B. Stawarska: Saussure’s Philosophy of Language as Phenomenology

Saussure's Philosophy of Language as Phenomenology Book Cover Saussure's Philosophy of Language as Phenomenology
Beata Stawarska
Oxford University Press
Février 2015
Relié £74.00, Ebook

Reviewed by: Patrick Flack (KU Leuven/Charles University Prague)

With this clearly argued and engaging study of Saussure, Beata Stawarska has done a great service to the broad, ongoing effort to radically reassess the established historiography not only of structuralism or phenomenology, but of pre-war European intellectual history as a whole. By convincingly making the case that one should liberate Saussure’s thought from its infamously strict dichotomies (langue-parole, synchrony-diachrony, signified-signifier), explore its entanglements with Hegelian and Husserlian phenomenology and give heed to its positive echoes in Merleau-Ponty rather than its critique by Derrida, Stawarska contributes crucial elements to a new historiographical account that presents structuralism and phenomenology not as antagonistic schools tightly bound to their respective founding figures, Saussure and Husserl, but as intermingling, even complementary threads in the still misunderstood interdisciplinary, highly networked and pan-European scientific context of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Instead of the unproductive opposition or mutual ignorance that have mostly characterised the relations between structuralism and phenomenology since the early 1960s, Stawarska correctly intimates, the rediscovery of their entangled history opens the way to a “rapprochement” and carries the promise of new vigour for both traditions.

Given its broad, ambitiously revisionist scope, the first thing that commends Stawarska’s study is its clairvoyance in determining precisely – and then focussing squarely on – the obvious targets of a productive reassessment of Saussure’s and structuralism’s legacies in a phenomenological light, namely the unspoken “truisms” that lie at the heart of the mainstream, yet unreflected assumptions on Saussure and the allegedly anti-phenomenological “doctrine” of the Course in General Linguistics. These truisms, in Stawarska’s own words, are that “Saussure is the official founder of the structuralist movement in linguistics, the human sciences, and philosophy”, “Saussure’s method consists of a structural analysis of language viewed as a system of signs, “structural analysis is opposed to the speaking subject” and “it therefore goes without saying [that] Saussurean structuralism lies on the opposite end of the spectrum from the tradition of phenomenology” (p. 1). Not mentioned explicitly in the introduction but nonetheless addressed by the author later in the book is the assumption that structuralism really blossomed only in the post-war era as a quintessentially French movement.

Having listed these interlinked truisms, Stawarska proposes “to revisit them, and to show them to be suspect” (p. 1). This she successfully achieves by proceeding in three distinct stages. Firstly, through a detailed, comparative reading of Saussure’s Nachlass, she contests the strict dualism, abstract formalism and anti-subjectivism that are generally considered to be the doctrinal foundation of the Course (Part I). Secondly, she emphasises the conceptual function and undeniable presence of notions such as the subject, consciousness or the phenomenon in Saussure’s own thought as well as in a number of traditions closely related to Saussurean structuralism (Part II). Thirdly, she critically reconstructs parts of the biased processes of edition, reception and canonisation of the Course as Saussure’s authentic intellectual testament by Bally and Séchehaye, as well as by Derrida and the French structuralists of the 1960s (Part III).

As is already evident from this summary, ultimately Stawarska’s aim is not “to rewrite the tangled history of structuralism, post-structuralism, and phenomenology within contemporary continental philosophy in toto” but “to look back to the official sources of the structuralist movement in Saussure’s linguistics” (p. 2) and to concentrate on an almost philological task – the comparative reassessment of the textual materials beyond the Course itself. Because this detailed comparative work is carried out by the author with a clear hermeneutic intent (i.e. to clear the historical and conceptual space for a rapprochement between structuralism and phenomenology both within and beyond Saussure’s work), it neither descends into unnecessary minutiae, nor does it fall into the trap of trying to establish a definitive interpretation of the “true” Saussure as a latent phenomenologist. The textual focus of Stawarska’s study also satisfyingly limits its scope, both justifying some of the omissions and distortions that the programmatic ambition of her endeavour necessarily entails and giving it a coherence it might otherwise easily have lacked given the richness of the historical and theoretical context dealt with here.

