Didier Maillat: 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.