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Saussure's Philosophy of Language as PhenomenologyUndoing the Doctrine of the Course in General Linguistics$

Beata Stawarska

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780190213022

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190213022.001.0001

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(p.265) Appendix 2 |

(p.265) Appendix 2 |

Saussure's Philosophy of Language as Phenomenology
Oxford University Press

(p.265) Appendix 2 |

Saussure’s silence

It is unlikely that Saussure would have ever written a programmatic statement of general linguistics comparable to the Course. His overall reticence to publish in the academic format (while writing thousands upon thousands of unpublished manuscript pages) strongly suggests the contrary. Yet the lamented absence of a beau livre in general linguistics is not a simple failure, or an easily avoidable and rectifiable calamity, and Saussure’s prolonged silence begins to speak in its own right if considered within the context of his intellectual biography. There one finds evidence of a turmoil of intellectual activity and uninterrupted writing, as well as an increasing sense of crisis in linguistics construed as a positive science of language. Behind the official façade of inactivity one finds a secret and difficult becoming of a philosopher who is increasingly dissatisfied with the existing approaches and methods in scientific linguistics, and who declares the need for—but also dreads—a radical reform.

Saussure’s publication record issued during his lifetime is surprisingly brief. It includes a list of relatively short and technical articles, many of which were the required communications to the Société de linguistique de Paris regularly published in its Mémoires. Other pieces include invited contributions to diverse volumes of Mélanges Linguistique, motivated by friendship and/or deference to the editors. Saussure published just one book during his lifetime: the Mémoire sur les système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes, deemed by Meillet le plus beau livre of comparative grammar ever written. The Mémoire was Saussure’s thèse universitaire, satisfying the requirement for graduation from the University of Leipzig (1877). It was published in December 1878, when Saussure was just twenty-one.

The book was audacious, and, according to Saussure’s autobiographical notes, more a result of his own intellectual labors than his studies in Germany (Saussure, 1958, p. 15). In it, Saussure famously proposes a hypothesis far ahead of its time: the existence of the so-called sonant coefficients (les nasales voyelles), subsequently known as laryngeals, to explain the development of long vowels in Proto-Indo-European. What is striking to a linguist and a philosopher alike about the Mémoire is its method: Saussure bases his hypothesis on an internal reconstruction of underlying forms from the observable relations (p.266) between the existent ones; this analysis is only possible in view of language as a rule-governed system (Bouquet, 1997, p. 63, 1n). Such a systemic approach is an intellectual construct, a philosophical thesis about essential traits of language (or what language necessarily must be qua language), which is put in the service of interpreting and inferring empirical data relative to specific languages. The Mémoire thus sets Saussure’s method apart from that of his contemporaries:

Saussure began the task of defining languages as systems based on differential and relational terms rather than on the basis of the material properties of their phonetic substance. The Mémoire is significant for the break that it represents with the atomistic and substance-based approaches of nineteenth-century comparative linguistics. (Thibault, 2005, p. 667)

Even though Saussure is not expressly reflecting on the reform in linguistic methodology that this early study effectively calls for, the latter can be viewed as a practical expression of what later became articulated as a systemic theory of language with its concurrent critique of the atomism and “the involuntary assumption of substance” made in traditional linguistics. Saussure would then have applied a systemic approach to language first, and brought it under a reflective focus later on.1

One finds an even more precocious expression of a systemic approach in the posthumously published Essai pour réduire les mots du grec, du latin et de l’allemand a un petit nombre de racines (found in the papers acquired by Harvard University, Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 32, 1978, pp. 73–101), autographed by Saussure before turning fifteen. Dismissed by him later as an enfantillage (Saussure, 1958, p. 17), this piece inspired by Adolph Pictet’s Origines indo-européennes (studied by Saussure in his early teens) proposes a theory that derives all existing languages from a structure constituted by just three consonants (ibid., p. 17). Regardless of its credibility, the Essai testifies to an early commitment to a systemic vision of language, pursued by the young Saussure in relative solitude, like a private vision of the ultimate key to the manifest enigma of language.

