Be relevant! Or at least interesting.

The author of an entangled bank notes in the comments that my virtual world colour ascriptions don’t really tell against relevance theory. NW writes:

I was hoping you were going to make a good point against Relevance Theory; but I’m afraid the information, though highly relevant in the ‘usual’ sense, is not so in the Sperber and Wilson sense. Although it would have a large amount of cognitive effect if you could use it, the fact that so much effort is required to process it puts it low down on the scale of relevance: so the most relevant input is some other factor that gives you less effect but for much less effort.

In all honesty I wasn’t really trying to argue against relevance theory per se. (More like thinking outloud than anything else.) As S&W point out numerous times, their theory gives us absolutely no basis for comparing relevance between contexts, only within a single context, so its not clear that any fact about cross-context comparisons could serve as evidence against their theory. Furthermore, their notion of relevance is purely comparative, and I was definitely using relevant in the ordinary sense in which something can fail to be relevant at all.

That said, I do think the fact that S&W eshew giving any special weight to a notion of conversational goals is a bad thing, even in the absence of any knock down counterexamples along these lines.

One important aspect of relevance theory is the notion that hearers expand and modify context in order to maximise the relevance of an utterance — hearers assume that an utterance is relevant, and they try to pick a context to process the utterance in that will validate that assumption.

To continue with the example fo virtual world colour ascriptions and con colours, if a SWG player were to tell me “That storm trooper is blue”, there is a context available to me in which knowing the consider colour of the storm trooper to the speaker has tons of contextual implications. That context will include a large number of statements of the form: If the storm trooper cons blue to the speaker and P then I should Q. (e.g. If the storm trooper cons blue to the speaker and I am considerably weaker than the speaker then I should not move any closer to the storm trooper.) The contextual effect of the utterance will be to produce a large number of implications of the form If P then I should Q.

Now, standing outside relevance theory its quite clear to us that the reason we aren’t interested in this context in SWG is that information that would cash out the P statements is very difficult to obtain, and the “If P then Q” statements are not useful to us unless we can determine which of the P statements is true. In contrast, the very similar context in other MMOGs is taken into account because the P information is obtainable. Its important to stress here that the other MMOG situations I am comparing are not situations in which you already have the P type information, but situations in which you don’t have that information.

However, from the point of view of relevance theory, there seems to be nothing they can say that would explain why we ignore this context in SWG and yet pay attention to a very similar context in other MMOGs. In SWG, saying “that storm trooper is blue” will communicate that the storm trooper is wearing blue armour. Blue storm trooper armour is surprising, but its in general an isolated fact.

That doesn’t make it irrelevant. S&W claim that any utterance comes with a presumption of optimal relevance as follows:

(a) The ostensive stimulus is relevant enough for it to be worth the addresse’s effort to process it.
(b) The ostensive stimulus is the most relevant one compatible with the communicator’s abilities and preferences. (Relevance, 2nd Ed. 270)

I’m willing to stipulate that the surprising appearance of blue storm troopers is even as an isolated fact worth the processing time, though I note in passing that S&W seem to have no substantive account whatsoever of what relevant enough amounts to. The problem is why the equally surprising appearance of blue orcs is not sufficiently relevant in other games. Why in other games does the default assumption that a blue orc is blue skinned get systematically trumped by con colour?

Its not that relevance theory says anything incompatible with this. Its that they offer no explanation of the phenomena. Relevance theory claims that we settle (as it were) on the first accessible interpretation of an utterance consistent with the presumption of relevance. What happens in MMOGs generally, but not in SWG, is a change in which interpretation is the first assessible one. S&W argue that the notion of the point of a conversation, which Grice gives so much prominence to, only comes to bear when a shared goal is part of the context of utterance. When it comes to recognizing conversational implicatures they may even turn out to be right. However, it seems to me that cases like the virtual world colour attributions suggest that shared goals may need to be given more prominance, albeit at a slightly different level of discussion than that which S&W are engaged in. Relevance theory has to my knowledge nothing in particular to say about what makes one interpretation more accessible than another, and in this case thats largely whats at issue. Its not that this case is one which shows relevance theory to be wrong. Its that relevance theory doesn’t seem to particularly help us understand what is going on.