Hmmm… ‘Boldt! How can you be Saussure?

Guess what! Okay, no need to guess, you know it. You know what it is (not black and yellow though). I’ll be, once again, focusing on Valentin Vološinov’s ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’. Last time I looked into one of the chapters, the third chapter of the first part of the book, that pertains to psychology as well as anti-psychology, that is to say, on one hand, certain strands of psychology of his time, the 1800s and the early 1900s, and, on the other hand, phenomenology. I wasn’t sure if I’d cover it as it goes a bit out of its way to cover issues that aren’t that close to what I’m interested in, in general, but then opted otherwise because it includes various minor bits that make it worth the reading.

In summary, it is established in that chapter that consciousness or psyche, i.e. how it is to be human or the human condition (as opposed to some other sort of consciousness, because, let’s be honest, other forms of life have some sort of consciousness, it’s just vastly different from ours), is social and emerges only through social intercourse, dealing with other humans, albeit it does also necessitate the human biology or physiology (but doesn’t simply follow from it without the social aspect). The interesting segments in the chapter are the bits on inner and outer speech, how experience is intertwined and colored by language (experience as a sign), introspection (not experience itself but a sign of a sign), as well as proton pseudos (false premise leads to false conclusions, regardless of the intermediate reasoning).

This time I’ll be going through the first chapter of the second part of the book that carry the titles ‘Two Trends of Thought in Philosophy of Language’. I wanted to include the second chapter ‘Language, Speech, and Utterance’ but I guess I’ll get it done eventually (it has a more critical look to things than what is in the first chapter).

If the introductory parts are not taken into account, this is actually the first part of the book that I read when I started reading the book because it is dedicated to key issues in language and linguistics. I reckon it’s actually fairly basic for linguists and perhaps not worth reading, in the sense that if you are a linguist, you probably know most of the stuff covered in this part of the book. Then again, if you are not a linguist, or a semiotician, then this part of the book is most definitely worth going through because, as the title suggests, it covers two major lines of thinking about language, not only at the time but, to some extent, contemporarily as well. So, if your background is something else, say geography, then, as dated as this book may be, this is a must read. Anyway, even if you are a linguist or a semiotician, I’d still read this. At least for me it was not only a refresher of this and/or that, but also included parts that were never covered in my prior studies (albeit that might not be the case for others).

Vološinov (45) indicates in the abstract that the first trend of thought is individualistic subjectivism and the second trend of thought is abstract objectivism. As this is about the philosophy of language, doing the groundwork for the study of language, he (45) ponders:

“But what is language, and what is word?”

Only to answer this himself (45):

“We do not, of course, have in mind anything like a conclusive definition of these concepts. Such a definition (insofar as any scientific definition may be called conclusive) might come at the end of a study, but not at its beginning.”

So, let us not be hasty, is what he is saying here. He (45) proposes that instead of jumping to conclusions here, we start by setting up methodological guidelines that we follow and see how they pan out. In particular, he (45-46) proposes that we use our eyes and hands, to see and to grasp, if you will, only to point out that when it comes to language, it seems that ear, our hearing comes before seeing and touching. He (46) makes note of this, should I say, impericism of the sound:

“[I]ndeed, the temptations of a superficial phonetic empiricism are very powerful in linguistic science. The study of the sound aspect of language occupies a disproportionately large place in linguistics, often setting the tone for the field, and in most cases is carried on outside any connection with the real essence of language as … sign.”

Oh, and yes, I did not typo empiricism as impericism. It is my point exactly when it comes to this. Anyway, he (46) clarifies what the problem with this is:

“If we isolate sound as a purely acoustic phenomenon, we will not have language as our specific object. Sound pertains wholly to, the competence of physics.”

That sounds about right. If we just look at language as sounds, there’s really nothing to it. It’s just sounds among other sounds, like the sound of my computer humming in the background. It’s then just well within the competence of physics to address, mere sounds among other sounds. He (46) moves on with the issue:

“If we add the physiological process of sound production and the process of sound reception, we still come no closer to our object.”

In other words, we’ve only added who (or what, if we don’t differentiate between animate and inanimate) makes the sounds and who (or what…) receives it. He (46) thus adds more layers to this:

“If we join onto this the experience (inner signs) of the speaker and listener, we obtain two psychophysical processes, taking place in two different psychophysiological beings, and one physical sound complex whose natural manifestation in governed by the laws of physics.”