The Mémoire was followed by Saussure’s doctoral dissertation, De l’emploie de génitif en Sanskrit, a short technical article, issued in Leipzig in February 1880. This article was to be the last piece published by the author out of his own initiative. The following shorter pieces, with the exception of two articles on declension and intonation in Lithuanian (Indogermanische Forschungen) and the Phrygian inscriptions (Recherches archéologiques de l’Asie centrale), were written out of an obligation (Bouquet, 1997, p. 65). As Meillet notes,

After the Mémoire, whose publication can be explained without a doubt by the audacity of first youth, F. de Saussure did not believe to have sufficiently developed the theory of any linguistic fact that could be exposed to the public. He wasn’t one of those who rush to publish their ideas before they have matured, before having realized all their difficulties and before having devised a complete (p.267) and coherent system. Overly concerned with having to produce definitive work, he only broke the silence to publish rather short notes, often simple footnotes (bas de pages) of the Mémoires of the Société de Linguistique. His last articles came out without a doubt as a result of feeling obliged to contribute some pages to certain collections; the scruple with which he kept his word, the zealousness with which he remained associated to these collective editions were touching for those who knew with what repugnance he embarked on any publication. (1913, clxxi, my translation)

In 1910, the scholar himself acknowledged, not without horror, having succumbed to “thirty years of silence” since the publication of the Mémoire (1879). “Mes trente ans de silence sont vraiment effrayants a sentir derrière moi en face de la haute distinction qui semble vouloir récompenser mon labeur scientifique,” he writes in a letter to Louis Havet after having been elected a corresponding member of l’Institut de France (Redard, 1976, p. 348). Saussure is then in the grips of epistolophobia—a fear of writing compounded with a disgust at having this fear (Jakobson, 1985, p. 222). The three-decade-long silence reflects, however, only on the public life of Saussure, as perceived by the academic establishment. Behind this façade of inactivity, we find a private Saussure writing thousands of manuscript pages on subjects ranging from methodological and conceptual issues within general linguistics to problems in ancient Indian theosophy; Vedic literature and Hindu mythology; textual studies of Germanic legends; a quest after anagramic inscriptions within Greek and Latin poetry and Latin prose; notes on speaking in tongues by the famous medium Helen Smith. Saussure’s writings testify to a sustained reflection on all things having to do with language, but either broadly construed and hence lying outside of the province of scientific linguistics, or pursued as a critique and an envisaged reform of the scientific linguistic discipline itself. The writings unpublished during Saussure’s life are therefore contestatory of scientific linguistics in a double sense, by either focusing on marginal or “external” phenomena of language, or by rethinking the basic methods and categories of linguistic science.

One significant body of work is constituted by some 638 sheets and 995 pages of manuscript pages stored in the Houghton Library of Harvard University (known as the Harvard Manuscripts, they are catalogued as bMS Fr 266 (1)–(9); selected excerpts with interpretative commentary from the collection have been published by Herman Parret as Les manuscrits saussuriens de Harvard, in Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 47, 1993).2 (p.268) The Harvard Manuscripts are dated by Maria Pia Marchese to the period between 1881 and 1885 based on the authors cited by Saussure (Saussure, 1995, p. xiv). The 177 pages of unpublished material catalogued as bMS Fr 266 (8), which bear the handwritten title Phonétique (Phonetics), are generally believed to be notes and reflections for a treatise on phonetics that Saussure never completed (Maria Pia Marchese published a critical edition of the complete manuscripts catalogued as bMS Fr 266 (8) as: Phonétique: il manoscritto di Harvard, 1995; see also Jakobson “Saussure’s Unpublished Reflexions on Phonemes,” 1969). The materials from the planned treatise on phonetics form an important part of Saussure’s overall project to develop a theoretical view of language as a system; they put forward a semiological phonetics, whereby sounds and successions of sounds are identified in terms of their value for an idea (Saussure, 1995, p. 120), and not as atomic parcels of physical sound. Saussure’s phonetics is concerned therefore with how linguistic ideas are articulated in conjunction with the way in which the ear distinguishes between material sounds; this articulation, made at the level of perceived speech, supposes therefore an access to an understanding of language as a system of relational terms.