In the first part of the book, Stawarska proceeds to unpick one by one the famous oppositions that are still widely regarded both as the linchpins of the Saussurean or structuralist doctrine itself and as the source of the latter’s fundamental incompatibility with phenomenology. Her main concern, in each case, is not to reject the oppositions per se, but to underline that they do not function as strict dichotomies establishing sets of incommensurable abstractions (signifier and signified), objects (langue and parole) or dimensions (synchrony and diachrony). Rather, in Stawarska’s reading, they entail complex relations of chiasmatic encroachment and reversibility [1. One spots clearly Merleau-Pontian undertones in the vocabulary employed by Stawarska to describe this less rigid Saussureanism, a fact which chimes perhaps too comfortably with her later claim in Part II that “If it made sense to evoke a spirit of Saussureanism, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of language would have come closest to distilling it” (p. 190). Although we agree with the author in seeing Merleau-Ponty as one of the (if not the) most significant post-war standard-bearers of structuralism, she seems to over-interpret Saussure’s latent anticipation of Merleau-Ponty (as well as too readily neglect other obvious structuralist influences on Merleau-Ponty such as Lévi-Strauss, Jakobson and Pos).] and generally signal a locus of still fluid methodological questioning in Saussure’s teaching practice, rather than established points of doctrine or general axioms. To her review of the entrenched Saussurean dichotomies, Stawarska adds a thorough discussion of the question of the arbitrariness of the sign, which she addresses through a very effective rebuttal of Derrida’s interpretation of Saussure as a “phonocentric” theory.

From the point of view of Saussurean scholarship, not all her arguments in this section are original, be it with regard to their general orientation towards a more differentiated, less strictly binary interpretation of Saussure, to their emphasis on a closer reading of the manuscript sources or even to some of the specific points she makes, for example in relation to the idea of a socio-historical sedimentation of language.[2. Cf. Jean-Claude Coquet (Physis et logos 2007), François Rastier (e.g. “Saussure et les textes” 2009), Pierre Bouissac (Saussure 2010), John Joseph (Saussure 2012) or Boris Gasparov (Beyond Reason 2012), which Stawarska does not systematically reference.] Given, however, that Stawarska’s specific aim in this section is less to contribute ground-breaking scholarship on Saussure himself than to refute the assumptions that most obviously impede a phenomenological understanding of his ideas, this relative lack of novelty should be taken here as a sign of the solid foundations of her apparently so iconoclastic position rather than as a weakness or deficiency. Because she frames her discussion in a well defined and original interpretive perspective, moreover, Stawarska succeeds in providing a much clearer view of the phenomenological “compatibility” and potential of Saussure’s thought, which is in itself a valuable contribution.

Having addressed and cleared the most obvious objections against a phenomenological reading of Saussure, Stawarska turns to a constructive approach in the second part of her study, where she seeks to reclaim Saussure in the service of what she terms a “linguistic phenomenology”. Here again, her point of departure is well chosen, since she decides to frame her argument through the methodological dilemma faced by general linguistics, namely, that despite its aspiration to be an objective science, it has to account for the fact that its object of study, language, is only ever “encountered subjectively, within the consciousness that a language user has of being involved in language-bound practices of speaking, listening, and writing” (p. 109). This approach allows Stawarska to highlight both how Saussure specifically grappled with this question and how it led him to critically interrogate the nature of language (which he preferred to treat as a “phenomenon” than as a “substance”), the role of the linguist and his multiple points of view [points de vue] on his object, and the intertwined roles of originary knowledge (as given, for example, in a speaker’s language consciousness [conscience de la langue]) and scientific knowledge – all in a way that resonates with the preoccupations and aims of phenomenology.

To her theoretical treatment of the role of subjectivity in linguistic method, of the concept of the phenomenon or the place of consciousness in Saussure’s own general linguistics, Stawarska adds a number of very useful historical, contextualising discussions. She introduces both relevant predecessors (the Kazan School of Jan Baudouin de Courtenay and Mikolaj Kruszewski, Hegel’s “phenomenological science”) and successors (Jakobson – in particular through his ties with Špet Husserl –, Merleau-Ponty), whom she all presents as contributors to the aforementioned “linguistic phenomenology” – a conception of language and linguistics, in other words, that goes well beyond the thought and writings of Saussure himself.

