CSMN4021 - Pragmatics and Relevance Theory

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Course content

The course acts as an introduction to work on communication within relevance theory and the Gricean tradition. The readings are drawn from recently published research papers and the two most important monographs which define the field (Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. (1986). Relevance: Communication and Cognition (2nd ed. 1995). Oxford: Blackwell; Carston, R. (2002). Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication. Oxford: Blackwell.). The topics covered include issues of current research interest, with the aim that students completing the course will be able to engage fully with ongoing research.

Students will get an introduction to lexical pragmatics, which studies the processes by which the meaning that is communicated, or intended, by use of a word on a given occasion may be substantially different from the meaning assigned to it by the grammar. An example of such a process is metaphorical extension. We will also spend some time looking at the connection between humans' capacity for linguistic communication and the so-called theory of mind ability, that is, the ability to infer the thoughts and intentions of others on the basis of their behaviour. We will look at these two uniquely human capacities in an evolutionary perspective, and discuss the view held by some pragmatists that the emergence and development of language was dependent on an already existing theory of mind ability in humans. Towards the end of the term we will look more closely at the notion of intended meaning and the effect and role of context in determining what is expressed. We will also discuss how and when communication can be seen as successful and in what way pragmatic theories can account for the sharing of ideas, thoughts and information.

An overarching theme of the course is the extent to which meaning in linguistic communication is pragmatically determined.

Learning outcome

The aim is to foster understanding of human communication through close study of one influential theoretical approach. Students should gain a good knowledge of the fundamental assumptions of broadly Gricean pragmatics and of the principles of relevance theory. In addition, they should develop a grasp of several areas of current active research: lexical pragmatics; the connections between human communication and mindreading ability; the evolutionary emergence of language and human communication ability; and the extent to which linguistic meaning underdetermines what speakers communicate.


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Formal prerequisite knowledge

Admission to the master programme Philosophy (master's two years)


Two hours of seminar per week throughout the semester. Active participation from the students is expected.


Term paper of 8 to 10 pages (2300 characters per page).

Use of sources and citation

You should familiarize yourself with the rules that apply to the use of sources and citations. If you violate the rules, you may be suspected of cheating/attempted cheating.

Language of examination


Grading scale

Grades are awarded on a scale from A to F, where A is the best grade and F is a fail. Read more about the grading system.

Explanations and appeals

Special examination arrangements

Application form, deadline and requirements for special examination arrangements.

Facts about this course






This course is offered on an irregular basis


Teaching language