Christophe Heintz and Thom Scott-Phillips. Relevance Theory & the diversity of human expression.

This talk will be based on parts of the authors’ preprint: ‘Expression unleashed

Humans inform others in a wide variety of ways, from ordinary language use to painting, from exaggerated displays of affection to micro-movements that aid coordination. Using the framework of Relevance Theory, we shall present the claim that this diversity is united by an interrelated suite of cognitive capacities, the functions of which are the expression and recognition of informative intentions. In particular, we shall suggest that people exploit audience presumptions of relevance in an efficient way, not only in language use and other canonical cases of expression and communication, but also in cases that, while informative, might not be communicative in a strict sense. Given time, we shall also suggest that this efficient exploitation of audience presumptions of relevance can cause the emergence of communicative conventions, including words and grammar. More broadly, we note that Relevance Theory is a theory of communication, but to date it has been put to use mostly in the study of language use. We aim to help broaden its application, to cover the full range of human expression.

28th April 2021: Tim Wharton (Brighton) and Constant Bonard (Institut Jean Nicod Department) Title: Emotion and Relevance.

Emotion and Relevance

Wharton, Tim, David Sander, Daniel Dukes, Constant Bonard and Steve Oswald

Handout for this session available here.

The ability to focus on relevant information is central to human cognition and it is therefore hardly surprising that the notion of relevance appears across a range of different disciplines. As well as its central role in relevance-theoretic pragmatics, relevance is also a core concept in affective science, where there is consensus that for a particular object or event to elicit an emotional state, that object or event needs to be relevant to the person in whom that state is elicited. Despite this, although some affective scientists have carefully considered what emotional relevance might mean, surprisingly little research has been dedicated to providing a definition. The primary aim of the work presented here – see Wharton, Bonard, Dukes, Sander and Oswald (forthcoming) – is to compare relevance as it exists in affective science and in relevance theory. A further aim is to redress what we perceive to be an imbalance: affective scientists have made great strides in understanding the processes of emotion elicitation/responses etc., but despite the fact that among humans the communication of information about emotional states is ubiquitous, pragmatists have tended to ignore it. We conclude, therefore, that affective science and relevance theory have much to learn from each other.


Wharton, T., C. Bonard, D. Dukes, D. Sander and S. Oswald (forthcoming) Emotion and    Relevance. In Special Issue of Journal of Pragmatics