Relevance Norms; Or, Gricean Implicature Queers the Decoupling/​Contextualizing Binary

Reply to: Decoupling vs Contextualising Norms

Chris Leong, following John Nerst, distinguishes between two alleged discursive norm-sets. Under “decoupling norms”, it is understood that claims should be considered in isolation; under “contextualizing norms”, it is understood that those making claims should also address potential implications of those claims in context.

I argue that, at best, this is a false dichotomy that fails to clarify the underlying issues—and at worst (through no fault of Leong or Nerst), the concept of “contextualizing norms” has the potential to legitimize derailing discussions for arbitrary political reasons by eliding the key question of which contextual concerns are genuinely relevant, thereby conflating legitimate and illegitimate bids for contextualization.

Real discussions adhere to what we might call “relevance norms”: it is almost universally “eminently reasonable to expect certain contextual factors or implications to be addressed.” Disputes arise over which certain contextual factors those are, not whether context matters at all.

The standard academic account explaining how what a speaker means differs from what the sentence the speaker said means, is H. P. Grice’s theory of conversational implicature. Participants in a conversation are expected to add neither more nor less information than is needed to make a relevant contribution to the discussion.

Examples abound. If I say, “I ate some of the cookies”, I’m implicating that I didn’t eat all of the cookies, because if I had, you would have expected me to say “all”, not “some” (even though the decontextualized sentence “I ate some of the cookies” is, in fact, true).

Or suppose you’re a guest at my house, and you ask where the washing machine is, and I say it’s by the stairs. If the machine then turns out to be broken, and you ask, “Hey, did you know your washing machine is broken?” and I say, “Yes”, you’re probably going to be pretty baffled why I didn’t say “It’s by the stairs, but you can’t use it because it’s broken” earlier (even though the decontextualized answer “It’s by the stairs” was, in fact, true).

Leong writes:

Let’s suppose that blue-eyed people commit murders at twice the rate of the rest of the population. With decoupling norms, it would be considered churlish to object to such direct statements of facts. With contextualising norms, this is deserving of criticism as it risks creates a stigma around blue-eyed people.

With relevance norms, objecting might or might not make sense depending on the context in which the direct statement of fact is brought up.

Suppose Della says to her Aunt Judith, “I’m so excited for my third date with my new boyfriend. He has the most beautiful blue eyes!”

Judith says, “Are you sure you want to go out with this man? Blue-eyed people commit murders at twice the rate of the general population.”

How should Della reply to this? Judith is just in the wrong here—but not as a matter of a subjective choice between “contextualizing” and “decoupling” norms, and not because blue-eyed people are a sympathetic group who we wish to be seen as allied with and don’t want to stigmatize. Rather, the probability of getting murdered on a date is quite low, and Della already has a lot of individuating information about whether her boyfriend is likely to be a murderer from the previous two dates. Maybe (Fermi spitballing here) the evidence of the boyfriend’s eye color raises Della’s probability of being murdered from one-in-a-million to one-in-500,000? Judith’s bringing the possibility up at all is a waste of fear in the same sense that lotteries are said to be a waste of hope. Fearmongering about things that are almost certainly not going to happen is uncooperative, in Grice’s sense—just like it’s uncooperative to tell people where to find a washing machine that doesn’t work.

On the other hand, if I’m making a documentary film interviewing murderers in prison and someone asks me why so many of my interviewees have blue eyes, “Blue-eyed people commit murders at twice the rate of the rest of the population” is a completely relevant reply. It’s not clear how else I could possibly answer the question without making reference to that fact!

So far, relevance has been a black box in this exposition: unfortunately, I don’t have an elegant reduction that explains what cognitive algorithm makes some facts seem “relevant” to a given discussion. But hopefully, it should now be intuitive that the determination of what context is relevant is the consideration that is, um, relevant. Framing the matter as “decouplers” (context doesn’t matter!) vs. “contextualizers” (context matters!) is misleading because once “contextualizing norms” have been judged admissible, it becomes easy for people to motivatedly derail any discussions they don’t like with endless isolated demands for contextualizing disclaimers.