Cover image for Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement By Lisbeth Lipari

Listening, Thinking, Being

Toward an Ethics of Attunement

Lisbeth Lipari


$79.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06332-4

$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06344-7

Available as an e-book

288 pages
6" × 9"
9 b&w illustrations

Listening, Thinking, Being

Toward an Ethics of Attunement

Lisbeth Lipari

“In Listening, Thinking, Being, Lisbeth Lipari addresses “our failure to listen for the other” and the need to conceive of communication, particularly listening, beyond Western culture’s emphasis on speech, which privileges visual and spatial conceptions of the communication process.


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Although listening is central to human interaction, its importance is often ignored. In the rush to speak and be heard, it is easy to neglect listening and disregard its significance as a way of being with others and the world. Drawing upon insights from phenomenology, linguistics, philosophy of communication, and ethics, Listening, Thinking, Being is both an invitation and an intervention meant to turn much of what readers know, or think they know, about language, communication, and listening inside out. It is not about how to be a good listener or the numerous pitfalls that stem from the failure to listen. Rather, the purpose of the book is, first, to make readers aware of the value and importance of listening as a fundamental human ability inextricably connected with language and thought; second, to alert readers to the complexity of listening from personal, cultural, and philosophical perspectives; and third, to offer readers a way to think of listening as a mode of communicative action by which humans create and abide in the world. Lisbeth Lipari brings together historical, literary, intercultural, scientific, musical, and philosophical perspectives, as well as a range of her own personal experiences, to produce this highly readable analysis of how “the human experience of being as an ethical relation with others . . . is enacted by means of listening.”
“In Listening, Thinking, Being, Lisbeth Lipari addresses “our failure to listen for the other” and the need to conceive of communication, particularly listening, beyond Western culture’s emphasis on speech, which privileges visual and spatial conceptions of the communication process.
“This beautifully written book takes the reader on a journey where the usual perspectives on language and communication are turned upside down and reconceived from an alternative standpoint. Lipari offers a complete picture, leading to an ethics of discourse: listening has a place in the ethical relation to the other, and is a source of ethical virtue. Communication and ethics flow together in the existential statement that listening brings humans into being, and ethics is enacted in listening ‘for and to the otherness of others.’
“The book will further the theoretical discussion within the fields of both communication studies and ethics. Moreover, it invites not only an intellectual and knowledge-oriented reading, but reflection on the reader's own practice of speaking and listening.
“This is an important, thought-provoking work which is sure to find an audience. It will be very useful for teaching as well as for reflection on language and on otherness for practitioners of all kinds.
“How often do you feel truly listened to? Not often. But what if listening was more important than speaking? Would our relations to each other change? If Lisbeth Lipari is right, and I think she is, the answer is yes, considerably! I only discovered her work on listening a few years ago, but I have read everything of hers ever since. In this important book, in setting out what she calls interlistening, she shows how it is possible for me to treat you as you are rather than what I think you seem to be.”
“Lisbeth Lipari offers readers an intricate and masterfully crafted analysis of how the human experience of being as an ethical relation with others is enacted by means of listening. The eloquence of Lipari's prose also adds to a very rewarding read. Highly recommended.”
“This beautifully written book embarks on a journey where the usual perspectives on language and communication are reconceived from an alternative standpoint. Lisbeth Lipari addresses ‘our failure to listen for the other,’ which leads her to describe an ethics of discourse: listening has its place in the ethical relation to the other. Indeed, ethics is enacted in listening ‘for and to the otherness of others.’ An important, thought-provoking book, Listening, Thinking, Being will develop the theoretical discussion within the field of communication studies as well as within ethics. Moreover, it invites a reflection on the reader's own practice of speaking-and-listening.”
“In this well-written book, Lipari provides an analysis of how humans build ethical relationships with others through listening. In eight chapters, the author makes clear the value and importance of listening as a fundamental human ability inextricably connected with language and thought. Through a variety of philosophical, personal, and cultural perspectives, Lipari frames listening in new ways. In a particularly interesting chapter, “Communication and a Nice Knock-Down Argument,” Lipari argues that even communication in isolation is dialogic because of the ways in which words from the past reverberate with the rhetor. In a concluding chapter, Lipari argues for “attunement,” the inseparable connection between speaking and logos. Many other texts engage the importance of listening in human communication . . . but Lipari is one of few scholars to take on the daunting task of developing new philosophical approaches to this subject.”

