In his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984), Umberto Eco makes an assertion that will guide the following discussion: “a general semiotics is nothing else but a philosophy of language” (4). To reckon with the afterlife of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916) is to acknowledge this identity, and so to accept Saussure’s definition of “semiology” given early in the Course: “A science that studies the life of signs within society” (16). Semiology is a philosophical project, standing at the juncture of psychology and linguistics; to consider Saussure’s innovations today is indeed to walk the boundary between these two disciplines. He makes this clear in the following paragraph of the Course: “To determine the exact place of semiology is the task of the psychologist. The task of the linguist is to find out what makes language a special system within the mass of semiological data” (16). The task of the semiologist proper, then, besides that of the psychologist and the linguist, is put best by A. J. Greimas in his Structural Semantics (1966): to study the “problem of signification,” or in other words, the problem of meaning (3). We find ourselves led from semiology to hermeneutics, bringing certain conceptual tools from the former to the latter and so effectively overlaying the world of interpretation with the semiological schema. To this end, however, the schema in question must be analyzed, probed for dogma and inconsistency, so as to avoid uncritically propagating the problematic features of Saussure’s thought, and the thought of his successors. The following paper intends to undertake such an analysis. Through readings of Saussure and those who followed him, this paper will approach the function of meaning as it operates between the domains of psychology and linguistics, the transformational mechanism articulating ‘mind’ and ‘world.’ Though the conclusions here will be necessarily provisional, this paper intends to establish a position from which further study might be pursued by identifying the relations, dependencies, and contradictions between texts and thinkers of the discipline, while also taking some tentative first steps beyond the Saussurean paradigm entirely.
As the editors (Perry Meisel and Haun Saussy) of the text are sure to mention, the “Saussure of record,” the Saussure handed down to us through his Course, is a construction of his students (xxii). The Course in General Linguistics is “a lost original,” its material assembled from Saussure’s notebooks and the lecture notes of his students (xxi). Saussure cannot be said to be “identical with the presumed author of the posthumous 1916 publication,” but it is this Saussure who “exerted the immense influence on twentieth-century linguistics, literary study, and social science” that we still feel today (xxii). It is the “legendary Saussure,” the socio-textual Saussure, who is also the “effective Saussure,” and it is with this Saussure that we must reckon.
Because of this complex history, the Course is a problematic document. It is a synthesis of “three versions of the course,” delivered between 1907 and 1911 by Saussure, and was compiled from multiple partial and often contradictory sources (xxi). As such, not only is the Course a ‘synchronic’ artefact superimposing ‘diachronic’ phenomena (to use Saussure’s distinction), but it is of collective authorship, with no guidance supplied by Saussure himself with respect to its composition (publish posthumously as it was). Furthermore, the translation of the text by Wade Baskin (1953), the only version of the text in English for over two decades before Roy Harris’s translation (1983), has some significant “errors of typesetting or translation,” as the editors of the 2011 edition highlight, which can be misleading for English-speaking readers of Saussure (233). All of these difficulties undermine the boldness of many of Saussure’s assertions, requiring keen critical attention on the part of his interpreters. However, Saussure has had too great an influence on twentieth century philosophy, specifically literary and cultural criticism under the influence of continental philosophy, to simply be discarded. The Course remains provocative still today, and through careful attention to its claims and questions, can afford new insights even after a hundred years of interpretation, mutation, and criticism.
In the “Introduction” to the Course, the first significant assertion that we encounter is with regard to the collectivity of language: “language is a social fact” (6). This is followed by the assertion of the individuality of language: “language is basically psychological” (a definition which will come to be problematic) (6). For Saussure, language is both social and individual, cultural and psychological, ubiquitous and unique. Furthermore, language is temporal: it is always “an established system and an evolution” (8). Language exists now in the ‘mind’ of the individual, as well as now in the community; but language also changes in its use by both individuals and communities: for instance, speakers adopt new grammatical patterns and terminology, and what is now English was once Old English, a language completely unintelligible to the contemporary English speaker. These oppositions are not to mention those of acoustics and articulation, sound and idea, which Saussure also notes (8). For this reason, he holds that “nowhere do we find the integral object of linguistics,” because everywhere the linguist runs up against these irreducible “dualities” of language (a point which will take on structural significance later) (9). Regardless, from these oppositions Saussure delineates two dimensions, domains, or fields of “human speech [langage]”: “language [langue]” and “speaking [parole]” (9, 13). This is the basic Saussurean schema. Langue is the “self-contained whole” and “principle of classification” to the “many-sided and heterogeneous” milieu of parole (9).
