Apology for Saussure’s silence


For those scholars whose preoccupation is the analysis, teaching, observation of all aspects of language, it is only natural to keep asking: “Whatever happened to Ferdinand de Saussure?” In other words, whatever happened to his ideas, his fresh outlook on language, his standing as  “father of an academic, scientific discipline”? These questions receive significant answers in the slender publication entitled Ferdinand de Saussure, il linguista senza qualità (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2013, pp. 5-26) written by Nunzio La Fauci.

Let us examine a number of threads which weave through the booklet, making specific points not only about Saussure himself but also noting how these threads contribute to a possible profound re-examination of  “Saussure’s” Cours de linguistique générale,  as well as the science called linguistics. The whole portrait painted by La Fauci rests on the premise that Saussure embodies what Musil described as “man without qualities”, and, I add, that is to say, perhaps, a man of post-modern qualities.


Whatever Saussure was or has become, firstly and foremost he was a teacher. La Fauci underlines the fact that Saussure, not really so sure of his ideas that he would put them to print, had the chance to present his musings about general linguistics to students in three courses. It is a well-known fact that without Bally and Sechehaye (who did not attend these lectures but who, with the collaboration of Riedlinger, assembled notes made by students), Saussure’s ideas about language would not have seen the light of day. Although La Fauci does not analyze this aspect of Saussure’s life, it is clear that without the courses themselves and without the  student notes, there would not be the book which so transformed many social disciplines. But what is more important is the fact that Saussure had the possibility to verbalize his ideas about language in a non-threatening environment, clearly attempting to rationalize and justify in some way the direction of his thoughts. However, this is also Saussure’s damnation, so to speak, since whatever the Cours de linguistique générale offers, cannot be undone, cannot be defended, explained, elaborated on, it can only be attacked.


“Linguistics is a science”. This is a claim put forth by all the definitions of linguistics, but which very few look at from another perspective, that of social science. The science in the definition deals with concepts, in Saussure’s case, to put it crudely, of notions of relationships among and differences between forms: syntagmatic and associative/paradigmatic. The social in this instance must furnish the role of forms for the expression of ideas. Is it possible (but La Fauci does not deal with this) that Saussure was uncertain about his ideas regarding language precisely because he did not want to be stuck in a formalistic straight-jacket but did not know how to get out of it? I have always found problematic Saussure’s use the image of chess pieces for explaining synchrony and diachrony. This picture does not include the players, i.e. speakers. (An analysis of the use of chess for scientific explanations is reserved for another post.) Clearly, the conceptual bases change with time, but the danger of linguistics having self-absorbed notions is ever present.

Ipsi dixerunt

Historical chances underscore the vagaries of being in the right place at the right time supported by the “right” people. In fact, La Fauci describes the manner in which the attitudes toward the Cours expressed first by Meillet and then by the three points of the “structuralist diamond” (p.14)  Hjelmslev, Trubeckoy and Jakobson, shaped Saussure’s reputation in scientific circles. The Cours, read in a structuralist perspective, helped to elaborate other fields, such as anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, etc. Saussure becomes “an emblem” of the first Forty or so years of the Twentieth Century (p. 16). La Fauci asks: What is left of Saussure in a world where linguistic Parnassus now swells with new names and then deflates? His answer: two things remain of Saussure. The first idea makes of Saussure a promoter of novel thinking, which nonetheless nowadays is perceived as irreparably old and out of fashion. The second opinion regarding Saussure brings to the fore a group of admirers and specialists who keep the interest/cult of Saussure alive, especially those who work on unearthing Saussure’s thought from the mountain of private writings and other sources which need to be analyzed and published. The destiny of Saussure therefore rests on the good will of those who cavilously seek to discover what Saussure said (or worse, thought) (p. 18). Furthermore, as Jakobson so clearly communicated, Saussure was not able to bring new ideas to the study of historical linguistics/Indo-European; but Saussure’s attitude of dignified prudery did not allow him the publishable expression of his innermost thoughts (La Fauci , p. 21). And, I add, interestingly enough, if the scholar from Geneva  lived today, perhaps he would be less reticent to consign his thoughts to electronic technology…

Before concluding with a quote from Musil’s Man without qualities, La Fauci makes the point that Saussure’s though is worth much more deeper analysis and use than simple mention and celebration of his existence.

Ambivalent attitudes to interesting historical figures make for learned disquisitions or one-sided decisions, when they ought to be presented as bases for a really profound re-examination of many of accepted versions of “the truth”. La Fauci’s work is a step in this direction.


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