Humans massively depend on communication with others, but this leaves them open to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misinformed. To ensure that, despite this risk, communication remains advantageous, humans have, we claim, a suite of cognitive mechanisms for epistemic vigilance. Here we outline this claim and consider some of the ways in which epistemic vigilance works in mental and social life by surveying issues, research and theories in different domains of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive psychology and the social sciences.
What makes humans moral beings? This question can be understood either as a proximate question or as an ultimate question. The question is about the mental and social mechanisms that produce moral judgments and interactions, and has been investigated by psychologists and social scientists. The question is about the fitness consequences that explain why humans have morality, and has been discussed by evolutionary biologists in the context of the evolution of cooperation. Our goal here is to contribute to a fruitful (...) articulation of such proximate and ultimate explanations of human morality. We develop an approach to morality as an adaptation to an environment in which individuals were in competition to be chosen and recruited in mutually advantageous cooperative interactions. In this environment, the best strategy is to treat others with impartiality and to share the costs and benefits of cooperation equally. Those who offer less than others will be left out of cooperation; conversely, those who offer more will be exploited by their partners. In line with this mutualistic approach, the study of a range of economic games involving property rights, collective actions, mutual help and punishment shows that participants' distributions aim at sharing the costs and benefits of interactions in an impartial way. In particular, the distribution of resources is influenced by effort and talent, and the perception of each participant's rights on the resources to be distributed. (shrink)
Short abstract (98 words). Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given humans’ exceptional dependence on communication and vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of (...) evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. (shrink)
When people speak, their words never fully encode what they mean, and the context is always compatible with a variety of interpretations. How can comprehension ever be achieved? Wilson and Sperber argue that comprehension is an inference process guided by precise expectations of relevance. What are the relations between the linguistically encoded meanings studied in semantics and the thoughts that humans are capable of entertaining and conveying? How should we analyse literal meaning, approximations, metaphors and ironies? Is the ability to (...) understand speakers' meanings rooted in a more general human ability to understand other minds? How do these abilities interact in evolution and in cognitive development? MEANING AND RELEVANCE sets out to answer these and other questions, enriching and updating relevance theory and exploring its implications for linguistics, philosophy, cognitive science and literary studies. (shrink)
The central problem for pragmatics is that sentence meaning vastly underdetermines speaker’s meaning. The goal of pragmatics is to explain how the gap between sentence meaning and speaker’s meaning is bridged. This paper defends the broadly Gricean view that pragmatic interpretation is ultimately an exercise in mind-reading, involving the inferential attribution of intentions. We argue, however, that the interpretation process does not simply consist in applying general mind-reading abilities to a particular (communicative) domain. Rather, it involves a dedicated comprehension module, (...) with its own special principles and mechanisms. We show how such a metacommunicative module might have evolved, and what principles and mechanisms it might contain. (shrink)
Much evidence has accumulated in favor of such a dual view of reasoning. There is however some vagueness in the way the two systems are characterized. Instead of a principled distinction, we are presented with a bundle of contrasting features - slow/fast, automatic/controlled, explicit/implicit, associationist/rule based, modular/central - that, depending on the specific dual process theory, are attributed more or less exclusively to one of the two systems. As Evans states in a recent review, “it would then be helpful to (...) have some clear basis for this distinction”; he also suggests that “we might be better off talking about type 1 and type 2 processes” rather than systems. We share the intuitions that drove the development of dual system theories. Our goal here is to propose in the same spirit a principled distinction between two types of inferences: ‘intuitive inference’ and ‘reflective inference’. We ground this distinction in a massively modular view of the human mind where metarepresentational modules play an important role in explaining the peculiarities of human psychological evolution. We defend the hypothesis that the main function of reflective inference is to produce and evaluate arguments occurring in interpersonal communication. This function, we claim, helps explain important aspects of reasoning. We review some of the existing evidence and argue that it gives support to this approach. (shrink)
This paper questions the widespread view that verbal communication is governed by a maxim, norm or convention of truthfulness which applies at the level of what is literally meant, or what is said. Pragmatic frameworks based on this view must explain the frequent occurrence and acceptability of loose and figurative uses of language. We argue against existing explanations of these phenomena and provide an alternative account, based on the assumption that verbal communication is governed not by expectations of truthfulness but (...) by expectations of relevance, raised by literal, loose and figurative uses alike. Sample analyses are provided, and some consequences of this alternative account are explored. In particular, we argue that the notions of ‘literal meaning’ and ‘what is said’ play no useful theoretical role in the study of language use, and that the nature of explicit communication will have to be rethought. (shrink)