The next important claim readers of the Course encounter is with respect to the arbitrariness of language. Following the American linguist William Dwight Whitney, Saussure argues that “language is a convention, and the nature of the sign that is agreed upon does not matter” (10). This means that the word ‘tree’ has nothing intrinsically, naturally, or originally to do with the thing or the idea of ‘tree.’ Language is, therefore, “a system of distinct signs corresponding to distinct ideas” (10). From this point of view, Saussure sees language as a “sum of word-images stored in the minds of individuals” that is maintained in its consistency by a “social bond” (13). But the following sentence, one of the mistranslations identified by Meisel and Saussy, complicates the matter: language is “a storehouse filled by the members of a given community through their active use of speaking” (13). This phrase should read, instead: language is “a treasure deposited, by the act of speaking, in each subject belonging to a given community” (13). The difference is subtle, but important. In the first version, language is, in effect, a vault of concepts in the mind, an empty box to be filled with a whole lexicon of “word-images”; in the second, language is given to the speaker whole: it is a treasure. Though Saussure will employ the terminology of the “storehouse” at the end of the section (15), it will be this sense of wholeness that will come to be of greater relevance to his sense of the “mechanism of language,” and to our further inquiries into the discipline of semiology after Saussure (128).
On the same page, Saussure introduces the notion that language is “a system of signs in which the only essential thing is the union of meanings and sound-images,” qualified by the assertion that “both parts of the sign are psychological” (15). This is counterpoised with the claim that language “is concrete” (15). Though signs are entirely psychological in Saussure’s view, this does not mean that they are “abstractions”; they are “realities that have their seat in the brain” (15). That language is concrete allows us to make the passage from language as psychological to language as neurological, a passage which corresponds to the metaphoric shift from “storehouse” to “treasure.” Language is a neurological phenomenon, function, or mechanism, of which Saussure is himself aware: “Broca discovered that the faculty of speech is localized in the third left frontal convolution; his discovery has been used to substantiate the attribution of a natural quality to speech” (10). In describing language as psychological, however, Saussure skirts dangerously close to a metaphysical postulation of concepts beyond the realm of the material. Insofar as he wishes his semiology to be a “science” (1), metaphysical speculation must be avoided; substituting ‘neurological’ for ‘psychological’ allows us to do precisely that.
Finally, then, we arrive at Saussure’s claim that “the language problem is mainly semiological” (17). As noted earlier, it is the “task of the linguist is to find out what makes language a special system within the mass of semiological data,” but one must be careful not to think that language is the end or essence of signification (16). Language is a particular concretion of the semiological apparatus, a neuro-physical patterning of sound and thought. It is, perhaps, the eminent concretion of the semiological apparatus, insofar as all other semiological systems must be discussed and interpreted through language, but this still does not make it the whole of signification. Signification is a mechanism, apparatus, or function to be examined in the particular domain of language. After diversions into discussions of “external linguistics,” writing, and phonology, Saussure will take up the matter in “Part One: General Principles” (65).
As has been seen, Saussure’s preliminary understanding of the sign is the word-image; the word-image is the psychological union of a “concept” and a “sound-image” (11). In this model, the signification is neither concept nor sound-image but their union in the sign; the “linguistic unit” or sign is, therefore, “a double entity,” irreducible to either of its components (65). To emphasize this union in the process of signification, Saussure replaces the term “concept” with “signified [signifié],” and “sound-image” with “signifier [signifiant]” (67). He then proceeds to establish the two “primordial characteristics” of the sign, both of which he has already stated (albeit in different terms): arbitrariness and linearity (67, 70). The sign does not have any necessary or intrinsic relationship to that which it designates; it is entirely conventional. Further, the sign is “unfolded solely in time”; “it represents a span,” which is “measurable in a single dimension; it is a line,” a “succession,” or a “chain” (70). This is what it means for the sign to be arbitrary and linear, in Saussure’s system.