In addition to the Harvard collection, a substantial body of Saussure’s manuscripts is preserved and catalogued in the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire in Geneva (see Godel, 1957; “Inventaire des Manuscripts de F. de Saussure Remis à la Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire de Genève” [1960]). This collection includes Saussure’s extensive notes on the Germanic legends of Niebelungslied, which are dated to a period roughly from late 1903 to 1913, and possibly even until Saussure’s death in 1913. In the notes, Saussure approaches the Germanic legends as systems of signs whose constitutive elements take on a symbolic status as they became gradually removed from their historical source. The legends emerge therefore as textual sites of signification, irreducible to the historical events they narrate. Saussure put some of this material in the service of his teaching in 1904. Yet a planned book on the subject was never published in Saussure’s own hand, even though he filled some eighteen notebooks with notes. (A representative selection of the material has been made available to Saussure scholars in a critical edition of the notes, with editorial commentary, by Anna Marinetti and Marcello Meli [Saussure, Ferdinand de, Le Leggende Germaniche: Scritti Scelti e Annotati (Padua, Italy: Libreria Editrice Zielo–Este, 1986)].)

Yet another body of written work is constituted by Saussure’s quest to reconstitute the anagrams or “the words upon words” in Saturnine Latin poetry. This project dating back to 1906–1909 seeks to tease a second text out of the fragments isolated in the interior of a poem, typically from the proper nouns. This research was extended to Greek and Latin epic, lyric, and dramatic poetry, and Latin prose. A search for anagrams can be dismissed on empirical grounds as a self-fulfilling prophecy since it is prone to accumulate evidence in favor of its hypothetical assumption as it progresses. And yet it raises a properly philosophical question of whether a hidden text, if it were to exist “upon the words,” would be traceable to a deliberate choice on the composer’s part or a product of chance (Starobinski, 1971, p. 119). Whatever one makes of empirical evidence in favor of the anagrams, the theoretical distinction between intentional activity deployed by an individual subject and processes inherent in language as such is valid and nontrivial; this distinction centers on the role of individual consciousness and the unconscious in language, which is also raised within Saussure’s project in general linguistics. Saussure (p.269) filled close to 140 notebooks with reflections on the anagrams, without publishing any of it. Jean Starobinski made this material available in an insightful study of the scientific status of Saussure’s research on the anagrams, his doubts surrounding the entire process and its eventual termination, in: Let mots sous les mots: les anagrammes de Ferdinand de Saussure (Gallimard, 1971; translated as Words upon Words: The Anagrams of Ferdinand de Saussure, Yale UP, 1979).

Finally, of interest related to the “marginal” linguistic phenomena are Saussure’s notes on glossolalia or speaking in tongues. Saussure is invoked repeatedly in Theodore Flournoy’s Des Indes a la planète Mars (1983; From India to the Planet Mars: A Case of Multiple Personality with Imaginary Languages, Princeton UP, 1994) as an expert of Sanskrit, the language purportedly spoken by the clairvoyant under the adopted name Helen Smith, who, when in trance, adopted the personality of a Princess Simandini. Smith had a spiritual double, Leopold, who wrote down Princess Simandini’s messages in this language. Saussure took part in the spiritualist séances featuring Mlle. Smith. He sought to analyze the written messages, which he identified as “Sanskritoid”; his reports are cited in Flournoy’s book.

