Archives For relevance theory

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “One Thing is Testimonial Injustice and Another Is Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 9-19.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Vi

Please refer to:

Image by Jon Southcoasting via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Derek E. Anderson’s (2017) identification and characterisation of conceptual competence injustice has recently met some resistance from Podosky and Tuckwell (2017). They have denied the existence of this new type of epistemic injustice on the grounds that the wronging it denotes may be subsumed by testimonial injustice: “instances of conceptual competence injustice can be accurately characterised as instances of testimonial injustices” (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26). Additionally, they have questioned the reasons that led Anderson (2017) to distinguish this epistemic injustice from testimonial, hermeneutical and contributory injustices (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 26-30).

Criticising the methodology followed by Podosky and Tuckwell (2017) in their attempt to prove that conceptual competence injustice falls within testimonial injustice, Anderson (2018) has underlined that conceptual competence injustice is a structural injustice and a form of competence injustice –i.e. an unfair misappraisal of skills– which should be retained as a distinct type of epistemic injustice because of its theoretical significance and usefulness. Causal etiology is not a necessary condition on conceptual competence injustice, he explains, and conceptual competence injustice, as opposed to testimonial injustice, need not be perpetrated by social groups that are negatively biased against a particular identity.

The unjust judgements giving rise to it do not necessarily have to be connected with testimony, even though some of them may originate in lexical problems and mistakes in the linguistic expressions a speaker resorts to when dispensing it. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice may be said to be different kinds of injustice and have diverse effects: “It is not necessary that a person’s testimony be disbelieved, ignored, or pre-empted in an episode of CC [conceptual competence] injustice. CC injustice involves only an unjust judgment about a person’s ability to think well using certain concepts” (Anderson 2018: 31).

Welcoming the notion of conceptual competence injustice, I suggested in a previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017a) that it could be borrowed by the field of linguistic pragmatics in order to conceptualise an undesired perlocutionary effect of verbal interaction: misappraisals of a speaker’s actual conceptual and lexical abilities as a result of lack or misuse of vocabulary. Relying on Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) description of intentional-input processing as a relevance-driven activity and of comprehension as a process of mutual parallel adjustment, where the mind carries out a series of incredibly fast simultaneous tasks that depend on decoding, inference, mindreading and emotion-reading, I also showed that those misappraisals result from deductions. A speaker’s alleged unsatisfactory performance makes manifest assumptions regarding her[1] problems with words, which are fed as weakly implicated premises to inferential processes and related to other detrimental assumptions that are made salient by prejudice.

In so doing, I did not purport to show, as Podosky and Tuckwell wrongly think, “how epistemic injustice manifests in the field of relevance theory” (2017: 23) or that “conceptual competence injustice is particularly useful in a relevance theoretical model of linguistic pragmatics” (2017: 30). Rather, my intention was to propose introducing the notion of conceptual competence injustice into general linguistic pragmatics as a mere way of labelling a type of prejudicial implicature, as they themselves rightly put it (Podosky and Tuckwell 2017: 30). The derivation of that sort of implicature, however, can be accounted for –and this is where relevance theory comes into the picture– on the basis of the cognitive processes that Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) framework describes and of its conceptual apparatus.

In another contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b), I clarified that, as a cognitive pragmatic framework, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is concerned with the processing and comprehension of the verbal and non-verbal intentional stimuli produced in human communication. It very satisfactorily explains how hearers forge interpretative hypotheses and why they select only one of them as the plausibly intended interpretation. Relevance theorists are also interested in the generation of a variety of effects –e.g. poetic (Pilkington 2000), humorous (Yus Ramos 2016), etc.– and successfully account for them.

Therefore, the notion of conceptual competence injustice can only be useful to relevance-theoretic pragmatics as a label to refer to one of the (pernicious) effects that may originate as a consequence of the constant search for optimal relevance of intentional stimuli. I will not return to these issues here, as I consider them duly addressed in my previous contribution (Padilla Cruz 2017b).

My aim in this reply is to lend support to Anderson’s (2017) differentiation of conceptual competence injustice as a distinct type of epistemic injustice. I seek to argue that, ontologically and phenomenologically, conceptual competence injustice must be retained in the field of social epistemology as a helpful category of injustice because it refers to a wronging whose origin and scope, so to say, differ from those of testimonial injustice. Testimonial injustice stems from (mis)judgements pertaining to the output of an action or epistemic practice wherein epistemic agents may participate or be engaged. The action in question is giving testimony and its output is the very testimony given. The scope of testimonial injustice, therefore, is the product, the result of that action or epistemic practice.

In other words, testimonial injustice targets the ability to generate an acceptable product as a consequence of finding it not to satisfy certain expectations or requirements, or to be defective in some dimensions. In contrast, conceptual competence injustice denotes an unfairness that is committed not because of the output of what is done with words –i.e. informing and the dispensed information– but because of the very linguistic tools wherewith an individual performs that action –i.e. the very words that she makes use of– and supposed underlying knowledge. To put it differently, the scope of conceptual competence injustice is the lexical items wherewith testimony is dispensed, which lead prejudiced individuals to doubt the conceptual and lexical capacities of unprivileged individuals.

In order to show that the scopes of testimonial and conceptual competence injustices vary, I will be drawing from the seminal and most influential work on communication by philosopher Herbert P. Grice (1957, 1975).[2] This will also encourage me to suggest that the notion of testimonial injustice (Fricker 2003, 2007) could even be refined and elaborated on. I will argue that this injustice may also be perpetrated when a disadvantaged individual is perceived not to meet requirements pertaining to testimony other than truthfulness.

Content Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

As an epistemic practice, dispensing testimony, or information, could be characterised, along Grice’s (1959, 1975) lines, as a cooperative activity. Testimony is given because an individual may be interested in imparting it for a variety of reasons –e.g. influencing others, appearing knowledgeable, contradicting previous ideas, etc.– and/or because it may benefit (an)other individual(s), who might (have) solicit(ed) it for another variety of reasons –e.g. learning about something, strengthening ideas, changing his worldview, etc. As an activity that brings together various individuals in joint action, providing testimony is subject to certain constraints or requirements for testimony to be properly or adequately dispensed. Let us call those constraints or requirements, using philosopher John L. Austin’s (1962) terminology, felicity conditions.

Some of those felicity conditions pertain to the individuals or interlocutors engaged in the epistemic practice. The dispenser of testimony –i.e. the speaker or informer– must obviously possess certain (true) information to dispense, have the ability to impart it and pursue some goal when giving it. In turn, the receiver of testimony should, but need not, be interested in it and make this manifest by explicit mention or elicitation of the testimony.

Other felicity conditions concern the testimony to be provided. For instance, it must be well supported, reliable and trustworthy. This is the sort of testimony that benevolent and competent informers dispense (Wilson 1999; Sperber et al. 2010), and the one on which the notion of testimonial injustice focuses (Fricker 2003, 2007). Making use again of Grice’s (1957, 1975) ideas, let us say that, for testimony to be appropriately imparted, it must satisfy a requirement of truthfulness or quality. Indeed, the maxim of quality of his Cooperative Principle prompts individuals to give information that is true and to refrain from saying falsehoods or things for which they lack adequate evidence.

But not only must testimony be truthful; for it to be properly dispensed, the information must also be both sufficient and relevant. Imagine, for instance, that someone was requested to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood. For the narration to be complete, it should not only include details about who such a character was, where she lived, the fact that she had a grandmother who lived at some distance in the countryside, her grandmother’s conditions or their relationship, but also about what had happened to Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother one day before receiving her visit and what happened to Little Red Riding Hood upon finding the wolf lying on the bed, disguised as the grandmother.

