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New Reflections On The Problem(S) Of Relevance(S). The Return Of The Phenomena

Göran Sonesson

Abstract

“Relevance” is an ordinary language word, which has been put to sundry scholarly uses. Nowadays, the term most commonly evokes the work, along the lines of speech act theory, of Paul Grice and, more in particular, of Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. Starting out from these theories, Jean-Louis Dessalles has suggested that relevance may account for the evolutionary origin of language. Among those following the phenomenological tradition, the same term rather calls to mind the work of Alfred Schutz, and perhaps, more rarely, some remarks made by Aron Gurwitsch. For linguists, who still remember something about linguistics before Chomsky, the term suggests the structuralist theories of the Prague school, as applied to phonology. In fact, while Schutz talks about relevance systems, the point of the whole endeavour initiated by Sperber/Wilson is to reduce meaning to contingent factors of the given situation. While Schutz as well as Sperber/Wilson treat relevance as something given in the situation, Dessalles presents it as new information. The linguistic definition is often nowadays taken to involve the features exclusively attended to, while at least Schutz clearly thinks of relevance as a kind of thematic adumbration. The question then becomes: do all these different uses have anything in common, beyond the employment of the same common sense word? To investigate this, we have to go beyond ordinary language to our common lifeworld, asking which of the three conceptions, if any, accounts for the real phenomenon, if this is actually more or less the same thing in all traditions.

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