Rhetoric of Death and Dying

The Language and Communication research cluster is delighted to announce a presentation by our colleague and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion Dr Johan Siebers on the Rhetoric of Death and Dying.

When? Friday 7th December 2018, 14.30 – 15.30

Where? Room V105, Vine building, Middlesex University, London, NW4 4BT

The experience and awareness of death and dying is a constitutive factor of human existence. For some philosophies, world views and religions death is the ultimate horizon against which finite existence acquires meaning and becomes liveable. For others, the experience of death is an experience of the breakdown of all meaning and death is “the scandal of philosophy”. For still others, death and life are two sides of the same coin, mutually enabling each other even to the point where death becomes the gateway to life or another life and living and dying merge, while there are also views which hold that while we are here death is not, and when death is here, we are not, so there is nothing problematic about the end of life called death, except perhaps that we haven’t found a way to prolong life indefinitely. Not really living or not living well is far worse than death or dying. We know our deepest grief, loss and fear in the face of death but also hope, equanimity and even gratitude. Mortality is as central to human existence as the fact that we have language. The human being is the animal rationale who vivifies her life by the conscious expression of it, no less than the one who is moribund (humus, soil), because she knows she is.

So however we choose or come to live in the face of mortality, our own and that of others, it is clear that death has a profound connection to meaning. In this paper I will not so much investigate different views, analyses, understandings or ways of talking about death, but rather look at how speech shapes itself in the face of death. The confrontation with death urges us to speak as speaking seems the only way of meeting something that completely overpowers us, and yet death is also an ultimate experience that leaves us often literally speechless so that silence seems the only response commensurate with the event; every word is too much and not enough at the same time. Yet a death that finds no words at all is not human and more traumatic than death itself is anyway. What happens to language at this limit-point of human existence, where words and silence light up as dependent on each other in a way we do not understand? Rhetoric, as a way of reflecting about language and meaning and as a practical engagement with speaking, since its beginning recognized that speech involves the head, the heart and the body – the whole human being. It also has a long history of speaking to death; the genre of the eulogy is a standard form in oratory. Rhetoric as it is pursued today no longer is the mere art of persuasion, but the attempt to become conscious, in theory and practice, of what it means to be a speaking being. I will align myself with this view of rhetoric and explore what it can contribute to the question how to live with the disquieting and urgent drive of speaking in the face of death. This, in the end, is a question about wisdom.



Johan Siebers is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Middlesex University. He is also an Associate Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, where he leads the Ernst Bloch Centre for German Thought. He has published widely on 19th and 20th century German philosophy, metaphysics, philosophy of communication, rhetoric and futurity. He is founding editor of Empedocles: European Journal for Philosophy of Communication. Before coming to Middlesex he designed and led the first MA in Rhetoric in the UK, at the University of Central Lancashire.

The Language and Communication Research Seminars are free and open to all staff, students and guests. For any questions or if you would like to lead a session, contact Anna Charalambidou.

Click here to see all 2018-19 Language & Communication research seminars.

Languaging: Just another description of semiosis?

The Language and Communication Research cluster is delighted to welcome Professor Stephen Cowley (University of Southern Denmark) for a presentation on language and semiosis.

When? Wednesday 15 November 2017, 16.00 – 17.30

Where? W147 (Williams building), Middlesex University, London, NW4 4BT

Contemporary humans carry the mark of Cain or, alternatively, bear responsibility for (most) earthly life.  Should we shoulder this burden?  In striving to understand the question, Stephen Cowley turns to what the folk call ‘language’ and, in so doing, contrast views that begin with semiosis and languaging respectively.

Leaving metaphysics aside, language is seen as both human and semiotic (see, Cowley, 2011; 2017; Love, 2017). Pursuing parallels/contrasts between semiotic and radical ecolinguistic views, Cowley turns to language-activity. Using canonical examples, he shows how the fields differentiate between humans and other social mammals. Specifically, while humans can be seen as a symbolic species (e.g. Deacon, 1997), they can also be seen as ecologically constituted (e.g. Ross, 2007). On the latter view, far from being symbolic, languaging enacts embodied cultural activity.  On this deflationary view, the symbolic is, above all, a mode of description.

Humanness draws on nothing fancy but is, rather, rooted in coming to hear utterance-acts as repeatables (den Herik, 2017). Later, using mimesis (Donald, 1991), collectives make up new kinds of understanding and responsibility. Just as people come to take a stance to languaging, they learn to see pictures or marks as signs.  It is concluded that earthly responsibilities are, as Ross suggests, ecologically constituted.


Stephen Cowley


Stephen Cowley is Professor of Organisational Cognition at the University of Southern Denmark (Slagelse Campus). Having completed a PhD entitled “The Place of Prosody in Conversations”, he moved from the UK to post-liberation South Africa and shifted his academic focus to Cognitive Science. In empirical work, he has examined prosodic, kinematic and verbal interactions within families, between mothers and infants, with robots, in medical simulations and in the practice of peer-review. Tracing intelligent activity to agent-environment interactions gives new insight on language, problem finding, decision making and how temporal ranging serves people, groups and organisations. He coordinates the Distributed Language Group, a community that aim to refocus the language sciences on the directed, dialogical activity that grants human life a collective dimension. His papers span many areas and, recently, he has edited or co-edited volumes entitled: Distributed Language (2011, Benjamins) Cognition Beyond the Brain: Computation, Interactivity and Human Artifice (2017, Springer, 2nd Edn) and Biosemiotic Perspectives on Language and Linguistics (2015, Springer).


Cowley , S.J. (2011) Distributed Language. Benjamins: Amsterdam.

Cowley, S.J: (2017). Changing the idea of language: Nigel Love’s perspective. Language Sciences, 61: 43-55.

Deacon, T. (1997). The Symbolic Species; Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Herik, J. C. van den (2017). Linguistic know-how and the orders of language. Language Sciences, 61, 17-27.

Love, N. (2017). On languaging and languages. Language Sciences, 61: 113-147.

Ross, D. (2007). H. sapiens as ecologically special: what does language contribute? Language Sciences, 29: 710-731.

The Language and Communication Research Seminars are free and open to all staff, students and guests. For any questions or if you would like to lead a session, contact Anna Charalambidou.