All roads lead to Ferdinand

This blog explores the radical insights of a Swiss linguist, Ferdinand Saussure, but first I will start with how linguistics changed from its early days as philology to a full-blown human science. By the 20th century, we (Americans) had become comfortable with the notion that man in general is to be defined by his language as opposed to the powers of the mind. Ideas can no longer exist in the mind without words, and nor can anyone reason without the aid of sentences. Man is the unique animal that employs a unique instrument to think with. However, such stipulations were taken further in the works of Saussure.

In his infamous compilation of lecture notes, Course in General Linguistics (CGL), Saussure claimed that langue should take priority over parole, because the system of language includes and goes beyond the total sum of every actual utterance that has ever been uttered. Now, this initial insight clearly already contradicts the perspective of natural science, where the only appropriate evidence are physical facts. However, Saussure knew that physical facts is not sufficient to account for language  as language – as a system that signifies and bears information.

I will expand that claim with a chess analogy. We could try studying chess in terms of the sum total of all the moves in every game ever played. But that will fail to account for chess as a game unless we understand that every actual move is selected from a much larger range of possible moves. In order to study chess properly we must look at the simultaneous system of principles for making moves, the simultaneous system that lies behind every move at every single moment of the game. This system precedes any actual move,  for the player already internalized it before he has begun to play.

Langue precedes any actual utterance the same way, for the speaker must have already internalized it before he can even begin to speak. If the speaker knew how to speak only the words which he actually speaks cannot be using language to signify or bear information. His utterance would be more like a bird call, or a parrot mimicking sounds. In order to account for language properly, the simultaneous system of langue, or the simultaneous system that implicitly lies behind every word at every single moment of utterance must be understood.

The same goes for the listener, who also must have the system of langue internalized. Langue must always be shared, ultimately by the entire society. No single person can invent new words and meanings without a community.

Saussure describes langue as “the social side of speech, outside the individual who can never create or modify it by himself; it exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of the community.” (CGL, p. 14)

The strange feature of the contract is that none of us gets the opportunity to evaluate it before signing it. Language is absorbed by the individual before one can think for himself. This absorption is the very condition of being able to think for oneself. We can reject certain knowledge that society teaches us, and we can resist certain beliefs society imposes up on us, but we always already accept the words and meanings through which such knowledge and beliefs were communicated to us. Words and meanings are deposited in our brains below the level of conscious ownership and mastery. They lie within us like a piece of undigested piece of society.

Saussure also explained how signifieds are concepts but not in the traditional way we think of concepts. Signifieds have nothing to do with images or mirroring or mental things of any sort. “The concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content, but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not.” (CGL p. 114) Such concepts are like the holes in a net: specified by their boundaries, yet empty in themselves.

Let’s take the concept signified by the word ‘rape.’ It is a concept that evokes strong feelings. However, in itself, it is empty – as if the very abomination of the word deflects our thinking away from the reality of rapes, as if the very unity of the word deflected our thinking away from the very varied and particular ways in which rapes actually take place. This is the general inability to recognize degrees or transitions in rape. As far as society is concerned, a woman not simply raped has not been raped at all. Therefore, the meaning of rape isn’t just a positive content of the word itself, but depends on the position of the word in a system that includes opposing words such as ‘consent’ and ‘marriage.’ Marriage is what rape is not: approval and legality are polarized against abhorrence and criminality.

Once feminists began to discuss rape within marriage, the relational nature of the meaning of rape became even more apparent. It has been very difficult to persuade society at large to accept this strange combination of meaning. The reality of sex by force just may be as brutal and humiliating within or without marriage. But the meaning of rape cannot just be referred to reality in this way. It depends upon the institutionalized opposition between the meaning of rape and the meaning of marriage.

The system of meaning categories that society transmits to generations exists as an interdependent whole. If one signified is changed, others must change too. If one word dropped out of the language, the boundaries of neighboring words would have to shift to incorporate the remaining space. “Language is a system whose parts can and must all be considered in their synchronic solidarity.” (CGL p 87)

For Anglo-Americans, their approach to language in the early 20th century was devised to prop up a notion of language in order to refute the concept of mind. Words take place of ideas, but not for concrete particular things. The world of particular concrete things emerged all the more entrenched by the reduction of its traditional opposite, the world of mind. Thus, for Anglo-American thinkers, language philosophy merely promised a new way of reinforcing the traditional goals of classical empiricism.

Logical atomists and logical positivists sought the referent or bedeutung of a word. They believed that without referents, language was utterly meaningless. So, they wanted to jump over the sinn or signified and connect the signifier directly to the particular concrete thing it referred to. Meanings as concepts in the mind was ruled out as superfluous, and the only thing left was the world of concrete particular things, attached with the tags of particular, concrete words.

The proper name is the most obvious connection between the signifier and referent. Unsurprisingly, the logical atomists and logical positivists thought proper names were the ideal form of language that underlays all other forms of language. Bertrand Russell theorized that words like sailor should be itemized into all the names of all the individuals who are or were sailors. A general category of conceptual meaning could and should be rewritten as an accumulation of particular pointing w/o conceptual meaning.

Language as assertion lines up directly against the world of particular concrete things. The Anglo-American thinkers regarded assertion as the ideal mode that underlies all sentences. (See Bertrand Russell’s theory of description, an appropriate rewriting technique, where “the king of France is bald” is rewritten as “there is 1 person and 1 person only who is the present king of France and that person is bald”)

This approach to language is hopelessly lopsided, alas. The rewriting technique presupposes that an assertion must depend upon at least some level of shared assumption between the utterer and the listener. Saussure’s approach is superior in which the social side of language is emphasized. Language is constantly and insidiously slipping into our minds an entire world of assumptions that never rise to the level of analysis or critical judgment. I personally am interested in this level of assumption (that there is such a thing as being a king), and if I go further in the disposal of signifieds, I am moving towards a world that is composed of nothing but signifiers.

Published by


...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

4 thoughts on “All roads lead to Ferdinand”

  1. When you say “Signifieds have nothing to do with images or mirroring or mental things of any sort”, do you mean that signifieds are not mental? I can understand that the signified as the concept of the referent is distinct from the referent – that what is signified by the signifier “criminality” is not any specific actual criminality but a kind of conceptual space that excludes all that is not criminal – but surely the concept is still in some way mental, even if it is not necessarily a physically definable ‘mental state’.

    I’m also interested to understand what you mean by the “disposal of signifieds”. Would a (mental) world “composed of nothing but signifiers” (not really possible within semiotics) be a return to animal consciousness?

  2. Thanks for replying, Peter. I mean that signifieds are not mental concepts or that they are representations of a mental realm. That is classic dualism, or traditional metaphysics that assumes things must exist in a certain state – physical, mental, sense datum, etc.

    Ordinarily we do think of concepts as something mental, but Saussure argues that signifieds aren't concepts that way because they are differential, and defined negatively by their relations to other signifieds in the system.

    I think if you try to jump over signifieds and connect the signifiers directly to referents, you are only looking at language as a parole. When we use language, the word "book" can point to this book or that book, or some books, or every book. But Saussure's concept of langue is an entire realm where no words have started to point. In langue, the word "book" is only a potential or a possibility of books. Anglo-American thinkers in the 20th century have changed a lot, but their focus seem to be staunchly limited to embedding language in the particular concrete world. They are eager to destroy metaphysical illusions generated by a language that rises above its proper status in the particular concrete world. But Saussure is way ahead of them – he is embedding the particular concrete world IN language instead.

    As for the "disposal of signifieds" I am talking about the general direction of the latest post-structuralists, e.g., Derrida's theories of language as writing.

Leave a Reply