Saussure has yet to identify the locus of signification, the mechanism of language. After discussing the “modifications of language” through the “action of time combined with the social force” (72, 78), he opens the topics of “Static and Evolutionary Linguistics” (79). This distinction in perspective is necessary whenever one is “confronted” with a “system for equating things of different orders”—being, in the case of language, signifiers (words) and signifieds (concepts) (79). The union of signification between signifier and signified is, therefore, a matter of valuation or exchange: a signifier stands in for a signified. So, in linguistics, “static linguistics” is concerned with “the system of values per se,” or the “synchronic” dimension of language, and “evolutionary linguistics” is concerned with “the same values as they relate to time,” or the “diachronic” dimension of language” (80-81). The distinction Saussure represents as two intersecting axes, the (horizontal) “axis of simultaneities” (static; synchronic) and the (vertical) “axis of successions” (evolutionary; diachronic). Though the topography of these axes must be considered metaphorically, the fact that they are “mutually irreducible” remains; from the “panchronic viewpoint the particular facts of language are never reached” (91, 96).
As Saussure moves into “Part Two: Synchronic Linguistics,” we will see the structural significance of the dualities of language, referred to above, be manifested. So far, the static and evolutionary domains of language have been kept separate, but with the acknowledgment that any “language-state is not a point but rather a certain span of time,” Saussure admits of the intersection between the axes (101). It will be this intersection that opens the developing theories of the Course to the mechanism of language.
The study of language is (at least in part) the study of signs, and signs “are not abstractions but real objects” (102). They are, therefore, “the concrete entities” of linguistic science (102). But the idea of the sign in isolation is misleading, a holdover of the logic of the storehouse; instead, we must emphasize the nature of language as a treasure, a whole system of signs. As such, rather than speech being a series of adjacent, elemental signs, it is a contiguous, articulated chain, which Saussure represents as follows (104):
In this model, the chain (A) represents the chain of signifieds, and the chain (B) represents the chain of signifiers. The significance of this representation must be emphasized. Without language, the two chains are nothing but an “indefinite plane of jumbled ideas” and an “equally vague plane of sounds” (112): there is no distinction, no signification, no meaning. This is the experience of a monolingual speaker encountering another language. They do not possess the treasure of the other language that will allow them to divide the sound-chain into meaningful pieces. For this reason, Saussure contends that “[w]ithout language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language” (112). Language allows for the “reciprocal delimitation of units” out of the “two shapeless masses,” and so it is, therefore, the “domain of articulations” (112). The “concrete unit” of language is not a thing to be taken hold of; it is a “value,” and a value is “a form, not a substance” (105, 113). Language cannot be a storehouse of word-images; it is an “interdependent whole” only through which its “elements” can be analyzed.
Since language as a whole consists of values or relations, its elements cannot be said to have any absolute meaning apart from the system to which they belong: values are “entirely relative” (113), “determined by [their] environment[s]” (116). Thus, in addition to the above two characteristics—arbitrariness and linearity—Saussure adds a third: “differential.” Signs “function ... not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position” (118). The basic parts of language, phonemes, “are above all else opposing, relative, and negative entities”; they have value (meaning) only insofar as they are systematically opposed to other phonemes (119). It is here, then, that Saussure makes one of his boldest, and most contentious claims: “in language there are only differences without positive terms” (120). Though the “combination” of signifier and signified is certainly a “positive fact,” between the phonemes of the signifier, and between signs themselves, “there is only opposition”: the “entire mechanism of language, with which we shall be concerned later, is based on oppositions of this kind” (120-21). The duality that Saussure sees at work everywhere in language is in fact the product of the essentially differential mechanism of language; a “linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas” (120). Language “is a form and not a substance” (122). This assertion will be the most powerful, and most frustrating, of Saussure’s contributions to the philosophy of language.
“In a language-state everything is based on relations”; these relations function according to two different logics: the syntagmatic and the associative (122-23). Syntagmatic relations are “based on the linear nature of language,” and are arranged in sequence (in praesentia); associative relations are “part of the inner storehouse” (rather: the treasure of language; the system of distinction), and so are arranged in simultaneity (in absentia) (123). Thus, a “particular word is like the center of a constellation; it is the point of convergence of an indefinite number of co-ordinated terms.” The sign, and the system of language as a whole, is a combinatorial and contextual apparatus (126). The mechanism of language, the differential character of the sign, functions simultaneously through these two logics of relation. We see, then, how the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of language—the axes of simultaneity and succession—are consequences of the basic functioning of language as a differential system. Differences in sound are used to identify differences in perception through the process of “reciprocal delimitation” (112); this is signification at work. Nowhere can the “integral object,” the substance, the essence of language be found; meaning is in the negative space of relation. It is this understanding of the linguistic object that will prove the enduring legacy of Saussure’s philosophy of language.
