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Saussure’s most characteristic ideas have British or American sources, including the most distinctively Saussurean idea of all: "In a language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, the language contains neither ideas nor sounds that pre-exist the linguistic system, but only conceptual differences and phonic differences issuing from this system." (From the posthumous Course in General Linguistics, 1916.) The terms “signifier” and “signified” were not introduced until one of his last general linguistics lectures in 1911. But the idea of a psychological sound pattern corresponding to a spoken word, functioning purely through its difference from every other such signifier, is found in his notes as far back as 1881, when he was in Paris working towards a French doctorate that he never completed. “Language”, he wrote at that time, in a manuscript now in Harvard’s Houghton Library and published in 1995, “is composed of a system of acoustic oppositions.” Acoustic only: no indication as yet that the conceptual side, the signified, is similarly oppositional in its nature – that it too has no positive content, just a value generated by its difference from other signifieds, as claimed in the quote from the Course. This remains vividly controversial, as I was reminded some months back when I was drawn into an e-conversation with a philosopher of language who is convinced that the meanings of words must have some primordial reality that is not simply differential, and blames Saussure for introducing a fundamental error. Yet, in philosophy itself, and in sciences other than linguistics (because linguists just did not think about such things), it was a commonplace view in the second half of the nineteenth century that all thought and all consciousness was purely differential and negative in nature. It was a defining feature of British psychology, as opposed to Continental (particularly German) psychology, which, before the British approach made inroads into it, took thought to be made up of ideas, maybe innate, maybe acquired, but with real, substantive content. For the late nineteenth century the locus classicus of differentiality was John Stuart Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865), a scathing attack that brought far more attention to Hamilton’s writings than their author had managed during his lifetime. Hamilton’s “relativity of human knowledge” was one of the few things Mill agreed with, summarizing it as follows: "We only know anything by knowing it as distinguished from something else; all consciousness is of difference; two objects are the smallest number required to constitute consciousness; a thing is only seen to be what it is by contrast with what it is not." “With this doctrine”, wrote Mill, “I have no quarrel.” Since Hamilton nowhere states it so succinctly or clearly, one can hardly begrudge Mill his co-ownership of it. Saussure had come into contact with the English and Scottish philosophical traditions in his teens, reading Pictet’s survey of them in his book on aesthetics, Du Beau. That background left him receptive to the Hamilton–Mill doctrine. In The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics (1882) by John Bernhard Stallo,
Sassure read: "Thought, in its most comprehensive sense, is the establishment or recognition of relations between phenomena. Foremost among these relations – the foundation, in fact, of all others, such as those of exclusion and inclusion, coexistence and sequence, cause and effect, means and end – are the relations of identity and difference. The difference between phenomena is a primary datum of sensation. The very act of sensation is based upon it. It is one of the many acute observations of Hobbes that 'it is all one to be always sensible of the same thing and not to be sensible of anything.'" Stallo next quotes the sentence from Mill cited above, not mentioning that Mill is summarizing Hamilton. But the invocation of Hobbes anchors the doctrine still more firmly in the tradition of British thought. What is original to Saussure, then, does not include the view that linguistic meaning or any other form of conceptual knowledge is generated purely by the difference of one element from another within a system of values. Nor, of course, does it include the idea that the link between a linguistic meaning and the sounds which signify it is arbitrary – that is an ancient heritage. His novel contribution was to imagine the sound side of language on the one hand, and the conceptual side on the other, as perfectly alike in their nature and mental operation. This is the “double essence”: two orders of difference, held together by a force that is essentially social, which he called the immutability of linguistic signs. It makes it impossible for an individual to introduce a change into the sign system, and it means that any communal change creates a wholly new system of values, which is to say a new language. For if all consciousness is of difference, we can only speak of “a language” where all differences have been conventionalized, and are shared. Saussure repeatedly testifies that on this point he was influenced by the work of the American linguist William Dwight Whitney, with whom he had a chance meeting while studying in Germany in 1879. While he did not fully accept Whitney's characterization of a language as an “institution”, it set him on the track toward his own modified view of its essentially social nature. How the psychological link is made between the two orders of difference is not addressed by Saussure. But he became centrally involved when the question was taken up in 1892 by his psychologist colleague Theodore Flournoy, the most regular European correspondent, confidant and intellectual soulmate of William James. "So it does not seem to be the vowel as such – as it exists for the ear, that is – that calls forth a certain corresponding visual sensation. On the other hand, neither is it seeing a certain letter or group of letters that calls forth this sensation. Rather it is the vowel as it is contained in this written expression, it is the imaginary being formed by this first association of ideas which, through another association, appears to me as endowed with a certain consistency and a certain colour, sometimes also a certain shape and a certain smell." Terms such as association and sensation which Saussure uses here figure prominently in the “associationism” established by Mill’s Scottish ally Alexander Bain. In the second half of the nineteenth century it came to define “modern” psychology in Britain, then in America and Continental Europe, where opposing traditions were more firmly rooted. Flournoy’s analytical commentary states the principle of the arbitrariness of the linguistic
sign that will generally be credited to Saussure’s later lectures, though again its antiquity is well known: "The word is arbitrary, conventional, and gets attached to the idea only through the direct but purely superficial and (if I may use the term) cortical link that repetition ends up creating between the corresponding centres or plexuses; the connection of the sign and the thing signified is artificial and results from habitual association. On the other hand the relationship of photism to the auditory phenomenon is natural, being essentially founded on . . . the identical psychological effects that they have in the depths of the organism." The overlap with the Jamesian Flournoy is unmistakable. adapted from a longer article in the New York Times by John E. Joseph, Professor of Applied Linguistics in the University of Edinburgh. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment /the_tls/article2869724.ece
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