Signs, Language and Listening: Semioethics Perspectives, written by Susan Petrilli

In: Signs and Media
Xiulan Ge School of Liberal Arts, Shinawatra University Bangkok Thailand
School of Foreign Languages, Heihe University of China Heihe China

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Susan Petrilli, Signs, Language and Listening: Semioethics Perspectives. Ottawa, Legas, 2018. 224 pp., $66.37 (pb). ISBN 978-1-897493-67-0

Susan Petrilli (1954–) is an Italian semiotician who, together with Augusto Ponzio (1942–), devised the theory of ‘semioethics’, located at the intersection of semiotics and ethics. Signs, Language and Listening is the culmination of her many years of research and publication in this field.

Signs, Language and Listening includes eight chapters and an introduction. Semioethics is explicated as ‘the art of listening’, ‘the art of caring’, and the ‘semiotics of otherness’. The book aims to develop a critique of sign processes and communication in the sphere of anthroposemiosis and to search for their conditions of possibility and foundations (p. 7). The narrative is arranged around three main themes: semiotics as semioethics, philosophy of language as the art of listening, and prolegomena for linguistics as part of the science of signs or semiotics.

On the first theme Petrilli holds that signs in the human world are pervaded with values – deriving from Peirce’s aphorism that ‘The entire world is perfused with signs’ – and are never neutral whether in everyday life or in the languages that study (scientific languages) or depict (artistic languages) them (p. 13). Thus semiotics as ‘semioethics’ and ‘philosophy of language’ is centred on the otherness of signs, and is related to ‘the art of listening’. Petrilli argues that semioethics must deal at once with signs and with values. We might infer from this that the fundamental goal of semiotics is to safeguard the health of life in all its manifestations and aspects.

Petrilli proceeds to respond to the question put forward by Thomas Sebeok (1991, pp. 97–99): what is the future of semiosis and semiotics? Petrilli extends Sebeok’s question to the possible future of life itself, and outlines the ten theses proposed by the Bari‐Lecce School research programme in semiotics founded by Augusto Ponzio. She postulates that semioethics promotes semiotic research for a better understanding of global communication and a better future for humanity. The vital challenge today is to reconcile globalization with global communication and thus with a better quality of life across the whole planet.

On the second theme, ‘philosophy of language as the art of listening’, Petrilli sets out her discussion of semioethics in respect of the art of listening, otherness, global communication, and dialogism. Semioethics is associated with ‘the art of listening’. To care for the human is to care for all life on the planet given the interdependency and interconnectedness of the global system. To care for others, we must listen. Listening to the other is a necessary condition for healthy communication, which must be participative and dialogic (p. 25). The sphere of action of the human is associated with the other and unconditional listening.

Listening can be divided into two forms, the act of formal listening, institutionalized listening, or hearing indifferent to the word of the other, and a relation of dialogical listening to the other, to the word of the other. Thus formal, institutionalized listening is not at all listening understood in terms of a dialogical, participative relation with the other (p. 142). Listening values plurivocality, polylogism, dialogism, and heteroglossia, signifying ambiguity, responsiveness, and contradiction as structural components of the sign (p. 151).

In her last chapter Petrilli offers comprehensive, clear, and insightful comments on Bakhtinian ideas. She terms the Bakhtinian philosophy a ‘semiotics of literature’ in that Bakhtin’s philosophy is philosophy pervaded by studies on the sign insofar as it is based on listening. Petrilli argues that Bakhtin’s conception of otherness, dialogism, and intercorporeality can be read in the light of Sebeok’s ‘global semiotics’ or ‘semiotics of life’; for both Bakhtin and Sebeok, all life forms are interrelated and interdependent, whether directly or indirectly, and both thematize the overall condition of ‘intercorporeality’ among living bodies as a condition for human life, indeed for life generally, as well as for expression in language (p. 162).

Turning to her third theme Petrilli employs the semiotic approach to signs and languages to stress semiosis and communication at the intersection between nature and culture concerning verbal signs and non-verbal signs. She engages with new approaches to language in its pragmatic-ethic dimension from the meaning of meaning, which is associated with semiosis, and Welby’s significs with her triad of sense, meaning, and significance, signifying resources, meaning, understanding, and referents. Petrilli articulates what can be regarded as an ‘interdiscipline’ that recognizes how the propensity for intercorporeality, intertextuality, interference, imitation, derivation, contamination, innovation, dialogue, and otherness interconnects the different languages flourishing in the anthroposemiosphere, whether in everyday life or in the relation among the languages of the different sciences – central not only to the scientific relevance of the disciplines here called into question, but to the sustainability of life itself as conceived and managed by humanity (p. 13).

Signs, Language, and Listening is a seminal and comprehensive work related to several domains that include global semiotics, semioethics, critical semiotics, cognitive semiotics, biosemiotics, and zoosemiotics. Readers can wander in the ‘sea of signs’ and fully appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of semiotics. Yet one can be overwhelmed by Petrilli’s extensive knowledge: she mentions over 80 semioticians, linguists, and literary authors, and cites nearly 500 sources. This book is thus suitable for researchers and enthusiasts in the fields of philosophy of language, linguistics, semiotics, and translation. Yet its miscellaneous content makes more challenging for a newcomer to semiotics.

Besides, the starting point of the book is semioethics, which is derived from a global semiotics centred on human activity; in other words, it is anthroposemiosis involved with all cultural backgrounds. For example, from the perspective of semiotics Covid-19, as an interpreted sign of ‘epidemic’, ‘health’, ‘life’, ‘symptom’, and so on, the object of its interpretation, must have a variety of interpretants.

Facing this epidemic, we not only need to unite together to form a community with a shared future but also shoulder the responsibilities to build a bright future for life in general, the health of life thus coinciding with semiosis.


Sebeok, Thomas A. (1991). American Signatures: Semiotic Inquiry and Method. Edited and introduced by Iris Smith. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

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