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Dr. Louis N. Sandowsky






Café Différance



Semester 1 – Derrida and Saussure (Evening No. 4)*



SeminarIncludes a special presentation on Saussurean linguistics by Josef Horowitz



* Transcript of a recording by Anna Shmerling (Fall – 2000)



Louis:              Today we shall go on struggling through Derrida’s essay “Différance”. This is our very first meeting in the Philosophy Seminar Room (Thank goodness for that!). It is also a very special evening, because it is Dana’s birthday!


Anna has very kindly made photocopies of an extract from Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, and Josef is very kindly going to give us an introduction to Saussure this evening. And, if at the end, you are all completely mystified, please, just pop into the Department's Office, take a look in the relevant folder, and make a copy of the reading matter, because it might be helpful. An understanding of the basics of Saussurean linguistics is important – certainly, in reference to this essay, “Différance,” by Derrida. I will also try to get hold of a copy of my article on the similarities and differences between the strategem of différance and the phenomenological epoché, so that you will be able to have a look at that at some point.


Josef:               There are several books about Saussure that are available in English in the Shmurim (Reserved), and you can get them out for three days. I used it a bit. So – do we start with the cakes or do we start with me?


Louis:              I’ll leave that open for everyone else to decide…


...But, first, thank you all for adjusting to the change in the schedule – Monday was killing me…

The format for this evening is entirely open, and I think that we should just sit, chat for a little bit, have some cake, which will all go toward setting the right atmosphere for our little soiree…

The extracts from the work of Saussure that I have already mentioned, and a few of which I have handed out this evening, are from the book Literary Theory: An Anthology. This is a book that is wholly made up of tasty bite-sized chunks of wisdom from some of the major philosophical thinkers from the Enlightenment to the Postmodern era. You'll find it in the Shmurim.


Sergei:             Sounds like MTV.


Louis:              Yes, exactly. We are trapped within the MTV age.


Josef:               The big problem is that the whole thing about linguistics is a bit outside of what the philosophers really read. I mean, we use the language, and they speak about the language. But, Saussure is, in my opinion, a little bit of a philosopher of the language. So – it is as it should be. Now – we are waiting for the cakes. Where are the cups?


Anna:              Yes. Speaking about philosophy – where is the cake?


Louis:              I’ve been reading through “Différance” again. And, with each further reading, it continues to blow my mind.


There is a section that I would really like to read. Remember, in the early part of the essay Derrida talks about the ‘a’ in différance being a ‘graphical difference’ that is not heard. He then goes on to say that the same, in a sense, could be said with respect to its graphical representation, because what is actually happening is invisible. This is the idea that there was no originary trace – there is no original source, no archi – no fundamental starting point. This undermines any tendency toward the continuation of foundationalist philosophy – at least, the continuance of foundationalist thinking. Then he points out the indifference, if you like…

Derrida is the ‘champion of difference’, and yet – in this essay he is interested in the in-differentiation between such terms as ‘passivity’ and ‘activity’. In a way, they are intertwined. And, particularly ‘spacing’ and ‘temporalizing’ (‘temporalizing’ being derived from ‘temporizing’, which is ‘delay’, ‘to defer’, ‘to postpone’, ‘to put off until later’…) Freudian and Nietzschean thinking are very much at work in this formulation. So, in a way, Derrida is taking a detour through indifference, in order to focus upon difference. So even difference does not exactly constitute an origin either.

Now, what we are going to hear about this evening is Ferdinand de Saussure’s approach to linguistics and how – in his theorizing – language is primarily a system of differences and relations. It does not begin with certain finite terms, which have some kind of inherent gravity bringing them together in determinate senses. We are talking about the ‘fabric’ – the ‘space in between’ – being that which actually constitutes meaning.


But, Derrida does take this whole project further forward. This section is in reference to the Latin word differre, where we have both ‘spacing’ and ‘temporalizing’. (p. 13):


“In constituting itself, in dividing itself dynamically, this interval is what might be called spacing…”


Now – this is in reference to time. I particularly like the way, in which in the first paragraph on page 13, Derrida describes what is disclosed by the phenomenological approach to the structures of temporalization.


* * *


“Let us go on. It is because of différance that the movement of signification is possible only if each so-called “present” element…"


[Remember – the signification ‘present’ is not just about ‘that which is manifest’, it also refers to the ‘present,’ as ‘in the now’ itself].


"…each element appearing on the scene of presence, is related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element, this trace being related no less to what is called the future than to what is called the past, and constituting what is called the present by means of this very relation to what it is not: what it absolutely is not, not even a past or a future as a modified present.”


* * *


So, you see, what Derrida is saying here is contrary to the old metaphysical model of time that begins with the present – which is classically thought as the ‘most real,’ since it is the criterion for the assessment of the actuality status of anything that is real, because that which is in the future does not yet exist, and that which is in the past no longer exists. Derrida turns this around to say that the present itself is constituted through relations of difference – of the interplay of different ekstases: the interpenetration of past and future. It is out of this play of negotiation that the present itself is constituted.


Josef:               How would you now explain it?


Louis:              Think of Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness.


Josef:               Husserl says that there are protentions and retentions. Does Derrida think that this is the basis of his thinking, or not?


Louis:              Yes. However, he sometimes uses the expressions ‘retention’ and ‘protention’ while actually denying such a basis. He argues that this points to an area that is opened up by phenomenology, but that it is still inadequate to the task.


Josef:               What I mean is that Husserl, I think, took this seriously – that there is a certain thickness to time, which is protention and retention in the present. How does Derrida see it?


Louis:              He speaks of this in terms of trace, which resists the language of presence.


Basically, what Derrida is saying here is that we generally think in terms of the future ‘as a present,’ which is not yet actualized, and the past ‘as a present’ that is no longer. With the notion of the trace, he has turned this inside out. He is saying that an absolute pastness has always already preceded any presence, and thus it is the trace of the absence of any kind of origin. It is like a horizon of pastness devoid of past things. It is an opening, a horizon that always already precedes the present as that which is manifest and the present as that which is now. In conjunction with this critique of the logic of presence, Derrida gives us a kind of deepening of the phenomenological approach to temporality that does not rest comfortably with the idea of time as linear irreversibility.

Unlike Kant, who says that time is the form of all inner experience – that’s it, let’s move on – Edmund Husserl says that since the linearity / successivity of experience, the temporality of consciousness, is that which we most take for granted, we must turn to the question of how this form is constituted. How is that?” This question is not only about time as a source of constitution, it also addresses the issue of the constitution of time itself. He establishes a very radical form of discourse, where he is ultimately led to the whole idea of a region for which names are lacking 'necessarily.’ Derrida steps into this dimension and begins inventing a few names.


Fouad:            Is this related to symbol manipulation theories?


