Friday, June 12, 2015

Ferdinand de Saussure and Structural Linguistics (c. 1910)

"Nearly all institutions, it might be said, are based on signs, but these signs do not directly evoke things."

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) has probably been one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century. His work was important for both of the most broadly-influential trends in the social sciences of that time: Structuralism and Post-Structuralism. His system of thought is called Structural Linguistics (sometimes “Semiotics”), and it stands in opposition to Philology in the study of language.

Before turning to his ideas, we might consider the traditional view of language to which he was opposed – that it has a real, obvious, and necessary connection to the things it describes. This is the view, for instance, of Genesis, in which Adam names the animals. When his descendants built the tower of babble, God confused that language – which is why, according to Genesis, we have different languages at all. Similarly, Plato held that names corresponded to ideal forms, and that the business of philosophy was to uncover the relationships both between them. Confucius thought along similar lines – when he was asked how he would reform the state, he replied that he would begin “with the rectification of names.” I.e. that a father who was not truly a father should not be called a father, a son who was not a son, and so on. Examples could be multiplied. The point is that this is a very old and widespread view of language.

In his Course in General Linguistics (lectures in 1913, published posthumously in 1916), Ferdinand Saussure overturned this view in several important ways. The first is that he argued for a “synchronic” (“at a particular moment”) rather than a “diachronic” (“over the course of time”) study of language. Second, he argued that words should be thought of as “sign” (written or spoken utterances) and “signified” (the concept to which the sign refers) pairs, and, further, that speech should not be privileged over writing, sign language, or other forms of communication. What matters is the underlying structure (“la langue”) and the everyday uses (“le parole”) to which they are put.

Further, he argued that there is no one right way to pair signs and signifiers – alternative arrangements are always possible. We can see this, for instance, when we attempt to translate concepts from one language to another. Often the concepts do not quite “fit,” for many words have no real equivalent in other languages. From this we can infer that the particular way of slicing up and categorizing an undifferentiated mass of experiences which we learn from any particular language, and which indeed seems natural and obvious to us since we have learned it from such an early age, is in fact arbitrary. For instance we call a “tree” a plant that is or will become much taller than a person, and a “bush” one that will become about their size or smaller, a “weed” a small plant that is in a place where we do not want it, a “crop” a plant which we intend to eat, and so on. Why should the more general concept “plant” be divided in this particular way? According to Saussure neither signs nor the signifieds to which they refer have any definite or stable meaning, but instead derive their meaning from absence. All the plants that are not other plants – “weeds,” “bushes,” “crops,” and so on, but are also plants (that is, not “cars,” “bats,” “stair cases,” and so on), are trees. Put another way, it is the differences between concepts which define those concepts, not anything inescapable about the world itself.

In order learn why we have the uses of these words that we do, we have to turn to material considerations in order to answer this question, and this in turn is contingent, as the type and variety and possible uses of various “plants” will differ from place to place and from time to time. The point is that there is no fixed or natural set of signs or of concepts – both are invented, not discovered.

If Ferdinand de Saussure is correct, the variability and arbitrariness of language is of critical importance for any field that concerns itself with communication. History, sociology, anthropology, economics, art, literature, and even ecology and cellular biology have all felt his influence in one way or another.

However, just because his ideas are both counter-intuitive and have such important consequences, they have met considerable (often furious) resistance. The role of language in conditioning human thought and action is indeed a much-studied and very controversial topic in modern scholarship. As a general rule, scholars who want to privilege universality over particularity in their work tend to minimize the importance of language, while people who want to privilege particularity over universality tend to emphasize it.

SEP Philosophy of Language:
Biographical Information:

Part of a Series on Postmodernism (III of XV)

No comments:

Post a Comment