Here it’s worth noting, as a side note, that this makes more sense, this is easier to get, if you went through the previous chapter on psychology where experience and inner speech (inner signs) is covered. We are slowly getting somewhere with this but he (46) still isn’t happy about it because:

“Language as the specific object of study keeps eluding us.”

Only to summarize what has been, nonetheless, achieved so far (46):

“[W]e have already encompassed three spheres of reality – the physical, the physiological, and the psychological, and we have obtained a fairly elaborate composite complex.”

What is lacking then, don’t we have it all already? For him (46), what is clearly lacking is what he calls “a ‘soul’”, some unity, something that links these three components so that they are not a mere list of separate entities but “precisely the phenomenon of language.” What is this ‘soul’ then? I mean he isn’t suggesting that it’s literally missing a soul. For him (46), as you might guess if you’ve read other parts of the book (or at least previous parts), is the social intercourse. In his (46) words:

“In order to observe the phenomenon of language, both the producer and the receiver of the sound itself must be place into the social atmosphere. After all, the speaker and listener must belong to the same language community – to a society organized along certain particular lines.”

However, that’s not all, as he (46) continues, adding that:

“Furthermore, our two individuals must be encompassed by unity of the immediate social situation, i.e., the must make contact, as one person to another, on a specific basis.”

This is an important addition because, as already covered in my previous essays on this book, language is always particular, not only general. If we ignore this addition that he makes here, we have a conception of language that is social but what is social about it, the language community, the society with its organization, rendered inert, fixed, set in stone. That would be just idealism again, assuming that there is this ideal language community, this ideal society that can be understood according to its organization along those certain particular lines. However, that’s not the case. In summary, thus far, he (47) states:

“So, we may say that the unity of the social milieu and the unity of the immediate social event of communication are conditions absolutely essential for bringing our physico-psycho-physiological complex into relation with language, with speech, so that it become a language-speech fact.”

To make it absolutely clear what language isn’t, as also argued in the previous chapter:

“Two biological organisms under purely natural conditions will not produce the fact of speech.”

So, as I stated earlier on about the human condition, consciousness or psyche, it doesn’t simply emerge from our biology, our physiology, on its own, sort of unprompted. Anyway, he (47) notes that be that as it may, what he has stated thus far in this chapter, has done little to clarify anything rather than further obscuring it. That is, however, only because language is highly complicated, involving multifaceted and multifarious connections, some more, some less important than others, as he (47) summarizes the issue. For him (47), what must be done is to account this all, to bring all these strands together “to the focal point of the language process.” Obviously that’s not going to be an easy task, but, then again, if it was easy, then we wouldn’t be going on and on about it.

Where are we at then, at this point? Well, we’ve landed at the very heart of the issue, the problem of language itself. He’ll move on to address it by taking a closer look at the two philosophies of language, individualistic subjectivism and abstract objectivism, and how they seek to solve this problem, which he (47-48) calls “the problem of the identification and the delimitation of language as a specific object of study.”

Starting with the former, individualistic subjectivism, he (48) characterizes it as based on a conception of language in which the creative act of speech is based on the individual, the source of language being in the individual psyche. Again, I reckon that if you read the previous chapter, this point comes across better. In a nutshell, as summarized by him (48), language is seen as a continuous or unceasing creative process that emerges from the psyche of an individual, which, in turn, means that the laws of language, that one is to study in linguistics, are also the laws of individual psychology. Simply put, as stated by him (48), language is seen as analogous “to art – to aesthetic activity.” He lists four principles of this trend. Firstly (48):

Language is activity, an unceasing process of creation (energeia) realized in individual speech acts[.]”

Secondly (48):

The laws of language creativity are the laws of individual psychology[.]”

Thirdly (48):

Creativity of language is meaningful creativity, analogous to creative art[.]”

Fourthly (48):

Language as a ready-made product (ergon), as a stable system (lexicon, grammar, phonetics), is, so to speak, the inert crust, the hardened lave of language creativity, of which linguistics makes an abstract construct in the interests of the practical teaching of language as a ready-made instrument.”

