Relevance Theory in Action

Biblical Greek morphology and syntax, aspect, linguistics, discourse analysis, and related topics
Stephen Carlson
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Relevance Theory in Action

Post by Stephen Carlson » August 26th, 2020, 7:25 pm

Since you're so interested in relevance theory, I wonder if you can answer a question. What does an RT analysis look like? In other words, what questions, concepts, or tools does RT offer the exegete/linguist in understanding a word, clause, or passage?
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Stephen C. Carlson, Ph.D.
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Jonathan Robie
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Re: Relevance Theory and the Bible - a Few Resources

Post by Jonathan Robie » August 27th, 2020, 8:12 am

Stephen Carlson wrote:
August 26th, 2020, 7:25 pm
Since you're so interested in relavance theory, I wonder if you can answer a question. What does an RT analysis look like? In other words, what questions, concepts, or tools does RT offer the exegete/linguist in understanding a word, clause, or passage?
I think at least a handful of people on B-Greek have read at least part of this thesis:

A Relevance Theoretic approach to the particle ἵνα in Koine Greek

Would this be useful to use as an example? Would it be good to do in a different thread and keep this one about resources?
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ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηποροῦντο, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες, τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
http://jonathanrobie.biblicalhumanities.org/

Matthew Longhorn
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Re: Relevance Theory and the Bible - a Few Resources

Post by Matthew Longhorn » August 27th, 2020, 8:32 am

Jonathan Robie wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 8:04 am
Tell me where to put this and I will insert it in the right place in the list.
Perhaps under the discourse analysis section - that seems to be the theme of the book it is in, and fits with her other article on participles then
Jonathan Robie wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 8:12 am
Would it be good to do in a different thread and keep this one about resources?
Yep, I reckon that would be a useful separate thread

Out of interest, there are a lot more books / articles out there not specifically on Greek. Any idea whether there are any sites that I can lump everything together to make one massive biblical studies list?
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Re: Relevance Theory and the Bible - a Few Resources

Post by Jonathan Robie » August 27th, 2020, 8:53 am

Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 8:32 am
Jonathan Robie wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 8:04 am
Tell me where to put this and I will insert it in the right place in the list.
Perhaps under the discourse analysis section - that seems to be the theme of the book it is in, and fits with her other article on participles then
Is there a better article to use to understand what a relevance theory analysis looks like?
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ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηποροῦντο, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες, τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
http://jonathanrobie.biblicalhumanities.org/

Matthew Longhorn
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Re: Relevance Theory and the Bible - a Few Resources

Post by Matthew Longhorn » August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm

Dr Carlson, some thoughts on your question. It is worth pointing out that I am a casual reader of RT and not a student. I find searching for and collecting and categorising things somewhat compulsive at times - so I certainly haven't read all the links I have provided here.

I have left out a lot of key issues but thought these were interesting and have probably butchered some explanation and ideas - happy to be corrected / rebuked for such slips :) . There is nothing like displaying one's ignorance on a public forum to keep some humility
A number of the examples I give of application are just areas I would be interested at looking into and seem to arise as questions out of RT


Some useful RTA concepts for exegetes



1. The assumption of optimal relevance and the relevance guided comprehension heuristic
For RT, a hearer/reader has the right to assume that the speaker is making the discourse the most relevant according to his/her preferences and abilities. In other words, the discourse is expected to achieve a balance between cognitive effects (strengthening an existing assumption, negating an existing assumption, or providing contextual support for new assumptions) and processing effort. The moreprocessing effort we have to go through, the stronger the cognitive effects are expected. The reader will access these effects in order of ease of accessibility and stop when they reach the first one that meets their expectations of relevance.
With γαρ - we can look at whether it sheds light on the mental state of the audience - does it show that they may doubt something, whether they may not be aware of key information etc thus weakening the effect of the main premise
What is key here is that an audience will not keep processing beyond the effects they need see as optimally relevant and the author expects this. If they overspecify something then they are intending the audience to put more work into processing and there to expect greater cognitive effects from the message. Redundant quotative frames could be analysed in this light.

