Francesco Pierini: Relevance and Cartographic Communication


Following recent applications of Relevance Theory to visual artworks like paintings and  drawings (e.g., Pignocchi 2019), in this paper I discuss the case of maps. In different  fields (e.g., in geography MacEachren 1994, in philosophy Millikan 2017) maps are  frequently analyzed as communicating information in a code-like way, in which  mindreading and pragmatics play a limited role. This is understandable, as maps seem  to communicate information in a way that is almost completely explicit: provided that  one is familiar with the conventions of cartographic semantics (e.g., geometric  projection, legend, etc.), one can effortlessly decode it without making inferences about  the mapmaker’s intentions. However, I argue, map communication is better analyzed  through the lenses of Relevance Theory. Indeed, I argue that maps appear to be “just” codes because many popular cartographic uses are highly specialized, which in turn  makes map pragmatics highly constrained. For instance, if we expect a map to be used  for navigation, we don’t need much reasoning about the author’s intentions: we expect  that the communicated information will represent the targeted territory in a descriptive  way. However, in contexts like this one maps should be understood as communicating  in a strong, but nevertheless ostensive way: the map conveys one or few strongly  implied meanings, whose decoding is performed under the presumption of relevance  and through mindreading (e.g., “someone must have placed this map outside of this  park because she thinks it is relevant to help me navigate”). Moreover, I show that maps  can communicate weakly, e.g., maps that embed statistical information may generate  several different meanings (e.g., it can be interpreted as humorous, descriptive,  prescriptive, etc.) which can only be derived by making assumptions about the  mapmaker’s intentions. These are features, and not flaws, of map communication,  which Relevance Theory (unlike competing accounts) can account for. 

MacEachren, A. M. (1994). How maps work: representation, visualization, and design.  Guilford Press

Millikan, R. G. (2017). Beyond concepts: Unicepts, language, and natural information.  Oxford University Press.

Pignocchi, A. (2019). The continuity between art and everyday communication. Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Aesthetics, 241-266. Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1986). Relevance: Communication and cognition (Vol. 142).  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Available from 5pm (GMT) 9/11/22