cognitive rhetoric1


English translation of : Dan Sperber (1975) Rudiments de rhétorique cognitive, Poétique: Revue de Théorie et d'Analyse Littéraire (23) 389-415. To appear in Rhetoric Society Quarterly.


Rudiments of cognitive rhetoric*

Dan Sperber
Directeur de Recherche at Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris

Sarah Cummins, translator
Département de langues, linguistique et traduction, Université Laval

[I am honored and flattered that this old text of mine should have been deemed worth translating and publishing in the Rhetoric Society Quarterly. It was initially intended as a chapter of my book Le symbolisme en général (Hermann, 1974; translated as Rethinking Symbolism by Alice L. Morton, for Cambridge University Press, 1975). But, under the encouragement of Tzetan Todorov, it developed beyond what I had planned and was taken out of the draft of the book. In 1975, Deirdre Wilson, who had introduced me to analytic philosophy in general and to the work of Paul Grice in particular,  published her book, Presuppositions and non-truth-conditional semantics (Academic Press). She and I decided to write a joint programmatic paper covering the ground between semantics and the rhetoric of figures and we ended up collaborating for thirty years, and developing, with the help of many students and colleagues around the world, the cognitive approach to verbal communication known as Relevance Theory. In retrospect, my 1975 ‘rudiments' were indeed quite rudimentary. Still, re-reading the article, I confess that I find it insightful. Most insights have been integrated and improved upon in later work. Little has been done however with one of the main insights of the article: that the use of figures of speech evokes ideas not just about the topic of the utterance but also about the shared background knowledge of the interlocutors. -- Dan Sperber, December 2006]

Rhetoric, the study of discourse, cannot be simply an offshoot of linguistics, the study of language. [1][1] Not just one but in fact at least three intellectual devices are involved in the production and interpretation of discourse: grammar-that is, knowledge of a language; the encyclopaedia-knowledge of the world; and symbolism-knowledge of the encyclopaedia. This is the claim that the present article will make and develop.

Linguistics is about sentences; rhetoric is about utterances.

A sentence consists of a pair: a phonetic representation and a semantic representation. The semantic representation of a sentence is a set of senses, with th number of senses corresponding to the degree of ambiguitiy of the sentence. A sentence is an abstract object, a potentiality. An utterance is an approximate physical realisation of this potentiality. An utterance is normally used to transmit, first, a single one of the senses of the sentence and, second, a set of implicatures that are not part of the sentence's semantic representation. An utterance consists of a pair: a phonetic representation and a conceptual representation. While the linguistic pairing of phonetic representation with semantic representation is determined by the grammar alone, independent of any external input, the rhetorical pairing of phonetic representation and conceptual representation is determined by a complex cognitive mechanism drawing on wide and varied input: the persons involved in the discourse and their situation, extralinguistic signals, previous utterances.

The conceptual representation of an utterance consists of one of the sense of the sentence uttered (completed by the assignment of values to referential expressions) plus implicatures. The semantic representation of a sentence and the conceptual representation of an utterance are thus intersecting sets with a single element in common: one of the senses of the sentence uttered.

Thus, for example, the phonetic representation in (1a)  corresponds to the French sentence in (1b). A grammar of French assigns to it the three meanings (1c), (1d), and (1e).[2][2] [The corresponding English structures follow, as (1Ea-e), a format followed throughout.]

(1)     a.   žeaštelžurnal        

         b.      J'ai acheté le journal.

         c.      J'ai acheté un exemplaire du journal.

         d.      J'ai acheté l'entreprise qui édite le journal.

         e.      J'ai soudoyé la rédaction du journal.

(1E)  a.      aɪvbɔtðənuzpeɪ pər

         b.      I've bought the newspaper.

         c.      I've bought a copy of the newspaper.

         d.      I've bought the company that publishes the newspaper.

         e.      I've bribed the editors of the newspaper.