2. Procedural / conceptual distinction.
Procedural meaning is intended to guide the reader to process the data in some way to help achieve optimal relevance. Rather than having a translational value that carries across languages, the lexeme primarily helps to constrain the cognitive processing into certain direction. γαρ and δε can be seen in this light. on the one hand γαρ supports the material it is related to by providing strengthening assumptions. δε indicates development in the discourse. Rather than focusing on lots of different meanings of these words, RT would argue that it is the constraint on our processing that should be seen as the key.
In this light, we can look at whether learned like γαρ and δε do in fact achieve these functions. γαρ for example is found in contexts where someone may doubt the validity of the main premise, and helps it achieve optimal relevance by providing clarifying information. This helps the reader accept it. γαρ is also found in contexts where the reader may have questions such as “how” or “why”. Both these ideas are probably non-controversial to most people, but RT provides a framework to validate against. Namely the assumption of optimal relevance and the relevance guided comprehension heuristic. It then leads to further questions about why the author felt the need to use that word - what does it tell us about his possible assumptions as to the auidence.

3. The notion of mutually manifest information. Namely - information the audience and the speaker both can mentally represent and accept as true
Rather than thinking of an audience and a speaker having to have access to the same information for a dialogue to work, RT sees mutually manifest information as a key notion. Mutually manifest information is information that the audience and the author can both mentally represent and accept as true (for the sake of the argument being made) - sometimes with comedic effect. In English an example is "The butler will show you out". In a one bed house, this is comedic but only because the audience can mentally represent the role of a butler in a property but then see a mismatch in their expections e.g. wealth, house size etc. Referencing a butler on a hillside with "the butler will take you down" just doesn't work
When looking at something like the article in Greek we can identify it as having a procedural meaning with a focus on helping the audience come to mentally represent and accept as valid the word referred to. I am not talking of the uses with infinitives. In this way of viewing it, the article doesn’t assume actual identifiability, rather it tells the audience to mentally represent the thing spoken of and accept it as true, even if for the sake of argument. This has relevance exegetically as it means we don’t need to assume that in every instance the speaker assumes the audience know which item they speak of. Instead the speaker assumes that the audience will either know it, or accept it as true for the sake of the discourse. As with the assumption of optimal relevance discussed above, we can then move on to see whether the use of the article does indeed help and how - does it provide strengthening, negating or contextual information for new assumptions; or does it instead facilitate ease of processing.
I have wondered whether this could be the reason for dropping an article on reintroduction of a participant in a dialogue where not expected. The audience has to assign the referent again rather than being told it is the same one guided by the presence article. This mental processing change leads to an expected pay off in terms of cognitive effects.

4. Concepts consisting of lexical, logical, and encyclopaedic information.
RT tends to argue that some words are a pointer to a conceptual address. The concept consists of logical information e.g. cat - feline - animal, lexical information such as cat - noun - gender, case, number etc. It also contains encyclopaedic information such as cultural and experiential beliefs, attitudes and experiences about something. In this way the importance of cultural information is highlighted when determining the meaning of a text. It isn’t just the information we need to assess though, but also the likely strength of that information in the minds of the audience.
RT sees discourse as involving explicatures and implicatures. Implicatures are are propositions derived from the decoding of the text and disambiguation, reference assignment etc. Examples in English often given are Q: "do you want to go out tonight" A: "I am tired". Strong implicature is that 1. if one is tired they may not want to exert energy. 2. Going out requires energy 3. Therefore the respondant does not want to go out
Going back to the relevance guided comprehension heuristic - we shouldn’t press a text to mean all of its possible implicatures. In the example above the implicatures "tiredness can be caused by illness" etc should not be derived. There are strong implicatures, weak and very weak. A strong implication is one that provides the desired cognitive effect and meets the assumption of optimal relevance. A weak one is one that isn’t intended, or is not very important in the message - it wasn’t the point of the communication (poetry has an interesting analysis which I am not going into). In this light we ought to be asking what strong implicature would the author intend that the audience draw, and also whether this is this likely to be the first meaning they see as optimally relevant and if so should be really press any other meaning? Would our audience that we interpret for come to this same strong implicature.
I guess for Greek this provides a futher way to analyse issues with using etymology etc, but goes wider than that. The frequency of a word with a given meaning in a given context should be important in assessing possible meanings of a text (pretty uncontroversial), but also the range of encyclopaedic inforrmation that goes with it.
Spreading activation of concepts is also an interesting area to look at with concepts activating other concepts as more easily accessible. How that impacts a text is worth looking at

5. Notions of verbal irony being the representation of a belief and a distancing from it.
When assessing irony in a text, we don’t need to see it as the author saying the opposite of what they really believe. RT sees irony as the representation of a belief / statement that is plausible to imagine someone holding / saying. It is then a distancing oneself from it. In this sense, Paul speaking of the idea that “all things are lawful, but not all things are helpful” doesn’t have to be representing the thoughts and beliefs of the audience and therefore their sayings, although it could be. What is key is that he represents a view that they can imagine someone saying “all things are lawful for me” and distances himself from it in some way.
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Stephen Carlson
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Re: Relevance Theory and the Bible - a Few Resources

Post by Stephen Carlson » August 28th, 2020, 4:16 am

Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
Dr Carlson, some thoughts on your question. It is worth pointing out that I am a casual reader of RT and not a student. I find searching for and collecting and categorising things somewhat compulsive at times - so I certainly haven't read all the links I have provided here.

