Author Vita: Jude Chua Soo Meng PhD is an Associate Professor of philosophy at Policy and Leadership Studies, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He lectures on professionalism for the dual award Doctoral programme in Education offered with Institute of Education (IOE), London, where he has been a Visiting Academic. He held a visiting graduate fellowship at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, USA, and worked with the natural law theorist, John Finnis. He is a Fellow of the College of Teachers, London and holds its Fellowship qualification (FCOT, FCollT). He is on occasion Visiting Research Scholar at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (FRHistS), London. He won the Novak Award in 2003 and serves on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Markets and Morality. His work has appeared in Semiotica (forthcoming), Design Studies, Angelicum and London Review of Education.




This paper is intended as an exploratory contribution to the recently retrieved trend in semiotics to relate sign-studies with ethics and values, i.e., ‘semio-ethics’/’significs’, and to suggest how the ‘semio-ethical’ or ‘significal’ consciousness may be educationally enhanced.

In “Designing the camera” I wrote about ways to shape the camera or photography qua sign for semio-ethical purposes.  Victoria Welby spoke of significs not only as a theory of signs, but also as a kind of (moral) educational theory, since she believed that the understanding of signs-in-relation-to-values raised our critical and ethical consciousness. Here I argue and give phenomenological evidence for the claims that the camera is a pedagogical tool just as it enhances significal formation.  But not only that: the camera is a self-automating pedagogical tool; through using it, one is helped to discover the significant point of view.  It is almost as if it automatically unpacks significs, or the semio-ethical consciousness.











Keywords:      photography, significs, semioethics, natural law, moral education






  • 1. Photography, Ethics and Significal Formation

In “Designing the camera: photo-semio-ethical studies”, (Chua, 2013b) as well as in The Inquisitors Manual (, an online blogging project in which I explore the connection between photography and ethics, I wrote about the ways I sought, through writing this The Inquisitors Manual,  to shape the camera or photography qua sign for semio-ethical purposes.  I explain in “Chapter 11. Transubstantiation: Conceptual Innovations” (Chua, 2012) of the Manual:

“Everything is in principle a sign, if it calls to mind something else other than itself. So just as the word, “camera”, is a sign of some object which takes pictures, the physical camera itself, the technology, can also be a sign—perhaps of relaxation—and just as well the experience of taking pictures, and the pictures which are developed, which may recall—and hence sign the realities, or fond memories, etc. And just as [Gunther Kress says] a child may re-shape words to express new meanings, so also we can re-design these other signs to point us to new ideas and concepts, in order to have these lead us to other ideas of interest, besides those commonly, and conventionally signed. We can, as it were, speak of the possibility of a kind of semiosic transubstantiation: the substantive transformation of this or that sign as sign. Although it is still a sign, it is changed from one particular sign to another; as sign it now points in semiosis to something new, and hence is now a new sign. If we collect all these things—words, tools, experiences, etc–under the word “photography”, including the thinking and writing about “photography” [i.e., for instance, in our writing of the Inquisitor’s Manual], then we can begin to see the potential for semiosically transubstantiating “photography”. We can begin to explore—and hence design and engineer—what all that we have under “photography” can mean anew. It need not merely mean snapping an image of something. Perhaps, it could mean–sign–something else.

“In part, the Manual has been an attempt to re-conceptualize photography, and to consider how it may be re-shaped and re-designed to lead us to new ideas and concepts that photography conventionally may not sign. The question that had driven many of its past chapters has been, “what is the camera?” An answer to this question is not easy; the task is not to discover through analytic thinking an essence or a definition. Rather it is an invitation to re-construct, or to re-engineer this thing we call a camera, with its lens, sensor, body and viewfinder. Such re-construction or re-engineering of this camera may or may not imply the physical re-modeling of the thing. It may merely involve the re-conception of how the thing as it is may be used, and for what end. Though in all appearances nothing much seems to have changed, such re-conceptualization can be very significant insofar as the complete and substantive modification of its nature as sign is concerned: it may now point us to very important ideas.”

Such semio-ethical shaping I called “significal Design” (Chua, 2013a), and is a research method which translates ideas into senses and meanings which are insightful-in-relation-to-what truly matters. Significal Designing presupposes the possession of certain viewpoints and normative judgments. These judgments are to be developed inferentially, but their first principles, which are the first principles of practical reason or the ‘natural law’, are self-evident.