Saussure was therefore anything but silent when regarded from within the perspective of his largely solitary pursuits; his solitude and separation from the establishment could have been as deliberately contestatory as Nietzsche’s descent into the abyss before conceiving a radical reform, a new philosophy of morals (see Bouquet, 1997, p. 67). In a similar vein, Saussure may have been conceiving a radical reform, a new philosophy of linguistics, in response to the stated crisis in the European sciences of dealing with language as a positive fact. This is an immense task which calls for a renewed reflection about the nature of language and appropriate methods of study; I’d like to consider that it is the immensity of this task that accounts in part at least for Saussure’s reticence to make his own work public during his lifetime. His silence should therefore be heard in its proper resonance and not too hastily lamented as a loss and a lack to be filled.

This sense of crisis and need of a radical reform is expressed with force in a letter to Antoine Meillet from January 4, 1894. The letter was written at the time (1893–1894) when Saussure was working on a book on general linguistics, and it reveals the many misgivings he felt about this project. Saussure concedes the magnitude of the task lying ahead of him, as well as nostalgia for the historical studies only seemingly out of place in linguistics. Having updated Meillet about the slow progress of his writings on Lithuanian intonation and accentuation, he professes both his disgust and the great difficulty involved in writing “even ten lines of good sense (sens commun) on linguistic matters” (Benveniste, “Lettres De Ferdinand De Saussure À Antoine Meillet,” 1964, CFS: 21, 95). It seems like everything needs to be started afresh, a new basis laid before a single line on a specific linguistic problem can be written.

As he pursues: “Preoccupied as I have been for a long time above all with the logical classification of linguistic facts and with the classification of the points of view from which we treat them, I realize more and more the immense amount of work that would be required to both show the linguist what he is doing, by reducing each process to a category laid in advance for it, as well as the conceit (l’assez grande vanité) of what one can effectively do in linguistics” (ibid., p. 95, my translation).

The task then is double: to expose the unexamined assumptions about the subject matter and the method which effectively guide the linguist in his work—the assumptions (p.270) which Saussure will trace to the enduring influence of categories from substance metaphysics and naïve realism in science, and the resulting conceit reigning in linguistics. Saussure decries “the absolute ineptitude of the current terminology” and points to “the need of a reform, and, for this purpose, of showing what kind of an object language in general is.” This professed need does not figure, however, as an inspiration for future research but rather as a dread: it would have spoiled Saussure’s pleasure in working with languages, and forced him to work with language in general against his dearest wish. The crisis in linguistics would thus lead him to write a book “despite himself” (malgré moi), a book where he would have to explain, with neither passion nor enthusiasm, why there isn’t a single term in linguistics to which he could attribute any meaning at all (ibid., p. 95). Note that this reflective effort to glean the nature or essence of the object being investigated was a guiding question for Saussure already in the Mémoire. It is a question of “the very foundations of the subject (données élémentaires), without which everything remains unanchored, arbitrary and uncertain” (Mémoire, 2009 [1879], p. 1). The question of the foundations does not, he emphasizes, belong to the transcendent order of pure speculations (ibid.); it is a question that scientists and philosophers must ask in unison if any headway is to be made relative to questions about the being of language, and how best to approach it.

Saussure mentioned a need for a book reflecting on the basic categories used in linguistics in November 1891, in the third lecture at the University of Geneva (2006, pp. [163–173], 109–116). He wrote: “One day, a very special and interesting book will be written on the role of the word as the main element of distortion in the science of words” (ibid., p. [166], 111). The problem diagnosed in his observation that the word is an element of distortion will be later developed as the dominant philosophical idea that language is a species of nomenclature made up of names (nomen); this linguistic idea is bound up with a metaphysical commitment to substance as a basic unit of reality, and implied direct referent of a name (what Saussure describes as “an involuntary assumption of substance” in linguistics). Saussure put his energies into this planned book around 1893–1894, as documented by the “Notes for a book on general linguistics” (Writings, 2006, pp. [197–203], 136–140), over a decade prior to the course on general linguistics at the University of Geneva (1907–1911). As he told a student, M. L. Gautier, on May 6, 1911, it was before the 1900s that he was especially preoccupied with questions relating to general linguistics and philosophy of language; he did not expand on these reflections later, and expressed misgivings about teaching such complex material as part of a standard university course, considering especially that he was ridden with many doubts.3 This admission lends substantial weight to the unpublished manuscript notes as a principal site of Saussure’s reflections on general and philosophical issues related to language. The planned book project was definitively abandoned by the time Saussure taught the course. As he shared with another student, A. Riedlinger, on January 19, 1909, “As for a book on this subject, one cannot consider it: a book has to offer the definitive thought of its (p.271) author” (Godel, 1957, p. 30). Saussure apparently did not consider the traditional book format appropriate for the unfinished, if not infinite, process he was engaged in.