Louis:              Definitely, but at a much deeper level. However, I am not sure that it is relevant at this precise moment. Just hold on for a while…


* * *

Derrida says,


“An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself…”


So, we again relate this to what Saussure is saying about language being a system of differences. Meaning stands out only through a relation to what it is not. We don’t begin with a meaning that then enters into relation with something. It is through the fabric of differentiation and postponement that meaning stands out.


“An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself, but this interval that constitutes it as present must, by the same token, divide the present in and of itself, thereby also dividing, along with the present, everything that is thought on the basis of the present, that is, in our metaphysical language, every being, and singularly substance or the subject. In constituting itself, in dividing itself dynamically, this interval is what might be called spacing, the becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space (temporization). And it is this constitution of the present, as an “originary” and irreducibly nonsimple (and therefore, stricto sensu nonoriginary) synthesis of marks, or traces of retentions and protentions (to reproduce analogically and provisionally a phenomenological and transcendental language that soon will reveal itself to be inadequate), that I propose to call archi-writing, archi-trace, or différance. Which (is) (simultaneously) spacing (and) temporization.”


I think that this passage is absolutely brilliant! I can see that you are all mystified, but – give it a chance. I hope that Josef's reading may shed some light on this.


Josef:               It is very complicated, because this question of ‘dividing the present’, even by an interval, sounds to me like something extremely transcendental…


Louis:              Yes, it is.


Josef:               ...which means that this interval has to be outside of time and space. Because, when you speak of this present in non-Augustinian terms – if you speak of it in Husserlian terms – then the ‘interval’ is the ‘present’. But, if you start talking about putting the interval inside the present, then this reminds me very much of the famous book about ‘the flat land’ (probably, everyone here has already read it) – about a boy who finds himself in a two-dimensional world and starts doing all kinds of things to it. The difficulty of comprehending the sense of our present discussion is just like this – in that it has to be outside our dimension. Although, it is not necessarily outside Derrida’s dimension.


Reviv:              It is outside our dimension as we normally define it.


Josef:               Not as we define it – as we can even conceive it. Look, you know that the present philosophically is just a membrane between past and future?


Louis:              Hang on! For Saint Augustine, the present is non-extended. But, this creates many problems. However, in this particular instance, I like the expression, ‘membrane between past and future.’ Although, it would be more appropriate to say that it is the membrane in which the past and future are always already intertwined.


Josef:               For us – the present is something – which exists – and we exist in the present. But, I am now going back to my Thesis – we really only exist in the memory.


Reviv:              Says who?


Josef:               Says Josef Horowitz. My memory is capable of conceiving the future as future…


Reviv:              But, it is not a traditional memory.


Josef:               Yes, all right.


A Student:        How can you remember the future?


Josef:               I can tell you. It has nothing to do with Derrida. In my personal opinion, all the personality is memory.


Louis:              Yes, it is. And, personality is also nothing more than a certain kind of style of memory.


First of all, I want to provide you all with some academic background, so that you’ll understand what Derrida means when he talks about an ‘interval’ here – that the present is divided within itself. Remember that Derrida is a neo-Heideggerian. In the Grundprobleme… (The Basic Problems of Phenomenology), Heidegger analyzes Aristotle’s approach to time and that of Hegel. Here, basically, he speaks about ‘extension’, in the sense of ‘stretch’ / ‘extension.’ Of course, extension is also related to ‘postponement’, but he does not always make it as thematic as Derrida does. I think, in a way, what Derrida is doing here is deepening Heidegger’s analyses of extension by paying greater attention to its sense as 'delay.' And, it is surely no coincidence that the essay "Différance," in Margins of Philosophy, is immediately followed by “Ousia and Grammē: Note on a Note from Being and Time” (= “Being and Line…”), where he discusses this in depth.

The present, for Heidegger, is pure stretch. He shows that spannedness is part of its essence. Even if you were to divide it up into a millionth of a second – it would still have breadth. So, interval is a fundamental part of its structure.

In a way, it is counter-intuitive, because we tend to mark off the present – mark off the moment – as if it is discrete. But, if we get caught up in this idea of the present being discrete, then first of all, we have the problem of trying to explain what holds these individual (or atomic) presents together – what is the basis of the continuum. Because, if you are living from one present to another, and there is no continuity between, then there is no existence – or, rather, there are only existents. To put it another way, we would have to speak of times rather than time – since there could not be life-continuity. In such a schema, there could not be any extension of one’s existence. This would be to ‘live’ from microsecond to microsecond without any memory of the previous time or of any continuity whatsoever. And, without that memory there is no possibility of anticipating the present to come (the future). In this sense, interval as spannedness is always already inextricably bound up with the sense of interval as a break and/or a delay. Such a break is also a fundamental condition of the possibility of continuity by opening up successivity as ‘alteration.’ It gives the stretching out of temporality rather than the mere spannedness of a simultaneous differentiality. However, the experience of alteration also presupposes a structurality that must abide throughout the alteration.

So, what we’ve got here is a number of apparently disparate elements being brought together. The importance of memory really cannot be overstated. I think that Derrida is working with the theme[s] of ‘spannedness’ and ‘extension’ in a way that Heidegger does but, as I said before, he tends to give particular emphasis to the sense of delay in such an extension.


Josef:               We shall be talking about the synchronic and the diachronic here – in what constitutes the language. Now, we can look at time as synchronic, but then – it is infinitely big.


Diachronic means that you consider things in time as it creates itself – existing in time, within the time. You can say ‘historically’, but he does not want to use this word here. Then you have synchronic – i.e. what happens at the same time at any period of time. This present, which is almost inexistent in any way – synchronically, it is infinite. Because, at the same time we are whole… Within our consciousness we are within this synchronic moment of time. We pass it all together.

There was an idiotic picture on television recently about people who got lost in time. The characters pass through some sort of gate, and find themselves just five minutes behind time. However, they could not come back into the time. So, they came everywhere, but – nobody was there… I like the idea very much. But, in this picture, after almost everybody died, they came back through the same gate, but that doesn’t matter.

Time is running with us, and we are running with time. We cannot go back one minute. In spite of the fact that we get the light from the Sun as it was approximately eight minutes before. But, still – we are in the synchronic horizon of time. So, maybe (I don’t know – I’ve read Derrida and read Derrida – not so very much, but still I am trying to understand) – I think, maybe that he is thinking about this – that there is an infinity of time in the present.


Louis:              This sounds very Kierkegaardian.


Sören Kierkegaard speaks about living a lifetime in a second. He talks about the difference between the comedic and pathetic as two radically different temporal orientations. On the one hand, you can say: that one hundred years is like no time at all (the compression of a historian). On the other hand, the existential moment of decision – which is always a kind of leap of faith – can appear infinitely extended; that is, one can live a lifetime in an instant. According to Kierkegaard, we are a synthesis of the infinite and the finite. The more I read Derrida, the more Kierkegaardian he seems.


