Saturday, July 22, 2006

Worries about relevance theory

The relevance theorists say that meaning is what is disclosed (transmitted?) via one's communicative intention (or was it informative intention?) in communication. They sound like they are saying that recognition of the communicative intention is necessary and sufficient for communication, i.e. getting meaning across. They go on to say that language is just one effective means of aiding the recognition of the communicative intention. I have a couple of thoughts about this.

First, if meaning is linked only to the communicative intention, then I am guessing that they deny that there is such a thing as sentence meaning. As Stephen Neale put it (I'm not completely sure it is fair to put him in the same camp, but the sentiment is the same), "Sentences don't mean; people mean things." That isn't a direct quote. It is a paraphrase from his paper "On Location" coming out in the volume Situated Semantics. If sentences, don't mean things, and sentences are compositionally built up from the meanings of words, then words don't mean things either. This has the odd result that lexical semantics should not be possible since that field studies the meanings of individual words. I'm not sure what the relevance theorist's response to this would be. Maybe she would appeal to the conventionalized use of words to signal certain sorts of intentions.

Here is another worry about tying meaning to intentions in this way, i.e. seeming to bypass words altogether. Suppose you have an unusual or underdeveloped theory of mind, e.g. you are autistic (fairly sure this is accurate). If understanding and recognizing intentions is linked to your theory of mind, then we would expect people with an underdeveloped or unusual theory of mind to have a great deal of trouble catching implicatures. This means that we should expect, e.g., autistic people to have a great deal of trouble with implicatures. I don't know if they do have trouble with that. It would be worth checking out. This might not even present any problems for the relevance theorist if they don't have trouble with implicatures. I'd expect a response along the lines of: their theory of mind may be deficient, but it is not deficient in the way that impairs the recognition of intentions and intentionality. Getting more into this will require reading up on some psychology I expect.

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