Resituating Meaning

Greimas after Saussure and Hjelmslev

In his Structural Semantics (1966), Algirdas-Julien Greimas continues the project of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916) and Louis Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (1943), extending the principles of structural linguistics to the “problem of signification” (Greimas 3). Where Saussure and Hjelmslev are primarily concerned with form, Greimas shifts the attention of the discipline to meaning, to that which is conveyed by the form. But to understand this shift, and other significant movements of his study, we must pay careful attention to certain tenets and unexamined premises in both Saussure and Hjelmslev, so reading Greimas with respect to the milieu in which he was operating, and to which he was responding. Indeed, Greimas sits at an important juncture between the French and Copenhagan schools of semiotics, while also introducing a phenomenological dimension to the field under the influence of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Though many shortcomings can be identified in his thought, and in the thought of his predecessors, the following paper will attempt to delineate the positive potentialities of Structural Semantics with respect to both its historical position and its contemporary relevance. Through his incisive and provocative treatment of signification, Greimas responds to the challenges of Saussure’s and Hjelmslev’s projects, removing meaning from the narrow confines of the mind, and resituating it in the domain of perception.

To begin, we must understand the central thrust of Saussure’s Course, and its subsequent interpretation. Several key (and contentious) assertions must be noted: there is no “integral object of linguistics” because the “linguistic unit is a double entity,” the union of “a concept [signified] and a sound image [signifier]” in a sign (9, 65, 66, 67); the “bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary,” a “collective behaviour” or “convention” whose use is “linear,” a “span” or “chain” (67, 68, 70); language is thus a “system of signs,” determined by “social forces” and “linked with time” (15, 74); as a social system, language is also an “economy,” a “system for equating things of different orders”—that is, a “system of values” (79, 120); the study of language, then, must take into account the “distinction between the system of values per se and the same values as they relate to time”—the “axis of simultaneities” or “synchronic” dimension, and the “axis of successions” or “diachronic” dimension of language, respectively (80, 81); synchronic linguistics, which is concerned with “language-state[s],” the “system of values per se,” encounters in the arbitrariness and the linearity of the sign “the reciprocal delimitation[] of units”; this means that linguistic value is not located in thought or sound, but in the “articulation[]” of their “two shapeless masses” by the sign (101, 112); if there is no linguistic object with “intrinsic value,” we see that language is a “differential” system, a system of “differences without positive terms”—indeed, even the “positive fact” of the “combination” of signifier and signified yields only “opposition” between these combinative terms (118, 120, 121); finally, then, if language is a system of signs, of values, of differences, the totality of the system must be “a form and not a substance”—this is, perhaps, Saussure’s most lasting, and most disparately interpreted claim (122).

Hjelmslev takes Saussure’s formal predilection and intensifies it. In his Prolegomena, he seeks an “immanent algebra of language,” which he gives the name of “glossematics” (80). His objects of inquiry are “glossemes,” the “minimal forms” or “irreducible invariants” of the “linguistic schema” (80-81). Like Saussure, the “sign-function,” for Hjelmslev, “is an entity generated by the connexion between an expression [signifier] and a content [signified]” (47). But where Saussure’s sign articulates the “two shapeless masses” of thought and sound, producing discrete significations, Hjelmslev’s sign-function is not only an articulation between the planes of thought and sound, but also an articulation within each plane separately. Where before language there is only the “purport,” the undifferentiated, unarticulated masses of thought and sound (50), after language the “expression-form” is joined to an “expression-substance,” and the “content-form” to a “content-substance” (57). Hjelmslev represents this structure as follows (53):

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In this diagram, the expression-forms are the words like “green,” while the expression-substances are the phonemes like /g/, /r/, /iː/, and /n/ that constitute the words. The content-form, then, is the division of colours into a spectrum, and the content-substance the unconscious understanding or awareness of that division. Thus, in the same way that phonemes are the “minimal forms” or “irreducible invariants” of the expression plane, differentially opposed and so producing changes of expression through their alternation, the “minimal forms” or “irreducible invariants” of the content plane are the colours, which the content-form differentiates and sets in opposition to each other. Hjelmslev insight, here, is that the articulation of the content is just as arbitrary as the articulation of the expression; thus, in different languages, particular contents will be articulated in different ways, though speakers could be referring to the same sensation. Hjelmslev’s sign is, therefore, a “two-sided entity” like Saussure’s, but it has a “Janus-like perspective in two directions, and with effects in two respects: “outwards” toward the expression-substance and “inwards” toward the content-substance” (58).