To talk about Saussure, one must consider two distinct, but complementary, viewpoints of his system, which we will designate here as signification and significations (so as to remain situated within the purview of Greimas’s “problem of signification”). Because language as signification is a concrete reality, we can talk about both its manifestations—signs or ‘significations’—and the process that results in those manifestations—which, following Eco, we can also refer to as semiosis (or ‘signification’) (1). It will be the question of the connection between these two levels—i.e. the individual signification and the process of signification as a whole—and the privileging of one level or the other that will lead to many of the divisions and diversions that will shape the development of Saussurean semiology. At bottom, it is the problem of nullity that motivates this development, the reconciling of a system of “differences without positive terms” with the “positive fact” of significations themselves.
The Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev was the first to adopt Saussure’s assertion that “language is a form and not a substance” in his Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (1943). After establishing the theory and principles of his analysis (§§1-10), he proceeds to delineate the kinds of relations—which he terms functions (33)—that constitute the system of language, as opposed to its process (a dichotomy that directly corresponds with Saussure’s langue and parole) (9). Though his use of functions provides some insight into the operation of language, it unfortunately leads him to a preoccupation with the “functive[s]” that enter into linguistic function-relations (33), losing sight of the negativity and nullity of the system of language as a whole. In seeking to develop an “algebra of language” (79) he overemphasizes the reality of the linguistic “constant[s]” of his algebra in isolation from their essentially relative and differential existence. Though a linguistic constant is certainly a positive fact, its reality within the system of language is entirely negative and oppositional. Readers of Hjelmslev must be careful not to accord these entities any sort of absolute being.
Hjelmslev’s shortcomings aside, his diligently empirical and deductive analytic method results in some valuable findings (11, 13). The language of system and process is less abstract than Saussure’s language and speech, allowing for a better conceptual treatment of language as a mechanism. If, as a mechanism, language is like other mechanisms or machines, then we can glean certain insights from the analogy that help to clarify our understanding of this particular duality. For instance, the engine of a car has a particular construction or arrangement of its parts (system) which together are put to a particular end (process). Each part is a functive coordinated in functional relations with other functives. But one must be sure not to take the analogy too far; though language can be productively described as a mechanism, its parts cannot be said to exist independently of the system as a whole. The cylinders and spark plugs of an engine have their own distinct existence; they are possessed of a substance regardless of their integration in a larger system. Though a cylinder or spark plug is manufactured in order to fulfill a specific purpose, a purpose which, to someone with no knowledge of mechanics or vehicles, would be unintelligible, it is, nevertheless, always itself; it is produced by someone with knowledge of the function that belongs intrinsically to its form. But a phoneme (a constant of signification) in a given language is only itself with respect to the totality of the language to which it belongs; it has no intrinsic substance, function, or being. Language is of an entirely different order from machines; though analogous in form, it is only so to a limited degree.
Though Hjelsmlev is sometimes guilty of falling into a linguistic substantialism, he does recognize the unique character of language as an object of study. The “object under examination and its parts have existence only by virtue of [their] dependences”; these objects are “nothing but intersections of bundles of such dependences” (23). As with respect to linguistic value above, the intersection, here, is not a thing to be taken hold of; it is a position identified from another relative position, determined entirely in relation to that position. Hjelmslev clearly adheres to Saussure’s emphasis on form. His analysis of the relations of the system of language will reach a formal fervor in the following pages, culminating in a comprehensive “schematic survey” of linguistic function-relations (40-41).
Hjelmslev’s lasting contribution is not, however, this table of relations, but his treatment of the “sign function” (47), which corresponds to Saussure’s “mechanism of language,” the reciprocally differentiating or articulating apparatus that stands between the “two shapeless masses” of thought and sound (Saussure 112). With Hjelmslev’s sign function, the sign is no longer a union of signifier and signified, but of “expression” and “content” (Hjelmslev 47-48). Thus, in Saussure’s diagram above, the chain of signifieds (A) and the chain of signifiers (B) become the “expression plane” and “content plane” respectively (59). Within each plane there arises a further division between “form” and “substance” (52). For the undifferentiated masses of thought and sound prior to the articulating action of language, Hjelmslev uses the term “purport”; the sign-function acts upon both the “expression-purport” and the content-purport, giving to each a reciprocally delimited form and substance (50, 55). In effect, Hjelmslev interpolates Saussure’s concept of the sign with the chain of articulations. Thus, individual significations:
are resituated in a system of signification:
There is not only a relation between signifier and signified, but relations between signifiers and signifiers (expressions) and signifieds and signifieds (contents). Though the second diagram is a highly simplified representation of this dual system of relations, we have employed it here to try and highlight the correlation between Saussure and Hjelmslev’s thought. The chain of signifiers (S) is a not just a one-dimensional system of signs but a whole hierarchy of systems (phonemic, morphemic, syntagmatic, etc.), while the chain of signifieds (s) is, similarly, a hierarchy of conceptual systems.