Fouad:            I think that if you talk about time like this, it is very deterministic. Because, he is saying that there is some kind of template, let’s say, which is…


Louis:              Who is saying this? We have just talked about two different temporal forms here.


Fouad:            I was talking about the synchronic perception of time. When you say that there is no continuity in it…


Louis:              Hang on – where did that come from?


Josef:               I said that you can consider time diachronically and synchronically. For instance, if we speak of phenomenology, it sees time in two totally different respects. One is the flux, and another one is the time as we more or less live it. But, the real time (I think, as a matter of fact, Bergson was not quite right about this) is the time that is the basis of our life – which we cannot really describe, or understand, we just know that it is.


Fouad:            That is why I am saying that it is deterministic. Because, it is just ‘there’, and we are living it.


Josef:               The time itself – absolutely.


Fouad:            I’d say, the future is known.


Louis:              But, it isn’t. We are not talking about a deterministic or teleological temporality. It has structurality – there is something architectural about it, in a way – but you must make a distinction between the structurality of the temporal flux and the effects that are produced by that structure.


Fouad:            Have you seen the movie “Run, Lola, Run”? You should see it – it is very existentialistic.


A Student:        …Exaustentialistic!


Fouad:            Yeah – exhaustentialistic, indeed.


Josef:               She runs all the way.


Mor:                Yes. It is a German film. Three times the same story, only somewhat different.


Louis:              I’ve heard about this film. It actually picks up on a very contemporary theme...yes, it is always different – there is always slippage – substitute temporalities with quantum (alternate) realities.


Fouad:            She runs three times through the same basic situations (five points), and totally different outcomes happen each time.


Louis:              All right. When you don’t have different outcomes – that’s when it is deterministic; and that is not what we were saying.


Just because you have a repetition of a certain structurality, it doesn’t mean that you are going to end up with the same result. For instance, if you take the Hegelian dialectic – you have the movement of thesis, antithesis, then the moment of sublation, which is determinate negation / conservation, which then produces a new thesis, antithesis, and so on – and you have this ceaseless movement onward. But, the point is that the effects that are produced through this movement are always open. It does not mean that the outcome is always going to be the same. There is no telos lying in the future that exerts a kind of backward causation on all the precedes it. What is important is the actual repetition of the structurality itself, but that is not to be confused with the actual states of affairs that grow out of this movement. The events can be different each time. The point is that whatever event occurs, this structurality is already presupposed. But, that is not deterministic.


Fouad:            You need an event, in order for this structurality to have any kind of meaning. The structurality on its own does not have any meaning, without some kind of difference.


Louis:              Yes. But, I still don’t understand why you imagine that there is still a deterministic element at work.


Josef:               I think that he has a point. I mean, there is a deterministic element to it, which tells us that time has only one direction. We cannot really think about time having many directions – except in memory or in our personality, where we can go backwards and forwards. Heidegger did not see anything else – that is what he said: Within ourselves we live all the ekstases at the same time. This doesn’t mean ‘really at the same time’ – we are free to wander. So, maybe, this is what he thinks – that within ourselves, the present is not the present – it is time, and time is … whatever.


Louis:              Of course, we do know that when Ferdinand de Saussure speaks of synchrony in his linguistics, it knows nothing of time. He speaks of time at the level of diachrony. But, there is a bias in his discourse in which which diachrony is only possible because of the dimension of synchrony. Although he does admit that there is a kind of feedback loop where the diachronic movement does ultimately produce changes within the synchronic system, he is still basically pushing time out to a position that is actually extererior to language…


Josef:               He is not a philosopher. For him, time in the development of language is less important.


Louis:              Okay. However, this view undergoes a transvaluation in Derrida’s thinking with respect to Saussure’s order of priorities. He restores time right at the heart of synchrony. Because, for him, synchrony is about repetition, iterability (as he calls it). And, this is the fundamental possibility of that which we would ordinarily ascribe to synchrony alone.


Sergei:             I remember, we have already been through this before. Now, I want to turn back to it with a whole different story. Remember, what I said about ‘différance making protention and retention irrelevant’? And I said: ‘Not irrelevant, but sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t’ – remember that?


Louis:              Yes.


Sergei:             Well, what I thought is that différance is the part of the sign that makes protention and retention possible.


Josef:               Absolutely.


Sergei:             But, why do I want to talk about it? Well, the way I’ve put it: it is a complement to Husserl’s protention and retention. But, not in such a way as Derrida suggests that it will eventually make protention and retention inadequate.


Louis:              That’s right.


And, also, at the end of this essay (“Différance”), Derrida says that the trace is not reducible to retention. This is very disingenuous of him, because one would want to say: Hang on, Monsieur Derrida! If you say that the trace is not reducible to retention, I would agree. Who else would claim that it was? In every aspect of the discourse on the trace, you have been talking about both retention and protention up until now. And now – you just talk about retention.

The trace can certainly be understood in terms of the play of retention and protention, and so for Derrida to say that the trace is irreducible to retention as a way of stressing an important difference in degree of radicality between phenomenology and deconstruction is kind of an illegitimate move on his part. I suppose that we could basically say: Yes, but both retention and protention are dependent on différance, so it doesn’t matter anyway. However, even that is still an illegitimate move, if one understands that even différance does not govern theologically the totality of its field. Différance is no-thing. Within Derrida's play of substituting names, the trace cannot stand in as something that is even more primordial than the play of retention and protention.


Josef:               Speaking of the ‘trace of nothing’ is very complicated. I must say, it is even a bit above my understanding.


Louis:              Well, hang on a moment. Do you not remember the final lecture that I gave last year about the methodological, theoretical, and strategic relations between phenomenology and deconstruction? That was all about the ‘trace’.


All right – the way I look at it is basically like this: The ‘-ance’ of différance remains undecided between the passive and the active. The point is that with the trace, with différance as the production of all differences and – again, on a semantic level – the production of positive terms, through this play of difference, relay, reserve, postponement, delay, interval (which has spatial resonances and temporal resonances) – basically what we are left with, because it remains undecided between the passive and the active, is that through the production of differences it must necessarily erase itself. And, the point is that this is not an originary activity that then erases itself. Erasure is already part of its structure, which means that in its production of differences it always already presupposes its erasure. This absence, as an originary part of its structure, is one of the most fundamental aspects of différance, and in the end you always have to fall back on the ‘always already’.


Fouad:            Is différance something considered ‘in itself’?


Louis:              No – not as something that is supposed to be originally extant.


Fouad:            It is just something that you can’t speak of.


Josef:               Something we can’t live without and that we don’t understand at all.


Louis:              It’s the play – the play of differences. Because, difference – unlike its conception in the usual tradition – is not reducible to opposites: negative and positive. There are many different kinds of differences that don’t necessarily cancel each other out – differences in modality, quality, and intensity, etc. – differences in dimension / dimensional differences.


Reviv:              But, you can’t say that we don’t understand it at all. After you’ve read Derrida, you know something more about it, than you knew before.