I have left out a lot of key issues but thought these were interesting and have probably butchered some explanation and ideas - happy to be corrected / rebuked for such slips :) . There is nothing like displaying one's ignorance on a public forum to keep some humility
A number of the examples I give of application are just areas I would be interested at looking into and seem to arise as questions out of RT

Some useful RTA concepts for exegetes
My perspective is one of a more or less casual reader of RT too, with a strong linguistic interest and wondering how it could be useful for my exegesis of the text and understanding of its language. Thanks for taking the time to proposes this list. I'll address them in separate posts.
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Re: Relevance Theory and the Bible - a Few Resources

Post by Stephen Carlson » August 28th, 2020, 4:27 am

Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
1. The assumption of optimal relevance and the relevance guided comprehension heuristic
For RT, a hearer/reader has the right to assume that the speaker is making the discourse the most relevant according to his/her preferences and abilities. In other words, the discourse is expected to achieve a balance between cognitive effects (strengthening an existing assumption, negating an existing assumption, or providing contextual support for new assumptions) and processing effort. The moreprocessing effort we have to go through, the stronger the cognitive effects are expected. The reader will access these effects in order of ease of accessibility and stop when they reach the first one that meets their expectations of relevance.
Yeah, I've seen this in the literature. It feels on one level right, if not trivially true, especially the first sentence, but at another, more actionable level, it's not clear how to move forward. For example, I'm not aware of any way to measure these cognitive effects and processing effort. Thus, it's like asking me to compare X and Y, without telling me the values of X and Y. It's not an insurmountable problem. You can do, for example, economic reasoning without knowing all the values, at least precisely.
Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
With γαρ - we can look at whether it sheds light on the mental state of the audience - does it show that they may doubt something, whether they may not be aware of key information etc thus weakening the effect of the main premise
There are two aspects here. One is how to do an RT analysis of γάρ. The other is how to use a competent RT analysis (by someone else) of γάρ. We can probably look at particular treatments to see how useful they are.
Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
What is key here is that an audience will not keep processing beyond the effects they need see as optimally relevant and the author expects this. If they overspecify something then they are intending the audience to put more work into processing and there to expect greater cognitive effects from the message. Redundant quotative frames could be analysed in this light.
I seem to recall Steve Runge using to couch his analysis of the historical present, but identifying what those cognitive effects are takes work.
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Re: Relevance Theory and the Bible - a Few Resources

Post by Stephen Carlson » August 28th, 2020, 4:32 am

Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
2. Procedural / conceptual distinction.
Procedural meaning is intended to guide the reader to process the data in some way to help achieve optimal relevance. Rather than having a translational value that carries across languages, the lexeme primarily helps to constrain the cognitive processing into certain direction. γαρ and δε can be seen in this light. on the one hand γαρ supports the material it is related to by providing strengthening assumptions. δε indicates development in the discourse. Rather than focusing on lots of different meanings of these words, RT would argue that it is the constraint on our processing that should be seen as the key.
I like the notion of procedural meaning. For the (definite) article, I would say its procedural meaning is an instruction to identify the referent. The challenges I face are: how to identify procedural meaning, how to evaluate competing claims of procedures, and how to identify elements of English that have comparable procedural meanings to the Greek grams.