If the narrator mentioned the former details but omitted the latter, her narration, regardless of the fact that what she said about the characters’ identity and residence was undeniably true, would not be fully satisfactory, as it would not contain enough, necessary or expected information. Her testimony about Little Red Riding Hood would not be considered sufficient; something –maybe a key fragment– was missing for the whole story to be known, correctly understood and appraised.

Imagine now that all the details about the characters, their residence and relationship were present in the narration, but, upon introducing the wolf, the narrator started to ramble and talked about the animal spices wolves belong to, their most remarkable features, the fact that these animals are in danger of extinction in certain regions of Europe or that they were considered to have magical powers in a particular mythology. Although what the narrator said about the three characters is unquestioningly true and the story itself is told in its entirety, it would not have been told in the best way possible, as it includes excessive, unnecessary and unrelated information.

Again, along Gricean (1957, 1975) lines, it may be said that testimony must meet certain requirements or satisfy certain expectations about its quantity and relation. Actually, while his maxim of quantity incites individuals to give the expected amount of information depending on the purpose of a communicative exchange and prevents them from retaining or omitting expected or indispensable information, his maxim of relation causes them to supply information that is relevant or connected with the purpose of the exchange. Even if the provided information is true, failure to satisfy those requirements would render it inadequately given.

To the best of my knowledge, the notion of testimonial injustice as originally formulated by Fricker (2003, 2007) overlooks these requirements of quantity and relation, which solely pertain to the content of what is said. Accordingly, this injustice could also be argued to be amenable to be inflicted whenever an informer imparts unreliable or not well-evidenced information, and also when she fails to add necessary information or mentions irrelevant details or issues. If she did so, her ability to appropriately dispense information could be questioned and she could subsequently be downgraded as an informer.

Testimony from the 2009 trial of Cambodian war criminal Duch. Image by Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC) via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Manner Characteristics or Requirements of (Good) Testimony

Testimony may be claimed to be adequately given when it is true, sufficient and relevant, but there are additional requirements that testimony should meet for it to be adequately imparted. Namely, the information must be presented in an orderly, clear and unambiguous way. How would you react if, when being told the story of Little Red Riding Hood, your interlocutor gave you all the necessary, relevant and true details –and nothing more– but she changed the order of the events, did not make it clear whom the wolf attacked firstly or what Little Red Riding Hood put in her basket, or resorted to unusual, difficult or imprecise lexical terms? Probably, you would say that the story was told, but many issues would not be crystal clear to you, so you would have difficulties in having a clear picture of how, when and why the events in the story happened.

Testimony may also be considered to be well dispensed when it is given in a good manner by correctly ordering events and avoiding both obscurity and ambiguity of expression. Order, clarity and ambiguity are parameters that do not have to do with what is said –i.e. the content– but with how what is said is said –i.e. its linguistic form. Accordingly, testimony may be asserted to be correctly imparted when it meets certain standards or expectations that only concern the manner in which it is given.[3] Some of those standards or expectations are connected with the properties of the linguistic choices that the speaker makes when wording or phrasing testimony, and others are determined by cultural factors.

For example, for a narration to count as a fairy tale, it would have to begin with the traditional and recurrent formula “Once upon a time” and then proceed by setting a background that enables identification of characters and situates the events. Similarly, for an essay to be regarded as a good, publishable research paper, it must contain, in terms of structure, an abstract, an introductory section where the state of the art of the issue to be discussed is summarised, the goals of the paper are stated, the thesis is alluded to and, maybe, the structure of the paper is explained.

Then, the essay must unfold in a clear and logically connected way, through division of the contents in various sections, each of which must deal with what is referred to in its heading, etc. In terms of expression, the paper must contain technical or specialised terminology and be sufficiently understandable. Many of these expectations are motivated by specific conventions about discourse or text genres.

Inability or failure to present information in the appropriate manner or to comply with operative conventions may also incite individuals to challenge an informer’s capacity to dispense it. Although the informer may be credited with being knowledgeable about a series of issues, she may be assessed as a bad informer because her performance is not satisfactory in terms of the linguistic means she resorts to in order to address them or her abidance by governing conventions. However, since such an assessment is motivated not by the quality, quantity or relation of the content of testimony, but by the tools with and the way in which the informer produces her product, its scope or target is obviously different.

Different Scopes, Distinct Types of Epistemic Injustice

The current notion of testimonial injustice only takes into account one of the three features of (well dispensed) testimony alluded to above: namely, quality or truthfulness. A more fine-grained conceptualisation of it should also consider two other properties: quantity and relation, as long as informers’ capacity to provide testimony may be doubted if they failed to give expected information and/or said irrelevant things or added unnecessary details. Indeed, quality, quantity and relation are dimensions that are connected with the content of the very information dispensed –i.e. what is said– or the product of the epistemic practice of informing. Testimonial injustice, therefore, should be characterised as the epistemic injustice amenable to be inflicted whenever testimony is found deficient or unsatisfactory on the grounds of these three dimensions pertaining to its content.

What happens, then, with the other requirement of good testimony, namely, manner? Again, to the best of my knowledge, Fricker’s (2003, 2007) description of testimonial injustice does not refer to its likely perpetration when an individual is judged not to impart testimony in an allegedly right manner. And, certainly, this characteristic of good testimony may affect considerations about how suitably it is given.

Dispensing information in a messy, obscure and/or ambiguous way could be enough for degrading an individual as informer. She could sufficiently talk about true and relevant things, yes, but she could say them in an inappropriate way, thus hindering or impeding understanding. Should, then, the manner in which testimony is provided be used as grounds to wrong an informer or to question a person’s capacities as such? Although the manner in which testimony is imparted may certainly influence assessments thereof, there is a substantial difference.

Failure to meet requirements of quality, quantity and relation, and failure to meet requirements of manner are certainly not the same phenomenon. The former has to do with the content of what is said, with the product or result of an activity; the latter, in contrast, as the name indicates, has to do with the way in which what is said is actually said, with the tools deployed to accomplish the activity. Testimony may be incorrectly dispensed because of its falsity, insufficiency or irrelevance, but it may also be inappropriately imparted because of how it is given –this is undeniable, I would say.

The difference between quality, quantity and relation, on the one hand, and manner, on the other hand, is a difference of product and content of that product, on the one hand, and tools to create it, on the other hand. Accordingly, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should be kept apart as two distinct types of epistemic injustice because the respective scopes of the judgements where each injustice originates differ. While in the former the issue is the content of testimony, in the latter what is at stake is the means to dispense it, which unveil or suggest conceptual deficits or lack of mastery of certain concepts.

Testimony is dispensed by means of linguistic elements that somehow capture –or metarepresent, in the specialised cognitive-pragmatic terminology (Wilson 1999; Sperber 2000)– the thoughts that a speaker entertains, or the information that she possesses, and is interested in making known to an audience. Such elements are words, which are meaningful units made of strings of recognisable sounds –i.e. allophones, or contextual realisations of phonemes, in the terminology of phonetics and phonology– which make up stems and various types of morphemesprefixes, infixes and suffixes– conveying lexical and grammatical information. More importantly, words are arranged in more complex meaningful units –namely, phrases– and these, in turn, give rise to larger, and still more meaningful, units –namely, clauses and sentences. Manner is connected with the lexical units chosen and their syntactic arrangements when communicating and, for the sake of this paper, when providing testimony.