Josef:               All right – that’s legitimate. I agree with you.


Reviv:              So, it is the same about ‘nothing’.


Josef:               Even the resistance that the written evokes in anybody who has read…


Reviv:              If you resist something, then there is already something to resist.


Josef:               I agree.


Reviv:              Maybe, when you say that you don’t know anything, then you know something, but you still don’t know what you don’t know…


Louis:              Let's not get bogged down by classical epistemological conundrums.


Derrida writes


“The practice of a language or of a code supposing a play of forms without the determined and invariable substance, and also supposing in the practice of this play a retention and protention of differences, a spacing and a temporization, a play of traces – all this must be a kind of writing before the letter, an archi-writing without a present origin, without archi-.”


* * *


‘Always already’ before the letter, before language, before the spoken word. So, ‘writing’ has a whole constellation of different meanings for Derrida, but he wants to maintain the word ‘writing’, because of its obvious connection to the mundane empirical sense – in the sense that all understanding, all language is through tradition, through writing, through reading, assimilation through the dissemination of texts. So, it is the actual graphic inscription in the empirical form that is passed on as the vehicle of tradition – libraries, culture, language, TV, media, etc. That’s a very important part of it. But, also a writing that precedes that impression, that erases itself – the play of an archi-writing that is always already erased in the presencing of meaning. The erasure, or holding back of presence is coincidental with the manifestation of sense. It is essential to its structure.

Think about the functioning of a sign. When we look at a sign, our gaze does not terminate in the sign. We look at that towards which the sign is pointing. So, in a sense, part of the fundamental structure and performance of a sign has to do with its own self-erasure. It is how it functions – by erasing itself. It does not necessarily stand out as an object, as a proxy for something else – in which case, it would be a symbol – which  does not address the dimension of signification about which we are speaking.


* * *

Derrida continues…


“The practice of a language or of a code supposing a play of forms without the determined and invariable substance, and also supposing in the practice of this play a retention and protention of differences, a spacing and a temporization, a play of traces – all this must be a kind of writing before the letter, an archi-writing without a present origin, without archi-.”


* * *


I know that it is still difficult to get your head around it, but it is crucial. Whatever one might say, Derrida is remarkably consistent in his formulations. He can do this, because he is a phenomenologist (note the comfortable manner in which Derrida utilizes Husserl’s phenomenological expressions of temporalization, retention, and protention) – and thus he is able to maintain a number of different (and sometimes, oppositional) orientations / perspectives simultaneously.


Josef:               He is, in some way, speaking about what constancy is. There exists in us a capacity for imaginality and a capacity for language – to absorb it, and first to speak it, and then, maybe, to write it. But, this capacity is in us.


Louis:              And, the ‘capacity’ means ‘ability’.


And, when Derrida speaks of iterability – we are introduced to the thought of both the structure and genesis of ‘repetition’. ‘Iter’ means ‘other’ and also ‘repetition’, and the particle ‘re’ of re-presentation, means ‘again’ and ‘against.’ All these conjunctions are in play in iter-ability – the ‘ability’ for repetition, and for Derrida this is the basis of the possibility of the synchronous dimension that Saussure talks about. Now, once you understand that – repeatability already involves diachrony, at least in a virtual form, if not necessarily in an empirical sense. Derrida has effectrively restored diachrony to the heart of synchrony. Thus, the difference between spacing and temporalizing is pretty hard to pinpoint – there isn’t one, they always already implicate one another.


Josef:               It is like a spiral.


Louis:              Yes, exactly. Derrida's writing is full of spirals. The labyrinthine quality of his writing is precisely the result of the tracing of multiple helical structures.


But, the thing is that it is only because there is an overlapping between empirical moments that the orthographic differences that occur in the evolution of language through time are such that they affect the system. There is no pure domain of the transcendental for Derrida. It is always infected by the empirical or mundane sphere. This is very important in order to understand his writing. So, in a way, even though it seems absolutely meta-transcendental – ironically, it is always kind of like a detour that brings us back out into the world at the same time.


Anyway – please let Joseph begin without further interruption…


Josef:               No, on the contrary – I did not want to interrupt you.


Reviv:              May we have one last interruption before you actually begin? Going back to the conversation about deconstruction – you said that the ‘erasing’ is already built into the act…


Louis:              All I can say here is that erasure is the passivity that already inhabits the activity of erasing.


Reviv:              In this respect, erasing / erasure is no longer like a destructive activity…


Louis:              It is also constitutive…


Reviv:              The erasing is what chains the thing together, where each link in the erasure also holds it apart. So it is like constructing something new.


Josef:               This is bringing it to a very (how to say?) right point. This is obvious.


Louis:              When we speak of ‘erasure’, we automatically assume that there was an original presence that has been erased. But, there was no substance, there was no originary starting point that then erased itself. It is the movement of erasure, not that which is erased. It is the movement, the play of differential forces that are to be taken into account. It is like looking at the field of wheat that is being stirred by the wind – one doesn’t see the wind / the air, but one sees its effects on something else.


Reviv:              And, also, there is no original position with respect to how the wheat is arranged – we just see movement. We can’t say – this is an original position, but now it’s moving.


Louis:              That’s right.


Josef:               You cannot pretend that there is no ontic, that nothing is ontic. The ontic exists. You don’t know much about it, but it exists. And, it is it that is in the movement. There is no beginning, there is no end – alright. But, something is moving.


Louis:              Okay. Now we are going to shut up.


Josef:               Now, I have a few things that I want to read to you.


Why am I reading what the original writers (if one is still permitted to say such a thing) wrote? Because I made the decision that those people wrote it much better, than I ever could. But, anyhow, I shall try to present to you the main thoughts of Saussure. Of course, it will be only something that is completely rudimentary, but – better, than nothing. Whoever wants to read about it – I can furnish you with a very comprehensive bibliography.

Saussure was a genius. When he was at School (I think he first studied in Geneva), he admitted to a friend of his, who later became his student, an idea that the ‘a’s in the Indo-European Languages are necessarily nasal, which brings us back to the ‘différance’. But, this is just an anecdote that has nothing to do with my presentation except to say that – contrary to Derrida's strategem – it would not be easy to signify this difference in writing, but only orally.

By the way, if anybody wants to ask anything, you can stop me. Since I have it all written, I shall remember how I finish and how I begin. So, stop me, ask me – do whatever you want. Not all questions will be answered.


* * *




C.L.G. = Cours de Linguistique Generale (Course in General Linguistics) trans. by Roy Harris, ed. Open Court, La Salle Ill. 1986.


New Horizons in Linguistics, ed. John Lyons, Penguin, 1971.




Saussure [is] the founder of structural linguistics and of structuralism in general. [We shall speak about it later.] He was born in 1857 in Geneva and died in 1913 in the region of Geneva – in Kanton Waadt.


