“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’.
How many signs occupy a certain domain of meaning in the given language, and how the distinguishing borders are drawn between them, is the inner matter of that language. Saussure calls this principle of linguistic structure “arbitrariness.” Arbitrariness means that the structural composition of a given language cannot be explained by a logical order or empirical needs; language is, what it is: the network of distinctions grounded in nothing but the fact of their conventional acceptance.
The vision of language as the immanent inner structure inspired generations of linguists, from Bloomfield to Chomsky, as well as champions of pattern-oriented studies of literature (Jakobsonian “grammar of poetry,” New literary criticism) and cultural anthropology (Lévy-Strauss, East European semiotics). Consequently, with the advent of the major shift of the intellectual paradigm in the 1960s-70s, the Course in general linguistics has become the center point in the critical reassessment of the “structuralist” epoch. At that time the question did not arise whether the structuralist reading of the Course, pushing it towards determinism and hermeticism, fully reflected its content.
The irony of the situation was that the book that stood at the epicenter of this controversy was never written by its title author. Saussure laid out his theory in a lecture course he taught several times at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. Saussure’s severe writers block from which he suffered lately in life, aggravated with his own perception of the failure of all his efforts to grasp the essence of language, made him impervious to all entreaties of his students and younger colleagues who, having early realized the significance of his ideas, urged him to make them written and published. The book that eventually appeared under Saussure’s name was in fact a compilation made on the basis of students’ notes.
It took about a half of a century for the community of scholars to become aware of the fact that despite his self-declared “graphophobia” in all matters concerning publishing, Saussure was for many years involved in an intense note writing. For a long time, those notes—scattered, fragmented, ridden with ellipses, at times plainly ungrammatical—had been considered virtually illegible. Thanks to the dedicated editorial work of several Swiss and French scholars, large parts of Saussure’s unpublished heritage have eventually appeared in print.
Much in the content of Saussure’s notes seemed to contradict ideas that for generations had been associated with Saussure’s teaching. In the Course, the emphasis is made on the hermetic “arbitrariness” of the langue, which makes it immune to any outward influence; when it changes, it does so in a way of its inner restructuring from one hermetic order to another. In the notes, language appears as a ship drifting without steering, or a volatile substance whose shape is affected with every “touch” by its users.
When this contradictions came to light, the first reaction among Saussure scholars was to blame the publishers of the Course—Saussure’s Geneva colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. The book was condemned as a “falsification” that led the way to an ill-directed “Saussurism,” unrelated to a “genuine” Saussure. Needless to say that these efforts to exculpate Saussure from the sins of structuralism had only a marginal impact on the modern intellectual landscape, in which Course in general linguistics still stands as the principal landmark of its epoch.
My book, Beyond Pure Reason, instead of dwelling on the question of “authenticity,” makes an attempt at building a comprehensive view of Saussure—based on the whole corpus of his heritage—in a broader context of history of ideas. Understanding Saussure’s ideas involves not merely issues of linguistics, not even those of philosophy of language, but fundamental problems of cognition: from Kant’s critique of pure reason and Romantic response to it, to the subsequent return of Kantian transcendental categories in the framework of the epistemological revolution on the turn of the twentieth century.
In this context, Saussure’s efforts to define la langue can be understood as an effort at constructing the object of linguistics, by stripping it from all transient empirical properties in order to reach to its transcendental foundation. The negative character of Saussure’s construct presents a particularly close analogy to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. 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.
The dilemma of the transcendental totality of the structure built of oppositions, on the one hand, and its total lack of stability, due to its purely negative character that leaves it open to incessant transmutations and deflections, on the other, recalls the conflict between the transcendental categories of pure reason and the unfettered freedom of creative “genius” exposed in Kant’s critique of judgment. The book traces the latter aspect in Saussure’s approach to language in the response, Kant’s critique of pure reason received in philosophical fragments by Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis. The book exposes Saussure’s link to early Romantic consciousness that hitherto did not come to scholars’ attention: the three-volume study of his great aunt, Albertine Necker de Saussure, L’éducation progressive, dedicated to the development of consciousness and language in infants. A member of the early Romantic circle, Necker de Saussure described first steps of language acquisition by infants in the framework of the early Romantic philosophical approach. In many aspects, Saussure’s ideal “speaker” of the langue, with his absolute acceptance of the language and at the same time, absolute unpredictability of what consequences his usage of language would have, bears an uncanny resemblance to Necker de Saussure’s “infant.”
When looked from this perspective, the seemingly glaring contradictions between Saussure’s notes and the Course cease to exist; or rather, they reveal their inherent character as the reflection of the uncompromising persistence with which Saussure, in his quest for the essence of language, strove simultaneously along the two fundamentally irreconcilable paths. The langue poses as a categorized phenomenon, ready to be described, only under the condition that no one ever speaks it; the moment the “genius” of speaking is released, the langue is scattered into free-flowing fragments. Saussure’s inability to express himself otherwise than in sketchy fragments reflected his unwillingness to assume a safely consistent position: either on the side of “reason,” or on the side of its subversion by “genius.” In this sense, the Saussure phenomenon retains full actuality as one of the foremost examples of explosive conflicts that underlay the intellectual history of the last century.