There is also a claim in the literature that the procedural meanings are relatively rigid, which leads to monosemy analyses, and the attendent issues with that.
Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
In this light, we can look at whether learned like γαρ and δε do in fact achieve these functions. γαρ for example is found in contexts where someone may doubt the validity of the main premise, and helps it achieve optimal relevance by providing clarifying information. This helps the reader accept it. γαρ is also found in contexts where the reader may have questions such as “how” or “why”. Both these ideas are probably non-controversial to most people, but RT provides a framework to validate against. Namely the assumption of optimal relevance and the relevance guided comprehension heuristic. It then leads to further questions about why the author felt the need to use that word - what does it tell us about his possible assumptions as to the auidence.
I wonder if achieving optimal relevance requires certain assumptions about the shared context between the author and the first readers, a context that we longer have anything like a direct access to.
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Re: Relevance Theory and the Bible - a Few Resources

Post by Stephen Carlson » August 28th, 2020, 4:41 am

Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
3. The notion of mutually manifest information. Namely - information the audience and the speaker both can mentally represent and accept as true
Rather than thinking of an audience and a speaker having to have access to the same information for a dialogue to work, RT sees mutually manifest information as a key notion. Mutually manifest information is information that the audience and the author can both mentally represent and accept as true (for the sake of the argument being made) - sometimes with comedic effect. In English an example is "The butler will show you out". In a one bed house, this is comedic but only because the audience can mentally represent the role of a butler in a property but then see a mismatch in their expections e.g. wealth, house size etc. Referencing a butler on a hillside with "the butler will take you down" just doesn't work
Yes, mutually manifest is also a component of non-RT, semantic accounts of the article (namely Hawkins 1978, but Lucas 2011 recasts it into a RT framework).
Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
When looking at something like the article in Greek we can identify it as having a procedural meaning with a focus on helping the audience come to mentally represent and accept as valid the word referred to. I am not talking of the uses with infinitives. In this way of viewing it, the article doesn’t assume actual identifiability, rather it tells the audience to mentally represent the thing spoken of and accept it as true, even if for the sake of argument. This has relevance exegetically as it means we don’t need to assume that in every instance the speaker assumes the audience know which item they speak of. Instead the speaker assumes that the audience will either know it, or accept it as true for the sake of the discourse. As with the assumption of optimal relevance discussed above, we can then move on to see whether the use of the article does indeed help and how - does it provide strengthening, negating or contextual information for new assumptions; or does it instead facilitate ease of processing.
I've seen two RT accounts of the procedural meaning of the article, Caso 2009 and Lucas 2011. They do differ from one another.
Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
I have wondered whether this could be the reason for dropping an article on reintroduction of a participant in a dialogue where not expected. The audience has to assign the referent again rather than being told it is the same one guided by the presence article. This mental processing change leads to an expected pay off in terms of cognitive effects.
That would be part of the explanation I suppose, though the cognitive effects are very unclear to me.
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Re: Relevance Theory and the Bible - a Few Resources

Post by Stephen Carlson » August 28th, 2020, 4:43 am

Matthew Longhorn wrote:
August 27th, 2020, 12:45 pm
4. Concepts consisting of lexical, logical, and encyclopaedic information.
RT tends to argue that some words are a pointer to a conceptual address. The concept consists of logical information e.g. cat - feline - animal, lexical information such as cat - noun - gender, case, number etc. It also contains encyclopaedic information such as cultural and experiential beliefs, attitudes and experiences about something. In this way the importance of cultural information is highlighted when determining the meaning of a text. It isn’t just the information we need to assess though, but also the likely strength of that information in the minds of the audience.
RT sees discourse as involving explicatures and implicatures. Implicatures are are propositions derived from the decoding of the text and disambiguation, reference assignment etc. Examples in English often given are Q: "do you want to go out tonight" A: "I am tired". Strong implicature is that 1. if one is tired they may not want to exert energy. 2. Going out requires energy 3. Therefore the respondant does not want to go out
Going back to the relevance guided comprehension heuristic - we shouldn’t press a text to mean all of its possible implicatures. In the example above the implicatures "tiredness can be caused by illness" etc should not be derived. There are strong implicatures, weak and very weak. A strong implication is one that provides the desired cognitive effect and meets the assumption of optimal relevance. A weak one is one that isn’t intended, or is not very important in the message - it wasn’t the point of the communication (poetry has an interesting analysis which I am not going into). In this light we ought to be asking what strong implicature would the author intend that the audience draw, and also whether this is this likely to be the first meaning they see as optimally relevant and if so should be really press any other meaning? Would our audience that we interpret for come to this same strong implicature.
I guess for Greek this provides a futher way to analyse issues with using etymology etc, but goes wider than that. The frequency of a word with a given meaning in a given context should be important in assessing possible meanings of a text (pretty uncontroversial), but also the range of encyclopaedic inforrmation that goes with it.
Spreading activation of concepts is also an interesting area to look at with concepts activating other concepts as more easily accessible. How that impacts a text is worth looking at
I'm quoting this more as a placeholder for further discussion, but a lot of this not unique to RT but present in several modern frameworks.
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