He studied in Leipzig [At that time in Leipzig the most important school was that of ‘New Grammarians’, as they called themselves.] under a certain Bruggmann, one of the most important linguists of the time. [The Germans did not like him very much, despite his being a genius, but accepted him and taught him]. His dissertations were on Sanskrit [and Indo-European languages], and one of them postulated the importance of the vowels in the development of the language.

[Even while he was in Leipzig, he was already a member of the Society for Linguistics in Paris.]


The Leipzig school says that separate languages change according to certain laws of spoken sounds. [Which means that, in a way, when you look at the development of the languages, there are certain laws for the change of the spoken sounds within those languages, which change essentially and historically. And – I shall read it to you later – the whole way of looking at linguistics at that time was historical. But, anyhow -] This is the beginning of Saussure’s differentiation between “Langue” (language) and “parole” (speech). [He also had something, which is called “Langage”, which is, so to speak, something that comprises the Langue and Parole. We shall speak about it later.]

1881 – 1891 he studied and taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris [which was at that time, and until today, the top institution].

From 1892 till 1912 (one year before his death) he was professor at the Geneva university. [Now he published things, but not much.]


It seems that he hated writing. In a letter of 1910 to Meillet he called himself an epistolophobe.

So his most important work [- the one that changed the way people see almost everything]Course de Linguistique Generale” has been compiled after his death by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye [who were Professors at the Geneva University] from various notes and mostly from notes taken by his few students at three courses in linguistics given at the Geneva University. It was published in 1916 [which means – four years after his death]. There have been quite a number of critical editions [in all languages], and the idea of structuralism slowly gained momentum.



(C.L.G. Translator’s Introduction IX-XI) I


The revolution Saussure ushered in has rightly been described as ‘Copernican’. For instead of men’s words being seen as peripheral to men’s understanding of reality, men’s understanding of reality came to be seen as revolving about their social use of verbal signs. In the Cours de linguistique générale we see this new approach clearly articulated for the first time. Words are not vocal labels, which have come to be attached to things and qualities already given in advance by Nature, or to ideas already grasped independently by the human mind. On the contrary languages themselves, collective products of social interaction, supply the essential conceptual frameworks for men’s analysis of reality and, simultaneously, the verbal equipment for their description of it. [Is that clear, or do I have to explain it? After Derrida everything is clear. {General laughter}] The concepts we use are creations of the language we speak. [Not vice versa.]

Saussure’s standing as the founder of modern linguistics remains unchallenged more than half a century after his death. It is based on two facts. One fact is that Saussure, although only one among many distinguished linguists of his day, was the first to recognize the particular range of theoretical questions which had to be answered if linguistics was ever to take its place among the sciences. The other fact is that Saussure himself proposed answers to those questions, which have remained either the basis or the point of departure for all subsequent linguistic theory within the academic discipline, which thereafter claimed the designation ‘linguistics’. [Which means that there are two different linguistics: linguistics before Saussure and linguistics after Saussure.]

This dual achievement suffices to explain Saussure’s pivotal place in the evolution of language studies. But he plays a no less crucial role when his work is seen in a wider cultural context. For the founder of modern linguistics at the same time founded semiology, the general science of signs, within which linguistics was to be one special branch. In so doing, Saussure opened up a new approach to the study of many other human patterns of behaviour. It was an approach later to be exploited by theorists in such diverse fields as art, architecture, philosophy, literary criticism and social anthropology. The implications of Saussure’s technique for dealing with linguistic analysis extend far beyond the boundaries of language, in ways which make the Cours de linguistique générale without doubt one of the most far-reaching works concerning the study of human cultural activities to have been published at any time since the Renaissance.


* * *


Fouad:            I have a question. Was he also the father of anthropology (Levi Strauss)?


Josef:               He wasn’t the father, but Levi Strauss used structuralist technique. We shall name some people at the end.


* * *


Saussure’s proposals for the establishment of linguistics as an independent science may – at the risk of making them sound rather unexciting [if possible] – be summarized as follows. He rejected the possibility of an all-embracing science of language, which would deal simultaneously with physiological, sociological, philosophical and psychological aspects of the subject. Instead, he proposed to cut through the perplexing maze of existing approaches to the study of linguistic phenomena by setting up a unified discipline, based upon a single, clearly defined concept: that of the linguistic sign. The essential feature of Saussure’s linguistic sign is that, being intrinsically arbitrary, it can be identified only by contrast with coexisting signs of the same nature, which together constitute a structured system. By taking this position, Saussure placed modern linguistics in the vanguard of twentieth-century structuralism.

It was a position, which committed Saussure to drawing a radical distinction between diachronic (or evolutionary) linguistics and synchronic (or static) linguistics, {and giving priority to the latter. For words, sounds and construction connected solely by processes of historical development over the centuries cannot possibly, according to Saussure’s analysis, enter into structural relations with one another, any more than Napoleon’s France and Caesar’s Rome can be structurally united under one and the same political system.}

Saussure was the first to question whether the historical study of languages could possibly provide a satisfactory foundation for a science of linguistics. The question was as profound as it was startling: for the assumption most of Saussure’s contemporaries made was that historical philology already had provided the only possible scientific foundation. [Which means that they thought that really the linguistics as it was before Saussure, based on diachronic study, was the only science of linguistics that was possible.]

Where historical philology had failed, in Saussure’s opinion, was in simply not recognizing the structural nature of the linguistic sign. As a result, it has concentrated upon features, which were merely superficially and adventitiously describable in mankind’s recorded linguistic history. The explanations philological historians provided were in the final analysis simply appeals to the past. They did not – and could not – offer any analysis of what a language is from the viewpoint of its current speakers. Whereas for Saussure it was only by adopting the users’ point of view that a language could be seen to be a coherently organized structure, amenable to scientific study. For linguistic signs, Saussure insisted, do not exist independently of the complex system of contrasts implicitly recognized in the day-to-day vocal interactions of a given community of speakers.


* * *

The language is divided into three domains: Language, Langue and Parole. Langue and Parole are insufficient and have to be studied with the aid of different social sciences: Sociology, Ethnology, History, Psychology, Physiology etc.


Only Language as a system of signs can be seen as autonomous and inclusive. A new science is founded: Semiology (of signs).



(C.L.G. Introduction, p. 15-16) III


§3. Languages and their place in human affairs. Semiology


{The above characteristics lead us to realize another, which is more important. A language, defined in this way from among the totality of facts of language, has a particular place in the realm of human affairs, whereas language does not.}

A language, as we have just seen, is a social institution. But it is in various respects distinct from political, juridical and other institutions. Its special nature emerges when we bring into consideration a different order of facts.

A language is a system of signs expressing ideas, and hence comparable to writing {the deaf-and-dumb alphabet, symbolic rites, forms of politeness, military signals, and so on. It is simply the most important of such systems.}

It is therefore possible to conceive of a science, which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. [This is already Saussure himself speaking.] We shall call it semiology¹ (from the Greek sē­meion, ‘sign’). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge. [Which means, really, that he thinks that semiology will be the entire field of human knowledge.]