Speakers need to constantly monitor their production and their interlocutors’ reactions, which often cause them to revise what they have just said, reformulate what they are saying or are about to say, expand or elaborate on it, etc. As complex an activity as speaking is, it is not exempt of problems. At a lexical level, the speaker may fail to use the adequate words because she misses them or has trouble to find them at a particular time for a variety of factors –e.g. tiredness, absentmindedness, etc. (Mustajoki 2012). The chosen words may also diverge from those normally used by other language users in order to refer to particular concepts. This happens when speakers have mapped those concepts onto different lexical items or when they have mapped those concepts not onto single words, but onto more complex units like phrases or even whole sentences (Sperber and Wilson 1997).

The selected terms may alternatively be too general, so the audience somehow has to inferentially adjust or fine-tune their denotation because of its broadness. Consider, for example, placeholders like “that thing”, “the stuff”, etc. used to refer to something for which there is a more specific term, or hypernyms like ‘animal’ instead of the more precise term ‘duck-billed platypus’. Or, the other way round, the selected terms may be too specific, so the audience somehow has to inferentially loosen their denotation because of its restrictiveness (Carston 2002; Wilson and Carston 2007).

Above – Doggie. Image by lscott2dog via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Think, for instance, of hyponyms like ‘doggie’ when used to refer not only to dogs, but also to other four-legged animals because of perceptual similarity –they have four legs– and conceptual contiguity –they are all animals– or ‘kitten’ when used to refer to other felines for the same reasons;[4] or imagine that terms like ‘wheel’ or ‘cookie’ were metaphorically applied to entities belonging to different, unrelated conceptual domains –e.g. the Moon– because of perceptual similarity –i.e. roundness.[5]

At a syntactic level, the linguistic structures that the speaker generates may turn out ambiguous and misleading, even though they may be perfectly clear and understandable to her. Consider, for instance, sentences like “I saw your brother with glasses”, where the ambiguity resides in the polysemy of the word ‘glasses’ (“pair of lenses” or “drinking containers”?) and the distinct readings of the fragment “your brother with glasses” (who wears/holds/carries the glasses, the hearer’s brother or the speaker?), or “Flying planes may be dangerous”, where the ambiguity stems from the competing values of the –ing form (what is dangerous, the action of piloting planes or the planes that are flying?).

At a discourse or pragmatic level, finally, speakers may be unaware of conventions governing the usage and meaning of specific structures –i.e. pragmalinguistic structures (Leech 1983)– such as “Can/Could you + verb”, whose pragmatic import is requestive and not a question about the hearer’s physical abilities, or unfamiliar with sociocultural norms and rules –i.e. sociopragmatic norms (Leech 1983)– which establish what is expectable or permitted, so to say, in certain contexts, or when, where, how and with whom certain actions may or should be accomplished or avoided.

Would we, then, say that testimony is to be doubted or discredited because of mistakes or infelicities at a lexical, syntactic or pragmatic level? Not necessarily. The information per se may be true, reliable, accurate, relevant and sufficient, but the problem resides precisely in how it is presented. Testimony would have been given, no doubt, but it would not have been imparted in the most efficient way, as the most appropriate tools are not used.

When lexical selection appears poor or inadequate; words are incorrectly and ambiguously arranged into phrases, clauses or sentences; (expected) conventionalised formulae are not conveniently deployed, or norms constraining how, when, where or whom to say things are not respected or are ignored, what is at stake is not an informer’s knowledge of the issues testimony may be about, but her knowledge of the very rudiments and conventions to satisfactorily articulate testimony and to successfully dispense it. The objects of this knowledge are the elements making up the linguistic system used to communicate –i.e. vocabulary– their possible combinations –i.e. syntax– and their usage in order to achieve specific goals –i.e. pragmatics– so such knowledge is evidently different from knowledge of the substance of testimony –i.e. its ‘aboutness’.

Real or seeming lexical problems may evidence conceptual gaps, concept-word mismatches or (highly) idiosyncratic concept-word mappings, but they may lead privileged individuals to question disadvantaged individuals’ richness of vocabulary and, ultimately, the concepts connected with it and denoted by words. If this happens, what those individuals attack is one of the sets of tools to generate an acceptable product, but not the content or essence of such a product.

Conceptual competence injustice, therefore, must be seen as targeting the tools with which testimony is created, not its content, so its scope differs from that of testimonial injustice. The scope of testimonial injustice is the truthfulness of a series of events in a narration is, as well as the amount of details that are given about those events and the relevance of those details. The scope of conceptual competence, in contrast, is knowledge and correct usage of vocabulary, and possession of the corresponding concepts.

Conceptual competence injustice focuses on a specific type of knowledge making up the broader knowledge of a language and facilitating performance in various practices, which includes informing others or dispensing testimony. Such specific knowledge is a sub-competence on which the more general, overarching competence enabling communicative performance is contingent. For this reason, conceptual competence injustice is a competence injustice, or an unfairness about a type of knowledge and specific abilities –conceptual and lexical abilities, in this case. And just as unprivileged individuals may be wronged because of their lack or misuse of words and may be attributed conceptual lacunae, occasional or constant syntactic problems and pragmatic infelicities may induce powerful individuals to misjudge those individuals as regards the respective types of knowledge enabling their performance in these areas of language.

Conclusion

Phenomenologically, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice are perpetrated as a consequence of perceptions and appraisals whose respective scopes differ. In testimonial injustice, it is information that is deemed to be unsatisfactory because of its alleged veracity, quantity and relevance, so the informer is not considered a good knower of the issues pertaining to that testimony. In conceptual competence injustice, in contrast, it is the tools by means of which information is dispensed that are regarded as inappropriate, and such inappropriateness induces individuals to doubt possession and knowledge of the adequate lexical items and of their corresponding, supporting conceptual knowledge.

While testimonial injustice is inflicted as a result of what is said, conceptual competence injustice is perpetrated as a consequence of the manner whereby what is said is actually said. Consequently, at a theoretical level, testimonial injustice and conceptual competence injustice should definitely be kept apart in the field of social epistemology. The latter, moreover, should be retained as a valid and useful notion, as long as it denotes an unfairness amenable to be sustained on the grounds of the linguistic tools employed to dispense testimony and not on the grounds of the characteristics of the product generated.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

References

Anderson, Derek E. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology. A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 37, no. 2 (2017): 210-223.

Anderson, Derek E. “Yes, There Is Such a Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 26-35.

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Carston, Robyn. Thoughts and Utterances. The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Clark, Eve V. “What’s in a Word? On the Child’s Acquisition of Semantics in His First Language.” In Cognitive Development and the Acquisition of Meaning, edited by Timothy E. Moore, 65-110. New York: Academic Press, 1973.

Clark, Eve V. The Lexicon in Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Escandell Vidal, M. Victoria. “Norms and Principles. Putting Social and Cognitive Pragmatics Together.” In Current Trends in the Pragmatics of Spanish, edited by Rosina Márquez-Reiter and M. Elena Placencia, 347-371. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004.

Fricker, Miranda. “Epistemic Injustice and a Role for Virtue in the Politics of Knowing.” Metaphilosophy 34, no. 1-2 (2003): 154-173.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice. Power & the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Grice, Herbert P. “Meaning.” Philosophical Review 66 (1957): 377-388.

Grice, Herbert P. “Logic and Conversation.” In Syntax and Semantics vol. 3: Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan, 41-59. New York: Academic Press, 1975.

Leech, Geoffrey. Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman, 1983.

Mustajoki, Arto. “A Speaker-oriented Multidimensional Approach to Risks and Causes of Miscommunication.” Language and Dialogue 2, no. 2 (2012): 216-243.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of ‘Conceptual Competence Injustice’ to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017a): 12-19.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Conceptual Competence Injustice and Relevance Theory, A Reply to Derek Anderson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017b): 39-50.

Pilkington, Adrian. Poetic Effects. A Relevance Theory Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.