Saussure’s sense of a crisis in linguistics may explain the painstakingly slow progress of his publications at the time, that is, the two essays on Lithuanian intonation and accentuation. Saussure read the first one to the Société Linguistique de Paris in 1889; the paper was well received, and Saussure hoped that his study of Lithuanian accentuation would eventually provide independent empirical evidence that the vowel system hypothesized in the Mèmoire was correct. He therefore declined to publish the paper immediately in the journal of the Société, and planned to develop it further in a book-length manuscript. As the notebooks from around that time show, the projected book would have dealt with issues relative to general linguistics broadly construed, and included discussion of terms like opposition, value, and difference, which are key to the theoretical account of language from the Course (Joseph, 2009, pp. 188–189). Saussure did not consider this work ready for publication, however, and eventually set the hundreds of pages of notes and drafts aside to embark on a project related to general theoretical issues in linguistics: synchrony and diachrony, their relation to phonetics and morphology, and the nature of linguistic signs (“Double Essence Manuscripts,” Writings, 2006, pp. [17–88], 11–88). Apparently Saussure deemed the latter project more promising as far as meeting the publication requirements relative to securing an “ordinary” or permanent post at the U. of Geneva, which included a book or a series of articles with high impact (Joseph, 2009, p. 189). However, the resulting pages of draft could not be brought to satisfactory completion either.

This protracted history of repeated editorial miscarriages—a failure to produce polished pieces which would be palatable to the linguistic establishment—is productive insofar as it demonstrates or rather enacts the crisis of the linguistic science itself, the impossibility of developing a novel approach to a linguistic problem (such as Lithuanian accentuation and intonation) within the confines of traditional theory. The impossibility of developing this novel approach would result from the meaninglessness and logical incoherence pervading the basic terms in linguistics (Benveniste, 1964, pp. 95–96). Saussure’s silence is therefore a direct expression of the impossibility of breaking new ground so long as the dominant categories dictate what counts as real in language and how it should be investigated. Hence the practical and embarrassing consequences: despite the fact that the essay on Lithuanian read to the Société in 1889 presented no “material difficulties,” Saussure “dragged” (fait traîner), on his own admission, its publication for over a year (and then sent off to the editor, Louis Duvau, the original draft from 1889 plus one paragraph on a minor point and an announcement that a second part would follow (cited in Joseph, 2009, p. 189); this piece would have seen the light of day “without succeeding to avoid logically odious expressions, because a decidedly radical reform would be needed for that purpose” (Benveniste, 1964, p. 96). The pieces that were eventually published were thus written decidedly “malgré moi”—not only despite but even against oneself. The announced second piece was never published, even though, as Saussure informed Meillet in a letter from September 23, 1907, it was not only written but also largely typeset (ibid., p. 108). The promised link between Lithuanian accentuation and the controversial vowel system from the Mémoire, which could have gathered empirical evidence from a living European language for the validity of the historical reconstruction of the Indo-European language system, was therefore never publicly made (p.272) (Joseph, 2009, p. 198)—an absence that only deepened the thirty-year silence following the publication of the Mémoire.4

Saussure emerges therefore as a scientist who enacts a crisis of his discipline (and the end of the book?) with his life of seclusion. According to Agamben,