Now, if the sentence is uttered in a typical situation by a husband speaking to his wife as she is about to go out to run her household errands, only the sense (1c) will be retained and the implicature (1f) will be added to it.

(1)     f.       Ce n'est pas la peine que tu achètes le journal aussi.

(1E)  f.       You don't need to buy the paper too.

The linguistic component associates the phonetic representation in (1a) with the semantic representation [(1c), (1d), (1e)]. The rhetorical component, drawing not only on knowledge of language but also on knowledge of the world, will, in the typical situation described above, assign the conceptual representation [(1c), (1f)].

This account is incomplete. In many cases the conceptual representation of an utterance as a set of propositions (sense and implicatures) does not exhaust its object but leaves a residue. Even if the hearer reconstructs the set of propositions that the speaker has explicitly or implicitly expressed, the utterance, by its very formulation, suggests or evokes something more, something which cannot be logically deduced. In these cases there intervene not only the grammar and the encyclopaedia, but also symbolism. The utterance is figural.*

Under what conditions does an utterance have a figural value? How is a figural utterance interpreted?

In the second part of this paper, I sketch an answer to these questions. To do so, I must first review certain general properties of the semantic representation of sentences and of the conceptual representation of utterances. General rhetoric, and not linguistics alone, comprises the foundation of a rhetoric of figures.

2.1       The semantic structure of a sentence in one of its senses is essentially characterised by a set of entailments. For a declarative sentence, these entailments are truth conditions and are posited as true; in a yes-no question, the truth of the entailments is what is questioned; for Wh-questions, one of the entailments contains a variable and the question is about the value of this variable; an imperative asks for the entailments to be realised and an hortative expresses the wish that they be realised.

A listing of its entailments, however, is insufficient to describe the sense of a sentence. Both sentences of the pairs of declaratives (2a) and (2b), (3a) and (3b), (4a) and (4b), and (5a) and (5b) have identical entailments-that is, the same truth conditions-but clearly different semantics.

(2)        a.      Jérôme et Ursule sont mariés ensemble.

            b.      C'est Jérôme qui est marié avec Ursule.

(2E)     a.      Jerome and Ursula are married to each other.

            b.      It is Jerome who is married to Ursula.

(3)        a.      On m'accuse d'être en retard.

            b.      On me reproche d'être en retard.

(3E)     a.      They accuse me of being late.

            b.      They reproach me for being late.

(4)        a.      Martin est généreux et il est riche.

            b.      Martin est généreux mais il est riche.

(4E)     a.      Martin is generous and he is rich.

            b.      Martin is generous but he is rich.

(5)        a.      Dieu a crée le monde.

            b.      Dieu existe et il a crée le monde.

 (5E)    a.      God created the world.

            b.      God exists and he created the world.

Most, if not all, facts of this kind can be accounted for by assuming that the set of entailments of a sentence (in one of its senses) is partially ordered by a linguistically determined focal structure (which, we shall see below, itself contributes to rhetorical structure).

Thus, both (2a) and (2b) entail (6a) and (6b).

(6)        a.      Jérôme est marié avec X.

            b.      X est marié avec Ursule.

(6E)     a.      Jerome is married to X.

            b.      X is married to Ursula.

In (2a), the two entailments are unordered. In (2b), they are ordered by syntactic means; (6b) is less focused than (6a). The same focal effect can be achieved by phonological means, by stressing Jérôme in (2a). In either case, the rhetorical effect of this focalisation is to present (6b) as an entailment already known to speaker and hearer, and (6a) as new information provided by the speaker.

Sentences (3a) and (3b) entail (7a) and (7b).

(7)        a.      On affirme que je suis en retard.

            b.      On présente mon retard comme répréhensible.

(7E)     a.      They assert that I am late.

            b.      They present my being late as reprehensible.

