by Susan Petrilli

Signs and Language. A Semioethical Perspective

Course Presentation

The spectrum covered by semiotics today from the point of view of its history is rather broad. We could in fact take philosophy in ancient Greece as our starting point. However, given that the expression “semiotics” finds ample treatment in the epochal text by the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689-90), we could even decide to elect the latter as our point of departure. If that were the case the Swiss language scholar and philologist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) could also be evoked as an initial point of reference, albeit his “sémiologie” only refers to signs in human social life. Moreover, profound studies on the sign have emerged in Russia since the 1920s with such authors as Mikhail M. Bakhtin (1895-1975), Nikolai S. Trubetzkoy (1890-1938) and Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) to name just a few noteworthy scholars among many others. It is thanks to Jakobson, precisely, who moved to the United States of America from Soviet Russia, and his encounter with Thomas A. Sebeok (1920-2001) that such an eminent figure as Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) was at last brought to the public attention to any significant extent (til then Peirce had not been adequately understood or appreciated by his compatriots in the U.S.A.). This leads us to another important figure on the scene of sign studies – the American philosopher semiotician Charles Morris (1901–1979). Morris ran the first course in semiotics ever in the United States and Sebeok was among his students. Such figures as these have contributed to delineating a tradition in the development of semiotic studies through to recent times, which Sebeok baptized as the “major tradition”.

By referring back to Hippocrates and Galen Sebeok broadened the semiotic sphere on both the theoretical and historical levels and conceptualized what he tagged as “global semiotics”. This special approach to semiotics, “global semiotics,” posits that where there is life there are signs, that semiosis and life converge. On his part Morris has the merit of connecting signs and values, signification and significance, semiotics and axiology. Under this regard, the 19th century English scholar Victoria Welby (1837-1912) had already developed her studies on signs and meaning in the direction of “significs,” the neologism she introduced to evidence her own early focus on the relation between signs and values.

Morris’s reflections on values, on the social, on behavioural programs and also on problems of the political order were continued and developed by the Italian scholar Ferruccio Rossi-Landi (1921–1985), a major interpreter of the former’s research. In addition to more technical books in semiotics, Morris also authored such titles as The Open Self, published in 1948, in which he critiqued dominant ideology in USA politics at the time, which tended toward closure. With reference to this particular line of thought, Rossi-Landi’s most representative book is Semiotica e ideologia (Semiotics and Ideology, 1972). From this perspective, another major figure on the intellectual scene was the Polish scholar Adam Schaff (1913-2006). He and Rossi-Landi were collaborators and worked together on various
occasions. An internationally renown book by Schaff is his Wstęp do semantyki (1960, Eng. trans. Introduction to Semantics, 1962). Subtended by his work in semantics, Schaff’s subsequent books also focus more closely on the problem of the relation between signs and values, between signs, ideology and social programming in the sphere of political philosophy. He published such titles as Marksizm a jednostka ludzka (1965, Eng. trans. Marxism and the
Human Individual, 1970) and Marxismo e umanesimo (Marxism and humanism, 1975), both of which cost him dearly in terms of his relationship with the Polish communist party.

Proceeding in this direction as inaugurated by Locke and passing through Bakhtin, Jakobson, Peirce, Welby, Morris, Sebeok, Rossi-Landi and Schaff, we next proposed to develop semiotics in the direction of “semioethics,” an expression originally conceived and introduced by Augusto Ponzio and myself in the early 1980s. The reason for this is not only of the consequential and theoretical orders. We believe that semiotics has responsibilities and that semioethics is the most relevant response at this particular time in history that semiotics can and must provide. In fact, an essential principle inspiring semioethics is that the human animal is a semiotic animal, an expression that gives the title to a book of 2005 co-authored with A. Ponzio and the late John Deely. The semiotic animal not only behaves and signifies through signs, but can also reflect on signs, in fact is the only animal on the planet capable of responsibility. The semiotic animal is the only animal capable of accounting for life and anything life-related, hence for semiosis.