If this seems familiar to you, it’s probably because you are familiar with Wilhelm von Humboldt’s conception of language. Of course you might not be familiar with this, like I wasn’t until it was explained to me, rather randomly, on the aesthetics lectures I attended last semester. I reckon you don’t really run into his conception of language these days because, well, it’s not only out of fashion, but also kept out of fashion, namely for being … cough, cough … German, because, something tells me that most things German got effectively erased from curricula due to certain events in the last decades of the first half of the 1900s, as I pointed out in a short essay dedicated to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s views on language.

Anyway, as suggested by ergon (product) and energeia (process), this trend is indeed marked by the influence of von Humboldt, as indicated by Vološinov (48). It’s not that he is the only representative of this trend, as noted by Vološinov (48), as there are others, such as Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried von Herder who were his predecessors, but he is, nonetheless, the most influential representative of this trend. In Vološinov’s (48) words:

“Humboldt’s powerful thought has exercised an influence far exceeding the scope of the trend we have just characterized. It can be claimed that all post-Humboldtian linguistics, to the present day, has experienced his determinative influence.”

He (48-49) acknowledges that von Humboldt’s thought is not one specific thing, a totality that neatly aligns with the four principles of this trend that he listed, but rather a host of things far too broad and complex, as well as contradictory, to fit his description, lending itself to “widely divergent trends and movements.” He (49) adds that von Humboldt’s successors, those who are part of this trend, as much as they rely on his work, their conceptions of language are narrower and more simplistic than von Humboldt’s views. I mean, as I pointed out in the essay dedicated to him, his work, largely existing only in German, is very extensive and all over the place. In that sense, it’s only bound to happen that if you build on his works that you end up coming across as rather simplistic and small in scale in comparison to him. Anyway, be that as it may, Vološinov (49) sees von Humboldt’s views as pivotal to the emergence of the first trend. It’s still worth keeping in mind that it is incorrect to classify this trend as representing vol Humboldt’s philosophy of language. To my understanding, and if I remember correctly, language is markedly social for von Humboldt, which is something that Vološinov (49-50) considers largely missing in the first trend, with the insistence that language is situated only in the individual psyche. So, in a way, von Humboldt is and isn’t a representative of this trend.

What actually fits the bill, the four principles he lists, instead of von Humboldt, Vološinov (50) names Karl Vossler and his followers. He (50) indicates what distinguishes what he calls the Vossler school:

“[I]t is defined first and foremost by its decisive and theoretically grounded rejection of linguistic positivism, with its inability to see anything beyond the linguistic form (primarily, the phonetic from as the most ‘positive’ kind) and the elementary psychophysiological act of its generation.”

Only to add what Vossler is after (50):

“The main impetus to linguistic creativity is said to be ‘linguistic taste,’ a special variety of artistic taste. [It] is that linguistic truth by which language lives and which the linguist must ascertain in every manifestation of language in order genuinely to understand and explain the manifestation in question.”

Vološinov (50) cites Vossler summarizing his views in ‘Grammar and the History of Language’. Because I’m not lazy, I traced this back to the original, ‘Grammatik und Sprachgeschichte oder das Verhältnis von »richtig« und »wahr« in der Sprachwissenschaft’, in which Vossler (94) states:

“Aber eine Wissenschaftliche Sprachgeschichte wird erst diejenige sein, die durch die ganze praktische Kausalreihe hindurch zur ästhetichen gelangt: so daß der sprachliche Gedanke, die sprachliche Wahrheit, der Sprachgeschmack, das Sprachgefühl oder wie Wilhelm von Humbodlt es nennt: die innere Sprachform in all ihren physisch, psychisch, politisch, ökonomisch und überhaupt kulturell bedingten Wandlungen ersichtlich und verständlich wird.”

Which is translated into English, apparently from the Russian translation of the same journal issue (as, apparently, it ran side by side as German/Russian, one being translated to the other), by the translators, Matejka and Titunik (50-51):

“The only history of language that can claim the status of a science is the one that can run the whole gamut of the practical, causal order of things so as to arrive at the aesthetic order, so that thereby linguistic thought, linguistic truth, linguistic taste, and linguistic sensibility or, as Wilhelm Humboldt has called it, the inner form of language, in its physically, psychically, politically, economically and, in general, its culturally conditioned transformations, may be made clear and understandable.”

