Dan Sperber’s blog

Easy pieces on hard issues.

Notes on relevance theory

Edited by by Kate Scott, Billy Clark, and Robyn Carston, Relevance, Pragmatics and Interpretation (Cambridge UP 2019), is both a collection of outstanding essays* exemplifying current directions of research inspired by relevance theory and a tribute to Deirdre Wilson. Asked to contribute a chapter, I wrote a short and rather personal piece, which, I thought, would make for a appropriate blog post.  Here it is.

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Quiet online spaces as a form of mutualistic nudging for our hyper-networked world

On April 26, 2020, the Guardian published an article entitled “As isolation stress sets in, many find that sharing quiet online spaces is the key to boosting brain power.” It began, “There

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Ostension, insistence, and harassment

Last week, the “Social Minds: Coordination, Communication, and Cultural Transmission” project was having a five-day workshop at the Burn, a manor in the Scottish Highlands. Elizabeth Warren (a PhD student working with Josep Call at St Andrews) presented her work on ostension in chimpanzees, with videos.

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Are routine actions rational?

In “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” (1963) Donald Davidson famously argued that actions are both ‘rationalized’ and caused by the agent’s reasons. Here is the tritest illustration of this “standard account” of actions: When Brett wants a beer and believes there is beer in the fridge, this gives him a reason to open the fridge and causes him to do so.

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No “Thank You!”

When beginning my fieldwork among the Dorzé of Southern Ethiopia many years ago, I thought that it would be better, at least initially, to be too polite rather than not polite enough.  I would say

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Rethinking ostension: (2) Attention manipulation

I believe we relevance theorists missed something important in considering ostension only in the context of what we called ostensive-inferential communication. Ostension, I want to suggest, is more diverse and widespread.

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Rethinking ostension: (1) A terminological issue

Relevance theory was developed in the 1970s and 80s. Over the years, there have been a various modifications—hopefully improvements. In this and in posts to follow, I want to engage in some further rethinking. Today, I start, as a warm-up, with a terminological issue. In in our 1986 book, Relevance: Communication and cognition, Deirdre and I drew a sharp contrast between two forms of communication, which we called “coded communication” and “ostensive-inferential communication.”

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We may be thinking about it all wrong

“What should we do about North Korea?” asked an article in the September 8 edition of the Washington Post. What made me read the article, however, was not the title but the subtitle:  “We may be thinking about it all wrong.” Might the article be of relevance to the psychology of reasoning?

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Cecilia Heyes on the social tuning of reason

  How are evolution, cognition, and culture interconnected? Cecilia Heyes and I are both interdisciplinary scholars trying to help address this basic issue but we go about it in generally

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Do apes produce metonymies?

Your friend Olga is coming for a drink. You put two plates on the table, one with olives and the other with almonds. When both plates have been emptied, you ask Olga, “Do you want anything

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Tilting titling?

Conversation with Jack Goody was never dull. He combined an endless curiosity for ethnographic details with a deep interest in broad anthropological questions. Here is a picture of some of his books (both English originals and French translations) on my shelves, illustrating the variety of his interests. I hope Jack would have enjoyed this post, but it is not related to his work. Notice a peculiar ethnographic detail in the picture? (I would not have paid much attention to it, except as a source of mild annoyance, if it were not for an article in today’s French edition of Slate). The titles in English read from top to bottom, those in French from bottom to top.

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How not to combine ethnography and experiments in the study of moral judgment

In his latest Blog post, Hugo Mercier, discusses Clark Barrett et al.’s paper in PNAS: “Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral

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Is kinship back?

In the last issue of Science (25 May, 2012), a plea by Stephen Levinson for the study of kinship terminology, and an article by Charles Kemp and Terry Regier making a novel contribution to that

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Why are some languages more regular than others?

Many years ago, I did anthropological fieldwork among the Dorze of Southern Ethiopia. Since no grammar of the Dorze language was available, I had to find out what were its basic morphological and

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Why are some languages more regular than others?

Many years ago, I did anthropological fieldwork among the Dorze of Southern Ethiopia. Since no grammar of the Dorze language was available, I had to find out what were its basic morphological and

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An epidemiology-of-representations solution to a WWII shipwreck mystery

The Australian Cruiser HAMS Sidney After a shameful lull in the activities of the ICCI (Sorry, folks!), we need something sensational – something, say, like Urbain Le Verrier’s

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David Hume, the anthropologist, born May 7, 1711

David Hume, described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as "the most important philosopher ever to write in English," was born 300 years ago. All anthropologists should

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What the judge ate for breakfast

How do people make decision? One view is that they arrive at their decisions by reasoning, using as premises their beliefs and desires. Another view is that people’s beliefs, desires, and

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Creative pairs

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (photo by Norman Seeff) Hugo Mercier and I have of late been developing the idea that reasoning, typically seen as an activity of the individual thinker, is in

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Paul the Octopus, relevance and the joy of superstition

So, as you all know, Spain beat the Netherlands and won the World Football Cup in Johannesburg on July 11, 2010. As most of you may also know, this victory was predicted by a German octopus named

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“Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!” A reply to Frans de Waal

I am used to being attacked by fellow anthropologists for having a naturalistic approach and for arguing that cognitive science, experimental methods, and evolutionary theorizing are highly relevant

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Believing Maurice Bloch on doubting, doubting him on believing

My friend Maurice Bloch and I have been arguing since even before we first met in the 70s. What makes it worthwhile is that there is much we agree on, and, once in a while, one of us causes the other

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Innocents fornicating and apes grieving

In his novel Abbé Mouret's Transgression (La faute de l'abbé Mouret, 1875), Emile Zola has a young priest, Serge Mouret, and a teenage girl, Albine, fall in love with each other without any

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Varieties of disbelief

On March 15, the Washington Post website put a link to a small ethnographic study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola entitled "Preachers who are not Believers." In this remarkable piece,

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