This second part of Stawarska’s book is its most interesting and stimulating. The case she makes for a linguistic phenomenology that encompasses but is not circumscribed by the work of Saussure is indeed both convincing in itself and replete with tantalising possibilities. The one criticism that could be voiced here is that she does not make it clear enough that her study constitutes in many ways only a preliminary hearing for her proposed linguistic phenomenology, and that much more evidence can be brought (or has already been brought) forward. For example, whereas the mentions of Kruszewski, Baudouin de Courtenay and the neglected relevance of the Cercle Linguistique de Prague are certainly pertinent in every respect, they only brush the surface of the incredibly rich, complex and productive web of interractions between „structuralist” linguists and phenomenology in Russia, Czechoslowakia as well as Poland. As a result of her focus on phenomenology, Stawarska also gives too short shrift to the imbrication of other traditions or paradigms in the linguistic phenomenology that she sees developing from the Kazan School up to Merleau-Ponty. Wundt, for example, is mentionned too briefly, as are Bühler, the Gestalt psychologists, Marty or Bergson (what is more only in a critical light). With one revealing exception, one finds no mention of Neo-Kantian philosophy.

To be fair, most of these omissions are perfectly acceptable since, as indicated above, they would have widened the scope of Stawarska’s study excessively and led her too far from her core subjet, which remains Saussure’s autographed manuscripts. The absence of the Neo-Kantians, however, does fit in a subtle pattern of “anti-kantian” bias in Stawarska’s study. The explanation for the presence of such a bias in the first place is probably straightforward : the established view of Saussure and structuralism, as expressed famously by Paul Ricoeur in Le Conflit des interprétations, is that they constitute “a Kantism without transcendental subject”. Because she is contesting this view, Stawarska is thus also constantly, if not always explicitly attacking the asubjective “Kantian” reading imposed on Saussure by the French structuralists of the post-war period. In the main, she is perfectly justified in doing so, and her arguments against the abstract, objective formalism ascribed by Ricoeur to the structuralists are indeed effective. Given it would be absurd to deny any influence at all to Kantian or Neo-Kantian philosophy on structuralism (something the author does not do), Stawarska’s argument would nonetheless benefit from a more explicit discussion of their ties – a clarification, perhaps paradoxically, which would also further strengthen her interpretation.

For instance, when laying out the premises of her argument on the problematic status of general linguistics right at the beginning of Part II, Stawarska quotes the little-known Dutch linguist and philosopher Hendrik Pos. This is instructive because Pos was among the first to provide a theoretically explicit formulation of the epistemological challenge posed by the study of language. His lead, moreover, was directly followed by major structuralists and phenomenologists, including Jakobson, Hjelmslev and Merleau-Ponty. Although Stawarska does not further refer to Pos or discuss his role, it is thus clear that he should serve here as much more than a conceptual point of comparison, but as an important contextualising historical anchor for linguistic phenomenology. The paradox, of course, is that Pos clearly identifies the theoretical source of his own position and the best methodological framework for a new linguistics as being the Neo-Kantian theories of Heinrich Rickert (and to a lesser extent Lotze). This is not to say that Pos’s programme for linguistics was exclusively Neo-Kantian : he was also a student of Husserl and Heidegger (as well as of Dutch Neo-Hegelianism) and inflected his thought quickly towards a phenomenological and historical approach. Still, the Rickertian origin of Pos’s reflections on language and linguistics offers a clear indication of the positive involvement of (Neo-)Kantian philosophy in the phenomenologically-compatible structuralism defended by Stawarska.

The detailled assessment of the last part of Stawarska’s study is best left to experts of the autographed manuscripts and the history of the Geneva School. One does get the impression though that she is too harsh on Bally and Séchehaye and emphasises too strongly their role in canonising a Course that was not in fact representative of Saussure’s thinking. The Prague linguists were also guilty of instrumentalising the Course and most of the French structuralists of the post-war era were more than willing to interpret Saussurean linguistics as an asubjective, abstract system without the help of intermediary editors (a fact borne out by the similar distortions imposed on the work of Trubeckoj or the Russian formalists). The totemic filiation at the heart of most interpretations of structuralism, moreover, is surely not that between Saussure, Bally/Séchehaye and Hjelmslev, but that between Saussure and Lévi-Strauss. Where Stawarska is nonetheless certainly correct – and this is in fine the most important point of her criticism of the edition and subsequent canonisation of the Course – is that the “doctrinal” Saussure and the version of French structuralism it helped prop up were only possible thanks to a clear erasure both of the Saussurean sources and of the complex intellectual context in which they were inscribed.

Pubblicato da

Patrick Flack

Post-doc (Husserl Archives Leuven & Charles University Prague), specialised in Central European intellectual history. Managing director of sdvig press.

Lascia un commento