Why did I go through the effort of finding the original, in German? Well, translation is always a translation. There’s that. Then there’s a translation of a translation. That’s hardly ideal. As a side, before I continue on Vološinov, this journal is fascinating. It contains texts by the likes of Benedetto Croce, Ernst Cassirer, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Edmund Husserl, Georg Lukács, Georg Simmel and Max Weber, plus a host of others I just don’t recognize. Right, back to Vološinov (51) who summarizes that:

“[F]or Vossler the basic manifestation, the basic reality, of language should not be language as a ready-made system, in the sense of a body [inherited], immediately usable forms – phonetic, grammatical, and other – but the individual creative act of speech (Sprache als Rede).”

As a side note, to clarify a bit, the [inherited] part above is almost as is as there seems to be typo in the book, the word being ‘inhereited’. Anyway, he (51) adds that what follows from this conception of language is that speech acts do not simply consist of one going for “shared, stable, and immediately usable” grammatical forms of a specific language across all utterances, but actually stylistically concretizing and modifying these forms on the go, thus individualizing and uniquely characterizing each and every utterance. He (51) labels this as stylistic individualization and emphasizes that as it is creative, that is to say productive, it is also historical, which, in turn, results in the production of grammatical forms. In other words, he (51) argues that, for Vossler, style, the creative production of language, is primary, and grammatical form, the solidified product of style, is secondary. He (51) summarizes this as “the precedence of style over grammar”. As a final note on this trend, before I move on to the second trend, it’s worth noting that he (51-52) mentions Benedetto Croce as part of this first trend, indicating that in his works the key term is expression, that is to say artistic expression, which then should be the object of study in linguistics.

The second trend, abstract objectivism, is, I reckon, very familiar to linguists, as well as semioticians, or at least should be. You’ve been sleeping during lectures if you haven’t encountered this. Like me, you may have been ignorant of the first trend for years, but with regards to the second trend, I don’t know how you managed to pass the introductory course exams if you aren’t familiar with it. It’s just that familiar to you. Just dropping the name Ferdinand de Saussure should do the trick.

Vološinov (52) broadly characterizes abstract objectivism as shifting the focus on language from its use to it as “the linguistic system[,] as a system of the phonetic, grammatical, and lexical forms of language.” He (52) further contrasts the two trends, noting that in the first trend language is considered “an ever-flowing stream of speech acts in which nothing remains fixed and identical to its itself” whereas in the second trend language is considered “the stationary rainbow archer over that stream” and what is pivotal are the “the phonetic, grammatical, and lexical factors that are identical and therefore normative for all utterances” thus registering and insuring “the unity of a given language and its comprehension by all the members of a given community.”

Turning his attention to normativity, he (52-53) clarifies that he considers this second trend as focusing on normative identities, for example, how something is pronounced in order to be understood by all members of a specific language community, because there is no actual factual identity at play as each utterance is unique to each individual speaker due to various physiological differences between people. I would add here that, to be accurate, even each utterance by the same speaker is unique as one is, after all, tied to time and space. We never stay the same, so we can never, strictly speaking say the same thing again the same way we did before. Sure, as he (52) acknowledges, we may think that there are no differences because we cannot hear them, to distinguish the minute differences between speakers and their peculiarities. In short, it’s about normative identity because it can’t be about actual identity. As I’ve discussed in my past essays, contrary to popular belief, identity is about being non-identical to someone or something else. In simple terms, wearing the same t-shirt, whatever it is that they want you to buy to supposedly stand out from the crowd, is about being identical, resulting in a twisted sense of uniqueness that builds on the same, being the same as others. That’s normative identity alright.

This normativity applies to all elements of language, not only phonetic, hence he (53) calls it the “normative identity of linguistic form”. With regards to the individual, the speaker, he (53) states that in this view the speaker is seen as merely implementing and impleting a particular form in a particular speech act. In short, the order of things is reversed here. Unlike in the first trend, from the view of the first trend, in the second trend the product (ergon) becomes before the production (energeia). One just applies language and the differences in speech between speakers are considered fortuitous factors that, nonetheless, do not play an important role, as he (53) points out. In summary, thus far, from the view of the second trend, creativity that underlines the first trend is irrelevant because language is considered a distinct system of language separate from “individual creative acts, intentions, or motives” of its speakers (and writers if we go beyond speaking). In his (53) words:

“Language stands before the individual as an inviolable, incontestable norm which the individual, for his part, can only accept.”

