The Real Saussure

In July of this year Oxford University Press will be publishing the English edition of recently discovered notes by Ferdinand de Saussure. These notes are important because they formed the basis for his famous Cours de Linguistique Generale, the founding text of structuralism. This is remarkable, because up till now the authoritative text had been based primarily on the notes of Saussure’s students. These new notes have been available in French for a number of years without any major shake-up in the world of linguistics, but their publication in English will still be an important event. Still, the blurb on the OUP website is laughable for its Batman-esque efforts to drum up excitement:

It is remarkable that for eighty years the understanding of Saussure’s thought has depended on an incomplete and non-definitive text, the sometimes aphoristic formulations of which gave rise to many creative interpretations and arguments for and against Saussure. Did he, or did he not, see language as a-social and a-historical? Did he, or did he not, rule out the study of speech within linguistics? Was he a reductionist? These disputes and many others can now be resolved on the basis of the work now published.

To find out, tune in next week, same Saussure-time, same Saussure-channel ….

Not only are these probably the least interesting questions that will be asked, I doubt that this publication will put these or any other questions to rest. In a 2002 review of the french edition (TLS July 26), Roy Harris wrote:

The new notes are divided by Bouguet and Engler into four groups. The least interesting of these contains what looks like preparatory material for the Geneva lectures. As far as I can see, this adds little to what was already known from other sources.

The second group seems to be a collection of “jottings on linguistic topics” which Harris says lack “any internal cohesion.” The third group also seems to be of little interest – supplementary material that pertains to the Geneva lectures, but fails to add anything to our understanding of them. However, Harris finds the fourth section to be particularly interesting.

These were notes contained in a separate envelope, and apparently classified by Saussure as relating to what he called “l’essance double du language”. They include linguistic observations which go far beyond the scope of anything contained in the Cours de linguistique generale. My provisional conclusion is that in some of these we see the embryo of that “linguistique de la parole” which was promised to the students who attended Saussure’s third course, but never delivered. For this purpose, Saussure would seem to have been contemplating a fundamental revision of the celebrated but crude dichotomy between langue and parole (on which “structuralism” is based) and working towards its replacement by the subtler notion of language conceived simultaneously from two perspectives.

Reading Harris’ review one gets the impression that these notes will be a kind of Rorschach test into which scholars will read whatever they want to find there. For instance, it is no surprise that Harris finds in Saussure’s notes the basis for an “integrationist linguistics” now most closely associated with … Roy Harris. Nonetheless, with so few authoritative sources for Saussure’s ideas, these notes are likely to become more than just a footnote in the history of structuralism.

(via Leila Monaghan who posted the info to the LingAnth mailing list)