Back in 2007 I quoted a paragraph about the groundbreaking ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure and said it “reawakened in me the impact—not just intellectual but emotional (it was almost like falling in love)—of learning about all this as I was in the process of deciding linguistics was what I wanted to do, several decades ago”; I get the same feeling from reading Beyond Pure Reason: Ferdinand de Saussure’s Philosophy of Language and Its Early Romantic Antecedents, by Boris Gasparov (of which Columbia University Press was kind enough to send me a review copy), and I have to say that anyone interested in how modern linguistics and structuralism in general came to be (and, of course, anyone interested specifically in Saussure) should read it. Gasparov takes an admirably evenhanded approach both to Saussure’s ideas and to their complicated and quarrelsome posthumous history, and I find it hard to imagine the job being done better.
To provide a simplistic but not inaccurate caricature/summary of that history: for the first half-century after his death in 1913, “Saussure” meant two books, the Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européenes (Memoir on the Primitive System of Vowels in Indo-European Languages), which appeared in December 1878 (though the cover date is 1879) when he had just turned twenty-one, and the Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics), which he did not even write (it was compiled by his students from class notes) and which came out in 1916. The first put historical linguistics on a sounder theoretical footing than it had had and famously postulated the existence of a Proto-Indo-European laryngeal which actually turned up in Hittite (sadly, two years after his death); the second jump-started the entire field of synchronic/structural linguistics and was foundational for everything that came after—Jakobson, Bakhtin, and my very own pre-Chomsky American linguistic tradition. Then the tide turned; structuralism was out, poststructuralism was in, and the Cours was considered laughably outmoded. Just around that time, however, Saussure’s own notes began being excavated, thousands of pages of them, and people realized there was a whole different side of Saussure that was much more attractive to the postmodern mentality, notably his three-year obsession (which I, an unrepentant modernist and structuralist, consider utter nonsense) with what he variously called hypogram, leitwort, Stichwort, mot-thème, logogram, antigram, paragram, cryptogram, and anagram; the last is the term that has stuck, thanks to Jean Starobinski, who published some of the papers in 1964. The people who were excited by that sort of thing accused Saussure’s students of having grievously misrepresented their teacher’s ideas when putting together the Cours.
Gasparov deals with all this sensitively and sensibly. As is my wont, I’ll quote some chunks of the text to let you see his style and approach. From p. 46:
Virtually all the works Saussure published in his lifetime were dedicated to various problems of Indo-European linguistics.Yet even though he continued publishing some miscellaneous articles on the subject through the 1890s, he had essentially ceased to be an “Indo-European linguist” since the beginning of his inquiry into the nature of language. Looking now at the whole scope of Saussure’s oeuvre, including what he himself was resigned to let perish, we can say that Saussure eventually ceased to be a “linguist” altogether.
From p. 60:
We should reconcile ourselves to the fact that the definitive or “genuine” representation of Saussure’s ideas does not exist, nor has it ever existed. A plurality of representations, freely evolving in different directions, was constitutive of Saussure’s thought and essential for the conceptual vision he pursued. It corresponded to the central principle of his approach to language, which, in the end, has made any systemic and definitive picture impossible: the principle of the unfettered freedom of language, resulting in the infinite plurality of forms that language assumes and the infinite diversity of the directions in which they may evolve.
From p. 75, an admirable illustration of why apparent exceptions to the basic principle of arbitrariness do not contradict it:
Looking at words with clear derivational patterns, one can easily be lured to the conclusion that, even if one had no knowledge of the value assigned to them by convention, one would still be able to grasp it by inference. This conclusion, however, is illusory. Both the form and the meaning of housekeeper stem from house and keeper in a way that seems perfectly logical. Imagine, however, someone trying to infer the meaning of housekeeper from its ingredients, without knowing that meaning for a fact. Does housekeeper mean a person who guards the house, or owns it, or retains it temporarily, or occupies it as a squatter—or perhaps not a person but a device that prevents the house from collapsing? The only way to know that our educated guesses are wrong is to know the meaning of housekeeper as determined by convention—that is, to treat it as arbitrary.
