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

by Zack_M_Davis2 min read22nd Nov 201916 comments


Communication CulturesDecoupling vs Contextualizing

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.


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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).

It doesn't seem like this is what either Chris Leong's post or John Nerst's post was about.

The intent of that paragraph is to provide an example illustrating the general concept of implicature, which explains when it makes sense to object that a literally true statement should have been provided with more context.

Right, but the implacature of contextualizing in those posts has nothing to do with implacature.

Yes, it does. "Contextualizers" think that the statement "Green-eyed people commit twice as many murders" creates an implicature that "... therefore green-eyed people should be stereotyped as criminals" that needs to be explicitly canceled with a disclaimer, which is an instance of the more general cognitive process by which most people think that "The washing machine is by the stairs" creates an implicature of "... and the machine works" that, if it's not true, needs to be explicitly canceled with a disclaimer ("... but it's broken"). "Decouplers" don't think the statement about murder rates creates an implicature about stereotyping.

I don't think it's necessarily about implacature. It's often about being taken "out of context" or used as a justification. That is, I may not think "green eyed people commit twice as many murders" implies anything about stereotyping, but I still think it may lead to more stereotyping due to motivated reasoning. It's much more about consequences rather than implications.


To expand on this:

There are several types of context:

  • The context in which it is said (Implacature)
  • The context about the state of mind/biases which the other person is in when hearing it (Inference)
  • The context in which what was said may be used (culture).

Contextualizing vs. decoupling seem much more about the the latter two to me - No one is arguing that you shouldn't be clear in your speech. The question is how much you should take into account other people and culture. That is, decouplers often decouple from consequences and focus merely on implacature, whereas contextualizers try and contextualize how what they say will be interpreted and used.

Meta: it’s implicature. The second vowel is an i.

Yeah I realized that when reading through but going back and changing everything feels pointless since you basically get the implicature of what I was trying to say.

Many people have tried to draw such lines: literal vs contextual, mistake vs conflict theory, science vs religion. My line is mostly about reactions to disagreement. An engineer will say ok, I'll be in my garage working on my flying car. A politician will say ok, let's find points of contact. But a fanatic will call their friends and paint a target on me for disagreeing. I wouldn't do that to anyone for disagreeing with me, so it seems like a pretty sharp line.

I'd suggest that it should be understood as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. Dichotomies are just easier to explain.

I'm saying we should look at which context people consider relevant, not the amount of contextualizing they want.

Suppose Geraldine is a member of a political coalition that draws disproportionate support from green-eyed people, and Paulette is a member of a rival political coalition that draws disproportionate support from purple-eyed people. Whenever anyone says, "Green-eyed people commit twice as many murders," Geraldine objects that the speaker should have disclaimed that they're not saying green-eyed people should be stereotyped as criminals, but Paulette does not object. Whenever anyone says, "Purple-eyed people can't hear music," Paulette objects that the speaker should have disclaimed that they're not saying purple-eyed people should be stereotyped as uncultured, but Geraldine does not object.

Even if contextualizing/decoupling is a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, it doesn't help us understand the difference between Geraldine and Paulette: both of them demand contextualizing disclaimers, but in different situations. I think Geraldine and Paulette's behavior is explicable using the standard theory of implicature plus motivated reasoning governing what context seems "relevant" to them.

Well, it's hardly unusual that you can shift from viewing this as a dichotomy -> spectrum -> contextual depending on how much detail you want to go into.

I think I'm doing something more substantive than that.

I agree that it's not unusual to be able to look at the dichotomy of whether people exhibit behavior B, or the spectrum of how often they exhibit B, or the contexts in which they exhibit B, depending on how much detail you want to go into.

However, whether (or to what extent, or in what contexts) the dichotomy and spectrum views constitute a useful "dimensionality reduction", depends on the particular value of B. If B = "smiling", then I do expect the spectrum view to be a reasonable proxy for general happiness levels. But if B = "typing the letter 'q'", I don't expect the spectrum view to measure anything interesting.

It's certainly possible that there's a "general factor" of contextualizing—that people systematically and non-opportunistically vary in how inferentially distant a related claim has to be in order to not create an implicature that needs to be explicitly canceled if false. But I don't think it's obvious, and even if it's true, I don't think it's pedagogically wise to use a politically-motivated appeal-to-consequences as the central case of contextualizing.

This post seemed helpful for advancing my overall understanding of the "discourse norms landscape." I agree that "what counts as contextually relevant" is often one of the more important questions to be asking. In general, I think it's hard to judge an ontological/category-suggesting post, and I think this class of essay is roughly the right way to engage with it from a critical perspective.

I do feel sort of confused about the framing of this post as a rebuttal to "Decoupling vs Contextualization" though  – in particular I'm a bit surprised about the combination of opinions you're expressing here, and elsewhere. 