Though a hierarchy of what we might call ‘expressional systems’ is relatively easy to conceive, a hierarchy of conceptual systems is more abstract. Hjelmslev provides a useful example, however, in the “paradigm” or “continuum” of colour. He presents the following “schematic” as an illustration (52-53):
As the diagram shows, between English (left) and Welsh (right) the continuum of colour (content-substance) is subdivided differently (content-form). The distinctions between expression-forms (i.e., between the words ‘green’ and ‘blue,’ ‘gwyrdd’ and ‘glas’) correspond to distinctions between concepts or content-forms. Thus, the section of the visible light spectrum in question here is articulated by the English content-form into four content-substances, while the Welsh content-form articulates the same section of the visible light spectrum into only three content-substances. Though this example does not capture the entirety of the hierarchy of content, it serves as a useful instrument for the consideration of the role of the linguistic mechanism in concept formation.
Hjelmslev’s failing here, however, is in asserting the existence of “content-entities,” a finite set of irreducible invariants or constants of content from which all contents of a given language can be generated. If the expression-plane can be analyzed into “figuræ,” the minimal units of expression (being phonemes), so, then, should the content-plane be analyzable into figuræ or minimal units of content. (71) He hastily sketches a “restricted inventor[y]” with the content-units “‘he’” and “‘she,’” and “‘human being,’” “‘child,’” “‘sheep,’” and “‘horse,’” but forgets the tenet of arbitrariness that conditions all linguistic divisions (71). In the case of colour, there is no necessity separating ‘green’ from ‘blue,’ no intrinsic difference; there is only relative position. If one is to speak of content-units, one must be sure to remember this Saussurean insight. The positive fact of a singular signification—an articulation of signifier and signified—is undeniable, but the negativity of such an articulation, as a difference within a system of differences, is the determinative characteristic of the whole process of signification. Though Hjelmslev extends the Saussurean paradigm in some profound ways, his project is only partially successful.
Following Hjelmslev, there are several different paths that our inquiry could follow; but, for our purposes, an examination of A. J. Greimas’s Structural Semantics (1966) will be of the greatest value. As Greimas explicitly states in a later essay, “On Meaning” (1985), his Structural Semantics is the published versions of a series of seminars on “Hjelmslev’s linguistic and semiotic theories” (1985, 542), and is the text that would mark Greimas’s introduction to what he terms (in Structural Semantics) the “world of signification” (1966, 3). Moving beyond the formalism of Propp and the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, Hjelmslev would be the motivation for Greimas’s budding “postructuralist” inclinations, prompting him to break with the rigidity of an analysis seeking concrete-entities by acknowledging the contingency of these entities within their respective systems (1985, 539). For Greimas, every text is a “semantic microuniverse closed upon itself”; it cannot stand for the whole of language, but only as a locality of it (1966, 105). Any meaning, any signification, is “ideolectical,” informed by the “isotopy of the context”; all “human communication” is “eminently social,” dependent on a frame, a background. What is more, the majority of texts manifest “a complex isotopy,” that is, a discourse composed of “superimposed isotopic planes” (111). These superimposed planes of meaning or signification (content) have internal relations between their elements, but also external relations to each other. Hjelmslev’s abstract algebra cannot account for the “multiple distortions” or “bivalent articulations” that occur in such a system (109, 111). Through advances such as this, and some other specific adjustments of Hjelmslev’s theory, Greimas surmounts many of the blockages of the Hjelmslevian system, especially with respect to the content-plane of language. It would be the joint publication with Francois Rastier of “The Interaction of Semiotic Constraints” (1968) that would fully establish Greimas as the successor of Hjelmslev, influencing those such as Marxist theorist and critic Fredric Jameson in works like The Prison-House of Language (1972) and The Political Unconscious (1981). Through Jameson others would encounter Greimas, even reaching back through him to Hjelmslev, as the postmodernist historian Hayden White does in The Content of the Form (1987), nuancing and inverting some of the Danish linguist’s schemas (White 153). But it is to Greimas, chiefly, that we owe a debt as the trailbreaker in semantic analysis. The “problem of signification” finds its best articulation in Greimas’s thought.
