Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


On Relevance - Communication, Life and Dangerous Things

Michael Ranta (CCS)

During the last few decades, the concept of relevance has become an increasingly studied topic within many different fields, such as cognitive science, logic, and library and information science.

But within cognitive science and communication theory, especially the so-called Relevance Theory, put forward in 1986 by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, has drawn attention to the central importance of relevance decisions in reasoning and communication. Sperber & Wilson proposed an account of the process of inferring relevant information from any given utterance. To do this work, they used what they called the "Principle of Relevance": namely, the position that any utterance addressed to someone automatically conveys the presumption of its own optimal relevance.

However, Sperber & Wilson’s concept of relevance is but a particular instance of the ordinary language term ‘relevance’ and has for this reason also been criticized, for example by Barbara Gorayska and Roger Lindsay (“Roots of Relevance”, 1993), who describe this technical and restricted use of the term as actually superfluous and counter-intuitive. Relevance, used as a technical term in S/W’s account, is restricted to relationships between utterances and interpretations, and so the theory cannot account for intuitions such as the one that relevance relationships obtain in problems involving physical objects. The key feature of their own account is the idea that relevance usually is conceived of as goal-dependent: something is relevant to a goal if and only if it can be an essential element of some plan capable of achieving the desired goal.

A more phenomenologically oriented approach to the concept of relevance has been put forward by Alfred Schütz (1899-1959). Schütz’ work bridged sociological and phenomenological traditions to form a social phenomenology. One basic question that he focused upon – apart from investigating our commonsense knowledge of the world of everyday life (the ‘lifeworld’) - concerned our understanding of human action and the role of motive and motivation.

In this presentation, I shall focus upon and discuss these (and possibly other) approaches towards the concept of relevance – not least from a narratological perspective. In continuation with my previous work on especially pictorial narrativity, I also intend to put emphasis upon the narrativeness of pictures, their "tellability" qua stories --that is, what makes them worth telling at all, or their noteworthiness. Some pictorial examples will be presented.