Saussure represents . . . the precious instance of a philologist who, caught in the net of language, felt, as Nietzsche did, the insufficiency of philology, and who had to become a philosopher or succumb. Saussure did not abandon linguistic study as Nietzsche had done, but, closing himself for thirty years in a silence that appeared inexplicable to many, interrupted only by the publication of mélanges of brief technical notes . . . pursued to the limit an exemplary instance of the impossibility of a science of language within the western metaphysical tradition. (1993, pp. 152–153, emphasis added)

Saussure’s silence would then carry within it an echo of the secret becoming of a philosopher of language behind the scenes of scientific research in linguistics. Saussure did not succumb in the face of the crisis of the science of linguistics, even though he may have enacted “the impossibility of a science of language within the western metaphysical tradition” by his manifest impasse. Through a disengagement with the established forums and formats of scientific linguistics, Saussure would have attempted a reduction of Western metaphysics and the sciences based upon it, in view of testing their validity and ultimately developing—in outline at least—an alternative metaphysics and methodology. The impasse is then productive insofar as it opens up a space for critical distancing from the traditional model of science and for a renewed reflection on both the subject matter and the requisite methods in a regrounded study of language. Such reflection bears on the very foundations of science, and as such it must summon philosophical forces. Its task will be to respond to the metaphysician’s question: what is language, if not an object modeled on the traditional notion of substance? And to the methodologist’s question: what approaches, other than the natural scientific approach, can best accommodate the kind of being that language is?


(1) For a detailed account of Saussure’s linguistic contributions in the Mémoire and the book’s complicated reception see ch. 7 in Joseph, 2012, pp. 221–249.

(2) Thibault (2005) identifies the following major themes in the Harvard Manuscripts: (1) the study of the functional roles of the Indo-European phonemes in relation to the opposition between consonants and sonants, (2) the syllabic basis of articulation, (3) the concept of the phoneme as “unité phonétique” (phonetic unit), (4) the form and substance of speech sounds, (5) the combining of phonemes in parole, (6) the role of the voice and of the ear, (7) the physiological and physical dimensions of speech sounds, (8) intention and will as agencies that modulate speech sounds in parole, and (9) the diverse temporal spheres of parole. In the other manuscripts in this collection, Saussure’s notes cover many diverse topics. These include (1) the Armenian kh final, (2) the Sanskrit genitive, (3) the absolute genitive, (4) Vedic literature, (5) a discussion of a book by Paul Oltramare (1907) on ancient Indian theosophy, (6) the Indo-European a, (7) Vedic and Hindu mythology, (8) ancient Greek linguistics, and (9) a draft of Saussure’s doctoral thesis (see also Parret, 1995).

(3) Je me trouve placé devant un dilemme: ou bien exposer le sujet dans toute sa complexité et avouer tous mes doutes, ce qui ne peut convenir pour un cours qui doit être matière à examen. Ou bien faire quelque chose de simplifié, mieux adapté à un auditoire d’étudiants qui ne sont pas linguistes. Mais à chaque pas, je me trouve arrêté par des scrupules. Pour aboutir, il me faudrait des mois de méditation exclusive. (Godel, 1957, p. 30).

(4) The essay in question (“The Accentuation of the Lithuanian Language”) was read to the Tenth International Congress of the Orientalists, held at the University of Geneva, on September 8, 1894. It was in fact the only international congress in which Saussure read a paper, since all the other papers were delivered to the Société in Paris (Joseph, 2009, p. 182). The paper laid out a new linguistic law, later termed Saussure’s law (ibid., p. 191). An essay spelling out this law was published, together with another piece on Lithuanian, in a prestigious journal: Indogermanische Forschungen. The first came out in 1894, the second, stating Saussure’s Law, in 1896. These are the only two articles Saussure published in a scholarly journal, other than the Société’s. The two pieces were published in time to secure a permanent position at the U. of Geneva for Saussure on October 23, 1896.