, is there a clear-cut boundary between ironical and non-ironical utterances, or are there borderline cases, as Dr Yamanashi suggets? Third, can the relevance-theoretic account of irony shed light on a range of more complex cases, including those discussed by Dr Hamamoto? We will end with some more general reflections on whether irony is a natural kind…”
We sketch an inferential account of unencoded causal and temporal components of utterance interpretation as in: “John dropped the glass and it broke.”
“…given the inferential nature of comprehension, the words in a language can be used to convey not only the concepts they encode, but also indefinitely many other related concepts to which they might point in a given context. We see this not as a mere theoretical possibility, but as a universal practice, suggesting that there are many times more concepts in our minds than words in our language…”
“Some commentators have described the relevance-theoretic approach to communication as psychological rather than sociological. Often, this is intended as a criticism. We would like to respond by reflecting in very general terms about possible interactions between relevance theory and research programmes in the social sciences…”
“…Since it cannot have foreknowledge of relevance, how can the mind have, at least, non-arbitrary expectations of relevance?…”
“…The old ‘we-communicate-thanks-to-an-common-language’ story is clever and simple. It would make a great explanation if only it were true….” [PDF version]
“…Full-fledged communicative competence involves, for the speaker, being capable of having at least third-order meta-representational communicative intentions, and, for the hearer, being capable of making at least fourth-order meta-representational attributions of such communicative intentions. … This does not imply that communicators are conscious of the complexity of their mental representations. What it does imply is that every tier of these representations may play a role in inference…” [PDF version]
“…An utterance can thus be expected to encode two basic types of information: representational and computational, or conceptual and procedural – that is, information about the representations to be manipulated, and information about how to manipulate them…”
“…If relevance theory is right, then it offers a solution to the rhetorician’s dilemma, a way of being precise about vagueness, of making literal claims about metaphors and ironies, without abandoning any of the Romantics’ intuitions. However, rhetoricians could not adopt this solution without jeopardizing the very foundations of rhetoric. For what this solution implies is that metaphor and irony are ordinary exploitations of basic processes of verbal communication, rather than devices based on codified departures from the ordinary use of language. Moreover metaphor and irony exploit quite different basic processes and are more closely related, the former to loose talk, the latter to a variety of echoic uses, than to one another. The very notion of a trope is better dispensed with. If so, then rhetoric has no subject matter to study, or to teach…” [PDF version]
“How are non-declarative sentences understood? How do they differ semantically from their declarative counterparts? Answers to these questions once made direct appeal to the notion of illocutionary force. When they proved unsatisfactory, the fault was diagnosed as a failure to distinguish properly between mood and force…”
Abstract: In Relevance: Communication and Cognition, we outline a new approach to the study of human communication, one based on a general view of human cognition. Attention and thought processes, we argue, automatically turn toward information that seems relevant: that is, capable of yielding cognitive effects – the more, and the more economically, the greater the relevance. We analyse both the nature of cognitive effects and the inferential processes by which they are derived. …
According to the mention theory of irony put forward by Sperber and Wilson and tested by Jorgensen, Miller, and Sperber, verbal ironies are implicit echoic mentions of meaning conveying a derogatory attitude to the meaning mentioned. In their criticisms, Clark and Gerrig misrepresent mention theory. The pretense theory, which they offer as a superior alternative, might provide a plausible description of parody, but it fails to account for many types and many properties of irony proper.
The traditional theory of irony, which assumes that an ironist uses a figurative meaning opposite to the literal meaning of the utterance, is shown to be inadequate; an alternative theory is presented, which assumes that the ironist mentions the literal meaning of the utterance and expresses an attitude toward it. Although the implications for understanding irony are difficult to test, the two theories do make testable predictions about the conditions under which irony is perceived: The mention theory requires antecedent material for the ironist to mention, whereas the standard theory does not. A reading comprehension test was conducted involving anecdotes that satisfied the traditional criterion for irony but could include or omit antecedents for echoic mention. Results favored the mention theory of irony.
The first account in English of our theory of verbal irony as echoic mention.
Here is the whole book that had been out of print for a while.