On the late-eighteenth-century romantic tradition that Saussure seems to have drawn on (something of which I had no inkling), he first quotes a striking passage from Novalis (p. 103):
It is a ridiculous delusion, which causes one to marvel, to think that when one is speaking, one does so for the sake of things. Nobody is aware of the proper nature of language, namely, that it is concerned with nothing but itself. . . . If only one could make people understand that language is like a mathematical formula. Both constitute a world of their own—they play with nothing but themselves, express nothing but their own wonderful nature, and it is precisely because of this that they are so expressive. . . . They become a part of nature solely as a result of their freedom, and it is solely through their free movement that the universal soul expresses itself, making them a gentle scale and foundation of things.
He then goes on to say:
That seeing language as a tool through which one reaches the phenomena of the world is “a ridiculous delusion” (here, Novalis’s lächerlicher Irrtum anticipates Saussure’s favorite ridicule); that it is in fact a free interplay, responsible to and expressing nothing but itself; and that it is precisely the total freedom of language that connects it to nature, making it a “gentle scale and foundation” of things rather than a label attached to them—these points of the Monologue contain, in embryonic form, the quintessence of Saussure’s teaching about language: its immanent “emptiness” resulting in its unbounded freedom.
On pp. 115-116 there is a superb summary of his approach to Indo-European historical linguistics that is too long to quote; I will just give the last sentence, which I like very much: “Saussure’s book [the Mémoire] played a pivotal role in the development of a more cautious and abstract attitude in comparative studies, an attitude that has become prevalent in the twentieth century, when hunting for the Ursprache and its speakers gave way to the sober realization that all that could ever be achieved was to place the relations between kindred languages into a coherent model.” I won’t get into Saussure’s analysis of mythology, or his relationship with Schlegel’s ideas, or those “anagrams” (vaguely defined alleged hidden insertions of names into poetic texts, supposedly passed down for thousands of years as a poetic technique without leaving any explicit trace in the record); I hope I’ve given at least some idea of the riches to be found here. I will say, though, that if he hadn’t been so contemptuous of “mere facts” (he reproached the Junggrammatiker or Neogrammarians with whom he studied at Leipzig as being dusty fact-grubbers who had no clue how language worked) and so obsessed with the theoretical basis of everything (he famously asked “unde exoriar?”—”Where shall I begin?”), he might have wasted less time haring off on wild-goose-chases and more time using his genius for better things, and even written another book or two. I’ll close with another nice quote (from p. 86): “The truth about language lies not in ultimate generalizations but, on the contrary, in the unceasing comparative analysis of its diverse manifestations.”
Well, actually, I can’t close with that, because I have to complain about the terrible proofreading and editing of this important scholarly book. A few samples: “did not shaken the fundamental premises” (p. 43), “casts off the conventional constrains of sequentiality” (p. 47), “veritable” (for véritable) (p. 65), “bêtisses” (for bêtises) (p. 90), “emerged in 1790s” (p. 92), “toutes notre [should be nos] distinctions, toute notre terminologie, tout [should be toutes] nos façons de parler” (p. 109), “the principle vowels” (p. 113), “to name just a few” (after two names, p. 125) [n.b.: John Cowan thinks this is OK, and presumably he’s not alone], “TO HAVE A SYSTEM AND TO HAVE NONE IS [sic] EQUALLY DEADENING FOR THE SPIRIT” (heading, p. 177). A “which” is missing in the first line of p. 174, déception is translated as “deception” on p. 189 (a classic faux ami [should be “disappointment”]), every smooth breathing in the Greek on p. 143 is from the wrong font and wrongly placed, every occurrence of the title Cours de linguistique générale (except, oddly, for one on page 42) wrongly begins with “Course,” and of course (as I wrote here), “Lotharingia” is used throughout for “Lorraine.” Come on, Columbia University Press, you can do better than this.