Relevance theory

Diane Blakemore
Table of contents

Sperber & Wilson’s relevance theory, presented most fully in Sperber & Wilson (1986), is an approach to communication and utterance understanding based on a general view of cognition. In contrast with formal approaches to pragmatics (e.g. Gazdar 1979) and socio-cultural approaches (e.g. Leech 1983), relevance theory views pragmatic interpretation as a psychological matter involving inferential computations performed over mental representations, governed by a single cognitive principle. The assumption underlying this approach is that the mind is modular, and, in particular, that there is a distinction between linguistic computations and representations on the one hand, and non-linguistic computations and representations on the other. It is this psychological distinction which, according to relevance theory, underlies the distinction between semantics and pragmatics.

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