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Beyond Pure Reason

Beyond Pure Reason: Ferdinand de Saussure's Philosophy of Language and Its Early Romantic Antecedents

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    Beyond Pure Reason
    Book Description:

    The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857--1913) revolutionized the study of language, signs, and discourse in the twentieth century. He successfully reconstructed the proto-Indo-European vowel system, advanced a conception of language as a system of arbitrary signs made meaningful through kinetic interrelationships, and developed a theory of the anagram so profound it gave rise to poststructural literary criticism.

    The roots of these disparate, even contradictory achievements lie in the thought of Early German Romanticism, which Saussure consulted for its insight into the nature of meaning and discourse. Conducting the first comprehensive analysis of Saussure's intellectual heritage, Boris Gasparov links Sassurean notions of cognition, language, and history to early Romantic theories of cognition and the transmission of cultural memory. In particular, several fundamental categories of Saussure's philosophy of language, such as the differential nature of language, the mutability and immutability of semiotic values, and the duality of the signifier and the signified, are rooted in early Romantic theories of "progressive" cognition and child cognitive development. Consulting a wealth of sources only recently made available, Gasparov casts the seeming contradictions and paradoxes of Saussure's work as a genuine tension between the desire to bring linguistics and semiotics in line with modernist epistemology on the one hand, and Jena Romantics' awareness of language's dynamism and its transcendence of the boundaries of categorical reasoning on the other. Advancing a radical new understanding of Saussure, Gasparov reveals aspects of the intellectual's work previously overlooked by both his followers and his postmodern critics.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50445-4
    Subjects: Linguistics, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Saussure, “Saussurism,” and “Saussurology”
    (pp. 1-12)

    Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics appeared in 1916, three years after his death; it was in fact a compilation of his students’ notes from three lecture courses Saussure taught in Geneva between 1906 and 1911.¹ Despite disruptions to international communications, the appeal of the book was momentous.² During the period between the two world wars, all over the world, scholars specializing in linguistics, literary theory, and studies of the sign and meaning found themselves in an intense dialogue with the book—interpreting, refining, and challenging its ideas, building various descriptive models of language and literature according to its premises, opening...

  6. PART 1 Voluble Silence:: Saussure and His Legacy

    • ONE The Person
      (pp. 15-36)

      Despite the appearance of impassive objectivity that characterizes the rhetorical surface of both celebrated books of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913)—his early Note on the Original System of Indo-European Vowels (1879) and the posthumous Course in General Linguistics (1916)—his life and personality always attracted keen interest among those who were stirred, one way or another, by his ideas. Emile Benveniste expressed this sentiment admirably in an article dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of Saussure’s death: “A certain mystery surrounds his human life [sa vie humaine], which withdrew so early into silence”;¹ we are invited, as it were, to...

    • TWO The Writings
      (pp. 37-60)

      Saussure’s writing difficulties, underlain by perpetual doubt, did not affect his performance as a teacher. In his notes, moments of dazzling clarity of vision are not rare but are typically short-lived, dissolving rapidly into a fog of aborted theses, sudden diversions, and incomplete or even plainly ungrammatical phrases. In class, however, Saussure consistently maintained what Bally called “une clarté de vision étonnante.” Saussure’s trademark was his ability to shape even problems of the utmost complexity into an intellectual edifice whose logic of construction—or at least its rhetorical scaffolding—looked perfectly transparent. He always spoke spontaneously, using few notes or...

  7. PART 2 Postulates About Language and Their Demise

    • THREE Antinomies of the Sign
      (pp. 63-86)

      The Course begins (after a brief historical survey) by addressing the key issue that makes linguistics as a discipline methodologically problematic: the lack of a clear definition of its object of study.¹ To say simply that a linguist studies “language” is not to address the problem at all, since a variety of other disciplines also deal with language. Language figures, one way or another, within the framework of anthropology, sociology, psychology, acoustics, physiology, history, philosophy, philology, cultural studies—a deceptive richness that in fact leaves language without an epistemological home of its own: “In fact, the whole world is occupied...

    • FOUR Fragmentation and Progressivity: Saussure’s Semiotics in the Mirror of Early Romantic Epistemology
      (pp. 87-110)

      Tracing Saussure’s intellectual roots is not easy. In his writing, including the notes, he rarely referred to ideas or authors outside technical linguistic studies. Saussure’s personal library, eventually bequeathed to the University of Geneva, consisted exclusively of books on linguistics (it is possible, however, that what his family decided to give away was only part of his library: Stancati 2004). Whenever Saussure delves into general issues of methodology, his references typically become generic, even sweeping; he fights with “prejudices” and “stupidities,” and often qualifies and differentiates without specifying the target of his argument. Many of those who knew Saussure marvelled...

    • FIVE Diachrony and History
      (pp. 111-136)

      The only book Saussure published in his lifetime appeared in 1878 in Leipzig under the title Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes.¹ The book received instant, albeit somewhat controversial recognition. While hailed in the Francophone world as an achievement of revolutionary proportions that in one stroke ended the supremacy of the “Germans,” Saussure’s Mémoire largely displeased his teachers.² Karl Brugmann, Saussure’s principal mentor—whose two-volume compendium of Indo-European comparative phonetics and morphology (followed by three volumes of comparative syntax by Berthold Delbrück) would eventually become the definitive accomplishment of nineteenth-century comparative linguistics—though praising the...

  8. PART 3 Language in Discourse

    • SIX The Anagram
      (pp. 139-149)

      In the course of his scholarly career, Saussure worked in three widely diverse areas, each of which came to be the focus of his interests at different periods: the epistemology of language, with the exploration of the transcendental properties of the sign at its intellectual core; the history of language and other semiotic systems (legends), including theoretical problems of historical evolution and its reconstruction; and finally, the semiotic nature of sound repetitions, particularly in poetic discourse, a phenomenon known since the 1970s as Saussure’s theory of the “anagram.” While the relationship between the first two aspects of Saussure’s work is...

    • SEVEN Linguistics of Speech: An Unrealizable Promise?
      (pp. 150-169)

      To understand what motivated Saussure in this sudden and somewhat dubious pursuit, one needs to appreciate the depth of his uncertainly about the key issue on which the whole edifice of theoretical linguistics was supposed to rest: namely, the idea of la langue as a plethora of oppositive differentiations whose arbitrary hermeticism makes it “immutable.” The negative nature of la langue as pure form means that no single entity can ever change on its own because it simply does not exist by itself. Yet language changes all the time, and no one was as keenly aware of that as Saussure....

  9. Conclusion: Freedom and Mystery—the Peripathetic Nature of Language
    (pp. 170-182)

    The most active phase of Saussure’s scholarly and teaching career (at least outwardly speaking) comprised approximately a decade and a half between the late 1870s and mid-1890s. It was a time dominated by “positivism” in philosophy, the natural sciences, and social studies. In 1844 Auguste Comte had proclaimed the end of the “metaphysical” era of abstract philosophical speculation and the beginning of the “scientific” era of concrete or “positive” knowledge and exploration. To Comte also belonged the credit for introducing the principles of empirical science into the sphere of social studies; this new perception of the social element as something...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 183-206)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 207-220)
  12. Index
    (pp. 221-228)