In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ferdinand de Saussure

  • Introduction
  • Life

Literary and Critical Theory Ferdinand de Saussure
Boris Gasparov
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0106


Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857–d. 1913, Geneva) is widely recognized as the founder of modern theoretical linguistics. In his courses in general linguistics he taught at Geneva in 1907–1911—made known to a broad audience as Cours de linguistique générale (CLG, 1916), a book published posthumously under Saussure’s name on the basis of his lectures—Saussure laid out an approach to language whose premises largely followed principles of the turn-of-the-20th-century revolution in philosophy and methodology of science. Defining the object of a field of scholarly studies by postulating its features relevant specifically for that field was the center point of antipositivist critique. Saussure strove to wrestle linguistic studies from empiricism by laying out postulates concerning its nature that should stand as guidelines for its scholarly description. He defined “language” (la langue) as an internalized system of symbolic units (signs), defined by their intrasystemic relations, in contradistinction to “speech” (la parole) as the empirical speech activity. According to Saussure, signs of language are arbitrary, in the sense that the relation between their physical and symbolic distinction from each other has no other grounds but convention. Yet another foundational principle concerned the distinction between “synchrony” as the intrasystemic state of la langue at a given moment and “diachrony” as its development in time. The ideas of CLG gave rise to various strains of European linguistic “structuralism” (i.e., an approach to language from the point of view of its inner structure, as proposed by Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Roman Jakobson, Émile Benveniste, and Louis Hjelmslev); they also influenced parallel developments in America (Leonard Bloomfield, Edward Sapir, Zellig Harris). Eventually, principles of structuralism spread out to various domains of cultural and social studies, from poetics (Jakobson, Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman, Tzvetan Todorov) to anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and psychology (Jean Piaget). While generative grammar (Noam Chomsky) posited itself as an opponent of structuralism, it upheld some fundamental premises of the CLG; first of all, the transempirical and systemic nature of the internalized language “competence.” Beginning in the late 1960s, structuralism became the target of far-reaching critique, particularly in the domains of literary theory (Roland Barthes, Western reception of Mikhail Bakhtin), philosophy of language and culture (Jacques Derrida), and history of ideas (Michel Foucault). At about the same time, Saussure’s copious private notes on linguistics, of which hitherto only a small part had been known, came to scholars’ attention. As a consequence, CLG came under a double-critical fire: as the presumed harbinger of the now-deflated structural approach, and as a work of dubious authenticity whose text, produced by the book’s editors, ostensibly did not reflect Saussure’s views properly. Saussure’s image as a philosopher of language largely overshadowed his works in other areas, despite their considerable value in their own right. Saussure began his academic career as a specialist in comparative grammar of Indo-European languages. His early book on the reconstruction of the proto-European system of vowels (1879) produced a sensation at the time and made a strong impact on the development of that discipline in the next century. In the 1900s, Saussure was intensely involved in studies of the “anagram”; the discovery in the 1960s of his notes on the subject created a broad if somewhat controversial resonance.


The section comprises all of Saussure’s published scholarly works in new critical editions and publications of manuscript sources. It is divided into subsections reflecting diverse areas of Saussure’s scholarly interests.

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