Perceptual relevance and art: Some tentative suggestions

Patricia Kolaiti

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    A fundamental assumption in relevance theory is that human cognition has evolved in the direction of increased efficiency and, as such, tends, as Sperber and Wilson (Relevance: Communication and cognition, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995: 38–46, 260–66) put it in their cognitive principle, to be naturally geared towards the maximisation of relevance. The cognitive principle inter alia explains the selectivity of human agency and attention: for an input to merit the attention of the human cognitive system, it must seem relevant enough to be worth attending to. But what makes an input relevant? The relevance-theoretic account proposes that relevance for an individual organism at any specific time involves a balancing of mental effort and a particular type of worthwhile modifications, cognitive effects, that are representational in nature and amount to improvements in knowledge. The type of relevance yielded by such effects could be described as a cognitive type of relevance. However, inputs such as artistic stimuli – including literary ones – invite us to widen the scope of the causal engineering behind the selective directedness of our mental lives. Artistic stimuli merit the attention of the human cognitive system at various time-scales (momentary, developmental, and evolutionary). Following Kolaiti (The limits of expression: Language, literature, mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019: 76–94) and drawing on neuroscientific evidence from the last 25 years, I will make tentative suggestions that artistic stimuli may also yield non-representational worthwhile modifications or effects. My discussion focuses on one such type of effects involving the human perceptual system: perceptual effects. Being partly or wholly embodied, perceptual effects could extend the machinery of relevance theory in an embodied direction and widen its interdisciplinary implications.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)99-117
    Number of pages19
    JournalJournal of Literary Semantics
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2020


    • selectivity
    • attention
    • relevance
    • art
    • aesthetic experience
    • perceptual relevance
    • perceptual effects
    • embodied effects


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