Synthese 198 (7):6455-6489 (2019)

On many occasions, irony is used to communicate emotions, to criticise or to tease other people. Irony comprehension consists in identifying an utterance as ironical and detecting its implied meaning. Existing research has investigated irony comprehension as a pragma-linguistic phenomenon, which has led to several theoretical accounts and interesting empirical results. However, given that irony comprehension is situated in a social context and has the purpose to communicate the mental states of the speaker/writer indirectly, it is reasonable to assume that social cognition and emotional processes play an important role. Until very recently, this has been largely overlooked by research in the field. Furthermore, an overarching framework that can integrate theoretical insights and empirical data on the component processes of irony comprehension is still lacking. The purpose of this paper is to help close this gap. The positive proposal is that the predictive processing framework provides the theoretical resources and conceptual tools to describe relevant aspects of irony comprehension. According to predictive processing, perception, action, cognition, and emotion can be described as a continuous attempt to minimise prediction error. Irony comprehension, I will show, can be depicted as a special case of prediction error minimisation. The neuro-functional mechanism postulated by predictive processing is apt to account for the realisation of the pragma-linguistic, social, and emotional processes that jointly give rise to irony comprehension. The emerging perspective can elucidate why and how people comprehend ironical utterances.
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DOI 10.1007/s11229-019-02470-9
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