Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Strange Life of a Sentence: Saussurean Doctrine and Its Discontents

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Strange Life of a Sentence: Saussurean Doctrine and Its Discontents

Article excerpt

SAUSSUREANISM AND STRUCTURALISM

Within twentieth-century philosophy and the human sciences, the Course in General Linguistics attributed to Ferdinand de Saussure functions primarily as a site of the official doctrine closely associated with structuralism, that is, as a statement of the familiar oppositional pairings between the signifier and the signified, la langue and la parole, synchrony and diachrony. Barthes argued that a reliance on these oppositional pairings in the process of mapping out the many aspects of human reality (such as kinship arrangements, neurotic symptoms, literary genres) may in fact be a hallmark of structuralist activity, one which distinguishes it from the other traditions of inquiry (Barthes 1972, 213). Structuralism can therefore be defined as direct application of the 'Saussurean doctrine' to the many fields of study dealing with cultural signification in a social context. Considering the hold that structuralism had on Saussure's linguistics within the twentieth-century European philosophy and related fields, it is usual to consider these oppositional pairings as a distinctive feature and a shared trait of Saussureanism and structuralism. They figure as the general principles that were applied to linguistic study in the Course in the 1910s, and then extended to the broader field of philosophy and the human sciences within post-Second World War French structuralism (and then challenged within post-structuralism, notably by Derrida).

This assumed continuity between a 'proto-structuralist' doctrine and structuralism properly so-called can also be rendered by the fact that it is usual in the scholarship to define structuralism proper as an intellectual movement with a distinctive Saussurean lineage, and to exclude the strands of structuralist scholarship that do not share in the Saussurean legacy. Hence, it is usually allowed that the term "structuralism" covers a large and varied territory of knowledge, and arguably one finds structuralist elements throughout the written history of Western philosophy in the many attempts to characterize objects in terms of a combination of structural elements within a system (Culler 2006, 5). However, it is standard to qualify as structuralism in the proper sense of the term the movement that displays a direct lineage to Saussurean linguistics as presented in the Course only; a number of scholarly works devoted to structuralism testify to this trend. Culler notes that "the term structuralism is generally used to designate work that marks its debts to structural linguistics and deploys a vocabulary drawn from the legacy of Ferdinand de Saussure. . . . There are many writings, from Aristotle to Noam Chomsky, that share the structuralist propensity to analyze objects as the products of a combination of structural elements within a system, but if they do not display a Saussurean ancestry, they are usually not deemed structuralist" (Culler 2006, 5). Sturrock states that, "The founding father of structural linguistics in Europe, and the man frequently looked on as the patron of the whole Structuralist movement, was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure" (Sturrock 2003, 26). And Dosse observes that structuralism's (in the proper sense) "central core, its unifying center, is the model of modern linguistics and the figure of Ferdinand de Saussure, presented as its founder" (Dosse 1997, 43). (The structuralist "return to Saussure" would belong to the period's prevailing theme of "returning" to foundational figures, like Marx and Freud [Dosse 1997, 43]). In sum, structuralism's identity is widely recognized as closely bound up with its historical foundation in the Great Book authored by Ferdinand de Saussure.

The shared Saussurean/structuralist commitment to the familiar oppositional pairings between the signifier and the signified, la langue and la parole, synchrony and diachrony was made possible by the production, replication, and reception of the Course as a site of the official doctrine. …

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