Today, life over the planet, semiosis – the semiotician’s direct object of study – is under serious threat. Consequently, the task awaiting semioethics is a rather difficult one and is crucially important. In 2003 Augusto Ponzio and myself published our first book with the expression “semioethics” in the title, in Italian, Semioetica (though we had already introduced the concept in earlier publications). Semioetica is a programmatic book and several others have followed in addition to numerous essays published in various journals internationally whether in Europe, America, or Asia.

“Semioethics” denominates a bend in semiotics that we believe is necessary more than ever before to pursue in the present day and age, semiotics oriented in the direction of semioethics, fully aware of the urgency to recover the sense of the connection between signs and values in human semiosis for the sake of safeguarding semiosis overall. At the same time, our perspective is specifically philosophical, appropriately indicated as pertaining to “philosophy of language”. Here too, as will emerge from what follows, however, our conception of philosophy of language is oriented in a special direction and specifically as the “art of listening”.


We know that semiotics studies signs or, better, sign processes. Some scholars have conceived semiotics as a “discipline” or “science” (Ferdinand de Saussure), others as a “theory” (Charles Morris), still others as a “doctrine” (Thomas Sebeok). As a field of study, semiotics can embrace the world of organisms, the living world, or the entire universe insofar as it is permeated with signs (Charles Peirce). In such cases semiotics emerges as “global semiotics”. Or, conversely, we can restrict the range of semiotics to verbal and non-verbal human semiosis. But in the latter case, we risk developing an anthropocentric approach to our understanding of signs. This is a limit that the global semiotic perspective can contribute to eschewing.

In this lesson series the sciences of languages and signs are viewed from the perspective of the philosophy of language. Ultimately, the aim is to develop a critique of sign processes and communication, verbal and nonverbal, specifically in the sphere of anthroposemiosis, and to search for their conditions of possibility, their foundations. If we agree that philosophy is dialogue, opening to the other, interrogation of monolingualism, of monologism, and again that philosophy calls for inventiveness, innovation, creativity such that cannot be repressed by the order of discourse, the limits of argumentation, the common places of language, the implications are interesting for our interpretation of the expression “philosophy of language”. In fact, rather than consider “of language” in the expression “philosophy of language” as indicating language as the object of study of philosophy, this expression, “philosophy of language”, may be understood as indicating “philosophy” inherent in language itself, that is, the attitude, the inclination to philosophy, to philosophizing characteristic of language.

Understood in these terms “philosophy of language”, the philosophy pertaining to language, is present in the plurilingualism, polylogism, in the inexorable inclination characteristic of language towards plurivocality. It is also manifest in what Giambattista Vico calls the “poetic logic” of language. The allusion here is to the capacity that language has for tracing connections among elements that, instead, were thought to be autonomous and isolated, therefore to the vocation of language for metaphoricity, iconicity and abduction.

If studies on language keep account of this perspective in “philosophy of language”, if philosophy of language as a discipline is informed by such a perspective, then philosophy of language becomes philosophy of dialogue, a disposition for dialogue, a device for otherness, for the art of listening.

Thus in these lessons problems relevant to semiotics are viewed from the perspective of philosophy of language keeping account of recent developments in the sign sciences, from linguistics to biosemiotics. As anticipated, we propose a general semiotics in terms of critique and the search for foundations, which derives from the connection with philosophy of language. As critical semiotics general semiotics overcomes the delusive separation between
the human sciences, on the one hand, and the logico-mathematical and natural sciences, on the other, evidencing instead the inevitable condition of interconnectedness among all sciences. Moreover, insofar as semiotic research relates to different fields and disciplines it is transversal and interdisciplinary, indeed transdisciplinary. In this framework general semiotics continues its philosophical search for sense.

It ensues that in the relation with the philosophy of language as the art of listening,“global semiotics” adequately founded on a general theory of signs can be oriented in the sense of “semioethics”, that is of the relation between signs and values, the ethico-pragmatic dimension, in addition to in the sense of “global semiotics” the quantitative and extensive dimension of signs studies, and of “general semiotics”, the theoretical and cognitive dimension.