Podosky, Paul-Mikhail, and William Tuckwell. 2017. “There’s No Such Thing as Conceptual Competence Injustice: A Response to Anderson and Cruz.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11: 23-32.

Rescorla, Leslie. “Overextension in Early Language Development.” Journal of Child Language 7 (1980): 321-335.

Sperber, Dan (ed.). Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. “The Mapping between the Mental and the Public Lexicon.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 9 (1997): 107-125.

Sperber, Dan, Fabrice Clément, Christophe Heintz, Olivier Mascaro, Hugo Mercier, Gloria Origgi, and Deirdre Wilson. “Epistemic Vigilance.” Mind & Language 25, no. 4 (2010): 359-393.

Wałaszeska, Ewa. “Broadening and Narrowing in Lexical Development: How Relevance Theory Can Account for Children’s Overextensions and Underextensions.” Journal of Pragmatics 43 (2011): 314-326.

Wilson, Deirdre. “Metarepresentation in Linguistic Communication.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 11 (1999): 127-161.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Robyn Carston. “A Unitary Approach to Lexical Pragmatics: Relevance, Inference and Ad Hoc Concepts.” In Pragmatics, edited by Noel Burton-Roberts, 230-259. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007.

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[1] Reference to the speaker will be made by means of the feminine third person singular personal pronoun.

[2] The fact that the following discussion heavily relies on Grice’s (1957, 1975) Cooperative Principle and its maxims should not imply that such ‘principle’ is an adequate formalisation of how the human cognitive systems work while processing information. It should rather be seen as some sort of overarching (cultural) norm or rule subsuming more specific norms or rules, which are internalised by some social groups whose members unconsciously obey without noticing that they comply with it (Escandell Vidal 2004: 349). For extensive criticism on Grice’s (1957/1975) ideas, see Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995).

[3] Grice’s (1957, 1975) maxim of manner is articulated into four sub-maxims, which cause individuals to be (i) orderly, (ii) brief or concise, and to avoid (iii) ambiguity of expression and (iv) obscurity of expression. In my discussion, however, I have omitted considerations about brevity or conciseness because I think that these are the byproduct of the maxim of quality, with whose effects those of the manner sub-maxim of briefness overlap.

[4] This would be a type of overextension labelled over-inclusion, categorical overextension or classic overextension (Clark 1973, 1993; Rescorla 1980), where a word “[…] is applied to instances of other categories within the same or adjacent conceptual domain” (Wałaszeska 2011: 321).

[5] This would be a case of analogical extension or analogical overextension (Rescorla 1980; Clark 1993).

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, University of Seville, mpadillacruz@us.es

Cruz, Manuel Padilla. “Conceptual Competence Injustice and Relevance Theory, A Reply to Derek Anderson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 39-50.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3RS

Contestants from the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Image from Scripps National Spelling Bee, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Derek Anderson (2017a) has recently differentiated conceptual competence injustice and characterised it as the wrong done when, on the grounds of the vocabulary used in interaction, a person is believed not to have a sophisticated or rich conceptual repertoire. His most interesting, insightful and illuminating work induced me to propose incorporating this notion to the field of linguistic pragmatics as a way of conceptualising an undesired and unexpected perlocutionary effect: attribution of lower level of communicative or linguistic competence. These may be drawn from a perception of seemingly poor performance stemming from lack of the words necessary to refer to specific elements of reality or misuse of the adequate ones (Padilla Cruz 2017a).

Relying on the cognitive pragmatic framework of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004), I also argued that such perlocutionary effect would be an unfortunate by-product of the constant tendency to search for the optimal relevance of intentional stimuli like single utterances or longer stretches of discourse. More specifically, while aiming for maximum cognitive gain in exchange for a reasonable amount of cognitive effort, the human mind may activate or access assumptions about a language user’s linguistic or communicative performance, and feed them as implicated premises into inferential computations.

Although those assumptions might not really have been intended by the language user, they are made manifest by her[1] behaviour and may be exploited in inference, even if at the hearer’s sole responsibility and risk. Those assumptions are weak implicated premises and their interaction with other mentally stored information yields weakly implicated conclusions (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). Since their content pertains to the speaker’s behaviour, they are behavioural implicatures (Jary 2013); since they negatively impact on an individual’s reputation as a language user, they turn out to be detrimental implicatures (Jary 1998).

My proposal about the benefits of the notion of conceptual competence injustice to linguistic pragmatics was immediately replied by Anderson (2017b). He considers that the intention underlying my comment on his work was “[…] to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory” and points out that my proposal “[…] must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36; emphasis in the original). Furthermore, he also claims that relevance theory “[…] does not intrinsically have the resources to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

In what follows, I purport to clarify two issues. Firstly, my suggestion to incorporate conceptual competence injustice into linguistic pragmatics necessarily relies on a much broader, more general and loosened understanding of this notion. Even if such an understanding deprives it of some of its essential, defining conditions –namely, existence of different social identities and of matrices of domination– it may somehow capture the ontology of the unexpected effects that communicative performance may result in: an unfair appraisal of capacities.

Secondly, my intention when commenting on Anderson’s (2017a) work was not actually to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory, but to show that this pragmatic framework is well equipped and most appropriate in order to account for the cognitive processes and the reasons underlying the unfortunate negative effects that may be alluded to with the notion I am advocating for. Therefore, I will argue that relevance theory does in fact have the resources to explain why some injustices stemming from communicative performance may originate. To conclude, I will elaborate on the factors why wrong ascriptions of conceptual and lexical competence may be made.

What Is Conceptual Competence Injustice

As a sub-type of epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007), conceptual competence injustice arises in scenarios where there are privileged epistemic agents who (i) are prejudiced against members of specific social groups, identities or minorities, and (ii) exert power as a way of oppression. Such agents make “[…] false judgments of incompetence [which] function as part of a broader, reliable pattern of marginalization that systematically undermines the epistemic agency of members of an oppressed social identity” (Anderson 2017b: 36). Therefore, conceptual competence injustice is a way of denigrating individuals as knowers of specific domains of reality and ultimately disempowering, discriminating and excluding them, so it “[…] is a form of epistemic oppression […]” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

Lack or misuse of vocabulary may result in wronging if hearers conclude that certain concepts denoting specific elements of reality –objects, animals, actions, events, etc.– are not available to particular speakers or that they have erroneously mapped those concepts onto lexical items. When this happens, speakers’ conceptualising and lexical capacities could be deemed to be below alleged or actual standards. Since lexical competence is one of the pillars of communicative competence (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995), that judgement could contribute to downgrading speakers in an alleged scale of communicative competence and, consequently, to regarding them as partially or fully incompetent.

According to Medina (2011), competence is a comparative and contrastive property. On the one hand, skilfulness in some domain may be compared to that in (an)other domain(s), so a person may be very skilled in areas like languages, drawing, football, etc., but not in others like mathematics, oil painting, basketball, etc. On the other hand, knowledge of and abilities in some matters may be greater or lesser than those of other individuals. Competence, moreover, may be characterised as gradual and context-dependent. Degree of competence –i.e. its depth and width, so to say– normally increases because of age, maturity, personal circumstances and experience, or factors such as instruction and subsequent learning, needs, interests, motivation, etc. In turn, the way in which competence surfaces may be affected by a variety of intertwined factors, which include (Mustajoki 2012; Padilla Cruz 2017b).

Factors Affecting Competence in Communication

Internal factors –i.e. person-related– among which feature:

Relatively stable factors, such as (i) other knowledge and abilities, regardless of their actual relatedness to a particular competence, and (ii) cognitive styles –i.e. patterns of accessing and using knowledge items, among which are concepts and words used to name them.