Humans have two kinds of beliefs, intuitive beliefs and reflective beliefs. Intuitive beliefs are a most fundamental category of cognition, defined in the architecture of the mind. They are formulated in an intuitive mental lexicon. Humans are also capable of entertaining an indefinite variety of higher-order or "reflective" propositional attitudes, many of which are of a credal sort. Reasons to hold "reflective beliefs" are provided by other beliefs that describe the source of the reflective belief as reliable, or that provide (...) explicit arguments in favour of the reflective belief. The mental lexicon of reflective beliefs includes not only intuitive, but also reflective concepts. (shrink)
From an evolutionary point of view, the function of moral behaviour may be to secure a good reputation as a co-operator. The best way to do so may be to obey genuine moral motivations. Still, one's moral reputation maybe something too important to be entrusted just to one's moral sense. A robust concern for one's reputation is likely to have evolved too. Here we explore some of the complex relationships between morality and reputation both from an evolutionary and a cognitive (...) point of view. (shrink)
On the relevance-theoretic approach outlined in this paper, linguistic metaphors are not a natural kind, and ―metaphor‖ is not a theoretically important notion in the study of verbal communication. Metaphorical interpretations are arrived at in exactly the same way as literal, loose and hyperbolic interpretations: there is no mechanism specific to metaphors, and no interesting generalisation that applies only to them. In this paper, we defend this approach in detail by showing how the same inferential procedure applies to utterances at (...) both ends of the literal-loose-metaphorical continuum, and how both literal and metaphorical utterances may create poetic effects. (shrink)
Having defended the usefulness of our definition of reasoning, we stress that reasoning is not only for convincing but also for evaluating arguments, and that as such it has an epistemic function. We defend the evidence supporting the theory against several challenges: People are good informal arguers, they reason better in groups, and they have a confirmation bias. Finally, we consider possible extensions, first in terms of process-level theories of reasoning, and second in the effects of reasoning outside the lab.
Humans are expert users of metarepresentations. How has this human metarepresentational capacity evolved? In order to contribute to the ongoing debate on this question, the chapter focuses on three more specific issues: i. How do humans metarepresent representations? ii. What came first: language, or metarepresentations? iii. Do humans have more than one metarepresentational ability?
The claim that the human cognitive system tends to allocate resources to the processing of available inputs according to their expected relevance is at the basis of relevance theory. The main thesis of this chapter is that this allocation can be achieved without computing expected relevance. When an input meets the input condition of a given modular procedure, it gives this procedure some initial level of activation. Input-activated procedures are in competition for the energy resources that would allow them to (...) follow their full course. What determines which of the procedures in competition get sufficient resources to trigger their full operation is the dynamics of their activation. This dynamics depend both on the prior degree of mobilisation of a modular procedure and on the activation that propagates from other active modules. It is quite conceivable also that the mobilisation of some procedures has inhibitory effects on some others. The relevance-theoretic claim is that, at every instant, this dynamics of activation provides rough physiological indicators of expected relevance. The flow of energy in the system is locally regulated by these indicators. As a result, those input-procedure combinations that have the greatest expected relevance are the more likely ones to receive sufficient energy to follow their course. (shrink)
An understanding of cause--effect relationships is fundamental to the study of cognition. In this book, outstanding specialists from comparative psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and philosophy present the newest developments in the study of causal cognition and discuss their different perspectives. They reflect on the role and forms of causal knowledge, both in animal and human cognition, on the development of human causal cognition from infancy, and on the relationship between individual and cultural aspects of causal understanding. The result (...) is a state-of-the-art, informative, insightful, and interdisciplinary debate aimed at the non-specialist. (shrink)
Henrich et al.’s article fleshes out in a very useful and timely manner comments often heard but rarely published about the extraordinary cultural imbalance in the recruitment of participants in psychology experiments and the doubt this casts on generalization of findings from these “weird” samples to humans in general. The authors mention that one of the concerns they have met in defending their views has been of a methodological nature: “the observed variation across populations may be due to various methodological (...) artifacts that arise from translating experiments across contexts” (sect. 7.2, para. 1). Here we want to express a less sweeping methodological concern. While accepting the general conclusions and recommendations of the article, we believe they should be complemented with a.. (shrink)
How are non-declarative sentences understood? How do they differ semantically from their declarative counterparts? Answers to these questions once made direct appeal to the notion of illocutionary force. When they proved unsatisfactory, the fault was diagnosed as a failure to distinguish properly between mood and force. For some years now, efforts have been under way to develop a satisfactory account of the semantics of mood. In this paper, we consider the current achievements and future prospects of the mood-based semantic programme.