The fundamental problem of philosophy of language which we believe is inexorably connected to semiotics understood as the “general doctrine of signs” is the problem of the other, and the problem of the other is the problem of the word, of the word as voice, recognized as the request for listening. From this point of view philosophy of language clearly involves the art of listening. Listening is not external to the word, an addition, a supplement, a
concession, an initiative taken by the person who receives that word, a choice, an act of respect toward it. On the contrary, listening is a constitutive element of the word, it derives from the word’s very nature. In fact, the word demands listening and understanding, a response and as such is always in dialogue.

Philosophy of language also keeps account of semiotics not only understood as the name of the general science of signs, but also as a human species-specific capacity, as metasemiosis which is connected to the human capacity for responsibility: the human being, the only “semiotic animal” to exist, is the only animal capable of accounting for signs and sign behaviour. Under this aspect, the critical instance of the philosophy of language toward the science of signs – which as “global semiotics” posits that semiosis and life coincide and thus concerns all of life over the planet – does not limit its attention to the cognitive dimension of semiosis, but focuses on the pragmatic dimension as well, on the well-being of semiosis, of life, on care for life, for the health of semiosis, which is something altogether
different from the concept of therapy with its vocation for “cure” rather than “care”.

As global semiotics the general science of signs, or semiotics, recovers its relationship with ancient medical semeiotics, which not only concerns recovery of the origins in historical terms, but the approach to historical reality today. Implication of the destiny of each one of us in the destiny of all life over the planet has never been so manifest as in the era of globalization.

“Semioethics”, a special bend, direction in the study of signs, also involves the question of listening. But here we are alluding to the capacity for listening in term of auscultation as well, that is, listening as practiced in medical semeiotics. We must listen to the symptoms of today’s globalized world and identify the widespread manifestations of unease, even illness, of disease proliferating over the planet (in social relations, international relations, in the life of
single individuals, in the global spread of aggressive forms of technoscience functional to profit, with consequences on the entire ecosystem, on life generally). The capacity for auscultation is necessary for the future of globalization in contrast to globalization headed toward its own destruction: our future is the “future anterior of semiotics”. We decide today for the future of semiotics, where “semiotics” is understood not only as the name of a science, the science of signs, but also as the human species-specific capacity that enables us, mankind, to use signs in order to reflect on signs and make decisions as a consequence. The problem is not only of a theoretical order, but concerns semiotics as semeiotics, symptomatology and as semioethics (see conclusion to these lessons).

Never has the present been so charged with responsibility toward the future, and so capable of putting the very possibility of a future at risk. We decide today on the life of signs and on the signs of life tomorrow, on the continuity of semiosis over the planet. The human being, as a semiotic animal, is the only animal responsible for semiosis, for life. Paraphrasing Terence: I deal with signs, so nothing in the life of signs is indifferent to me.

In relation to studies specifically on verbal language, Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of linguistic value presents analogies with the School of Lausanne’s theory of economic value, precisely marginalism (Leon Walras and Vilfredo Pareto). These analogies are not incidental. Saussure believed that a formal theory of value like that developed by the School of Lausanne’s “pure economics” was relevant to language (langue) which he described as a system of pure values determined by the momentary state of its terms. However, marginalist “pure economics” elaborates a fetishistic model of value which inevitably pervades the Saussurean perspective. This approach influences Saussurean linguistic theory causing it to lose sight of the social system of linguistic production, of the social relations involved in
exchange relations between signifier and signified, between one sign and another. Like the marginalists, for Saussure of the Cours de linguistique générale (1916), the social (langue) is the result of individual actions, a sort of average, a medium. In Saussure the langue is a system of social relations consisting in the sum of verbal images stored in all individuals forming a given community. This means to say that the social is reduced to the status of a purely external unit. And linguistics practiced in such terms fails to become a truly “general linguistics”, nor does it respond to the scope of the “general science of signs”.

In his Introduction to semantics (Wstęp do semantyki, 1960), Adam Schaff takes a stand against sign fetishism as it characterized those interpretations of language that reduce the sign-situation to a relation among signs, or to a relation between sign and object, or between sign and thought, etc. Schaff refers to Marx’s analysis of commodities and identifies analogies between the critique of exchange value in economics and the critique of linguistic value.