Relatively unstable factors, such as (i) psychological states like nervousness, concentration, absent-mindedness, emotional override, or simply experiencing feelings like happiness, sadness, depression, etc.; (ii) physiological conditions like tiredness, drowsiness, drunkenness, etc., or (iii) performance of actions necessary for physiological functions like swallowing, sipping, sneezing, etc. These may facilitate or hinder access to and usage of knowledge items including concepts and words.

External –i.e. situation-related– factors, which encompass (i) the spatio-temporal circumstances where encounters take place, and (ii) the social relations with other participants in an encounter. For instance, haste, urgency or (un)familiarity with a setting may ease or impede access to and usage of knowledge items, as may experiencing social distance and/or more or less power with respect to another individual (Brown and Levinson 1987).

While ‘social distance’ refers to (un)acquaintance with other people and (dis)similarity with them as a result of perceptions of membership to a social group, ‘power’ does not simply allude to the possibility of imposing upon others and conditioning their behaviour as a consequence of differing positions in a particular hierarchy within a specific social institution. ‘Power’ also refers to the likelihood to impose upon other people owing to perceived or supposed expertise in a field –i.e. expert power, like that exerted by, for instance, a professor over students– or to admiration of diverse personal attributes –i.e. referent power, like that exerted by, for example, a pop idol over fans (Spencer-Oatey 1996).

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Conceptualising capacities, conceptual inventories and lexical competence also partake of the four features listed above: gradualness, comparativeness, contrastiveness and context-dependence. Needless to say, all three of them obviously increase as a consequence of growth and exposure to or participation in a plethora of situations and events, among which education or training are fundamental. Conceptualising capacities and lexical competence may be more or less developed or accurate than other abilities, among which are the other sub-competences upon which communicative competence depends –i.e. phonetics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995).

Additionally, conceptual inventories enabling lexical performance may be rather complex in some domains but not in others –e.g. a person may store many concepts and possess a rich vocabulary pertaining to, for instance, linguistics, but lack or have rudimentary ones about sports. Finally, lexical competence may appear to be higher or lower than that of other individuals under specific spatio-temporal and social circumstances, or because of the influence of the aforesaid psychological and physiological factors, or actions performed while speaking.

Apparent knowledge and usage of general or domain-specific vocabulary may be assessed and compared to those of other people, but performance may be hindered or fail to meet expectations because of the aforementioned factors. If it was considered deficient, inferior or lower than that of other individuals, such consideration should only concern knowledge and usage of vocabulary concerning a specific domain, and be only relative to a particular moment, maybe under specific circumstances.

Unfortunately, people often extrapolate and (over)generalise, so they may take (seeming) lexical gaps at a particular time in a speaker’s life or one-off, occasional or momentary lexical infelicities to suggest or unveil more global and overarching conceptualising handicaps or lexical deficits. This does not only lead people to doubt the richness and broadness of that speaker’s conceptual inventory and lexical repertoire, but also to question her conceptualising abilities and what may be labelled her conceptual accuracy –i.e. the capacity to create concepts that adequately capture nuances in elements of reality and facilitate correct reference to those elements– as well as her lexical efficiency or lexical reliability –i.e. the ability to use vocabulary appropriately.

As long as doubts are cast about the amount and accuracy of the concepts available to a speaker and her ability to verbalise them, there arises an unwarranted and unfair wronging which would count as an injustice about that speaker’s conceptualising skills, amount of concepts and expressive abilities. The loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice whose incorporation into the field of linguistic pragmatics I advocated does not necessarily presuppose a previous discrimination or prejudice negatively biasing hegemonic, privileged or empowered individuals against minorities or identities.

Wrong is done, and an epistemic injustice is therefore inflicted, because another person’s conceptual inventory, lexical repertoire and expressive skills are underestimated or negatively evaluated because of (i) perception of a communicative behaviour that is felt not to meet expectations or to be below alleged standards, (ii) tenacious adherence to those expectations or standards, and (iii) unawareness of the likely influence of various factors on performance. This wronging may nonetheless lead to subsequently downgrading that person as regards her communicative competence, discrediting her conceptual accuracy and lexical efficiency/reliability, and denigrating her as a speaker of a language, and, therefore, as an epistemic agent. Relying on all this, further discrimination on other grounds may ensue or an already existing one may be strengthened and perpetuated.

Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice

Initially put forth in 1986, and slightly refined almost ten years later, relevance theory is a pragmatic framework that aims to explain (i) why hearers select particular interpretations out of the various possible ones that utterances may have –all of which are compatible with the linguistically encoded and communicated information– (ii) how hearers process utterances, and (iii) how and why utterances and discourse give rise to a plethora of effects (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). Accordingly, it concentrates on the cognitive side of communication: comprehension and the mental processes intervening in it.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) reacted against the so-called code model of communication, which was deeply entrenched in western linguistics. According to this model, communication merely consists of encoding thoughts or messages into utterances, and decoding these in order to arrive at speaker meaning. Since speakers cannot encode everything they intend to communicate and absolute explicitness is practically unattainable, relevance theory portrays communication as an ostensive-inferential process where speakers draw the audience’s attention by means of intentional stimuli. On some occasions these amount to direct evidence –i.e. showing– of what speakers mean, so their processing requires inference; on other occasions, intentional stimuli amount to indirect –i.e. encoded– evidence of speaker meaning, so their processing relies on decoding.

However, in most cases the stimuli produced in communication combine direct with indirect evidence, so their processing depends on both inference and decoding (Sperber and Wilson 2015). Intentional stimuli make manifest speakers’ informative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience create a mental representation of the intended message, or, in other words, a plausible interpretative hypothesis– and their communicative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience recognise that speakers do have a particular informative intention. The role of hearers, then, is to arrive at speaker meaning by means of both decoding and inference (but see below).

Relevance theory also reacted against philosopher Herbert P. Grice’s (1975) view of communication as a joint endeavour where interlocutors identify a common purpose and may abide by, disobey or flout a series of maxims pertaining to communicative behaviour –those of quantity, quality, relation and manner– which articulate the so-called cooperative principle. Although Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995) seriously question the existence of such principle, they nevertheless rest squarely on a notion already present in Grice’s work, but which he unfortunately left undefined: relevance. This becomes the corner stone in their framework. Relevance is claimed to be a property of intentional stimuli and characterised on the basis of two factors:

Cognitive effects, or the gains resulting from the processing of utterances: (i) strengthening of old information, (ii) contradiction and rejection of old information, and (iii) derivation of new information.

Cognitive or processing effort, which is the effort of memory to select or construct a suitable mental context for processing utterances and to carry out a series of simultaneous tasks that involve the operation of a number of mental mechanisms or modules: (i) the language module, which decodes and parses utterances; (ii) the inferential module, which relates information encoded and made manifest by utterances to already stored information; (iii) the emotion-reading module, which identifies emotional states; (iv) the mindreading module, which attributes mental states, and (v) vigilance mechanisms, which assess the reliability of informers and the believability of information (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004; Sperber et al. 2010).

Relevance is a scalar property that is directly proportionate to the amount of cognitive effects that an interpretation gives rise to, but inversely proportionate to the expenditure of cognitive effort required. Interpretations are relevant if they yield cognitive effects in return for the cognitive effort invested. Optimal relevance emerges when the effect-effort balance is satisfactory. If an interpretation is found to be optimally relevant, it is chosen by the hearer and thought to be the intended interpretation. Hence, optimal relevance is the property determining the selection of interpretations.

