Benveniste’s Linguistic Universe

Unlike the texts reviewed previously for this course, Emile Benveniste’s Problems in General Linguistics (1966) does not present the reader with a project or overarching methodology, but rather with a series of essays responding to various linguistic matters—his titular “problems.” This is no detriment to our own purpose, however, in charting the development of semiology through Saussure’s successors. Benveniste is a capable and clear-eyed scholar, and his various insights presented in this collection indicate a keen awareness of the possibilities and the difficulties of Saussure’s legacy. Benveniste is especially useful with respect to the divide between form and substance, and the near constant oscillation between these paradigms that the divide effected in the discipline. He is well aware of the radical basis of the Saussurean revolution, and strives to maintain it, while also endeavouring to work out some of its more persistent kinks. The following paper will attempt to distill the arguments of Benveniste’s Problems, to identify where he adheres to, deepens, or critiques Saussure, and to reckon with the problems that remain for us at the end of the text. Specifically, there is one problem that will take much of our attention, that of “a universe which our language has first shaped,” a point which Benveniste’s nuanced studies make patently clear (6).

Like with his predecessors, languages, for Benveniste, are “empirical, historical organisms” (vii). As such, following Saussure, Benveniste agrees that “‘The single true aim of linguistics is language envisaged in and of itself’” (Saussure, cited 6). If language is an empirical and historical organism, then it can and should be studied empirically and historically. But, against the “remarkable burgeoning of theories and assertions of doctrine,” Benveniste sees his guides for the science of language in the “mathematical or deductive sciences, which completely rationalize their subject” (4, 7). As such, his empiricism and historicism is of a distinctly structural bent, eschewing any and all fanciful or traditional interpretations that do not pay attention to the evidence. Of chief importance for him is the recognition that language consists of “synchrony and structure,” and that “it only functions by virtue of its symbolic nature” (4). To this end, Benveniste admits of nothing to his general linguistics that cannot be verified in these terms. The historical or diachronic dimension of language, for instance, is certainly important, but it must be “considered as a succession of synchronies” (5). Language is always first of all a system, a form, existing in a particular way at a particular time. This careful attention to language as it is in itself can be seen in Benveniste’s remarkable analyses of categories of thought (55-64), psychoanalysis (65-75), pronouns (217-222), and etymology (281-288), to list just a few. In these, and throughout the Problems, we see that Benveniste’s rationalism is not to the ends of a dry rigor or lifeless formalism, but to a depth and precision and honesty which have the opposite effect, breathing life into questions of language that might otherwise remain inert.

One such question is that of the relationship between language and the world, which has already been referred to above. We always “imagine a universe which our language has first shaped” (6)—there is no getting behind language, no getting to the ‘things themselves.’ Indeed, the things themselves are mere constructs of our language; we always already understand and interpret the world in the terms of the language we have been given. We must be clear: Benveniste is not advocating for relativism, idealism, or any strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; rather, in probing the complexities of language as a system of “distinctive units” in relation, “different from and bound up with” and “delimit[ing]” each other, Benveniste cannot ignore the fact of human linguisticallity, and the differences in perspective that different linguistic structures entail (7). This does not mean that different language communities cannot understand concepts for which they do not have linguistic categories, but rather that the very process of conceptualization is entangled with these linguistic categories. Thus, the language of Ancient Greece gives rise to the particular set of categories that Aristotle delineates (55-64), and the language of the psychoanalytic corpus gives rise to the diagnostic concepts of the Freudian school (65-75). It is the unique power of language to disappear into the background, to become the background, and so naturalize the framework of thought which it affords. It is therefore of the utmost importance to follow Benveniste in his mode of study.

A useful demonstration can be seen in his discussion of the etymology of the word “rhythm” (281-288). Through an examination of the ancient corpus, the use of the term in a variety of contexts, and its appropriation and transplantation from its first situations of use to new and dissimilar contexts, Benveniste exposes the false etymologies that held sway for some time, while elaborating the diachronic development of the concept through the succession of synchronic implementations of the term. Rhythm did not originally indicate the movement of the sea, as Boisacq claimed, but the “form” of atoms in “flux,” as discussed in the philosophy of Leucippus and Democritus (281-282). Rhythm was used to describe the “pattern of a fluid element,” the “form as improvised, momentary, changeable” (286). It is from this meaning that Plato applied the term to the “form of movement” of dance, the “arrangement” in an “ordered sequence of slow and rapid movements,” corresponding to the “harmony” of song. Thus, a particular theory of the “structure of things” came to be applied as a “principle of cadenced movement,” finally resulting in the sense of rhythm that we consider proper to the word today (287). This idea “seems to us so necessarily inherent in the articulated forms of movement that we have difficulty in believing that people were not aware of it from the very beginning,” and yet, as Benveniste demonstrates, the idea is in no way inherent or necessary, but historical and changeable (288). This, again, is the power of language, to naturalize the conceptual categories which it makes available to us, to present the contents of our ‘thought’ as given. To describe a dance or a song or the sea as rhythmic seems natural to us, appropriate or even necessary, but nowhere can this word and its meaning be found to be intrinsic to the things described with it.

