A New Theory of Communication

Alastair Fowler

Collaborative writing is necessarily less common in the humanities than in science and medicine. And it seems rather less common now than in the Forties, when I was making a false start in medicine (the decade when Wimsatt and Beardsley collaborated on The Verbal Icon). Is it that we have become more competitive, more serious? ‘Not on your life, boy,’ my colleague John Hay in the anatomy lab used to say, but he would be helpfully turning a cadaver’s hand in response to my ‘Give me some palm, Olive’ and didn’t have to say he meant quite the opposite. Is it mutual supportiveness that makes collaborative writing work? Or the added range, the drawing on more and wider associations? In the case of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s Relevance, collaboration has been able to draw on feminine and masculine resources – although I am far too afraid of my feminist colleagues to say which resources are which. Anyway, like Gilbert and Sullivan, or Somerville and Ross, Sperber and Wilson make a great team. Sperber’s On Anthropological Knowledge and Rethinking Symbolism, written solus, were brilliant essays: but Relevance is more systematic and technical, and Wilson may be guessed to sing its cantus firmus. The result is a decisive contribution to our thinking about language.

Relevance has a strategic importance, which makes its comparative neglect astonishing, and raises a question whether this may not be because of its inconvenience to some of our intellectual establishments. Perhaps, like Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, it may take a considerable time to win recognition. For it offers nothing less than the makings of a radically new theory of communication, the first since Aristotle’s. From Aristotle to modern semiotics, all thinking about communication has been based on the code model, in which the communicative process is one of encoding and decoding. Recently, Paul Grice and others have turned to common-sense ideas, and to an inferential model based on the producing and interpreting of evidence. But that has not got very far. It is felt that Grice underestimates ambiguity, and that his maxims of conversation are altogether too question-beggingly convenient, too remote from real life. His principle of relevance remains so unparticularised that John Searle not surprisingly infers the impossibility of framing rules of conversation that correspond to actual experience. (Pragmatics, or the study of conditions affecting the use of language, is still often dominated by grammar-like ‘rules’.) Grice has not shown how unshared knowledge can come to be shared: his mutual expectation of truth, for example, hardly describes ordinary conversation. Meanwhile, Davidson’s anatomising of types of purity of intention, while interesting in itself, is similarly barren, so far as communication is concerned.

Most assume that a theory of communication must be based on either the code or the inferential model. But Sperber and Wilson hold that verbal utterances generally combine the two communicative modes, with coding-decoding subservient to inferential processes. They argue, however, that any purely inferential theory must ignore the actual diversity of psychological processes (to say nothing of the fact that decoding is often automatic). They aim to improve on Grice’s common-sense theory of 1957, while reversing his subsequent moves away from psychological plausibility.

On the other side, Sperber and Wilson concede that codes are very useful tools; that most human communication uses coding is no awkwardness to them. (A purist might fault them, in fact, for accepting too readily that codes – in the usual sense – operate at all.) They do not dispute that the code model explains how in principle communication could be achieved. But they show it to be inadequate descriptively: communication is not achieved by coding alone. Sometimes they make their case by persuasive Wittgensteinian exposition, rather than by close argument. But at crucial points they go far beyond Grice in working down into empirical psycholinguistic detail. Sometimes, indeed, they do not so much speculate cogently as actually explain. To an extent unusual in pragmatics, they win agreement by describing examples with such psychological subtlety that one comes to see the description as having explanatory force. (This in spite of examples that in themselves are rather artificial.)

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