Monday, November 19, 2007

Joseph, John E. " . . . Ferdinand de Saussure, the Father of Structuralism, Owed Much to Hobbes and Mill. . . ." TIMES ONLINE November 14, 2007.

. . . None of this information has been published before. It has come to light in papers discovered in 1996, only a very few of which have made their way into print. The Writings in General Linguistics, first published by Gallimard in 2002 (English translation from Oxford University Press, 2006), consists mainly of texts already published in 1974 or earlier. The new material in Writings, including the brief fragments found in twelve envelopes marked “On the Double Essence” or “On the Eessence”, does not differ on any essential point from the previously known manuscripts. Saussure was consistent in his conception of language throughout his life. More revealing is the personal information in the papers. His claims to Englishness are surprising because he seems so archetypically Continental, standing as he does at the head of all the structuralism and poststructuralism that followed in his wake. Yet Geneva, the city of Calvin and Frankenstein (for whom Ferdinand’s great-grandfather Horace-Bénédict de Saussure may have been a model), was described in 1814 by the historian and political economist J. C. Simonde de Sismondi as “a sort of British city on the continent . . . a city where people think and feel in English, though they speak and write in French”. Saussure’s most characteristic ideas have British or American sources, including the most distinctively Saussurean idea of all: "In a language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, the language contains neither ideas nor sounds that pre-exist the linguistic system, but only conceptual differences and phonic differences issuing from this system" (from the posthumous Course in General Linguistics, 1916). . . . For the late nineteenth century the locus classicus of differentiality was John Stuart Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865), a scathing attack that brought far more attention to Hamilton’s writings than their author had managed during his lifetime. Hamilton’s “relativity of human knowledge” was one of the few things Mill agreed with, summarizing it as follows: "We only know anything by knowing it as distinguished from something else; all consciousness is of difference; two objects are the smallest number required to constitute consciousness; a thing is only seen to be what it is by contrast with what it is not." . . . Saussure had come into contact with the English and Scottish philosophical traditions in his teens, reading Pictet’s survey of them in his book on aesthetics, Du Beau. That background left him receptive to the Hamilton–Mill doctrine when he was introduced to it, at the start of the 1890s, via his younger brother. . . . Read the entire article here:

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