Thursday, February 20, 2003

Week 04, Ferdinand De Saussure

General Notes on Ferdinand de Saussure's Introduction and Part One, Chapter I to A Course in General Linguistics (956-77).

1) What was the aim of structuralism as a developing movement that really got going after the eclipse of Sartre’s humanistic existentialism in the 1950’s and 1960’s? Well, the goal was that “structure” could serve as a single unifying principle; the structuralist method would unify the human sciences. Discarding all that old philosophical nonsense about “meaning” and “essence,” structuralists would go forth and discover the “how” of things -- how they fit together, how they work, what allows them to mean anything in the first place — rather than fixating on the question of “what things mean.” Structuralism is what one might call an “upbeat,” scientific view of language. It takes the kind of potentially Nietzschean insight into the “arbitrariness” of language and turns it into something positive rather than destructive: they are a little like Kant, at least by analogy: okay, so we can’t get at “meaning” or “things themselves.” But so what? What we can render intelligible is how things work, and that’s a fine thing to understand.

2) What does this movement try to replace? It replaces humanist conceptions of the mind and of language. Some general assumptions would be something like this:

a) We humans are the central force and meaning of a world that we can rationally apprehend. Remember the ancient Greek saying: “Man is the measure of all things.” Kantian Idealism is a sophisticated example of this view in its attempt to show each individual mind’s power to render the phenomenal world intelligible. Our world is intelligible and we can live in it, maybe even achieve mastery over it. Earlier theories had more simply posited a “real world out there,” but they struggled mightily also to establish that individual consciousness, individual reason, is king.

b) Our various languages can describe or relate to the world around us correctly -- at least once we build up a system of concepts sophisticated enough to describe complex phenomena accurately. There are many views on how this can happen; here’s one:

C17 authors like Bacon and Locke said (along with Aristotle) that words are the signs of ideas, and ideas are the signs of things. This makes language rather dangerous in that it might lead us away from the truth about things themselves. But still, there seems to be an equally powerful insistence that we can strip away layers of error from our language and make it more accurately correspond to our ideas, and thus indirectly to things.

c) Language is linked to our consciousness, our intentions, our meanings. Man, both individually and collectively, is a meaning-making animal: we use language as free-acting individuals, building up a social environment around us or shaping it around the words given us by God. For example, Aristotle sees language as linked to our mental states; they are symptomatic of a state of consciousness.

It’s worth remarking right here that such theories always insist upon the primacy of the spoken word over the written -- that’s because the written word is seen as merely a derivative or even “bad” copy of the spoken word. The further we go from our speech, the notion goes, the further we move from truth, self-presence, full consciousness. You don’t even need to be present for what you have written to be read. You can find this idea in Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, and (according to our decon-men) any other western philosopher you’d care to mention. Consciousness and the spoken word is king.

3) Back to the basic claims of structuralism. What does it replace humanistic principles with?

a) We, as individuals and in groups, are not the measure of all things. Instead, STRUCTURE produces the effect of meaning or intelligibility. The structural operations governing whatever we are investigating give rise to the effect of meaning or intelligibility. One studies things as diverse as so-called primitive cultures and modern fashion with the same methodology. De Saussure is not talking in these specific philosophical terms, but later authors involved with structuralism sponsor such claims.

b) Language does not designate an external reality. It is the structure of language that we must focus on first and foremost rather than trying to link it to external reality.

c) Language speaks man, to hijack a phrase from Heidegger’s anti-scientific philosophy to describe a more pro-scientific one. The speaking “I” does not author meaning by manipulating language; instead, the “I” or consciousness is an effect of linguistic structure. Meaning doesn’t arise from an individual’s experience or intentions but rather from the oppositions and workings, the “grammar” or “rules” of the systems in question. The system makes meaning, not us, and we ourselves are creatures of the linguistic and social systems we think we have created.

A language is a system of signs that consists of signifiers (an acoustic image, an internal impression of a physical sound as opposed to the physical sound itself) and signifieds (a concept, say “horse”). Internally, I “speak to myself” the word horse, or cheval, or equus, and the word is associated with the concept “horse” -- an image or definition of a graminiferous quadruped, runs better when shod, etc.” There is in Saussure some idea about external reality -- the “referent,” but the point is that there isn’t a vital link between sign and referent. The effect we call meaning arises only because of the differences and similarities between linguistic units within an overall linguistic structure. Functionalism in its fullest definition says that the meaning of a unit is the function it performs within a signifying system.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.

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