Relation over Substance

Saussure’s Revolution in Linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916) has had a profound impact on theory, philosophy, and literature, influencing such giants of the twentieth century as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. It is not, however, a text without troubles. Assembled after his death by his students, Saussure’s Course is a “lost original,” a collection of student notes and transcriptions (xxi). As Perry Meisel and Haun Saussy, the editors of the text, cogently explain, the 1916 publication of the Course was in fact a collation, with significant editorial intervention, of three versions of the course that Saussure taught between 1907 and 1911 (xxi). Indeed, the Saussure that we have inherited today, over one hundred years later, is not the ‘real’ Saussure but the “legendary Saussure,” a fabricated version of the man and his thought as assembled by his followers—malleable, requiring interpretation, and provoking critique (xxii). Such, however, is illustrative of his project. As the editors write, language is, for Saussure, “identical” with “social” and “organic life,” a “vast interactive project” (xviii). Language is not a matter of “mimesis” but of “signification” (xvi). Language, and the world with which it is “continuous,” is a “web of signs” (xvii, xviii). Indeed, the quest for the referent in language (for the real Saussure, we might say) is pointless; such a quest serves only to turn up more language. In the analysis of language we do not find things or people but rather the “world itself” as a “matrix of signification, real because it is symbolic and symbolic because it is real” (xvii). In short, Saussure’s achievement is the replacement of substantialist linguistics with a linguistics of relation.

One note from the editors’ introduction to the Course will guide our discussion here: “there is no essence of language” (xxvii). The elements of language are not “simple” but “dual,” consisting of a relation between “two sets of things” qualitatively different from each other (xxv). Language is irreducible to referents, signs, or meanings, independent of each other: it is fundamentally complex. This is the Saussurean revolution. The truth of language cannot be found in things (referents), because language does not inhere in physical matter, but rather coats it like a film, a total and imperceptible interface: its truth is not in objects, the brain, or the vocal organs. Nor, however, can the truth of language be found in words (signs), in the sounds of language; these do not constitute some distinct category of physical reality to be discovered, recorded, and memorized. But neither is the third alternative correct: the truth of language is not found in ideas (meanings), in eternally existent forms or concepts accessed by the mind or soul. As Saussure writes, “nowhere do we find the integral object of linguistics,” because language cannot be reduced to an object (9). Such is a misguided path of inquiry transposed from the natural (or physical) sciences into the domain of language. Language is of another kind: “there is no essence of language” because language is not substantial. The method of the natural sciences only applies to substantial entities; language requires a different approach.

This approach is what Saussure’s Course intends to elaborate. Saussure writes from within the context of “comparative philology” and the studies of Sanskrit and Proto-Indo-European that were much in vogue in Europe at the time, but it is to the American linguist William Dwight Whitney that Saussure attributes the “first impetus” of modern linguistic science, which set the stage for his own inquiries (2, 5). It was Whitney, too, who “insisted upon the arbitrary nature of signs,” a point which Saussure will “radically” emphasize (76). His linguistics is concerned with “all manifestations of human speech” (6), but it is language as langue, as “self-contained whole” and “principle of classification,” that is to him of primary interest (9). We might say that langue is the very principle or mechanism of intelligibility, that which gives order to the ubiquitous phenomenon of speech. It is that which allows two persons to understand each other, a “treasure deposited, by the act of speaking, in each subject belonging to a given community” (13, errata p. 233). The study of this treasure he terms “semiology,” the study of the “life of signs within society” (16). Saussurean semiology encompasses linguistics, and, we might add, anthropology, ethnography, and sociology. Semiology is concerned with meaning, the way by which human beings dwell, operate, and interact within a mutually intelligible world. Through the study of meaning, the life of signs, Saussure intends to discover in language (that is, speaking, langage, parole) that which “it has in common with all other semiological systems” (17), and so disclose that upon which all semiological systems are built: langue, the signifying mechanism itself.

Herein lies the heart of Saussure’s project, the key idea that would become of such great importance to subsequent theorists: the doctrine of the sign. The “linguistic unit is a double entity,” as has already been discussed, “formed by the associating of two terms” (65). The terms in question are the “concept” and the “sound-image,” a psycho-sensory duality (66). Technical questions of psychology aside, this “two-sided psychological entity” allows us to understand the peculiar nature of the linguistic unit (66). Every word, every string of phonemes (auditory) or letters (visual), functions as a sense-impression that calls up, through association, an abstract idea or meaning. The two terms of the linguistic unit are “intimately united” by this association, “and each recalls the other” (66). They cannot be divided; the linguistic unit is always already indissolubly one: a sign (67). To emphasize the constancy of the associative bond, Saussure will refer to the concept as the “signified” and the sound-image as the “signifier,” which together form the “linguistic sign” (67).