Lisbeth Lipari is Associate Professor of Communication at Denison University.




Akroatic Thinking

Vibrating Worlds and Listening Bodies

Premodern Perspectives on Language and Thought

Contemporary Perspectives on Language and Thought

Communication and a Nice Knock-Down Argument

Interlistening and the Tout Ensemble

Listening Others to Speech

Toward an Ethics of Attunement





It is the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking, that I am troubled withal.

Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part II

Midway through Bowling for Columbine, a 2002 documentary about gun violence in the United States, filmmaker Michael Moore explores the influence that heavy metal music might exert on teenagers. Does it make them violent? The film shows an intense musical performance by shock rocker Marilyn Manson, who screams into the mike wearing black-and-white face paint, black lipstick, and an overall ghoulish look. Clearly, if any music ever had the power to turn kids to violence, this would be it. Backstage after the performance, Moore interviews Manson, who sits serenely, legs crossed. Moore asks Manson his thoughts about the Colorado teens who shot dozens and killed fifteen people, including themselves, in 1999. “If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine or the people in that community, what would you say to them?” Moore asks the vampire-toothed Manson, who reflects for a moment or two and then responds in a quiet voice: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say. And that’s what no one did.”

This insight, powerful and obvious as it may be, rarely makes an appearance in most of our daily public and private conversations. In fact, there are few places today where listening enjoys the same emphasis and value as speaking. Certainly, we understand that listening, as the inevitable counterpart to speaking, is central to human experience. But the matter seems to end there—most of us think of listening as a relatively straightforward process in which we either accurately or inaccurately receive and decode information sent to us from a speaker. The few domains with a more nuanced approach to listening—such as spiritual traditions and psychological practices—are so small and specialized that the majority of us encounter none of these insights in our everyday experience. Rather, the dominant emphasis in U.S. culture—in education, politics, law, or religion—is on speech and speaking rather than on listening. High schools have debate teams, colleges teach courses in “Public Speaking,” “Persuasion,” and “Argumentation.” In legislatures, on talk radio and television shows, verbal wrestling matches masquerade as dialogue, and listening occurs only, if at all, as a means of preparing one’s next move in the spectacle. And even when listening is addressed in classrooms, courtrooms, or television studios, it is done primarily with the aim of conquest and control. We either listen to our adversary’s arguments so we may defeat them, or we listen in order to “master” some material, facts, or theories.

At the same time, ironically, some kind of listening is happening everywhere, all the time. A stroll through a nearby shopping mall or down a city street today features many people engaged in private listening, plugged into pods, pads, tablets, or cell phones while walking, running, or driving through crowds. In many homes the sound of the TV or radio is ever present. And in many public spaces like airports, doctor’s offices, and shopping malls, you can’t avoid the blare of a TV or canned Muzak. But in another, deeper sense, truly engaged listening hardly happens anywhere.

Our aversion to silence masks our failure to listen in the same way it disables our ability to listen. For the silence of listening is, like its visual counterpart of the shadow, an invisible presence. Listening is the absence of speech, a gap, a lacuna, a fissure. It is the red light I wait at until I may speak again. It is “killing time,” “doing nothing,” or contrarily, it is rigorously goal oriented: when is he going to get to the point already? Or, Hey, I’m not following you. So why don’t we listen? What’s at stake in our failure to listen?

