Didier Maillat (Fribourg). On the manifestness of assumptions: Two applications for commitment and emotions


Right from the outset, Relevance Theory (Sperber & Wilson 1987/1995) tried to express interpretation as a process of context elaboration. Interpretation is seen as a path of least effort leading to the selection of a set of most accessible assumptions. One of the central aspects of this context elaboration process lies in the fact that contextual assumptions are not randomly scattered in the hearer’s cognitive environment. Instead, Relevance Theory claims that there are some organising principles ordering contextual assumptions and determining which will be accessed first and, therefore, which will be retained as part of the optimally relevant interpretation.

The main organising principle is captured by the notion of manifestness, which combines two distinct properties of contextual assumptions: their accessibility and their strength. Sperber & Wilson (1987/1995) define them as a function of the processing history of an assumption for the former and of the degree of confidence with which an assumption is held for the latter.

In this paper, I will explore the explanatory potential of manifestness by putting the notions of strength and accessibility to work on two current trends in pragmatic research, namely commitment (Ifantidou 2001; Mazzarella et al. 2018; Boulat and Maillat 2017, forthcoming) and emotion (Wilson & Carston 2019; Wharton et al. 2021; Saussure and Wharton 2020) research.

My goal will be to show how these two dimensions of manifestness, can provide us with interesting theoretical insights in the study of human communication. In this paper, I will argue that, beyond their usefulness in providing a guiding principle for the comprehension procedure, the strength and accessibility of contextual assumptions can also advantageously shed light on epiphenomena like commitment and emotions. The first main claim consists in arguing that strength opens new experimental perspectives in the measure of commitment attribution. While the second claim raises the possibility of envisaging a new range of cognitive effects triggered by emotional states.

Nicholas Allott: Our theory of communication needs a literal/metaphorical distinction


Nicholas Allott presenting joint work with Mark Textor

Intuitively, figurative uses deviate from literal ones. But work on lexical modulation and polysemy shows that meaning deviation is ubiquitous, even in cases of literal use. Hence, it has been argued, the literal/figurative distinction has no value for theorising about communication. A prominent example is the relevance theoretic claim that “[m]etaphorical 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.” (Sperber and Wilson 2008: 84)

In this talk, we focus on metaphor and argue that here the literal/figurative distinction has theoretical importance. The distinction between literal and metaphorical needs to be captured by our account of communication because literal uses transmit information in a way that metaphorical ones do not. We argue that there is a way to explain the literal/metaphorical distinction that preserves the core of the intuition we started with and gives the distinction theoretical relevance. We propose that literal uses of a word are made with the intention to conform to an established practice of use, while metaphorical uses do not so conform, but depend on this pre-existing practice. Our account can deal with data that are problematic for other theories. A further advantage is that it extends naturally to other non-literal uses of words, including metonymy.