To understand signification, which is to say, to understand content or meaning, is to “concern” oneself “with the meaning of human activities and the meaning of history.” For Greimas, the “human world as it appears to us is defined essentially as the world of signification. The world can only be called “human” to the extent that it means something” (3). Inversely, one can only be called “human” insofar as one finds oneself within a meaningful world. This concern with meaning, with humanity and the world, is the object of the “human sciences,” and its relevance is evidenced, for Greimas, by the wide application of “models and research procedures” developed in the linguistic and semiotic sciences in the work of Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, and Barthes (4). This “French School of Anthropology,” in the fields of phenomenology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism, is primarily concerned with the “problem of signification,” and so it is to signification that Greimas directs his attention. Shaky theories of content, as put forward by Hjelmslev, demand critique.
The first important move that Greimas makes takes him beyond both Saussure and Hjelmslev. In I.2, “Signification and Perception,” Greimas contends that “perception” is the “nonlinguistic place where the apprehension of signification is situated” (7). As we saw in Saussure, semiology stands at the juncture of psychology and linguistics, and with Greimas, through an application of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological inquires in The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), signification finds its proper place in the interface of ‘mind’ and ‘world.’ Indeed, through the phenomenological school of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, the hard break between mind and world, as in the philosophy of Descartes, is nullified; these two concepts are positions on a continuum, intersections in a field. To speak of signification or meaning as correspondence or representation between them is in error, an error that Greimas’s Structural Semantics will strive to correct.
The idea that signification might in fact be a mechanism of perception is not only found in existential or phenomenological philosophy. In a different branch of linguistics and semiotics, Roman Jakobson was uncovering similar principles through his researches, finding empirical bases for many of Saussure’s more speculative assertions. Following the pioneering work of Edward Sapir in essays like “Sound Patterns in Language” (1925), and according to the principles set forth by he and the other members of the Prague Linguistic Circle in their “Manifesto” (1929), Jakobson would argue, with Morris Halle, in Fundamentals of Language (1956) for a matrix of “distinctive features,” that, to varying degrees of complexity and levels of stratification, could be found in every human language (3). In every language the “nuclear syllable” can be found, the “polarity between the minimum and the maximum of energy” articulated through “a contrast between two successive units”—most typically, between the phonemes /p/ and /a/ (37). Such is the “only universal model of the syllable” (37). Through Jakobson and Halle’s careful analysis, a system of phonemic development is elaborated according to a structural hierarchy of features, based on this “universal model.” What makes Jakobson and Halle’s findings so significant is the experimental evidence for the model, which lends it credence beyond mere theory. “In the early stages of child language, in the advanced stages of aphasia and in numerous languages of the world,” the “alternation” or distinction between phonemic features follows a particular gradation or path of development (56). Citing Sapir, who “remarked” that a “phoneme ... “has no singleness of reference”” (Sapir 1925, cited Jakobson 11), and Saussure, who as we have seen claimed that “in language there are only differences without positive terms” (Saussure 120), Jakobson and Halle find in the phonemic system basic to all human speech proof of the fundamentally relational makeup of the mechanism of language, of the apparatus of signification.
Before returning to Greimas, another paper of Jakobson’s must be mentioned to solidify the link between their two schools of thought. In “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances” (1957), Jakobson finds that both “[a]phasic regression” and the “child’s acquisition of speech sounds” are “mirror” forms of each other, and can be structured along the two axes of language identified by Saussure—in Jakobson, “concurrence” and “concatenation” (simultaneity and succession), “selection” and “combination,” “substitution” and “contexture;” or, in a single dichotomy, the paradigmatic (associative) and syntagmatic dimensions of language (118, 119). The rules of distinction, differentiation, and articulation identified by Jakobson and Halle previously do not apply merely at the phonemic level; “contiguity” (the syntagmatic principle) and “similarity” (the paradigmatic principle) are at work in grammar too, following a uniform hierarchy of acquisition and degradation, as evidenced by children and aphasics, respectively (120). Jakobson sees a connection between these two principles and Freud’s “displacement” and “condensation” (132), and Jacques Lacan will translate Jakobson’s findings into his own psychoanalytic theory in his essay “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” (1957). The “letter” of which Lacan writes is in fact the neurological mechanism of differentiation, which he had previously discussed in the context of the “I function” in another of his seminal essays, “The Mirror Stage” (1947, 75). The mechanism of language, the apparatus of signification, which operates in the interface of perception, is, in the work of those such as Jakobson and Lacan, fundamental to human cognition.