In (3a), (7a) is more focused than (7b); in (3b), the opposite holds. Here, focus is achieved through lexical means: accuser ('accuse') and reprocher ('reproach') have the same entailments but order them differently. The rhetorical effect of this focalisation is analogous to that of the preceding example: (3a) takes the reprehensibility of the lateness for granted and directs attention to the fact of being late; in (3b), the fact of being late seems to be established, and focus is on the moral judgement.

The sentences (4a) and (4b) entail (8a) and (8b).

(8)        a.      Martin est généreux.

            b.      Martin est riche.

(8E)     a.      Martin is generous.

            b.      Martin is rich.

In (4a), the two entailments are only weakly ordered by their order in the sentence. In (4b), (8a) is strongly unfocused, compared to (8b). This focalisation is achieved by the selection of the coordinating conjunction mais ('but'). As for their rhetorical effect, in (4a) the hearer is encouraged to consider the two entailments equally and to consider their joint consequences; in (4b), the hearer is invited to pay less attention to (8a) and more to (8b) and to consider the consequences of (8a) lessened because of the consequences of (8b). Since nothing in the utterance makes explicit the particular relation between (8a) and (8b), the hearer is led to construct an implicature to explain it. (We will return to this example in the next section, in the discussion of how implicatures are calculated.)

Sentences (5a) and (5b) both entail (9).

(9)        Dieu existe.

(9E)     God exists.

In (5a) this entailment is at the lowest focus level, for logical reasons (it is entailed by a series of other entailments of (5a) while entailing none of them). In (5b), it is explicit and thus at the highest focal level. The rhetorical effect of this difference in focalisation is that in (5a) the existence of God is taken for granted, while in (5b) it is robustly re-asserted.

These facts concerning the relative focalisation of the entailments of a sentence (in one of its senses) have received different treatments within the theory of presupposition over the last decade. Is the notion of presupposition necessary? Is it sufficient? The answers to these questions are of little importance here.  It is enough to realise that the meaning of a sentence in one of its senses is essentially characterised by a set of entailments that are partially ordered and thus receive different focus. The difference in focus is a strictly linguistic phenomenon, as is clear from the systematic intuitions to which it gives rise, regardless of utterance context. This linguistic fact plays an important role in the conceptual interpretation of utterances-that is, in rhetoric. To account for it in our rhetorical description, we need only to observe it, even if linguists have not yet provided an explanation. Focus, the consequence of linguistic phenomena, is the cause of rhetorical phenomena and it is in this light that it should be examined.

2.2.1    Understanding an utterance involves, among other things, recognizing it as a sentence of the language, selecting one and only one of the meanings of this sentence, assigning a value to referential expressions, and calculating implicatures. These intellectual operations rely not only on grammatical competence, but also on world knowledge: they are part of performance, involving rhetorical and not linguistic competence. We carry out such rhetorical operations in all aspects of our daily lives, without paying much attention to them. The result of these operations-the conceptual interpretation of an utterance-appears so obvious to us that it requires serious effort to realise the complexity of the work unconsciously carried out. In general, we have been content to say that the context determines the interpretation of an utterance. But how this determination is achieved has never been described-far from it.

It is possible, however, to informally describe (and formalisation, at this stage, would be bogus) some of the principles that underlie the rhetorical mechanism. To do so,  certain essential concepts must first be set forth. These are the concepts of shared knowledge, mobilised shared knowledge, field of relevance (either wide or restricted), informativeness, and relative relevance.

At a given moment in a verbal exchange, participants share certain knowledge: they live in the same universe, are members of the same culture, and perhaps of the same social group; each possesses encyclopaedic knowledge that he can assume the other also possesses. If they are in the same place, each sees what he knows the other also sees. Everything that was said previously in their conversation is also part of this shared knowledge, which is augmented by each new utterance. Shared knowledge is as important to verbal communication (or nearly so) as is a shared language. To a great extent, rhetoric is concerned with how utterances access and modify shared knowledge.

