Saussure And Structuralism
Updated: Feb 3
By Nitai Vishal Hinduja
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) was a young individual without an academic degree when he set out to revolutionize the basis of linguistics (Joseph, 2017). The book for which Saussure is famous, the Cours de linguistique générale, was compiled by his colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye using the notes of students alongside the notes of Saussure’s, from the three courses he gave in the years 1907, 1908–1909, and 1910–1911 (Joseph, 2017).
Before undertaking a nuanced study of the tenets of Saussure’s Structuralism, what we must primarily understand is Saussure’s conception of how meaning functioned in language (Davies, 1994, 355). In doing so Saussure placed a distinction in the study of language by way of diachronic and synchronic linguistics. Diachronic linguistics is that which is concerned with the origin and evolution of words and their meanings over periods of time. However, Saussure highlighted how a speaker of a given language is not prima facie concerned with the evolution of a given word or system thereof, but with its present state (Saussure, 1916, 81). Here comes the role of synchronic linguistics, which portrays language as a cross section of time and highlights the structural facets of language at a given point in time (Davies, 1994, 355). To better understand Saussure’s perspective on such, we may take up the example of a game of chess for an individual not acquainted with chess in the past. Herein, not only is the given arrangement of pieces on the board that which matters to the newcomer to the sport (no additional understanding would be obtained from learning how the pieces came to be positioned in this way), but any number of objects may be substituted for the chess pieces on the board (a die for a queen, etc.) because what encompasses the game’s viability is the differential relationship between the pieces, and not their value in themself. Such an observation of language as pieces of a game of chess at a given point is adopting a synchronic perspective as opposed to a diachronic one (MAMBROL, 2018).
From such an understanding, we may move on to the binary construction of the Langue and the Parole, which is inherent to Saussure’s structuralism. Herein, langue refers to language as a system based on certain established rules, while parole refers to a personal expression of such language (MAMBROL, 2016). In elaboration, such langue may be understood as a grammatical system that exists in the mind of all individuals belonging to a given community and grammatical system (Saussure, 1916, 30). Such langue has been described as ‘The Social product whose existence permits the individual to exercise his linguistic faculty’ (Engler, 1974, 31). However, the parole on the other hand is the manifestation of such langue in the form of sounds and meanings by an individual, who does so by selecting and combining different elements of the linguistic system (Culler, 1976, 29). Such parole may encompass the utterances, texts, that persons create and understand making use of the structural system that is the langue (Joseph, 2017).
We must now move on to the concepts of the signifier and signified, so as to understand how language is a precondition for conceptualization, and how ideas come after the existence of language (Davies, 1994, 357). Herein ‘signifier’ refers to the acoustic image and signifié ‘signified’ refers to the concept envisioned by way of signifier. The signified must not be confused with the actual object but it is solely the concept that an individual highlights (Joseph, 2017). Furthermore, ‘each signifier and each signified is a value produced by the difference between it and all the other signifiers and signifieds in the system’ (Joseph, 2016). It must be noted herein that such a conception of the sign points to certain autonomy of language with respect to the actual realities.
Herein, it may be reasonably postulated that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is in itself arbitrary. What saussure claims here is that any signifier, let it be a word in the form of a series of letters or even a sound, has no preexisting direct relationship toward the signified idea that is being referenced. On further thought, such a lack of a preexisting relationship is blatantly evident from the proposition that different signifieds are depicted by way of an array of different words varying from one language to another (West, 2018). The question that then arises at this point is that from where does the meaning of a word actually come from. Saussure herein believes that the linguistic value of a given sign is determined by the array of other factors within its environment, that is, by the other linguistic signs. Conceptually, the linguistic sign and its value may be understood by its differences to the other linguistic signs, ie. what it is not (Lanir, 2019). Quoting Saussure, “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 they others are not” (Saussure, 1916, 117).
Such Structuralist based thought propounded by Saussure insofar as understanding the importance of contextuality while determining the meaning of certain words sees great implications as well as reflections in the field of the law. Such may be observed in the conventional teaching of legal terms, which is done by undertaking a study of a series of definitions and more importantly distinctions, without which the former is not completely understood. While such a proposition may not hold firm in other fields, analysing such differences is imperative in law (Davies, 1994, 361).
Further, such an understanding of Structuralism underpins any attempt by legal philosophers, mostly those of the Anglo-American Traditions to arrive at a positive definition of law, one that is assumed to exist by said traditions. Such arises from the fact that following structuralist thought, in order to be able to define what law is, we must primarily distinguish it from what law is not. One may herein also reflect on Plato's conception of the forms, and the fact that an ideal form of concepts such as justice is clearly rejected by the arguments posed by Saussure (Davies, 1994, 360).
Nitai is a second-year B.A.LL.B. student at NLU-Delhi.
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Joseph, J.E. (2016). Saussure’s Value(s). Recherches sémiotiques, 34.https://doi.org/10.7202/1037153ar
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West, S. (2018, 01 28). Structuralism and Context. Philosophize This. https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/covid-vaccine-slot-checke/hmmahfccoaoebmjhmcnbbomomkimomhi/related?utm_source=chrome-ntp-icon