¹ Not to be confused with semantics, which studies changes of meaning. Saussure gave no detailed exposition of semantics, but the basic principle to be applied is stated on p.[109]. (Editorial note)


* * *


I repeat that there are 2 points of view of linguistics: diachronic – development and history, synchronic – research of the actual system of language.



(New Horizons – pp. 15-16) III


(1)                  SYNCHRONIC AND DIACHRONIC. Throughout the nineteenth century linguistic research was very strongly historical in character. One of the principal aims of the subject was to group languages into ‘families’ (of which the Indo-European family is the best known) on the basis of their independent development from a common source. The description of particular languages was made subsidiary to this general aim; and there was little interest in the study of the language of a given community without reference to historical considerations. Saussure’s distinction between the diachronic and the synchronic investigation of language is a distinction between these two opposing viewpoints. Diachronic (or historical) linguistics studies the development of languages through time: for example, the way in which French and Italian have ‘evolved’ from Latin. Synchronic linguistics (sometimes referred to rather inappropriately as ‘descriptive’ linguistics) investigates the way people speak in a given speech community at a given point in time. It is now generally agreed that (due attention having been given to the definition of ‘speech community’) the history of a language is in principle irrelevant to its synchronic description: but this fact was not generally appreciated by earlier linguists. (There is a chapter by Paul Kiparsky on historical linguistics later in the book, pp. 302-15.)


(2)                  LANGUE AND PAROLE. [I spoke about this before. I said that the language comprises Langue and Parole. Langage is what we would call, maybe, language. Langue is the entire complex of language, which is inside us as persons and as community. Parole is how this is pronounced, said. It is a very complicated thing, and Saussure tries to explain the whole transition. But, we are not going to do it, because otherwise we will sit here till tomorrow morning.] What is meant by the distinction of langue and parole (for which there are no generally accepted equivalents in English) may be explained by taking Saussure’s own analogy of a musical performance. Every performance of a particular piece of music is unique, in the sense that it differs from every other performance in innumerable ways. And yet we say that they are all performances of the same work. What they have in common (and it is in terms of this that we identify them) is a certain structure, which is itself independent of the physical medium in which it is realized when the work is performed. In much the same way, we can say that there is a common structure ‘underlying’ the utterances, which we produce when we speak a particular language. Utterances are instances of parole. The underlying structure in terms of which we produce them as speakers and understand them as hearers is the langue in question (English, Chinese, etc.). Like the structure of a piece of music, it is independent of the physical medium (or substance) in which it is realized. There are, of course, some obvious and important differences between speaking a language and performing a piece of music, the structure of which has been fully specified in advance by the composer. [While we speak, we create. The composer created once, and he is, sort of, the basis.] The analogy must not be pressed too far. It is by no means clear that the language spoken by all the members of a given speech community is as uniform, and structurally determinate, as Saussure assumed (see the chapter on sociolinguistics by John Pride, pp. 287-301). There can be little doubt, however, that some kind of distinction between langue and parole must be drawn, with or without these more particular assumptions. Chomsky (1965: 4) has made a similar distinction in terms of competence (langue) and performance (parole).


(3)                  STRUCTURALISM. We have just seen that the language spoken by a particular speech community has a certain structure (or, to use Saussure’s own term, a certain form), which can be considered and described independently of the substance in which it is realized. This rather abstract conception of the nature of language is summed up in the term ‘structuralism’ (in one sense, at least, of this rather fashionable word).


As developed by Saussure and his more direct followers, the ‘structural’ approach to the analysis of language involves the segmentation of utterances into elements in terms of two basic, and complementary, relations: syntagmatic and paradigmatic (Saussure’s own term was ‘associative’). What is meant by these terms may be made clear by means of a simple example. Why do we say that the phrase my new car in English consists of three elements (three words) rather than, say, of four or two? The answer, according to Saussure, rests upon the notion of substitutability. We can substitute the, his that, etc., for my in the first position; old, beautiful, etc., for new in the second position; and picture, book, etc., for car in the third position. There are three, and only three, places where the operation of substitution can be carried out (at this level of analysis). Sets of elements which can be substituted one for another in a given context are said to be in paradigmatic relationship; elements which combine to form a larger unit [which means, “my new car” as it is, a development which can be made – “My new car was stolen…”, etc.] are said to be in syntagmatic relationship. [We have here a little reminder of what happened before in the question of synchronic and diachronic. But, here we speak of the possibilities of changing language already in the synchronic mode.]


* * *


But what is this sign? [And here we shall let Saussure speak.]



(C.L.G. pp. 65-66, 67, 68a, b, 69-70, 71-72) III/B.


§3. Sign, signification, signal


For some people a language, reduced to its essentials, is a nomenclature: a list of terms corresponding to a list of things. This conception is open to a number of objections. It assumes that ideas already exist independently of words (see below, p. [155]). It does not clarify whether the name is a vocal or a psychological entity, for ARBOR might stand for either. Furthermore, it leads one to assume that the link between a name and a thing is something quite unproblematic, which is far from being the case. None the less, this naïve view contains one element of truth, which is that linguistic units are dual in nature, comprising two elements.

As has already been noted (p. [28]) in connection with the speech circuit, the two elements involved in the linguistic sign are both psychological and are connected in the brain by an associative link.¹ This is a point of major importance.

A linguistic sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern.² The sound pattern is not actually a sound; for a sound is something physical. A sound pattern is the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound, as given to him by the evidence of his senses. [Is that clear?]


* * *


Fouad:            I think it’s amazing! I am studying a course on psycholinguistics, and they are saying exactly the same thing. They are talking about prosody, which is ‘the sounds behind the thing’…


Josef:               Obviously – Saussure is already there.


Fouad:            Yeah! He is already there. It is amazing!


* * *


This sound pattern may be called a ‘material’ element only in that it is the representation of our sensory impressions. [Even Spinoza talked about it.] The sound pattern may thus be distinguished from the other element associated with it in a linguistic sign. This other element is generally of a more abstract kind: the concept. [So, we have sound, as perceived, and the concept.]

{The psychological nature of our sound patterns becomes clear when we consider our own linguistic activity. Without moving either lips or tongue, we can talk to ourselves or recite silently a piece of verse. We grasp the words of a language as sound patterns. That is why it is best to avoid referring to them as composed of ‘speech sounds’. Such a term, implying the activity of the vocal apparatus, is appropriate to the spoken word, to the actualization of the sound pattern in discourse. Speaking of the sounds and syllables of a word need not give rise to any misunderstanding,³ provided one always bears in mind that this refers to the sound pattern.


* * * Diagram!


The linguistic sign is, then, a two-sided psychological entity, which may be represented by the following diagram (top of p. 67).

