The Course in General Linguistics
) has had over a one-hundred-year-long legacy, and it became an indispensable “Great Book” in the contemporary canon of ideas. This canonical text laid out an innovative research program in modern linguistics, and it led to the development of structuralist methods in the humanities. It therefore occupies an important role in contemporary academic scholarship and college-level pedagogy. While the Course
is justifiably enshrined within the canon, recent developments in Saussurean linguistics offer multiple venues for developing a critical perspective on this foundational text. This groundbreaking research has been largely confined to specialized French-language academic venues, and it is therefore not nearly as popular and widely accessible as the Cours
This is the first English-language handbook addressed at a wide, interdisciplinary audience that reflects relevant scholarly developments related to the legacy and legitimacy of the Course today. It is designed as a self-standing assessment of where the materials from the Course and from the linguist’s Nachlass (works unpublished or unexhibited at Saussure’s death, some of which were recently discovered) agree and disagree on key aspects of cultural signification. This handbook may be consulted on its own as an accessible overview of Saussurean linguistics in the twenty-first century. It may also be read in tandem with the 1916 Course following the plan provided toward the end of this Introduction.
This book examines the production, reception, and replication of the Course as an official statement of Saussure’s linguistics within its social and institutional context. It also considers the role played by social relations of power within academic institutions. It surveys the normative process of establishing true knowledge in emerging scientific disciplines such as general linguistics. It pays close attention especially to the set of oppositional pairings—the signifier and the signified; la langue and la parole ; synchrony and diachrony—which became the hallmark of structuralism across the humanities. Sometimes referred to as the “Saussurean doctrine,” this hierarchical and oppositional conceptual apparatus undergoes a critical revision in favor of a horizontal and relational setup that resonates with the phenomenological tradition in philosophy. Ultimately, this handbook highlights the intellectual complexity of Saussure’s linguistics. Furthermore, it documents the relevance of Saussure’s linguistics to the two, oft antagonized, contemporary philosophical traditions: structuralism and phenomenology, suggesting a rapprochement.
Part I is composed of nine chapters dealing broadly with the legitimacy of the Course in General Linguistics . The second chapter outlines recent developments in Saussurean linguistics. It shows that scholars have critiqued and complicated the received structuralist interpretation of Saussurean linguistics and challenged the legitimacy of the Course (1916) itself. Scholars exposed multiple discrepancies between the 1916 posthumous edition and the source materials from the linguist’s Nachlass . Thanks to access to some recently discovered autograph writings, it is now possible to glean additional insight into general linguistics. The third chapter sheds light on the process of writing and reviewing the Course as official doctrine. The two editors and ghostwriters, Albert Sechehaye and Charles Bally, usurped the role of Saussure’s disciples after the master’s death, and thereby assumed the right to write a book of their own design in his name. Sechehaye also authored three extensive book reviews of the Course where he cemented the validity of the “Saussurean doctrine” crafted in collaboration with Bally.
The fourth chapter narrows the focus on one editorial strategy that imposed the understanding of language (la langue) as a single and simple object of linguistic study. The editors inserted an apocryphal statement to that effect into the conclusion of the Course, and they subsequently cited it in dedicated book reviews and specialized essays in linguistics. This so-called famous formula became a structuralist motto. It created an impression of a seamless transition from Saussureanism to structuralism. The remainder of the chapter documents that the editorial presentation tends to overstate the distinction between la langue and la parole such that la langue alone is deemed an object worthy of scientific interest.
The fifth and sixth chapters tackle the influential account of arbitrary linguistic signification. This account became an integral element of the “Saussurean doctrine,” but it is based on an initial, provisional understanding of the linguistic sign that was ultimately revised in the course of Saussure’s lectures. Whereas the sign is a formal entity inscribed within a semiological system in the structuralist interpretation, the sign is motivated “from within” by the language system and “from without” by social conventions as they evolve over time in the Saussurean view. Ultimately, contrary to the structuralist view, cultural signification is subject to social forces, social critique, and social change.
The seventh chapter expands a critical study of the Course to include Derrida’s influential interpretation of this canonical text. It offers a critique of the philosopher’s own critical reading of Saussure’s linguistics, and it reveals a profound rapprochement between their respective views in light of the linguist’s Nachlass . For both Derrida and Saussure, cultural signification is mediated by the plexus of differences within the language system, and it is shaped by the so-called extralinguistic world.
The eighth chapter completes the overview of the “Saussurean doctrine” by tackling the interrelation between synchrony and diachrony. While this interrelation is construed as a hierarchical dualism in the Course, it is cast as an essential horizontal duality in the linguist’s Nachlass . In the latter, language study is characterized by self-reflexivity and conceptual complexity—traits that are overshadowed by the reductive scientific program developed in the Course. The ninth chapter renders the essential duality of la langue and la parole and synchrony and diachrony more concrete by considering linguistic creativity, that is, the production of innovative expressions on the basis of the established ones. Called “analogical innovation,” this process is an intrinsic feature of language (la langue ) itself and illustrates how the speakers’ expressions (la parole) affect and alter the language system (la langue ) from within. The dual essence of language—the intersection of stability and change—becomes grounded in speech practices that receive and revise the language code over time.
The tenth chapter establishes that the editorial organization of the Course’s contents contributed to establishing the primacy of the language system (la langue) by situating it above the empirical plurality of existing languages (les ...