For Greimas, then, the problem of signification cannot be separated from the questions of the human sciences. What does it mean to know something, to be in possession of a certain ‘mental’ content? If, as both Saussure and Hjelmslev argue, there is no knowledge without the ordering of language, and if this capacity of language follows specific, uniform principles deriving from a neurological mechanism, as Jakobson and Lacan argue, then content, like expression (as it is so precisely analyzed by Jakobson), should be explicable by a structural mechanism. Drawing on Hjelmslev’s schematic of the colour continuum presented above, Greimas identifies Hjelmslev’s “substance of the content” with what he terms the “semantic axis,” which is made intelligible through the “semic articulations of a language,” which is to say, through the language’s “form” (27-28). The semantic axis is the perception of a meaningful section of the world, given as meaningful in a gradated spectrum of articulations by the formal categorization of language. Thus, the ‘raw’ purport of the world is only abstractly so; cognition and understanding always emerge through language, and so the purport is always accessed and available as an already structured content-substance with a particular content-form. Through the child’s induction into language, the world appears as already ordered by a specific sensuous grammar; thus, the distinction between ‘green’ and ‘blue,’ for the English-speaker seems natural. This is not to say, as some proponents of a strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis might, that a Welsh-speaker cannot perceive the difference between green and blue as an English-speaker can, but rather that the colour “isotopy” or context in Welsh emphasizes different points of relevance or articulation along the continuum. The Welsh and English-speaker perceive the same colours, but categorize those colours according to different linguistic forms.
At bottom, this ordering of content, for Greimas, “can only be binary” (25). Like Jakobson’s binary “universal model of the syllable” (the basic phonemic distinction), Greimas’s “elementary structure” of signification can be represented as a simple distinction or opposition (25):
s vs. non s
The term s is the positive term of the relation, the positive fact of a signification (the link between signifier and signified in Saussure), which, in Greimas, is the linguistic pre-understanding of a perception as a content-substance with a content-form (and thus, a relation to other contents). The term non s is the determining negation of s, its necessary counterpart. From this basic dichotomy, a fourfould schema can be elaborated, which Greimas represents as follows (26):
The essential capacity of the linguistic mechanism as a mechanism of differentiation, as it has been consistently defined through the work of Saussure, Jakobson, and Lacan, can here be seen to apply to the content-plane of language. Any sign, any signification s, can be analyzed as a content standing in differential relation to its negative, and to the neutral and complex terms manifested by the primary binary relation. This schema will be reformulated by Greimas and Rastier in the “Interaction of Semiotic Constraints” with the diagram now famous in cultural studies, which appears as follows (88):
No meaning is possessed of an intrinsic substance, standing independently in an isolated significance. Every meaning must be treated as situated in matrix of other meanings. The colour blue, designated by the English sign ‘blue,’ does not have an absolute content-value, but rather is informed with meaning through the reciprocal delimitation of its signifier and signified, its expression and its content; it is a relative value, a meaning determined by the network of relations, the “isotopy of discourse” or “signifying whole,” to which the signification belongs (78). The differential mechanism is at work in both planes of language.
Following this radical transformation of Hjelmslev’s theory, Umberto Eco pushes the innovations of Greimas’s study beyond even his own most provocative conclusions. In centering semiotics in perception, Gerimas challenges the “traditional definition” of the “object” of semantics as “‘psychic substance’”—he explicitly makes the step, suggested above, from the psychological to the neurological (5). The positing of a psychic substance beyond the material is a conceptual residuum of Cartesian dualism that must be disposed of. ‘Mind’ and ‘world’ are restored to unity in the “sensible world” (7). The ‘matter’ of the brain is the same as the ‘matter’ of the world; each is merely structured in a different configuration. Mind is not something locked within the head. In the phenomenological writings of Martin Heidegger, this is not just a physical fact, either; it is of existential importance. In Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), Dasein (human being) is “always already ‘outside’ together with” the world (62). The human being is not a “thinglike substantial being,” but a relation, a being-with (47). Thus, for Eco, following in this general tradition, the division of the purport between an expression-purport (sound-stuff) and content-purport (thought-stuff) effected by Hjelmslev cannot persist—there is one purport, one “continuum” or “matter,” to which ‘mind’ and ‘world’ belong (44). Our language is always already with the world, and we are always already with our language. We stand in meaning, insofar as meaning is the insistence of a relation in perception, and insofar as that relation is a function of the differentiating mechanism of cognition, a mechanism which finds its concretion in language.