The Power of Relevance Theory

Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) ideas and claims originated a whole branch in cognitive pragmatics that is now known as relevance-theoretic pragmatics. After years of intense, illuminating and fruitful work, relevance theorists have offered a plausible model for comprehension. In it, interpretative hypotheses –i.e. likely interpretations– are said to be formulated during a process of mutual parallel adjustment of the explicit and implicit content of utterances, where the said modules and mechanisms perform a series of simultaneous, incredibly fast tasks at a subconscious level (Carston 2002; Wilson and Sperber 2004).

Decoding only yields a minimally parsed chunk of concepts that is not yet fully propositional, so it cannot be truth-evaluable: the logical form. This form needs pragmatic or contextual enrichment by means of additional tasks wherein the inferential module relies on contextual information and is sometimes constrained by the procedural meaning –i.e. processing instructions– encoded by some linguistic elements.

Those tasks include (i) disambiguation of syntactic constituents; (ii) assignment of reference to words like personal pronouns, proper names, deictics, etc.; (iii) adjustment of the conceptual content encoded by words like nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and (iv) recovery of unarticulated constituents. Completion of these tasks results in the lower-level explicature of an utterance, which is a truth-evaluable propositional form amounting to the explicit content of an utterance. Construction of lower-level explicatures depends on decoding and inference, so that the more decoding involved, the more explicit or strong these explicatures are and, conversely, the more inference needed, the less explicit and weaker these explicatures are (Wilson and Sperber 2004).

A lower-level explicature may further be embedded into a conceptual schema that captures the speaker’s attitude(s) towards the proposition expressed, her emotion(s) or feeling(s) when saying what she says, or the action that she intends or expects the hearer to perform by saying what she says. This schema is the higher-level explicature and is also part of the explicit content of an utterance.

It is sometimes built through decoding some of the elements in an utterance –e.g. attitudinal adverbs like ‘happily’ or ‘unfortunately’ (Ifantidou 1992) or performative verbs like ‘order’, ‘apologise’ or ‘thank’ (Austin 1962)– and other times through inference, emotion-reading and mindreading –as in the case of, for instance, interjections, intonation or paralanguage (Wilson and Wharton 2006; Wharton 2009, 2016) or indirect speech acts (Searle 1969; Grice 1975). As in the case of lower-level explicatures, higher-level ones may also be strong or weak depending on the amount of decoding, emotion-reading and mindreading involved in their construction.

The explicit content of utterances may additionally be related to information stored in the mind or perceptible from the environment. Those information items act as implicated premises in inferential processes. If the hearer has enough evidence that the speaker intended or expected him to resort to and use those premises in inference, they are strong, but, if he does so at his own risk and responsibility, they are weak. Interaction of the explicit content with implicated premises yields implicated conclusions. Altogether, implicated premises and implicated conclusions make up the implicit content of an utterance. Arriving at the implicit content completes mutual parallel adjustment, which is a process constantly driven by expectations of relevance, in which the more plausible, less effort-demanding and more effect-yielding possibilities are normally chosen.

The Limits of Relevance Theory

As a model centred on comprehension and interpretation of ostensive stimuli, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) does not need to be able to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice, as Anderson (2017b) remarks, nor even instances of the negative consequences of communicative behaviour that may be alluded to by means of the broader, loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice I argued for. Rather, as a cognitive framework, its role is to explain why and how these originate. And, certainly, its notional apparatus and the cognitive machinery intervening in comprehension which it describes can satisfactorily account for (i) the ontology of unwarranted judgements of lexical and conceptual (in)competence, (ii) their origin and (iii) some of the reasons why they are made.

Accordingly, those judgements (i) are implicated conclusions which (ii) are derived during mutual parallel adjustment as a result of (iii) accessing some manifest assumptions and using these as implicated premises in inference. Obviously, the implicated premises that yield the negative conclusions about (in)competence might not have been intended by the speaker, who would not be interested in the hearer accessing and using them. However, her communicative performance makes manifest assumptions alluding to her lexical lacunae and mistakes and these lead the hearer to draw undesired conclusions.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is powerful enough to offer a cognitive explanation of the said three issues. And this alone was what I aimed to show in my comment to Anderson’s (2017a) work. Two different issues, nevertheless, are (i) the reasons why certain prejudicial assumptions become manifest to an audience and (ii) why those assumptions end up being distributed across the members of certain wide social groups.

As Anderson (2017b) underlines, conceptual competence injustices must necessarily be contextualised in situations where privileged and empowered social groups are negatively-biased or prejudiced against other identities and create patterns of marginalisation. Prejudice may be argued to bring to the fore a variety of negative assumptions about the members of the identities against whom it is held. Using Giora’s (1997) terminology, prejudice makes certain detrimental assumptions very salient or increases the saliency of those assumptions.

Consequently, they are amenable to being promptly accessed and effortlessly used as implicated premises in deductions, from which negative conclusions are straightforwardly and effortlessly derived. Those premises and conclusions spread throughout the members of the prejudiced and hegemonic group because, according to Sperber’s (1996) epidemiological model of culture, they are repeatedly transmitted or made public. This is possible thanks to two types of factors (Sperber 1996: 84):

Psychological factors, such as their relative easiness of storage, the existence of other knowledge with which they can interact in order to generate cognitive effects –e.g. additional negative conclusions pertaining to the members of the marginalised identity– or existence of compelling reasons to make the individuals in the group willing to transmit them –e.g. desire to disempower and/or marginalise the members of an unprivileged group, to exclude them from certain domains of human activity, to secure a privileged position, etc.

Ecological factors, such as the repetition of the circumstances under which those premises and conclusions result in certain actions –e.g. denigration, disempowerment, maginalisation, exclusion, etc.– availability of storage mechanisms other than the mind –e.g. written documents– or the existence of institutions that transmit and perpetuate those premises and conclusions, thus ensuring their continuity and availability.

Since the members of the dominating biased group find those premises and conclusions useful to their purposes and interests, they constantly reproduce them and, so to say, pass them on to the other members of the group or even on to individuals who do not belong to it. Using Sperber’s (1996) metaphor, repeated production and internalisation of those representations resembles the contagion of illnesses. As a result, those representations end up being part of the pool of cultural representations shared by the members of the group in question or other individuals.

The Imperative to Get Competence Correct

In social groups with an interest in denigrating and marginalising an identity, certain assumptions regarding the lexical inventories and conceptualising abilities of the epistemic agents with that identity may be very salient, or purposefully made very salient, with a view to ensuring that they are inferentially exploited as implicated premises that easily yield negative conclusions. In the case of average speakers’ lexical gaps and mistakes, assumptions concerning their performance and infelicities may also become very salient, be fed into inferential processes and result in prejudicial conclusions about their lexical and conceptual (in)competence.

Although utterance comprehension and information processing end upon completion of mutual parallel adjustment, for the informational load of utterances and the conclusions derivable from them to be added to an individual’s universe of beliefs, information must pass the filters of a series of mental mechanisms that target both informers and information itself, and check their believability and reliability. These mechanisms scrutinise various sources determining trust allocation, such as signs indicating certainty and trustworthiness –e.g. gestures, hesitation, nervousness, rephrasing, stuttering, eye contact, gaze direction, etc.– the appropriateness, coherence and relevance of the dispensed information; (previous) assumptions about speakers’ expertise or authoritativeness in some domain; the socially distributed reputation of informers, and emotions, prejudices and biases (Origgi 2013: 227-233).

As a result, these mechanisms trigger a cautious and sceptic attitude known as epistemic vigilance, which in some cases enables individuals to avoid blind gullibility and deception (Sperber et al. 2010). In addition, these mechanisms monitor the correctness and adequateness of the interpretative steps taken and the inferential routes followed while processing utterances and information, and check for possible flaws at any of the tasks in mutual parallel adjustment –e.g. wrong assignment of reference, supply of erroneous implicated premises, etc.– which would prevent individuals from arriving at actually intended interpretations. Consequently, another cautious and sceptical attitude is triggered towards interpretations, which may be labelled hermeneutical vigilance (Padilla Cruz 2016).