With this structure established, Saussure proceeds to explain the “two primary characteristics” of the linguistic sign: arbitrariness and linearity (67). The arbitrariness of the sign means that signifier and signified have no “inner relationship” to each other (67). The fact that the signifier “pig” calls to mind the idea of the generally pinkish farm animal has no basis in nature. The English word “pig” does not belong to the animal, nor do the sound waves or the graphic form of the word correspond to a specific arrangement of neurons in the brain. The sign is in fact doubly arbitrary: both its inner relation (signifier-signified) and its outer relation (sign-referent) are arbitrary. For this reason, then, the sign is a product of “convention,” based on “collective behavior” (68). Furthermore, Saussure demonstrates how even onomatopoeic words and interjections prove to be entirely arbitrary and conventional (69). Secondly, the signifier (the articulated sound-image) has the form of a linear “span,” meaning that the “speaking-circuit” of “phonation” and “audition” occurs (and must occur) in time (70, 12). Signs, therefore, are “presented in succession; they form a chain” (70). As such, signs are always situated with respect to antecedent and subsequent signs, and the language of a community as a whole is always situated with respect to antecedent and subsequent language-states.

But the introduction of time to semiology further complicates Saussure’s investigations. Because semiology “confront[s]” us “with the notion of value,” insofar as signification is a “system for equating things of different orders,” we must maintain a constant “distinction between the system of values per se and the same values as they relate to time” (79, 80). The former Saussure schematizes as the “axis of simultaneities” and the latter the “axis of successions” (80). Respectively, then, these axes will become the objects of “static” or “synchronic” linguistics and “evolutionary” or “diachronic linguistics” (81). It is with synchronic linguistics that Saussure is most concerned. Synchronic study allows one to scrutinize the system of values itself, and so determine what is internal to a language. Diachronic study, on the other hand, can only determine “independent event[s]” external to language (84). Saussure is decidedly opposed to a “panchronic viewpoint” that would synthesize the two, and his resolution on the point is only deepened by the editors’ choice of a concluding sentence: “the true and unique object of linguistics is language studied in and for itself” (232). It is for this reason that Pierre Bourdieu, amongst others, was incredibly critical of Saussure: the elevation of “internal,” synchronic, or static linguistics as the ‘true’ object of linguistics is untenable (xxiv). Language “is a social fact,” as Saussure himself writes (6). How, then, do we speak of language in itself, its signifying function, without excluding from view its constant mediation and determination by social forces? To answer this question, one must look beyond the Introduction and Part One of the Course, which sadly, it seems, few do.

Through Parts Two and Three Saussure discusses synchronic and diachronic linguistics in turn, working out the implications of his doctrine of the sign with respect to each axis of the sign system. In Part Two, Saussure argues that a “correlative” quality of the arbitrariness of the sign is its “differential” function: “Signs function . . . not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position” (118). Indeed, the sign itself is “a form, not a substance,” an articulation by which “an idea is fixed in a sound and a sound becomes the sign of an idea” (113). Thus, language, at bottom, is a mechanism of relation that “works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses”: thought and sound (broadly conceived) (112). Consequently, a language-state is a totality of these relations in a given community, with each of these sign-relations in turn “determined by its environment” (116), the “interdependent whole” of the system (113). From this assertion, then, Saussure argues that “in language there are only differences without positive terms” (120), a rather startling premonition of deconstruction. Language has “neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system”; though the combination of signifier and signified as such is a “positive fact,” it is a fact without content: one cannot penetrate the sign-relation to find its essence (120). Indeed, the ‘content’ of the sign is the emptiness of the signifier-signified relation, and the ‘content’ of language is the insistence of meaning as such.

Though Saussure’s further inquiries escape the scope of this paper, the emphasis here on relation over substance will hopefully make clear the stakes of his project. As he will continue to delineate, language operates through two primary relations: “syntagmatic” and “associative” (123). The “mechanism of language” is a movement between these differential modes, a “reciprocating function” that situates the two axes referred to above at the heart of meaning (128). Though synchronic linguistics might truly be linguistics proper, in that synchronic study focuses on language as such, Saussure’s semiology places equal emphasis on the diachronic dimension of language. The very operation of the sign is an oscillation between synchrony and diachrony—a temporally self-similar difference insisting upon an arbitrary relation. Through the fact of the sign’s linearity, and thus, its temporality, the diachronic dimension of linguistics cannot be excluded from view. Saussure’s emphasis on the synchronic, as presented by the editors, obscures his actual goal: to analyze synchronic language-states in their own terms, and so more clearly understand the diachronic shifts that result in language change. Time, and the social forces playing out within it, cannot be excluded from the doctrine of the sign—it is at the very core of the mechanism of signification itself. Indeed, this is the profound effect of Saussure’s revolution. Through his disclosure of the sign’s relational form, and his refutation of substantialist linguistics, Saussure opens linguistics to the full complexity of human meaning.

Works Cited

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. 1916. Translated by Wade Baskin, edited by Perry Meisel and Haun Saussy, Columbia University Press, 2011.

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