Hjelmslev’s assertion of an inside-outside distinction is problematic, however. Following Saussure, who holds the position that language is a “self-contained whole” that depends on the interaction of the “physical” and the “physiological” with the “psychological” (Saussure 9, 12), Hjelmslev’s content-purport is a decidedly psychological, and so internal entity. Though his innovative theory of the content-form and content-substance certainly has explanatory value, the notion of a “concept” or content as a mental representation corresponding to a “sound-image” or expression, which Hjelmslev takes uncritically from Saussure, is problematic. Saussure consciously moves from the terminology of concepts and sound-images to that of signifieds and signifiers so as to emphasize the quality of the sign as a double entity, indissoluble in its constitution, and the interchangeability of signifiers and signifieds (a point which Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida will both emphasize, to great effect). Hjelmslev, on the other hand, in drilling down to the figuræ of expression and content establishes a false analogy between the two planes. He argues that expression and content, though dealing with different substances, must be analyzed in the same way, treated as two complementary, and reciprocally delimited, hierarchies of relations. But in postulating content units—irreducible invariants of structured thought—he strays into debates that still rage between psychologists and philosophers today.

Through Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s groundbreaking Phenomenology of Perception, Algirdas-Julien Greimas takes a profound step beyond Hjelmslev. Though still greatly influenced by the Danish linguist, Greimas repudiates belief in a “psychic substance” (5), which is to say, any vaguely defined or metaphysical notion of the “mind.” For Greimas, signification and meaning is not to be found within, located in the mind or soul. The form of language, being a structure of relations or system of values, cannot be reducible to units of meaning; indeed, meaning cannot be analyzed into parts—such would be an abstraction from the preexistent whole that has no basis in reality. Instead, for Greimas, the “apprehension of signification is situated” in “perception” (7). By making this shift, Greimas “suspend[s] the distinction between linguistic semantics and Saussurean semiology,” effectively returning signified and signifier, content and expression, to the same domain, that of the “sensible world” (7). The signifier, then, which is, according to Saussure, sensory and material, is that which makes possible the “signification,” a term which Greimas uses interchangeably with the signified so as to resist the substantialization of meaning (8). In his system, the signified or signification is an “effect[] of meaning,” the outcome of the operation of the “signifying ensemble” which is integral to it (8). The sign or sign-function, then, is this effectual ensemble, and indeed, we might speak of it as the form of perception. Where before we were confronted with two distinct but mysteriously connected planes—that of expression (sound) and content (thought), in Greimas these planes are fused together, the Cartesian gap abolished.

As Structural Semantics progresses, Greimas will brush with a regression into substantialism in his focus on “semes,” the elementary units of signification (23). These are reminiscent of the content units of Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena, but readers must be careful to maintain Greimas’s emphasis on perception so as to avoid locating these elements in the “mind.” Greimas himself is only partly successful in this. The “problem of signification,” of meaning, is ever caught up in the prejudices, traditions, and intuitions that shape our everyday experience. Dualistic thinking is a hard habit to shake. If we are to productively apply Greimas’s insights today, we must continue to insist upon the primacy of perception (to borrow the title from another of Merleau-Ponty’s works) and be vigilant in our phenomenological perspective. Though there is much more of interest in Structural Semantics that could be discussed here, it is this point of Greimas’s that must be emphasized, before all of his schemas and formulas and complex analyses. Saussurean semiology cannot continue in the project of Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena if it is to be successful, reducing language to its non-linguistic figures—it must begin from the place of perception, from the totality of our being in the world (Heidegger). Meaning is not a substance, but a form—indeed, the form of our existence.

Works Cited

Greimas, Algirdas Julien. Structural Semantics. 1966. Translated by Daniele McDowell, et al., University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Hjelmslev, Louis. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. 1943. Translated by Francis J. Whitfield, University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.

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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