This book embarks on a journey meant to turn everything you knew, or thought you knew, about language and communication, listening and speaking, inside out. It’s not about how to be a good listener or the ten barriers to good listening. It’s about how listening brings humans into being. In this book we challenge the readily taken-for-granted suppositions about listening, language, and communication in order to develop a new way of thinking about listening that we will call akroatic thinking. As we will discuss in the chapters ahead, thinking listening as a way of being creates the possibility of an ethics driven neither by rules and obligations nor by outcomes and consequences, but rather, one that is drawn toward an ethics of attunement—an awareness of and attention to the harmonic interconnectivity of all beings and objects. By changing our thinking about listening, we may be freed to dismantle the linguistic prison houses that confine us to misconceptions of our own making about who we are, what we do, and how we might live peacefully together with others on this planet.

The purpose of the book is threefold: first, to bring readers’ awareness to the value and importance of listening as a fundamental human endowment that has been consistently overlooked in Western culture; second, to bring readers’ attention to the complexity of listening from personal, cultural, and philosophical perspectives; and third, to teach readers to understand listening as an essential form of constitutive communicative action and see its potential for social, personal, and political transformation. The work synthesizes a range of multidisciplinary perspectives on listening to engage a variety of questions, from the practical to the philosophical, and to develop new conceptual frameworks with which to theorize, study, and practice listening. The next eight chapters of the book create a spiral of sorts that begins with embodiment and harmonic vibration, winds through language, moves on to communication, curls from there into social interaction, and then leans into ethics, finally returning, at the end, back to embodied attunement again. This spiraling movement of inquiry journeys through several intellectual fields and historical pathways to craft a holistic and integrated study of communication in which listening and the ethical relation are central. We begin with the body, the materiality of sound, and the phenomenology perception, and then move through language and the various ways scholars have theorized its relation to thought and speech for over two millennia. We next explore the dialogic dimensions of communication and then turn to an investigation of social interaction and the nondual nature of speaking and listening vis-à-vis the concept of interlistening and its relation to time. In the penultimate and final chapters of the book we expand upon these insights to explore listening as both an ethical relation and a way of being in the world.

The How, What, and Why of It

Throughout the following chapters we will be developing a densely layered montage that interleaves interdisciplinary ideas from affect studies, communication, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sound studies, and theology. Both implicitly and explicitly, we will listen to the listening of these various disciplinary “gazes.” Even when not explicitly stated, listening will always already be understood as the warp and woof of human interaction—whether it be listening with, in, and out of our bodies; with, in, and out of language; or with, in, and out of others. Throughout, we will be developing a holistic model of human communication that integrates ideas from a wide swath of scholarship to sketch the outlines of a philosophy of listening and an ethics of attunement.

Briefly, in chapter 1, “Akroatic Thinking,” I introduce several underlying themes and frameworks for thinking listening in new ways. Beginning with a brief examination of the importance and nature of misunderstanding, we then introduce a concept I call interlistening, which aims to account for the multiplicitous and nondual relationship between speaking and listening. Next, I introduce the distinction between thinking about communication as an instrument for channeling messages and conceiving it as a maker of worlds. Lastly, I turn to akroasis, which German musicologist Hans Kayser calls “a very specific mode of thinking,” in order to develop an account of listening and communication the proceeds from holistic rather than atomistic perspectives as a basis for understanding our shared sonic worlds.

In chapter 2, “Vibrating Worlds and Listening Bodies,” I explore the embodied materiality of vibration, sound, and listening. When we listen, our bodies move. We vibrate with the sound waves pulsing toward and then through us. We are, as the deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie explains, participators who touch the sound. This chapter explores how, as embodied beings, we are participants in a vibrating material world. Beginning with an examination of the physics of sound and music, we proceed to investigate the relationship between sensation and perception and the role attention plays in all our experiences. We then conclude with a discussion of embodied listening and how we can bring more awareness to our listening selves.

