Wilson & Sperber’s Relevance Theory

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010
10 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Grice’s Central Claims

3. Wilson & Sperber’s Criticism and Assumptions

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

The purpose of the present paper is to critically summarize Wilson and Sperber’s book article “Relevance Theory”, published in The handbook of pragmatics, as it has been presented in the seminar “Pragmatics”.

2. Grice’s Central Claims

Relevance theory results from one of Grice’s vital claims which states that the expression and recognition of intentions is “an essential feature of most human communication. (Wilson & Sperber 2004:607). According to Grice’s inferential model “a communicator provides evidence of her intention to convey a certain meaning which is inferred by the audience on the basis of the evidence provided.” (ib.). Since an utterance is a “linguistically coded piece of evidence” (ib.), every verbal conversation involves a certain amount of en- and decoding. The decoded linguistic meaning is one aspect of the input that leads to the interpretation by the hearer. Relevance theory therefore claims that every utterance made in a conversation creates “expectations which guide the hearer toward the speaker’s meaning” (ib.).

In order to reason these expectations, Grice developed the Cooperative Principle including the maxims of “Quality (truthfulness), Quantity (informativeness), Relation (relevance) and Manner (clarity) which speakers are to observe.” (ib.). Relevance theory claims that the expectations of relevance “raised by an utterance are precise and predictable enough to guide the hearer toward the speaker’s meaning” (ib.).

3. Wilson & Sperber’s Criticism and Assumptions

The two linguists agree with Grice on the account of raising expectations in a conversation, however, they question several aspects of his work, including the need for a Cooperative Principle and maxims, the focus on pragmatic contributions to implicit (as opposed to explicit) content, the role of maxim violation in utterance interpretation, and the treatment of figurative utterances. (ib.).

The two authors introduce their outline of the relevance theory current’s version with an explanation of relevance. According to them, “any external stimulus or internal representation which provides an input to cognitive processes may be relevant to an individual at some time.” (Wilson & Sperber 2004:608). The expression “individual” used here already implies the fact that not everything has the same relevance for everyone. As Wilson and Sperber put it, input is relevant to someone when “it connects with background information he has available to yield conclusions that matter to him” (ib.). There are several aspects that make an utterance important to the hearer: First of all, the two linguists present the fact that an utterance needs to produce a positive cognitive effect to be rendered relevant to the speaker. They point out that the most important effect here is a contextual implication that is to say, a conclusion is “deducible from input and context together” (ib.). Other types of cognitive effects are “strengthening, revision, or abandonment of available assumptions” (ib.). The relevance of an input is completely dependent on the triggering of this positive cognitive effect.

Relevance, however, is a matter of degree not of being relevant or not. This degree to which an utterance is relevant depends on the processing effort the hearer has to invest in decoding the meaning. The greater this processing effort “the less relevant the input will be” (Wilson & Sperber 2004:609). When the effort an individual has to invest into decoding two utterances is the same, the “effect factor is decisive, and when similar amounts of effect are achievable, the effort factor is decisive.” (Wilson & Sperber 2004:610). Therefore, the characterization of relevance given by Wilson and Sperber is “comparative rather than quantitive” (ib.). Hence, the comparative notion provides a starting point for the construction of relevance theory which is psychological plausible.

In human communication there is a tendency to maximize relevance in order to render conversation efficient both in uttering and in processing inputs. The Cognitive Principle, therefore, claims that “Human cognition tends to be geared to the maximization of relevance” (ib.). The aim of maximizing relevance makes it possible to “predict and manipulate mental states of others” (ib.) by producing a stimulus which is “likely to attract your attention, activate an appropriate set of contextual assumptions and point you toward an intended conclusion.” (Wilson & Sperber 2004:611).


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Wilson & Sperber’s Relevance Theory
University of Wuppertal
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
450 KB
Sperber, Wilson, Pragmatics, Relevance Theory, Grice
Quote paper
Bianca Müller (Author), 2010, Wilson & Sperber’s Relevance Theory , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/165026


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