In Kourken Michaelian questions the basic tenets of our article (Sperber et al. 2010). Here I defend against Michaelian's criticisms the view that epistemic vigilance plays a major role in explaining the evolutionary stability of communication and that the honesty of speakers and the reliability of their testimony are, to a large extent, an effect of hearers' vigilance.
Obscurity of expression is considered a flaw. Not so, however, in the speech or writing of intellectual gurus. All too often, what readers do is judge profound what they have failed to grasp. Here I try to explain this guru effect by looking at the psychology of trust and interpretation, at the role of authority and argumentation, and at the effects of these dispositions and processes when they operate at a population level where, I argue, a runaway phenomenon of overappreciation (...) may take place. (shrink)
Our main aim in this paper is to show that constructing an adequate theory of communication involves going beyond Grice’s notion of speaker’s meaning. After considering some of the difficulties raised by Grice’s three-clause definition of speaker’s meaning, we argue that the characterisation of ostensive communication introduced in relevance theory can provide a conceptually unified explanation of a much wider range of communicative acts than Grice was concerned with, including cases of both ‘showing that’ and ‘telling that’, and with both (...) determinate and indeterminate import. (shrink)
Our book Relevance (Sperber and Wilson 1986) treats utterance interpretation as a two-phase process: a modular decoding phase is seen as providing input to a central inferential phase in which a linguistically encoded logical form is contextually enriched and used to construct a hypothesis about the speaker's informative intention. Relevance was mainly concerned with the inferential phase of comprehension: we had to answer Fodor's challenge that while decoding processes are quite well understood, inferential processes are not only not understood, but (...) perhaps not even understandable (see Fodor 1983). Here we will look more closely at the decoding phase and consider what types of information may be linguistically encoded, and how the borderline between decoding and inference can be drawn. It might be that all linguistically encoded information is cut to a single pattern: all truth conditions, say, or all instructions for use. However, there is a robust intuition that two basic types of meaning can be found. This intuition surfaces in a variety of distinctions: between describing and indicating, stating and showing, saying and conventionally implicating, or between truth-conditional and non-truth-conditional, conceptual and procedural, or representational and computational meaning. In the literature, justifications for these distinctions have been developed in both strictly linguistic and more broadly cognitive terms. The linguistic justification goes as follows (see for example Recanati 1987). Utterances express propositions; propositions have truth conditions; but the meaning of an utterance is not exhausted by its truth conditions, i.e. the truth conditions of the proposition expressed. An utterance not only expresses a proposition but is used to perform a variety of speech acts. It can.. (shrink)
This chapter determines a major empirical hurdle for any future discipline of memetics. It mainly shows that one can find very similar copies of some cultural item, link these copies through a causal chain of events which faithfully reproduced those items, and nevertheless not have an example of memetic inheritance. In addition, the stability of cultural patterns is proof that fidelity in copying is high despite individual variations. It is also believed that what is offered as an explanation is precisely (...) what needs to be explained; what is offered as a solution is in fact the very problem to be solved. Moreover, the issue is whether the relative stability observed in cultural transmission is proof of replication. The example of the acquisition of language is briefly addressed. The Darwinian model of selection is informative, and in various ways, for thinking about culture. Imitation is of course well worth investigating. On the other hand, the grand project of memetics is misled. (shrink)
Language is both a biological and a cultural phenomenon. Our aim here is to discuss, in an evolutionary perspective, the articulation of these two aspects of language. For this, we draw on the general conceptual framework developed by Ruth Millikan while at the same time dissociating ourselves from her view of language.
