“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
Boris 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’.