There is nothing non-acceptable, as he (53) goes on to clarify:

“If the individual fails to perceive a linguistic form as an incontestable norm, then it does not exist for him as a form of language simply as a natural possibility for his own individual, psychophysical apparatus.”

Simply put, as he (53) summarizes it:

“The individual acquires the system of language from his speech community completely ready made. Any change within that system lies beyond the range of his individual consciousness.”

In other words, in the second trend language is this pre-existing fixed thing that you just inherit from people around you as grow up. Whatever you say, you ain’t changing a thing. You can’t even think otherwise. He (53) explains what follows from this:

“The individual act of articulating sounds becomes a linguistic act only by measure its compliance with the fixed (at any given moment in time) and incontestable (for the individual) system of language.”

So, to put it bluntly, your only option is compliance. Resistance is futile. If your articulation is off, too much, then it isn’t considered language because it is measured in compliance to a fixed and incontestable system. You can always ask: ‘what about this, what about that?’ The only reply you get is no, that falls outside the bounds of language.

Having summarized the second trend, albeit only in brief, so far, Vološinov (53-54) moves on to address what are the laws that govern the system of language. His (54) short answer is that these laws are irreducible to any other laws, hence they are always already there. As a reminder, to jog your memory, in the first trend the laws are also the laws of consciousness or psyche.

His (54) more elaborate answer is that synchronically, that is to say examining language at any specific point in time, say right now, all forms of language are mutually indispensable and complementary and thus form a system. He (54) calls this linguistic systematicity. Importantly, as expressed by him (54), as language is a system beyond you in this view, it cannot explain individual consciousness or psyche. What follows from this, as he (54) goes on to explain, is that language operates beyond you on an as is basis and you inevitably opt in to it.

What also follows from this is that, as I’d put it, is that language is considered neutral. This is because, as he (54) states it, there is no room for evaluation and discrimination, style or taste, that, for example, something is considered “better, worse, beautiful, ugly, or the like” as the only criterion in linguistics is whether something is correct or incorrect. This was, sort of pointed out already, as he (53) states that language is inviolable. If you claim something that violates the laws, then it’s simply a matter of you being incorrect as it doesn’t correspond with the normative system of language, as he (54) clarifies the issue. It’s a yes or no. What ifs are always rendered into yes/no because there is no room for evaluation beyond that binary.

An important bit here is also to make note of how this results in, from the point of view of the individual speaker, the arbitrariness of language, as linguistic systematicity is not based on anything that comes from the individual speaker, be it natural (biological or physiological) or social/cultural (artistic, creative), as he (54) summarizes this point.

Having explained the first characteristic of the second trend, that language is a synchronic system beyond the individual, Vološinov (54) moves on to explain the second characteristic of the trend. He (54) argues that if language is independent from the individual, then language must be a collective product, a social entity that operates like a normative social institution, above and beyond the individual. What is crucial about this is that, as we know, language does actually change, no matter how fixed it may seem. It only happens on the level of the speech community, the collective, as he (54) characterizes it. This occurs, according to him (54-56), as “a special kind of discontinuity between the history of language and the system of language[.]” In other words, there is a gap between how language develops (diachrony) historically and how it is always, at any given point in time, a full fledged system in which everything is neatly in place, consistent, indispensable and complementary (synchrony) ahistorically. Any change is, rather obviously, always in contradiction of the system of language. He (56) argues that to make room for this change, it must be attributed beyond the individual because, remember, the individual is incapable of consciously changing the system (always within its bounds). So, as he (55-56) points out, any change is to be attributed to unintentional errors, which, once popularized in the community, become the norm.

Vološinov (55-56) explains the second principle and, centrally, the incapability to make the synchronic and the diachronic dimensions mutually comprehensible in quite the detail, with examples pertaining to ‘I was’ or ‘Ich was’ and it gets changed, but I reckon you get the point and can take a closer look yourself in case you didn’t get the point. Instead of getting bogged down by the examples, it is more fruitful to contrast the two trends. Similar to the way he summarized the first trend, he (57) also provides a list of four basic principles for the second trend. Firstly (57):

Language is a stable, immutable system of normatively identical linguistic forms which the individual consciousness finds ready-made and which is incontestable for that consciousness.”