If individuals do not perceive risks of malevolence or deception, or do not sense that they might have made interpretative mistakes, vigilance mechanisms are weakly or moderately activated (Michaelian 2013: 46; Sperber 2013: 64). However, their level of activation may be raised so that individuals exercise external and/or internal vigilance. While the former facilitates higher awareness of external factors determining trust allocation –e.g. cultural norms, contextual information, biases, prejudices, etc.– the latter facilitates distancing from conclusions drawn at a particular moment, backtracking with a view to tracing their origin –i.e. the interpretative steps taken, the assumptions fed into inference and assessment of their potential consequences (Origgi 2013: 224-227).

Exercising weak or moderate vigilance of the conclusions drawn upon perception of lexical lacunae or mistakes may account for their unfairness and the subsequent wronging of individuals as regards their actual conceptual and lexical competence. Unawareness of the internal and external factors that may momentarily have hindered competence and ensuing performance, may cause perceivers of lexical gaps and errors to unquestioningly trust assumptions that their interlocutors’ allegedly poor performance makes manifest, rely on them, supply them as implicated premises, derive conclusions that do not do any justice to their actual level of conceptual and lexical competence, and eventually trust their appropriateness, adequacy or accuracy.

A higher alertness to the potential influence of those factors on performance would block access to the detrimental assumptions made manifest by their interlocutors’ performance or make perceivers of lexical infelicities reconsider the convenience of using those assumptions in deductions. If this was actually the case, perceivers would be deploying the processing strategy labelled cautious optimism, which enables them to question the suitability of certain deductions and to make alternative ones (Sperber 1994).

Conclusion

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004) does not need to be able to identify cases of conceptual competence injustice, but its notional apparatus and the machinery that it describes can satisfactorily account for the cognitive processes whereby conceptual competence injustices originate. In essence, prejudice and interests in denigrating members of specific identities or minorities favour the saliency of certain assumptions about their incompetence, which, for a variety of psychological and ecological reasons, may already be part of the cultural knowledge of the members of prejudiced empowered groups. Those assumptions are subsequently supplied as implicated premises to deductions, which yield conclusions that undermine the reputation of the members of the identities or minorities in question. Ultimately, such conclusions may in turn be added to the cultural knowledge of the members of the biased hegemonic group.

The same process would apply to those cases wherein hearers unfairly wrong their interlocutors on the grounds of performance below alleged or expected standards, and are not vigilant enough of the factors that could have impeded it. That wronging may be alluded to by means of a somewhat loosened, broadened notion of ‘conceptual competence injustice’ which deprives it of one of its quintessential conditions: the existence of prejudice and interests in marginalising other individuals. Inasmuch as apparently poor performance may give rise to unfortunate unfair judgements of speakers’ overall level of competence, those judgements could count as injustices. In a nutshell, this was the reason why I advocated for the incorporation of a ‘decaffeinated’ version of Anderson’s (2017a) notion into the field of linguistic pragmatics.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

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[1] Following a relevance-theoretic convention, reference to the speaker will be made through the feminine third person singular personal pronoun, while reference to the hearer will be made through its masculine counterpart.

Author Information: Derek Anderson, Boston University, derek.e.anderson@gmail.com

Anderson, Derek. “Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 35-39.

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Image credit: Yasmeen, via flickr

Manuel Padilla Cruz (2017) has proposed that the notion of conceptual competence injustice that I offer (2017) can be usefully deployed within the field of linguistic pragmatics, specifically within relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995), to characterize certain unintended and harmful pragmatic implicatures arising from lexical mistakes. Lexical mistakes involve a speaker producing an utterance that omits or misuses some crucial piece of vocabulary. Padilla Cruz suggests that these mistakes predictably lead listeners to infer that the speaker lacks lexical competence with one or more terms. Conceptual competence injustice occurs when a member of a marginalized group is judged to have less conceptual competence than she in fact has and suffers from unjustly diminished credibility when making conceptual or linguistic claims. A judgment that a speaker lacks lexical competence could result in conceptual competence injustice under certain circumstances. This paper explores Padilla Cruz’s proposal by investigating the relationship between relevance theory and conceptual competence injustice.

On Relevance Theory

Relevance theory provides a model of cognition and its relationship with linguistic pragmatic phenomena. According to relevance theory, human cognition evolved to maximize relevance. Our innate cognitive architecture is organized so that computational resources are efficiently allocated to gather information that connects with available background information to produce conclusions that matter to the agent (Wilson and Sperber 2002). Let us say that a proposition matters to an agent when knowing its truth would facilitate the agent’s achieving some epistemic, moral, or practical goal. (An account of relevance as goal-sensitive is closely aligned with the model of relevance theory developed by Gorayska and Lindsay 1993.)

This understanding of cognition as maximizing relevance lays the foundation for a model of linguistic pragmatics. Under normal conditions speakers and their audiences presuppose that everyone is seeking to maximize relevance. Speakers can use this fact to pragmatically convey information that is not semantically encoded in their utterances; meanwhile, audiences infer things that are pragmatically implied by what speakers say. Sometimes the speaker intends the audience’s inferences and sometimes they do not.

When a speaker makes a lexical mistake, this piece of information may give rise to a number of unintended implicatures. Most salient for the present discussion, her audience may infer that she fails to grasp some concept. This inference might constitute conceptual competence injustice if the hearer judges the speaker to have a lesser degree of competence with some concept than she in fact does, or that she has a lesser understanding of some analytic or conceptual truth than she in fact has. Another possibility is that the hearer wrongfully judges the speaker to lack lexical competence but does not take her to lack conceptual competence. This might occur when a speaker appears to have difficulty speaking a second language. The audience detects a lexical mistake but assumes that the speaker grasps the concepts she is trying to express, i.e. that the speaker could display proper conceptual understanding in her primary language. This second case may be an example of what we could call ‘lexical competence injustice’ if the speaker is wrongfully judged to be lexically incompetent. That would be a case of lexical competence injustice without conceptual competence injustice.

Conceptual Competence Injustice

Padilla Cruz’s proposal to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice. Conceptual competence injustice is a form of epistemic oppression (Dotson 2014). It occurs when false judgments of incompetence function as part of a broader, reliable pattern of marginalization that systematically undermines the epistemic agency of members of an oppressed social identity. It cannot be accurately characterized merely as the result of a certain type of pragmatic inference without specifying facts about the social identities of the speakers and hearers involved, together with facts about the structure of their social circumstances. Since relevance theory is formulated in neutral language with respect to social identities and takes no account of local matrices of domination (Collins 2002), the theory does not intrinsically have the resources to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice.

However, relevance theory could help to illuminate patterns of conceptual competence injustice if it is embedded within a broader sociological framework. Together with a specification of relevant social identities, relationships, histories, and prevailing institutions, relevance theory can be used to model and predict instances of conceptual competence injustice arising from lexical mistakes. It can also model other ways in which pragmatic inferences are likely to occasion conceptual competence injustice. This might serve as a template for thinking about how relevance theory or other approaches to linguistic pragmatics can model local mechanisms through which epistemic oppressions are maintained and implemented within a given society.