Thus, in Eco, the “notion of hierarchical level,” of which Greimas writes in “On Meaning,” and which emerges in Chomsky’s “deep structures versus surface structures,” Freud’s “latent level versus manifest level,” and Hjelmslev’s “immanence versus transcendence” (Greimas 540), is deconstructed—Saussure’s two axes of language do not describe two different planes or matters, but two directions or modes of language within a unitary field. There are intimations of such a leveling in Greimas, but it takes Eco’s substantial erudition to draw out the philosophical implications of the semiotic findings of his predecessors. We see, then, a collapse of the “sign” and “semiosis” into each other, a unifying of the two halves of the problem of signification: that is, signification and significations. For Eco, the “sign is the origin of the semiosic processes ... and the semiosic process of interpretation is present at the very core of the concept of sign” (1). What is, essentially, at work in signs and semiosis, Eco argues, is the “mechanism of abduction,” an inferential movement that draws upon the linguistic forms given in language through the differential mechanism of cognition to infer and interpret the meaning of a perceptual field, a sensuous matter. It is for this reason that Greimas replaces the term “signified” with “signification,” to capture the sense that the “signifier,” as a phenomenon in the “world of the senses,” brings about an “effect of meaning,” rather than a correspondence between mind and world (8); and, it is for this reason that, following Eco, we can redistribute the Saussurean sign schema:
as a nonhierarchical inference:
As Eco writes, such is “a matter of interpretation,” rather than correspondence between signified and signifiers. To “interpret a sign means to define the portion of continuum which serves as its vehicle in its relationship with the other portions of the continuum derived from its global segmentation by the content” (44). Every signifier effects a signification, and every signification can in turn stand as a signifier of a further signification. It is an “infinite process” by which the “matter segmented in order to express something expresses other segmentations of that matter” (2, 45). A segment of sound is connected by inference to a segment of perception, and that segment of perception, in its position within the whole field of perception, yields further significations through its relations. Meaning are inferred from other meanings and, through “this interplay from sign to sign, the world (the continuum, the pulp itself of the matter which is manipulated by semiosis) is called into question” (45). The world is not merely given as a shapeless reality; it is given preformed.
For Eco, then, the “sign as the locus ... for the semiosic process,” which is to say, as the mechanism of perception (as formulated between the studies of Jakobson, Lacan, and Greimas), “constitutes ... the instrument through which the subject is continuously made and unmade” (45). The “subject,” as Heidegger contends, always stands outside itself: existence as “[e]k-sistence,” the “standing out, into and enduring, the openness of the there,” which is the world of sense as a meaningful, signifying whole (129). We always stand outside with our meanings, and so, we “enter a beneficial crisis” that “shares in the historical (and constitutive) crisis of the sign. The subject is constantly reshaped by the endless resegmentation of the content,” and in this, as “subjects, we are what the shape of the world produced by signs makes us become” (Eco 45). Far from a rigid theory of correspondence, of a hierarchy of fixed signs, our ek-sistence in meaning, in the process of semiosis, in the openness of the there, is an existence of freedom, the freedom to “recognize ourselves only as semiosis in progress,” as “signifying systems and communicational processes” that are never finished, but always open to new meanings, new relations, and new worlds (45).
Eco, Umberto. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Indiana University Press, 1984.
Greimas, A. J. “On Meaning.” 1985. Translated by Paul Perron and Frank Collins, Yale French Studies, no. 41, 1989, 539-550.
—. Structural Semantics. 1966. Translated by Daniele McDowell, et al., University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
Greimas, A. J. and Francois Rastier. “The Interaction of Semiotic Constraints.” Yale French Studies, no. 41, 1968, pp. 86-105.
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—. “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud.” 1957. Écrits. Translated by Bruce Fink, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.
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