These two elements are intimately linked and each triggers the other. Whether we are seeking the meaning of the Latin word arbor or the word by which Latin designates the concept ‘tree’, it is clear that only the connections institutionalized in the language appear to us as relevant. Any other connections there may be we set on one side.

This definition raises an important question of terminology. In our terminology a sign is the combination of a concept and a sound pattern. But in current usage the term sign generally refers to the sound pattern alone, e.g. the word form arbor. It is forgotten that if arbor is called a sign, it is only because it carries with it the concept ‘tree’, so that the sensory part of the term implies reference to the whole.

The ambiguity would be removed if the three notions in question were designated by terms, which are related but contrast. We propose to keep the term sign to designate the whole, but to replace concept and sound pattern respectively by signification and signal. The latter terms have the advantage of indicating the distinction which separates each from the other and both from the whole of which they are part. We retain the term sign, because current usage suggests no alternative by which it might be replaced.

The linguistic sign thus defined has two fundamental characteristics. In specifying them, we shall lay down the principles governing all studies in this domain.}



§2. First principle: the sign is arbitrary


[The link between signal and signification… – it is called by Saussure ‘signifiant’ and ‘signifié’. Signifiant is the active part – it is the signal. I prefer to say it in French, but these are the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’.]


The link between signal and signification is arbitrary. Since we are treating a sign as the combination in which a signal is associated with a signification, we can express this more simply as: the linguistic sign is arbitrary.


* * *


Which means – it has not been created by any association with the things that it describes. Except for the words, which are onomatopoeic, like ‘bakbuk’ and others, but when Saussure speaks about it, he doesn’t take them into account. He says that the signs have been invented arbitrarily.


Louis:              Oh, yes! It is onomatopoeic – ‘buk-buk-buk-buk…’ – Oh, right! Okay, I apologise for the outburst, but I'm presently learning Hebrew.


Josef:               ‘Bakbuk’, by the way, is mentioned in Rablaise very often. He spoke very good Hebrew, really. For him ‘bakbuk’ means the divine.


Louis:              So…he was an alcoholic? Just joking!


* * *


{There is no internal connection, for example, between the idea ‘sister’ and the French sequence of sounds s-ö-r which acts as its signal. The same idea might as well be represented by any other sequence of sounds. This is demonstrated by differences between languages, and even by the existence of different languages. The signification ‘ox’ has as its signal b-ö-f on one side of the frontier,¹ but o-k-s (Ochs) on the other side.}

No one disputes the fact that linguistic signs are arbitrary. But it is often easier to discover a truth than to assign it to its correct place. The principle stated above is the organizing principle for the whole of linguistics, considered as a science of language structure. The consequences which flow from this principle are innumerable. It is true that they do not all appear at first sight equally evident. One discovers them after many circuitous deviations, and so realizes the fundamental importance of the principle.

The word arbitrary also calls for comment. It must not be taken to imply that a signal depends on the free choice of the speaker. (We shall see later that the individual has no power to alter a sign in any respect once it has become established in a linguistic community.) The term implies simply that the signal is unmotivated – that is to say arbitrary in relation to its signification, with which it has no natural connection in reality.


* * *


Sergei:             Josef, may I ask a question?


Josef:               Yes, of course.


Sergei:             First – about the sign being arbitrary. Well, there is, actually, the historical study of languages – this word came from Latin, that word came from Greek, or from Arabic, etc. – there is such a thing. And, there are words, which are derived from other words in different languages or in the same language… And, what he meant to say is that the ‘original sign’ is arbitrary, and that all the…


Josef:               Yes – absolutely. I mean, he does not make an abstraction out of the historical development. He just says that the way that we say ‘pen’ or ‘shulhan’ – this thing has been created...


Sergei:             Yes – any other sign could have been in its place.


Josef:               He also says that it might be that it has been created from another sign that was created. For instance, we know that ‘widower’ is derived from ‘widow’. But, this does not change his essential point. Of course, there is a chain of meanings, of development, also of the form of the word – it is obvious. But, as a matter of fact, he says, whenever we do that we invent the words, and we use them as they are invented.


Mor:                Is he talking of inventing something that never existed – the original?


Josef:               He is not a philosopher.


Sergei:             That’s good?


Josef:               It is a very good question, but he is no philosopher.


Reviv:              Josef, I have a question for you. This idea that the signs are arbitrary – does this remain 'uncontested in linguistics'?


Josef:               As far as I know, yes. He even thinks that it is one of the basic tenets of linguistics in general – that there is no absolute connection between the thing, as it is, and the sign of the thing, as he describes it. Usually, people didn’t say ‘the sign’ – they said ‘the word’.


Louis:              It involves a form of linguistic epoché.


Josef:               In a sense.


Louis:              Hmm…Derrida implements this very well.


* * *


The linguistic signal, being auditory in nature, has a temporal aspect and has certain temporal characters: (a) it occupied a certain temporal space, and (b) thiS space is measured in just one dimension: it is a line.

This principle is obvious, but it seems never to have been stated, doubtless because it is considered too elementary. However, it is a fundamental principle and its consequences are incalculable. Its importance equals that of the first law. The whole mechanism of linguistic structure depends upon it (cf. p. [170]). Unlike visual signals (e.g. ships’ flags) which can exploit more than one dimension simultaneously, auditory signals have available to them only the linearity of time. The elements of such signals are presented one after another: they form a chain. This feature appears immediately when they are represented in writing, and a spatial line of graphic signs is substituted for a succession of sounds in time.


* * *


What he says is that the graphic is simultaneous. This whole book is in front of me at the same time, but if I want to read it – I have to read it in time. We read in time, and we speak in time, but the printed signals are simultaneous with time. The whole library is there at the same time.


Reviv:              But, that means nothing, because in order for it to mean something…


Josef:               This is one of the big problems of Derrida {General laughter} – the distinction between the written form and the spoken form, which he derives from Plato’s Timaeus, and so on, and so on. I think that each time we see this head of Derrida looking at us from inside this text – somewhere I have a feeling that each time he looks at me, he winks………..


* * *


§1. Invariability


The signal, in relation to the idea it represents, may seem to be freely chosen. However, from the point of view of the linguistic community, the signal is imposed rather than freely chosen. Speakers are not consulted about its choice. Once the language has selected a signal, it cannot be freely replaced by any other. There appears to be something rather contradictory about this. It is a kind of linguistic Hobson’s choice. [Which means, e.g., if I give you two possibilities, and you have to decide which one is good, but – as a matter of fact, you cannot decide, because they are equally good.] What can be chosen is already determined in advance. No individual is able, even if he wished, to modify in any way a choice already established in the language. Nor can the linguistic community exercise its authority to change even a single word.¹ [You cannot change words by order or by decision – they are there.] The community, as much as the individual, is bound to its language.