It seems like the main substance you're responding to is "Decoupling/Contextualization promotes to attention that Contextualization might be a preferred norm-set, and that opens the door to all kinds of political shenanigans." And I think that's true – but... it's not really what I thought of as the point Decoupling/Contextualization was making. 

The question I interpreted D/C to be addressing was not "what sort of norms are good?" but "what sort of norm conflicts might you run into in the wild, that will make discourse more confusing and difficult?". And when evaluating that post, the key question I'd be asking is not "is one of these norm-sets dangerous to encourage?" but "is this actually a meaningful way to carve reality?" 

If Decoupled/Contextualized is an common way that different people approach discussions, that's really important to be able to talk about! Especially if one of those ways is epistemically dangerous! 

If it's not an important difference that's causing discourse to be confusing/difficult, then it makes sense not to incorporate it into our longterm jargon. 

I'm not quite sure your intended reading here, but... it feels like you're saying "this categorization is promoting to attention a concept that's harmful to our discourse... therefore we shouldn't have this categorization", which... seems very different from what you've historically argued for.

What surprises me is the combination of your concern for this here, but your praise of Local Validity as a Key to Sanity and Civilization – I think Local Validity was an important concept, and I saw the Decoupled/Contextual norms post as an important complement to it. 

(Switching to focus on my own opinions rather than my confusions about yours). 

Decoupling seemed to be a key cultural component that enables Local Validity checking. (It's not identical to local validity, but seems related). And decoupling is hard, or at least not something most people do by default. Language is often muddled together with politics, and it takes a special culture to enable them to be separated. 

(When I first read your post, here, I thought "oh, yeah maybe D/C isn't a useful joint to carve here", but it was re-reading Local Validity that shifted me back towards "hmm, if D/C isn't a useful joint to carve, that sort of implies that Local Validity isn't as important a concept. I'm in fact fairly certain Local Validity is important, and upon reflection there are definitely people who don't have that concept. And while the Local Validity is essay is good, I think the D/C post is much shorter, while also addressing a different slicing of the problem that is sometimes more relevant)

So my current epistemic state, taking this post and those others all together, is take the arguments in this post as more of a "Yes, and" rather than a "No, but" to the D/C post.

Some further potentially relevant thoughts:

Some upcoming content in my Doublecrux/Frames sequence is that while there is some "arbitrariness" to frames, there are facts of the matter of whether a frame is consistent or self-defeating, and whether it is useful for achieving particular goals.

I think an important skill for a rationalist culture to impart is "how to productively disagree on frames", and figure out under what circumstances you should change your frame. I think this is harder than changing your beliefs, and some of the considerations are a bit different. But, still an important skill.

Nonetheless, because frames are often wound up in one's identity (even moreso than beliefs), it's often actively unproductive to jump to "Frame X is worse than Frame Y". In my Noticing Frames post, I avoided getting too opinionated about which frames were good for which reasons, because the main point was being able to notice differing frames at all, and it's easier to focus on that when you're not defensive.

It feels like something similar is at play in the Decoupled/Contextual post. My impression is that you're worried about it shifting the overton window towards "arbitrary politically motivated bids for contextual sensitivity". But one major use case for the D/C post is to introduce people who normally think contextually, to the idea that they might want to think decoupled sometimes. And that's easier to do without putting them on the defensive.

but "what sort of norm conflicts might you run into in the wild, that will make discourse more confusing and difficult?".

And if both of two purported norm-sets are wrong (i.e., fail to create accurate maps) in different ways, then taxonomizing possible norm-sets along that axis will be even more confusing. If some bids for contextualization are genuinely clarifying (e.g., pointing out that your interlocutor is refuting a weak man, and that readers will be misled if they infer that there do not exist any stronger arguments for the same conclusion), but others are obfuscating (e.g., appeals-to-consequences of the side effects of a belief, independently of whether the belief is true), then lumping them both together under "contextualizing norms" will confuse people who are searching for clarity-creating norms. (In future work, I want to "pry open the black box" of relevance, which I'm relying on for a lot despite being confused about how it works.)

What surprises me is the combination of your concern for this here, but your praise of Local Validity as a Key to Sanity and Civilization

The part of you that was surprised by this will be even more surprised by my next planned post, an ultra-"contextualizing" reply to "Meta-Honesty"! (But it should be less surprising when you consider the ways in which my earlier "Heads I Win, Tails?—Never Heard of Her" is also ultra-"contextualizing.")

THANK YOU for talking about behaviors and expectations for communications, and recognizing that these are tactics for communication and/or persuasion (and/or signaling), not attributes of a given speaker.

One of my main objections to the previous discussion was that they were saying "contextualizer" as a description of a person's style, rather than "(over-)contextualized interpretation" as a description of a given communication's intent or interpretation.

I use both contextual and decoupled aspects, depending on my audience and intent. Communication style is an an active choice.