Only knowledge that is knowingly shared is pertinent to rhetoric. If each of two participants in an exchange knows that p but does not know that this is shared knowledge, it is as if p is not a part of their shared knowledge.  The purpose of a large part of verbal communication is not to introduce new knowledge about the outside world but to determine the extent of shared knowledge. For example, if I arrive late at a dinner party, I can be fairly certain that my hosts know that I am late; nonetheless, I say "I'm late" to inform them not of my lateness but of the fact that I am aware of it.

The analysis of some rhetorical data depends on the degree to which knowledge is shared mutual knowledge: does the hearer know that the speaker knows that the hearer knows that...? For example, Pierre says to Paul, in a neutral tone:

(10)      Aragon est le plus grand poète français.

(10E)   Aragon is the greatest French poet.

But both Pierre and Paul believe:

(11)      Aragon est un poète mineur.

(11)      Aragon is a minor poet.

If Paul does not know that Pierre believes (11), he may legitimately believe that Pierre, in uttering (10), has spoken sincerely and literally. If Paul does know that Pierre believes (11), but does not know that Pierre knows that Paul knows that Pierre believes (11), Paul may legitimately conclude that Pierre has spoken insincerely and literally, that he wished to mislead Paul on his opinion of Aragon. It is necessary that Paul know that Pierre knows that Paul knows that Pierre believes (11) for the only reasonable and legitimate interpretation of (10) to be an ironic one.

* The original article appeared in 1975 as "Rudiments de rhétorique cognitive," Poétique: Revue de Théorie et d'Analyse Littéraire (23) 389-415, under the joint editorship of Tzvetan Todorov and Gérard Genette. The academic dialect of this paper, by the way, might require some acclimatization by 21st century readers of RSQ. It is the dialect of generative linguistics, in a tone that, as translator Sarah Cummins phrases it, "is so Paris 1975" (witness, for instance,  the discussion of sentence 56 in terms of implicatures related to tobacco and marijuana use).

[1][1] No bibliographic references are given in the text; therefore I must first of all acknowledge my indebtedness. I have gratefully undergone the influence of N. Chomsky, directly and via other linguists and philosophers in the Chomskyan vein-in particular R. Jackendoff, J. J. Katz, Nicolas Ruwet, and Deirdre Wilson. A few problems were suggested to me by the work of philosophers of language O. Ducrot and J. Searle. The concept of implicatures proposed here was inspired entirely by the unpublished lectures of H. P. Grice, Logic and Conversation (1968). [note: Grice's lectures were published in 1975, in Speech Acts, Syntax andSemantics vol. 3, edited by P. Cole and J. Morgan, New York: Academic Press. -editor] I will name no rhetoriticians here, for it was precisely to free myself from their influence that I undertook this work. I was prodded and assisted in this enterprise by the friendly provocation of Tzvetan Todorov,  but any blame must fall on me alone.

[2][2] Sentences and utterances are shown in Roman type, while meanings and propositions are in italics. The two types of representations must not be confused.

* Sperber and Cummins have upheld in this translation a French distinction between figural and figurative-the former relating to figures generally (i.e., roughly the same as the English figurative), the latter relating more narrowly to figures of thought only (i.e., to tropes).

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When I established the thesis of Rhetorical Aspect (Choukri ,1999)I provided an introduction to a new general modular rhetoric which interpret the figures in an aspectual model . so, we can widen the grammatical aspect (Comrie B., 1976 - Cohen, D.1989) into a generic sense. analysing the perfective aspect or the iterative (or habitual) aspect, we may notice that some features like « iteration » and « continuity » have their mirror manifestations in rhetorical figures such as metaphor and alliteration. The basic principle of this thesis is that time is a cognitive component in the linguistic and visual discourses: Poetry, Novel, publicity, and educational discourse... Moreover, time is a procceeding concept, which serves to explain and interpret many discourses. We can therefore ask this question: What is a rhetorical aspectual model? choukri_2007

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