Herein we see Benveniste’s Saussurean heritage, his resistance to the “substantial” sciences which impose their methods on the “complex” entity that is language (11). Language cannot be reduced to its “primary datum,” to its simple parts; “it is actually a complex, some of whose values come from particular qualities of the elements, others from the conditions of their arrangement, still others from the objective situation” (11). Language is a “structure in which each part has its reason for being in the totality which it serves to compose,” a system of “mutual dependence,” of “hierarchy” and “dissymmetry” (8). What is more, the linguist cannot “ignore meaning” in his analysis of language because language “is informed with meaning, which gives it its structure” (10, 11). To do so is to reduce linguistics to the verification that “a certain utterance corresponds to a certain objective situation,” and the determination whether or not “the recurrence of the situation elicits the same utterance” (10). In so doing, “meaning is practically reduced to a certain linguistic conditioning” (10). Meaning cannot be located in substances, nor does it have a substance; however, this should not lead us to believe that meaning is merely a behaviour, a response to a stimulus. What is needed is not a “science of empirical facts” but a science “of relations and deductions recapturing unity of plan in the infinite diversity of linguistic phenomena” (15). It is telling that Greimas’s Structural Semantics, in which he approaches the “problem of signification” (Greimas 3), was published the same year as Benveniste’s Problems. The “logical “model” of language” presented by Hjelmslev in the Prolegomena is a mere “body of definitions,” and not “an instrument for exploring the linguistic universe” (Benveniste 11). It is the latter which Benveniste aims for throughout the text.

If linguistics is to be a science of relations and deductions, what is Benveniste’s particular conception of it? “[F]ollowing the lead of F. de Saussure,” Benveniste holds that “language forms a system” that is “made up of formal elements” arranged in a “structure” (19). It follows, then, that “[e]ach one of the units of a system is thus defined by the relations which it maintains with the other units and by the oppositions into which it enters”—it is “a relating and opposing entity,” a form without intrinsic substance (19). Linguistic “entities ... have no value except as elements in a structure”; thus, the “positivist notion of the linguistic fact has been replaced by that of relationship.” A linguistic science of relations and deductions does not, therefore, “consider[] each element by itself and seek[] for the “cause” in an earlier stage,” but rather “envision[s]”” each element “as part of a synchronic totality; “atomism” gives way to “structuralism”” (20). Finally, then, within the “global” structure of the linguistic system, the parts are arranged according to “constant principles” which determines them in their “function” to the form and situates them “on a certain level” of the hierarchy (20-21). It is this distinctly ordered structure that “brings it about that language is a system in which nothing is significant in and of itself, but in which everything is significant as an element of the pattern; structure confers upon the parts their “meaning” or their function” (21).

Having considered language as “synchrony and structure,” its “symbolic nature” remains to be discussed (4). Benveniste holds the position that language “reproduces the world ... by submitting it to its own organization” (22). Symbols afford the “capacity to identify the characteristic structure of an object and to identify it in various contexts,” which is the “transformation of the elements of reality or experience into concepts” (23, 25). One must be careful, here, not to fall into a dualistic reading—Benveniste comes close to one himself. The key to Benveniste’s notion of symbol—a key which can take us beyond even his own limitations—is that of “linguistic symbols” as “mediatory.” The mediation of symbols “offers a model of a relational structure” that is not a “simple reflection of the world,” not a correspondence between a signal and an object (25). The linguistic symbol, and our use of it, our thinking with it, inhabits the space between the speaker and the world, obliterating the subject-object divide. In language, we stand outside ourselves, together with the world. Thus, the symbols as mediatory provide us with a way of thinking language and, in fact, our very existence, as “informed with meaning,” a meaning which is not a substance but the very structure of relation (11).

In chapter three, “Saussure After Half a Century,” we see Benveniste’s debt to Saussure for several key ideas discussed already—that language “is always a double entity,” that “things do not signify by reason of their substantially being so,” that language is a “system” (35-38). For Benveniste, language is, decidedly, a “form, not substance,” and he remains vigilant against “the thing ... creeping into [the sign] by a detour,” of which Saussure is even guilty (44). He acknowledges the “metaphysical problem of the agreement between the mind and the world [being] transposed into linguistic terms,” but also recognizes the fact that, for “the speaker there is a complete equivalence between language and reality” (46). Though language studied in and for itself admits of arbitrariness in the relationship between signifier and signified, there is no arbitrariness in the relationship between the sign and the world—the connection, or mediation, is a historical, empirical, rational fact. In Benveniste’s terms, this is the “absolute character of the linguistic sign,” the “mutual relationship of necessity” between ‘signs’ and ‘world’ (48). Though Benveniste does not go so far himself, one could productively read his argument through a Heideggerian framework, in which the phenomenological experience of the speaker is not derivative, but primordial. Benveniste’s argument is easily opened to the ‘being-in-the-world’ of Dasein, his information of meaning the structure of Dasein’s ‘being-with,’ and the ‘being of the there’ as the disclosure of meaning. These are necessarily only cursory remarks, requiring fuller consideration at a later date. For now, it suffices to say that, as Benveniste “go[es] beyond Saussure himself to affirm the rigor of Saussure’s thought,” so too do we go beyond Benveniste himself to affirm the rigor of his thought (48). His Problems stands at the cusp (with Greimas, in similar fashion) of a radical fusion of structural linguistics, hermeneutic phenomenology, and existentialism that has yet to be explored.

Though there is much further material in Benveniste’s Problems in General Linguistics that must remain undiscussed, a concluding point taken from chapter eighteen, “Relationships of Person in the Verb,” will serve as both an illustration and an opening of Benveniste’s thought. In discussing the function of person in language, Benveniste draws the “I-You” dichotomy, in a myriad of forms, out of a number of different languages, demonstrating its ubiquity in human discourse (197). The profound point that Benveniste makes in this is that “person” in discourse does not designate an object, but interlocutors. There is no thing to which “I” corresponds, only the place of speaking. It is for this reason that Benveniste claims that “person is inherent only in the positions “I” and “you””—it is a linguistic entity (199). Person is twofold, double, irreducible to a simple substance. In Heideggerian terms, the person is always with another, always is another. The I-You dichotomy in language is the concretion of this existential fact. Such is an insight afforded by Benveniste’s careful attention to the problems of language.

Works Cited

Benveniste, Émile. Problems in General Linguistics. 1966. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek, University of Miami Press, 1971.

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