A language cannot therefore be treated simply as a form of contract, and the linguistic sign is a particularly interesting phenomenon to study for this reason. For if we wish to demonstrate that the rules a community accepts are imposed upon it, and not freely agreed to, it is a language which offers the most striking proof.

Let us now examine how the linguistic sign eludes the control of our will. We shall then be able to see the important consequences, which follow from this fact.

At any given period, however far back in time we go, a language is always an inheritance from the past. The initial assignment of names to things, establishing a contract between concepts and sound patterns, is an act we can conceive in the imagination, but no one has ever observed it taking place. The idea that it might have happened is suggested to us by our keen awareness of the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign.

In fact, no society has ever known its language to be anything other than something inherited from previous generations, which it has no choice but to accept. That is why the question of the origins of language does not have the importance generally attributed to it. [Here he sustains his view that the study of history is not so important…] It is not even a relevant question as far as linguistics is concerned. The sole object of study in linguistics is the normal, regular existence of a language already established. Any given linguistic state is always the product of historical factors, and these are the factors which explain why the linguistic sign is invariable, that is to say why it is immune from arbitrary alteration.¹


{The passage of time, which ensures the continuity of a language, also has another effect, which appears to work in the opposite direction. It allows linguistic signs to be changed with some rapidity. Hence variability and invariability are both, in a certain sense, characteristic of the linguistic sign.²}


* * *


The sign consists of signifiant and signifié (signified and signifier) the sound or the picture, and the image in mind. Until then the idea was that the production of the language comes from representation and that language itself is secondary and has only to point to the objects. This was called the Nomenclature.


[Now, listen well, because here we come to Derrida.]


For Saussure the identity of the sign is in all its differences and only this produced the immanent and constitutive principle of all language. So, the difference is the principle that produces the signifiant and signifié. A sound is significant through its difference from others and not through its contents. “Signifiant and signifié are values determined differentially, not positively through their contents, but negatively through their connection with other terms of the system. Their most precise attribute is to be something which the others are not”. So we can see the language as a system of signs in play of differences, creating the function of meaning through articulation of its constituents [bringing them together, moving them around], differentiating the signs, creating new ones.


The simple fact, that one is able to understand the speech-formation, is proof that this series of parts is the right expression of a thought”. This metaphysical expression of understanding shows that the theory is capable of relating the spoken language as an adequate representation of thought. For Saussure the language was spoken, and writing was secondary.


To sum up: Words are not vocal labels which have come to be attached to things and qualities already given in advance by Nature, or to ideas grasped already independently by the human mind. On the contrary, languages themselves, collective products of social interaction supply the essential conceptual framework for analysis of reality and simultaneously the verbal equipment for their description of it. The concepts we use are creations of the language we speak.


[Well, there are some more parts that I wanted to read, but I am afraid that I have overdone it. So, I will just finish the next part.]


{ (C.L.G. 139, 99-100)


Diachronic linguistics studies the relations which hold not between the coexisting terms of a linguistic state, but between successive terms substituted one for another over a period of time.

Absolute stability in a language is never found (cf. p. [110] ff.). All parts of the language are subject to change, and any period of time will see evolution of greater or smaller extent. It may vary in rapidity or intensity. But the principle admits no exceptions. The linguistic river never stops flowing. Whether its course is smooth or uneven is a consideration of secondary importance.

It is true that this uninterrupted evolution is often hidden from us by the attention paid to the corresponding literary language. A literary language (cf. p. [267] ff.) is superimposed upon the vernacular, which is the natural form a language takes, and it is subject to different conditions of existence. Once a literary language is established, it usually remains fairly stable, and tends to perpetuate itself unaltered. Its dependence on writing gives it special guarantees of conservation. Hence this is not the place to look if we wish to see how variable natural languages are when free from literary regimentation.


The aim of general synchronic linguistics is to establish the fundamental principles of any idiosynchronic system, the facts, which constitute any linguistic state. Many matters already discussed in the preceding section properly belong to synchrony. The general properties of the linguistic sign may be considered an integral part of synchronic studies, although we previously examined these properties in order to demonstrate the necessity for distinguishing synchronic from diachronic linguistics.

To synchrony belongs everything called ‘general grammar’; for only through linguistic states are the various relations involved in grammar established. In what follows we shall simply be concerned with certain essential principles, without which it would be impossible to tackle more specific problems connected with states, or to give any detailed explanation of a linguistic state.

Generally speaking, static linguistics is much more difficult than historical linguistics. Facts of evolution are more concrete, and stir the imagination more readily: the connections link sequences of terms, which are easily grasped. It is simple, and often entertaining even, to follow through a series of linguistic changes. But a linguistics concerned with values and coexisting terms is much harder going.


Demarcation in time is not the only problem encountered in defining a linguistic state. Exactly the same question arises over demarcation in space. So the notion of a linguistic state can only be an approximation. In static linguistics, as in most sciences, no demonstration is possible without a conventional simplification of the data.}


* * *


The value of this approach, which did not pass without much opposition, sometimes extremely virulent, is that it can be considered in any scientific endeavour in social sciences which has to do with signs and structure. After 1930, we meet structural anthropology (Claude Levi-Strauss), structural psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan) and structural analysis of literature (Jean Starobinski and Roland Barthes).


[I am done.]


{General applause}


Louis:              What an oustandingly well organized presentation! Thank you very much, indeed.


Josef:               Maybe, there are questions?


Louis:              Yes – there should be. In the way of a preamble to my own questions, I was just going to read something from Derrida, but no – I will read it afterwards. If there are any questions – please.


Fouad:            I have a question about the analogy with music. I understand that he says that in music – the one who composes comes up with a set of notes, and you hear it, but it is not really a dialogue. But if you look at, let’s say, an improvisation in music, when two people are playing with each other – you can tell that they somehow are creating some kind of language through music. So, you can speak of music as a form of language. He says that you can’t – right?


Josef:               No. He just says that you should not take the analogy too far. Somebody said that when the Messiah comes, every metaphor will resemble what it wants to present. But, until then there is always difference. So, this is right. On the other hand, also in music there is a dialogue: between different instruments, between the orchestra and the audience… Music also has its specific language.


Reviv:              Also between the conductor and the composer there is a dialogue.


Josef:               That’s right – absolutely. And, we understand this structure.


But, when you hear one person speaking, and then another person speaking – if they will even read to you the same text, you will understand it each time in a different way, because their emphases and their approaches will be different. Excuse me. {The preceding conversation was in Hebrew.}


So, I think that the problem is clear. We have a language, which we use, but the way that we use it is up to us.


Fouad:            It is about the style.


Josef:               But, we have no choice. Sometimes we have many words to say something, and sometimes – one only. But, the choice is limited. If you say “I am brumi” – everybody will understand something different, because you use a word that does not exist.


Louis:              Nice point, but not exactly the best example of a nonsensical word, since where I come from, to say that "I am Brumi" means that I come from Birmingham.


[End of the recording]


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