CUP Web site

RSS Feed

New Books

Author Interviews

Author Events

Keep track of new CUP book releases:

For media inquiries, please contact our
publicity department

CUP Authors Blogs and Sites

American Society of Magazine Editors

Leonard Cassuto

Mike Chasar / Poetry and Popular Culture

Erica Chenoweth / "Rational Insurgent"

Juan Cole

Jenny Davidson / "Light Reading"

Faisal Devji

William Duggan

James Fleming / Atmosphere: Air, Weather, and Climate History Blog

David Harvey

Paul Harvey / "Religion in American History"

Bruce Hoffman

Alexander Huang

David K. Hurst / The New Ecology of Leadership

Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh

Geoffrey Kabat / "Hyping Health Risks"

Grzegorz W. Kolodko / "Truth, Errors, and Lies"

Jerelle Kraus

Julia Kristeva

Michael LaSala / Gay and Lesbian Well-Being (Psychology Today)

David Leibow / The College Shrink

Marc Lynch / "Abu Aardvark"

S. J. Marshall

Michael Mauboussin

Noelle McAfee

The Measure of America

Philip Napoli / Audience Evolution

Paul Offit

Frederick Douglass Opie / Food as a Lens

Jeffrey Perry

Mari Ruti / The Juicy Bits

Marian Ronan

Michael Sledge

Jacqueline Stevens / States without Nations

Ted Striphas / The Late Age of Print

Charles Strozier / 9/11 after Ten Years

Hervé This

Alan Wallace

James Igoe Walsh / Back Channels

Xiaoming Wang

Santiago Zabala

Press Blogs


University of Akron

University of Alberta

American Management Association

Baylor University

Beacon Broadside

University of California

Cambridge University Press

University of Chicago

Cork University

Duke University

University of Florida

Fordham University Press

Georgetown University

University of Georgia

Harvard University

Harvard Educational Publishing Group

University of Hawaii

Hyperbole Books

University of Illinois

Island Press

Indiana University

Johns Hopkins University

University of Kentucky

Louisiana State University

McGill-Queens University Press

Mercer University

University of Michigan

University of Minnesota

Minnesota Historical Society

University of Mississippi

University of Missouri


University of Nebraska

University Press of New England

University of North Carolina

University Press of North Georgia

NYU / From the Square

University of Oklahoma

Oregon State University

University of Ottawa

Oxford University

Penn State University

University of Pennsylvania

Princeton University

Stanford University

University of Sydney

University of Syracuse

Temple University

University of Texas

Texas A&M University

University of Toronto

University of Virginia

Wilfrid Laurier University

Yale University

Archive for the 'Linguistics' Category

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Boris Gasparov: The “Genuine” Saussure

“What made Saussure’s critique stand out amidst many similar events in contemporary philosophy and science is his keen sensibility for the principle of creative freedom in language, which renders language volatile and fragmented, to a point that renders moot all attempts at its categorization.” — Boris Gasparov

Beyond Pure ReasonBoris Gasparov is professor of Russian, cochair and founder of the University Seminar on Romanticism, and a member of the Seminars on Linguistics and Slavic History and Culture at Columbia University, and the author of Beyond Pure Reason: Ferdinand de Saussure’s Philosophy of Language and Its Early Romantic Antecedents. In today’s post, he discusses the fascinating history of the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) belongs to those towering figures from the turn of the twentieth century—such as Freud, Einstein, or Weber—whose contribution not only radically transformed their respective disciplines but played the decisive role in shaping the entire culture and consciousness of modernism. Almost a hundred years since the posthumous publication of Saussure’s Course in general linguistics (1916), its presence—first as the major source of inspiration, later as a prime target of critique—remains ubiquitous in all domains of cultural studies, including linguistics and philosopy of language, literary criticism, semiotics and cultural anthropology.

At the center of the book stood Saussure’s definition of language as an ideational construct (Saussure called it la langue), not identical to operational skills needed for “speech” (la parole). Popular consciousness perceives linguistic signs (words) as the means of expressing various phenomena of the world, whose content is derived directly from those phenomena. In contradistinction to this, Saussure envisioned la langue as a pure structure whose elements are defined negatively, solely by their mutual relations. A sign as such is devoid of any positive substantial content; it occupies as much of the semantic space as is left to it by the presence of other signs. One can try to explain to a speaker of English the meaning of German words kennen and wissen (both translating into English as know) by pointing to particular kinds of ‘knowledge’ associated with either of them; but all such positive explanations would remain tentative at best. In the last count, what determines the usage of either sign is the awareness of the border that divides it from the other—in other words, the awareness of what makes kennen ‘not wissen’, and wissen ‘not kennen’.