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

In: Signs and Media
Fan Gao College of Foreign Languages, Inner Mongolia University of Technology Hohhot China
Shinawatra University Bangkok Thailand

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

This review intends to offer an ethical pathway to a responsive understanding based on some brief reflections on cases in today’s global communication environment which draw on three pairs of themes from Susan Petrilli’s recently published book Signs, Language and Listening: semioethics/otherness, totality/otherness, otherness/responsiveness.

In chapter two of her book, Petrilli articulates the first theme and defines semioethics as:

‘the art of listening,’ ‘the art of caring,’ ‘semiotics of otherness,’ which are the methodological principles including dialogical otherness for human semiosis; the concepts of ‘listening,’ ‘responsive understanding,’ … advocated by Bari‐Lecce School as a critical approach to the study of semiotics, intending to interrogate not only the sense of science, but the sense of life for humankind, the capacity for criticism, social awareness, and responsible behavior are central issues. (p. 25)

As semioethics, semiotics is committed to the ‘health of semiosis’ and the ‘quality of life’ globally, which implies cultivating the capacity for listening and understanding, oriented by the humanism of otherness at the interface between sign theory and axiology, ethics and pragmatism (p. 17).

Petrilli asserts that the semioethic dimension of semiosis relies upon dialogue and the infinite possibilities of otherness and difference. Learning from otherness is central to semioethics (cf. Arnett, 2017: 84). Otherness in a semioethic sense echoes otherness manifested in the core theme of ancient Chinese philosophy: Rén of Confucianism. Rén is a pictographic Chinese character whose written form reveals a relationship of two people. Both the form and meaning of the word Rén manifests a loving, harmonious, and responsive relationship or a dialogue in a relation oriented by otherness with each of the two participants choosing to be altruistic. The connotation of the word encompasses much more than a two-person relation as it extends beyond the micro sense of the family-centred bond to all human relationships and human beings as a whole and to concept of benevolence in a macro sense (translated variously as perfect virtue, goodness, or human-heartedness) covering ethical, political, and ideological dimensions. The idea of Rén here agrees with Petrilli’s definition: ‘semioethics pushes beyond the totality, outside and beyond monologic closure, with a gaze that transcends the limits of identity, of being, according to the dynamics of open‐ended, infinite semiosis, as demanded by responsiveness to otherness’ (p. 35).

Petrilli develops the second theme – totality and otherness – in chapter three in her discussion of communication between nature and culture. The idea of otherness and totality is discussed from the perspectives of biosemiotics (‘nature’) and global semiotics (‘culture’) as the semiosphere and biosphere converge. She points out that ‘specific differences and similarities are traced in the modalities of communication between anthroposemiosis and zoosemiosis, between the sphere of the human and the sphere of the nonhuman’ (p. 37). According to Petrilli:

[As] the study of animal communication should be oriented by … otherness; communication is connected with a disposition towards the other. To relate to the other from self means to avoid projecting self onto the other or identifying with the other, as much as the opposite tendency to separate from the other and create barriers. Such an attitude often implies the arrogance of identity, of over-evaluating self, the observing subject, and dominating over the other, in this sense violating the other. (p. 41)

With respect to the last thematic pairing – otherness and responsiveness – in chapters seven and eight of the book Petrilli points out that ‘in human communication the problem of the other is essentially the problem of the word, that is, of the word as voice recognized as the quest for listening. Listening to the other is the condition of possibility for … communication’ (pp. 139–140).

Within the scope of Peircean pragmatism,

knowledge as an interpretive process presupposes the ethical dimension of semiosis and human relations, responsiveness to the other, both the other from self and the other of self, which the self should welcome and listen to: for there to be an interpreted sign, the object of interpretation, there must be an interpretant, even when a question of cognitive signs in a strict sense. And given that it evolves in the relation between the interpretant sign and the interpreted sign, interpretation always involves dialogue, otherness and listening. (p. 140)

Like Peircean otherness, Rén (benevolence), the highest Confucian virtue a man can obtain through learning, holds otherness in high regard. The exploration of otherness embedded in the philosophy of Confucianism can serve as a rich supplement to semioethics. Sebeok’s global semiotics and Petrilli’s semioethics could be considered as interdisciplinary systematic developments of earlier Chinese views of semiosic activities but turned towards caring for people on the planet (cf. Jia, 2019: 40).

Thus Signs, Language and Listening is a significant contribution to the development of modern semiotics. It stages semioethics as a critical response to the ongoing expansion of globalization and tendency towards ideological monologism. Semioethics contends with an ethical-pragmatic perspective that calls us to open ourselves to the other, give time to the other, be responsive to the other, and, crucially, listen to the other (p. 34). Otherness-oriented semioethics provides an ethical pathway to responsive understanding to address the sign of diseases occurring in the ‘world communication’ environment and calls for a critical, reflective, caring, and listening attitude towards the challenges ahead of us.


  • Arnett, Ronald C. (2017). ‘Communicative Ethics: The Phenomenological Sense of Semioethics’. Language and Dialogue 7: 8099.

  • Jia, Hongwei (2019). ‘Signs Language and Listening: A Review’. American Journal of Semiotics 35(3/4): 3343.

  • Petrilli, Susan (2019). Signs, Language and Listening: Semioethic Perspectives. Ottawa: Legas.

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