Secondly (57):

The laws of language are the specifically linguistic laws of connection between linguistic signs withing a given, closed linguistic system. These laws are objective with respect to any subjective consciousness.”

Thirdly (57):

Specifically linguistic connections have nothing in common with … values (artistic, cognitive, or other). Language phenomena are not grounded in … motives. No connection of a kind natural and comprehensible to the consciousness or of an artistic kind obtains between the word and its meaning.”

Fourthly (57):

Individual acts of speaking are, from the viewpoint of language, merely fortuitous refractions and variations or plain and simple distortions of normatively identical forms; but precisely these acts of individual discourse explain the historical changeability that in itself, from the standpoint of the language system, is irrational and senseless. There is no connection, no sharing of motives, between the system of language and its history. They are alien to one another.”

As you can see, and as he (57) goes on to point out, these four principles are the antitheses to the four principles of the first trend. To make more sense of the second trend, it is, perhaps, useful to contrast it with the first trend. He (56) indicates the key differences between the two trends, first summarizing individualistic subjectivism:

“[F]or the first trend the very essence of language is revealed precisely in its history; the logic of language is not at all a matter of reproducing a normatively identical form but of continuous renovation and individualization of that form via stylistically unreproducible utterance.”

Or, defined more concisely as (56):

The reality of language is, in fact, its generation.”

In summary, to put this all in other words, language is always in the moment, here and now, as one unity, as it is uttered, as he (56) goes on to elaborate in Vosslerian terms. It is also worth adding here that, as emphasized by him (56), what language is and how it goes from one historical form to another always occurs in psyche, in individual consciousness. As noted earlier on (48), explaining things in Humboldtian terms, the first trend is all about the energeia, whereas the second trend is about ergon.

Speaking of von Humboldt, who is, arguably, the progenitor of the first trend, albeit, strictly speaking not of his doing, Vološinov (57) indicates that origins of the second trend are murky and there is not a single person like von Humboldt that one could consider as its founder or, at least its forefather. Instead, he (57-58) notes that its origins are in rationalism, Cartesianism and the Enlightenment, going all the way back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Jumping to the 20th century, as quickly done by Vološinov (57-59), as I pointed out when I switched over from explaining the first trend to explaining the second trend, the biggest name to represent the second trend is Ferdinand de Saussure and his contemporaries, namely Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. In his (58) words:

“The ideas of this second trend all have been endowed with amazing clarity and precision by Ferdinand de Saussure. His formulations of the basic concepts of linguistics can well be accounted classics of their kind. Moreover, Saussure undauntedly carried his ideas out to their conclusions, providing all the basic lines of abstract objectivism with exceptionally clear-cut and rigorous definition.”

I think it’s worth noting here that his approval here is not of the second trend, of abstract objectivism, but how it is well it is formulated and presented by de Saussure. I guess you could say that he approves it for its rigor, even if he doesn’t agree with it all. I don’t know what it is, but having read other studies, unrelated, in unrelated fields, such as geography, there seems to be just something to the way they wrote in the early 1900s. For example, I remember reading J.G. Granö’s ‘Pure Geography’, originally published in German in 1929 as ‘Reine Geographie’ and subsequently in Finnish in 1930 as ‘Puhdas maantiede’, out of interest to landscapes. I can’t say I agree with Granö, with much anything, really, but, oddly enough, I enjoyed reading it. The clarity, the precision, the rigor. It has its appeal.

After noting in passing that abstract objectivism, following de Saussure, via Bally and Sechehaye, has had considerable impact on Russian linguistics, Vološinov (59) summarizes the key things about de Saussure’s conception of language, split into three aspects: “language-speech (langage), language as a system of forms (langue) and the individual speech act – the utterance (parole).” In this conception language-speech (langage) consist of both language (langue) and utterance (parole). Crucially, as emphasized by Vološinov (59), in this conception language-speech (langage) “cannot be the object of study for linguistics” because it’s “a heterogeneous composite”, not something that has “inner unity and validity as an autonomous entity”. As approaching language speech (langage) isn’t feasible, one must turn to something else, which, for de Saussure (25), is language as a system of forms (langue), as indicated in ‘Cours de linguistique générale’:

“Il n’y a, selon nous, qu’une solution à toutes ces difficultés : il faut se placer de prime abord sur le terrain de la langue et la prendre pour norme de toutes les autres manifestations du langage. En effet, parmi tant de dualités, la langue seule paraît être susceptible d’une définition autonome et fournit un point d’appui satisfaisant pour l’esprit.”

