The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Logic of Relevance 

The French sociologist Dan Sperber and the British linguist Deirdre Wilson have shown that "relevance" constrains the coherence of a discourse and enables its understanding.  Relevance is a relation between a proposition and a set of contextual assumptions: a proposition is relevant in a context if and only if it has at least one contextual implication in that context.  The contextual implications of a proposition in a context are all the propositions that can be deduced from the union of the proposition with the context.

A universal goal in communication is that the hearer is out to acquire relevant information.  Another universal goal is that the speaker tries to make his utterance as relevant as possible. Understanding an utterance then consists in finding an interpretation that is consistent with the principle of relevance. The principle of relevance holds that any act of ostensive communication also includes a guarantee of its own optimal relevance. This principle is proven to subsume Grice's maxims. 

Relevance can arise in three ways: an interaction with assumptions that yields new assumptions; the contradiction of an assumption which removes it; additional evidence for an assumption that strengthens the confidence in it. 

Implicatures are either contextual assumptions or contextual implications that the hearer must grasp to recognize the speaker as observing the principle of relevance. The process of comprehending an utterance is thus reduced to a process of hypothesis formation and confirmation: the best hypothesis about the speaker's intentions and expectations is the one that best satisfies the principle of relevance.

Language can make sense only if speaker and listener cooperate. The US philosopher Donald Davidson points out that language transmits information. The speaker and the listener share a fundamental principle to make such transmission as efficient as possible.  Such "principle of charity" (originally introduced by the US philosopher Neil Wilson) asserts that the interpretation to be chosen is the one in which the speaker is saying the highest number of true statements.  During the conversation the listener tries to build an interpretation in which each sentence of the speaker is coupled with a truth-equivalent sentence.

Language, far from being a mechanical process of constructing sentences and absorbing sentences, is a subtle process of cooperating with the “other” to achieve the goal of communicating.

 


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