Whether a type of pragmatic inference will contribute to a broader pattern of epistemic oppression depends largely on the distribution of background assumptions maintained by epistemic agents throughout a society. If there is a pervasive prejudice against the intellectual credibility of a particular social group regarding a certain domain of discourse, then speakers from that group will predictably trigger episodes of conceptual competence injustice when they make lexical mistakes in that domain. For example, in a community that harbors prejudice against the intellectual capability of women to understand abstract epistemology, a woman who makes a lexical mistake in that domain is more likely to be judged conceptually incompetent than a man who makes the same mistake. Mistakes made by dominant epistemic agents are more likely to be attributed to some other factor—a lack of sleep, a random lapse in concentration, a momentary confusion—rather than prompting a pragmatic inference to conceptual incompetence. Members of dominant groups generally have this kind of edge in perceived competence over marginalized epistemic agents.

Relevance theory also allows us to model ways in which individual and group interests can shape patterns of conceptual competence injustice. Since our cognitive architecture is wired to maximize relevance, and since relevance is determined by an individual’s goals and interests, it follows that an individual who has an interest in perceiving some marginalized group as less intellectually sophisticated will be more attuned to information that could pragmatically implicate conceptual ineptitudes, including lexical mistakes. A man who passionately maintains the misogynistic view that women cannot comprehend politics would be quick to process any potential evidence indicating that some woman lacks conceptual competence in that domain. He would thus be more alert to lexical mistakes in conversations about politics with women. Relevance theory makes explicit the way that conscious, premeditated interest in intellectual authority can produce judgments that lead to conceptual competence injustice.

Unconscious Interests

The interests that guide our cognition can also be less than fully conscious. Think of the white person who unconsciously holds white supremacist convictions about his own intellectual capability. This person might consciously believe that people of color are just as intellectually capable as whites, yet he is vaguely uncomfortable with the thought of himself being intellectually inferior to a person of color. Consequently, he unconsciously manifests vigilance for signs that prove his own intellectual superiority when he interacts with people of color. This makes him hyper aware of lexical mistakes during such interactions. He is likely to contribute to the pattern of epistemic oppression, insofar as he is likely to underestimate the conceptual acumen of people of color, by reliably committing conceptual competence injustices.

The prevalence of unconscious interests of the kind just outlined must necessarily be a subject of controversy. However, relevance theory has the important virtue of allowing us to model sources of injustice grounded in dominant interests even in the absence of conscious and unconscious commitments to dominant power structures. Consider a different white person who harbors neither conscious nor unconscious commitments to white supremacy. Many white supremacist propositions are still in this person’s interest, in the sense that the truth of such propositions would promote his goals, for example: the proposition that he is the most qualified candidate for a position and that the person of color who got the job only did so because of affirmative action. Even if the white man does not believe this proposition, information that supports it would be highly relevant to him. He will therefore exhibit heightened sensitivity to signs that pragmatically imply that the person of color who got the job is less qualified, less capable, less intelligent, etc. Hence he would be more sensitive to any lexical mistakes this person makes. Other white people in the company who are similarly ‘threatened’ by affirmative action will have similarly heightened sensitivity, even if all of them are explicitly pro affirmative action and have no unconscious bias or prejudice. This pervasive sensitivity will increase the probability that conceptual competence injustices are inflicted on the one who got the job.

More broadly, dominant interests in white supremacy will influence pragmatic inferences concerning the intellectual authority of people of color. These interests may be unwanted by those who have them. Progressive white people may wish that they did not have a stake in white supremacy, yet white supremacy is still in their interest because it promotes their economic, political, and social well-being (albeit at the unjust expense of people of color). Similar considerations reveal that men have an unshakable interest in patriarchy, the rich have an unshakeable interest in capitalism, the heterosexual have an unshakable interest in hetero-normativity, and so on. The goals of the privileged are facilitated by those systems that lend them their privilege, regardless of how they feel about or think of those systems. By postulating that our epistemic and practical goals fundamentally shape our cognitive processes, relevance theory has great potential for modeling the force of unwanted, yet unshakable, self-interested stakes in oppressive systems.

Conceptual Competence Injustice without Lexical Mistake

Not all pragmatic inferences to conceptual incompetence proceed on the basis of lexical mistakes. Perfectly cogent utterances can lead audiences to commit conceptual competence injustices. Relevance theory can model these pragmatic inferences as well. Consider a case in which a speaker who is a marginalized epistemic agent makes no mistake or glaring omission regarding the terminology she employs in some discourse, but her audience disagrees with what she says. Suppose, according to the background assumptions of her audience, the truth of the speaker’s utterance cannot be adjudicated on the basis of empirical evidence. The audience, believing her utterance to be false, infers that a conceptual error has been made. This purported conceptual error pragmatically implies that the speaker lacks conceptual competence in the domain.

For example imagine a person of color says, “Malcolm X was not racist when he called white people ‘white devils’ and condemned their participation in the historical oppression of black people.” Suppose her audience, a white man, disagrees. He thinks that Malcolm X was racist for using the term “white devils.” He takes the speaker’s utterance to be false, but (perhaps implicitly) recognizes that the claim cannot be adjudicated on the basis of evidence. No observable facts are in dispute. Rather, the question of truth must somehow turn on the definition of “racist.” Recognizing this fact, the man is likely to infer that the speaker does not correctly understand the meaning of “racist” if she is speaking sincerely. This pragmatic inference constitutes conceptual competence injustice; it is not a harmless or blameless mistake but relies on and reinforces a pattern of epistemic oppression that ignores and undermines the intellectual authority of people of color concerning their understanding of racism.

The pragmatic inference in question depends on the audience’s background beliefs about relative credibility regarding conceptual claims about racism. The hearer takes himself to be more credible than the speaker concerning conceptual claims about racism; that is why he infers that the speaker is wrong and he is right about the definition of “racism.” If he took himself to be equally credible, his disagreement with the speaker would prompt him to open a dialogue about the definition of “racism,” as often happens when epistemic peers disagree over some concept. This too would probably constitute conceptual competence injustice, since it is unlikely that a white man who disagreed with a woman of color about whether Malcolm X was a racist is her epistemic peer concerning the concept of racism. A white person who was adequately conscious of the relevant social and historical facts involved in the exchange would be disposed to defer to the speaker’s use of “racist,” to stand corrected in his use of that term, rather than being disposed to question her use or disposed to infer that she is conceptually incompetent.

The harmful mistake made in this exchange can also be rendered within relevance theory as a failure to have the proper interests. If the white man were primarily interested in learning about racism rather than in maintaining and defending his own beliefs about racism, he would not be disposed to pragmatically infer that the woman was conceptually incompetent. He would be disposed to infer that he was incompetent! The role that interests play in shaping discourse around social justice is very important for a theory of epistemic oppression. What interlocutors pragmatically infer crucially depends on their purposes for engaging in conversation. Relevance theory is especially virtuous in its capacity to model this aspect of conversations about race and other dimensions of social justice.

Relevance theory allows us to understand some of the mechanisms through which conceptual competence injustices proliferate. I have elaborated on Padilla Cruz’s suggestion to develop relevance theory by incorporating the notion of conceptual competence injustice. Certainly there are more uses to which relevance theory can be put in modeling conceptual competence injustice than I have touched on here. These would be worth exploring at greater length. It is also clear that relevance theory and other approaches to linguistic pragmatics have much to contribute to our understanding epistemic oppression more broadly conceived.

References

Anderson, Derek Egan. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 2 (2017): 210-223.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge, 2002.

Dotson, Kristie. “Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression.” Social Epistemology 28, no. 2 (2014): 115-138.

Gorayska, Barbara, and Roger Lindsay. “The Roots of Relevance.” Journal of Pragmatics 19, no. 4 (1993): 301-323.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of Conceptual Competence Injustice to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 12-19.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. 2nd  edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance Theory”. In The Handbook of Pragmatics, edited by Larry Horn and Gregory Ward, 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.