Beginning from his book of 1968 (Il linguaggio come lavoro e come mercato) through to his book of 1985 (Metodica filosofica e scienza dei segni), Ferruccio Rossi-Landi goes a step further and places the problem of social linguistic production at the centre of his research. In the search for semiotic foundations, he believes that linguistics must demand such an orientation. Rossi-Landi refers to his orientation in sign studies in terms of “philosophical
methodics”. His philosophical methodics is at the foundations of his approach to linguistics and ultimately of his approach to the general science of signs. Etymologically, “method” means meta-hodòs, “beyond the pathway”, therefore beyond the glottocentric limits of “semiology” and toward what we are describing as a “global perspective” on semiosis and the “semioethic turn” in semiotics.

The general title “Signs and Language. A Semioethical Perspective” is developed around three main sub-themes: 1. Semiotics as semioethics; 2. Philosophy of language as the art of listening; 3. Prolegomena for linguistics as part of the science of signs or semiotics. These themes, in turn, have been developed and articulated around the topics evidenced with the title of each of the lessons that follow.

Course Outline

Susan Petrilli | Biography

Susan A. Petrilli is qualified as Full Professor of Philosophy and Theory of Languages at the University of Bari “Aldo Moro,” Italy, where she teaches Semiotics and Semiotics of translation, and directed the PhD program in Language Theory and Sign Science from 2012 to 2016. Currently she is also Visiting Research Fellow at The University of Adelaide, South Australia. She has lectured as International Visiting Professor at various universities worldwide including in Australia, China, USA, Canada, South Africa, and across Europe, and has held courses regularly in Brazil at Universities in San Carlos, Campinas, Vittoria and San Paolo. In addition to sitting on the advisory board of several international institutions and organizational committees for the promotion of sign and language studies globally, she is 7th Sebeok Fellow of the Semiotic Society of America, Fellow of the International Communicology Institute (ICI), and vice-President of the International Association for Semiotic Studies. She directs various book series in Italy and in 2016 founded the series “Reflections on Signs and Language” with Peter Lang publishers in Berne, Switzerland. She is invited member of the scientific committee of several international journals. Her principal research interests relate to such areas as Philosophy of Language, Semiotics, General Linguistics, Translation Theory, Cultural Studies, Communication Studies. With Augusto Ponzio she has introduced the seminal concept of “semioethics”. As translator and editor she has contributed to spreading the ideas of such figures as Victoria Welby, Charles Peirce, Giovanni Vailati, Gérard Deledalle, Charles Morris, Thomas Sebeok, Mikhail Bakhtin, Emmanuel Levinas, Adam Schaff, Ferruccio Rossi- Landi, Giorgio Fano and Umberto Eco. She publishes regularly in English and Italian. In addition to numerous book chapters and essays in international journals and miscellanies, she has edited many collective volumes and translated many others. Her book titles include: The Self as a Sign, the World and the Other (2013), Em outro lugar e de outro modo (2013), Sign Studies and Semioethics. Communication, Translation and Values (2014), Riflessioni sulla teoria del linguaggio e dei segni (2014), Victoria Welby and the Science of Signs (2015), Nella vita dei segni (2015), (in collab. with A. Ponzio) Semioetica e comunicazione globale (2014) and Lineamenti di semiotica e di filosofia del linguaggio (2016). Her most recent monograph is The Global World and Its Manifold Faces. Otherness as the Basis of Communication (2016), followed by the volumes Digressioni nella storia. Dal tempo del sogno al tempo della globalizzazione (2017), Challenges to Living Together. Transculturalism, Migration, Exploitation. For a Semioethics of Human Relations (2017), and for the book series Athanor, Fedi, credenze e fanatismo (Faiths, Beliefs and Fanaticism, ed. 2016), Pace, pacificazione, pacifismo e i loro linguaggi (Peace, pacification, pacifism and their languages, ed. 2017), and L’immagine nella parola, nella musica e nella pittura (The image in the word, in music and in painting, ed. 2018). In addition to English and Italian her writings are available in Portughese, Spanish, French, German, Serb, Greek, Chinese.