Chiappe and Kukla argue that relevance theory fails to solve the frame problem as defined by Fodor. They are right. They are wrong, however, to take Fodors frame problem too seriously. Fodors concerns, on the other hand, even though they are wrongly framed, are worth addressing. We argue that Relevance thoery helps address them.
When is a conclusion worth deriving? We claim that a conclusion is worth deriving to the extent that it is relevant in the sense of relevance theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1995). To support this hypothesis, we experiment with ''indeterminate relational problems'' where we ask participants what, if anything, follows from premises such as A is taller than B, A is taller than C . With such problems, the indeterminate response that nothing follows is common, and we explain why. We distinguish (...) several types of determinate conclusions and show that their rate is a function of their relevance. We argue that by appropriately changing the formulation of the premises, the relevance of determinate conclusions can be increased, and the rate of indeterminate responses thereby reduced. We contrast these relevance-based predictions with predictions based on linguistic congruence. (shrink)
This is the text of the Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthopology 1999 (To appear in the Proceedings of the British Academy). In it, I argue that to approach society and culture in a naturalistic way, the domain of the social sciences must be reconceptualised by recognising only entities and processes of which we have a naturalistic understanding. These are mental representations and public productions, the processes that causally link them, the causal chains that bond these links, and the complex webs (...) of such causal chains that criss-cross human populations over time and space. Such causal chains may distribute and stabilise representations and productions throughout a human population, thereby generating culture. The lecture introduces several conceptual tools useful for such a naturalistic approach, and illustrates their use with the case study of ritual activity in a Southern Ethiopian household. (shrink)
We argue that the presence of a word in an utterance serves as starting point for a relevance guided inferential process that results in the construction of a contextually appropriate sense. The linguistically encoded sense of a word does not serve as its default interpretation. The cases where the contextually appropriate sense happens to be identical to this linguistic sense have no particular theoretical significance. We explore some of the consequences of this view. One of these consequences is that there (...) may be many more mentally represented concepts than there are linguistically encoded concepts. (shrink)
Members of a human group are bound with one another by multiple flows of information. (Here we use “information” in a broad sense that includes not only the content of people’s knowledge, but also that of their beliefs, assumptions, fictions, rules, norms, skills, maps, images, and so on.) This information is materially realized in the mental representations of the people, and in their public productions, that is, their cognitively guided behaviors and the enduring material traces of these behaviors. Mentally represented (...) information is transmitted from individuals to individuals through public productions. Public representations such as speech, gestures, writing, or pictures are a special type of public productions, the function of which is to communicate a content. Public representations play a major role in information transmission. Much information, however, is communicated implicitly, that is, without being publicly represented. Information can also be transmitted without being properly speaking communicated, not even implicitly, as when one individual acquires a skill by observing and imitating the behavior of others. Most information transmitted among humans is about local and transient circumstances, and is not transmitted beyond these. Some information of more general relevance, however, is repeatedly transmitted, and propagates throughout the group. Talk of “culture” (whatever the preferred definition or theory of culture) is about this widely distributed information and about its material realizations inside people’s mind and in their common environment (see Sperber 1996). One can study cultural phenomena in two main ways. One can interpret them, that is, try and make their contents intelligible to people of another culture, or more intelligible to members of the culture in which these phenomena occurs, as do anthropologists and historians. One may also try and explain causally how these cultural phenomena emerge, stabilize and evolve.. (shrink)
Language is both a biological and a cultural phenomenon. Our aim here is to discuss, in an evolutionary perspective, the articulation of these two aspects of language. For this, we draw on the general conceptual framework developed by Ruth Millikan (1984) while at the same time dissociating ourselves from her view of language.