The third and fourth chapters, “Premodern Perspectives on Language and Thought” and “Contemporary Perspectives on Language and Thought,” begin with a historical exploration of how, even after twenty-six hundred years of research and debate, linguists, psychologists, and philosophers continue to argue about the relationship between language and thought. What is language? What is thought? Are they the same or different? How? In chapter 3 we examine the relationship between language and thought through its long and storied history, beginning with the ancient Indian grammarians and ancient Greeks, through the European Enlightenment. In chapter 4 we continue this discussion in regard to contemporary approaches in linguistics and cognitive science, examining these schools of thought from atomist and holist perspectives. We wind up chapter 4 by examining what this history offers to an understanding of listening and how akroatic thinking can reshape the ways we think about language and thought—especially in respect to how we habituate to already existing linguistic categories, concepts, and structures and then mistake these conceptual formations for the truth of the way things are and have to be.

In chapter 5, “Communication and a Nice Knock-Down Argument,” we explore how even the most lonely monologue, even one uttered on an isolated windy beach, is fundamentally dialogic because of the ways in which words from the past as well as the future continually reverberate with sounds, phrasings, voices, and meanings far distant from their utterance at any given moment in time. Through an investigation of what is often theorized as “inner speech,” we return to the ancient Indian grammarians to explore how selves and society are continually reconstituted in an ongoing intersubjective dance of word, rhythm, and meaning that begins when infants listen in the womb. Here we build on insights from the previous chapters to craft a dialogic understanding of human being—one always in dialogue with selves, others, and worlds.

In Chapter 6, “Interlistening and the Tout Ensemble,” we examine the ways in which listening, speaking, and thinking are not three distinctly separate processes, but are in fact three facets of a single integrated communicative whole. Building upon the previous chapters, I here introduce interlistening as a new model of dialogic interaction that can reckon with aspects of the embodied polymodal, polyphonic, and polychronic processes of human communication. Among other things, this chapter recasts intersubjectivity from a spatialized between generated by individual subjects, to interlistening as a dense movement of interactional and con-fused temporality wherein listening, speaking, and thinking co-occur in living synchronous, diachronous, and simultaneous polyphony. As we will have explored in previous chapters, to study dialogue as interlistening is to see how every now always echoes with past and future nows; how every speaking is at the same time a listening (and vice-versa); and how even “innermost” thoughts require words from “outside.”

In chapter 7, “Listening Others to Speech,” I elaborate on the ethical implications of thinking with listening. For too long scholars have taken speech and speaking as stand-ins for the logos. But a logos that speaks without listening is no logos at all. In this chapter we examine “listening” as a transitive verb in order to convey the ways in which listening enacts ethics that are constitutive of and always prior to speech. Here we will theorize listening as an invocation, a calling forth of speech, that generates possibilities for the ethical response. Just as intersubjectivity opens conceptual spaces for scholarly inquiry outside the self-other binary, so listening others to speech opens new pathways for ethics and understanding.

The final chapter, “Toward an Ethics of Attunement,” brings us back via “a commodius vicus of recirculation” to the beginning, where we can, perhaps, “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” In this chapter I return to the discussions of harmonics, sound, and vibration from chapter 1 to take up the temporal dimensions of listening vis-à-vis the embodied, nonlinear, and rhythmic aspects of being together with others. Here I develop an understanding of ethical attunement as an interplay between akroatic thinking and the ancient rhetorical concepts of kairos. I conclude the book by pointing to several recurring themes that may shape an ethics of attunement: interconnection and generosity, impermanence and humility, iteration and patience, and invention and courage.

A Concluding Word on Words

Throughout the book, I will use words, metaphors, and examples intended to help open up your thinking about listening. You may find some terms more useful than others—don’t worry. The idea is to bring a fresh awareness and conscious intentionality to the way you listen to yourself, others, and the world. Whether it’s akroatic thinking, interlistening, sphoa, listening otherwise, listening others to speech, a listening eye, an ethics of attunement, and so forth, feel free to hold the meanings of these ideas loosely in your mind as you attend to the overall tenor of the argument, thinking akroatically as you go along. Let these ideas stretch and challenge your everyday understandings, listen to the sounds of the words and of your own understanding, and most of all, be willing to misunderstand.

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