Which is translated into English in ‘Course in General Linguistics’ as:

“As I see it there is only one solution to all the foregoing difficulties: from the very outset we must put both feet on the ground of language and use language as the norm of all other manifestations of speech. Actually, among so many dualities, language alone seems to lend itself to independent definition and provide a fulcrum that satisfies the mind.”

To make more sense of this, de Saussure (25) elaborates the difference between language (langue) and speech (parole):

“Pris dans son tout, le langage est multiforme et hétéroclite ; à cheval sur plusieurs domaines, à la fois physique, physiologique et psychique, il appartient encore au domaine individuel et au domaine social ; il ne se laisse classer dans aucune catégorie des faits humains, parce qu’on ne sait comment dégager son unité.”

Which translates to (9):

“Taken as a whole, [language-]speech is many-sided and heterogeneous; straddling several areas simultaneously – physical, physiological, and psychological – it belongs both to the individual and to society; we cannot put it into any category of human facts, for we cannot discover its unity.”

This is the point Vološinov (59) makes about how language-speech (langage) can’t be object of study for linguistics. Anyway, as we need to get somewhere with this, I’ll let de Saussure (25) continue on the difference between language-speech (langage) and language (langue):

“La langue, au contraire, est un tout en soi et un principe de classification. Dès que nous lui donnons la première place parmi les faits de langage, nous introduisons un ordre naturel dans un ensemble qui ne se prête à aucune autre classification.”

Which translates to (9):

“Language, on the contrary, is a self-contained whole and a principle of classification. As soon as we give language first place among the facts of speech, we introduce a natural order into a mass that lends itself to no other classification.”

I think here it’s worth noting that how he indicates that one introduces not just an order, but a natural order, hence the emphasis of language as a system (langue) over speech (parole). This is why Vološinov (60) states that for de Saussure language (langue) is always the point of departure for speech (parole). With regards to speech (parole), de Saussure (30) further comments on it:

En séparant la langue de la parole, on sépare du même coup : 1o ce qui est social de ce qui est individuel ; 2o ce qui est essentiel de ce qui est accessoire et plus ou moins accidentel.”

Which translates to (14):

“In separating language from speaking we are at the same time separating: (1) what is social from what is individual; and (2) what is essential from what is accessory and more or less accidental.”

Okay, but that’s not all as de Saussure (30) continues:

“La langue n’est pas une fonction du sujet parlant, elle est le produit que l’individu enregistre passivement ; elle ne suppose jamais de préméditation, et la réflexion n’y intervient que pour l’activité de classement [.]”

Which translates to (14):

“Language is not a function of the speaker; it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual. It never requires premeditation, and reflection enters in only for the purpose of classification[.]”

As you can see here already, language (langue) is something that does not originate in the speaker. Instead, it is the speaker who assimilates the language, which happens passively, without any need to reflect upon it. Anyway, de Saussure (30-31) still continues on this:

“La parole est au contraire un acte individuel de volonté et d’intelligence, dans lequel il convient de distinguer 1o les combinaisons par lesquelles le sujet parlant utilise le code de la langue en vue d’exprimer sa pensée personnelle ; 2o le mécanisme psycho-physique qui lui permet d’extérioriser ces combinaisons.”

Which translates to (14):

“Speaking, on the contrary, is an individual act. It is wilful and intellectual. Within each act, we should distinguish between: (1) the combinations by which the speaker uses the language code for expressing his own thought; and (2) the psychophysical mechanism that allows him to exteriorize those combinations.”

So, in summary, language as a system (langue) is beyond the individual and thus social, whereas speech (parole) is individual, which happens to be main thesis here, as noted by Vološinov (60). The important thing here is to note that in the linguistics of de Saussure’s speech or utterance (parole) is simply inconceivable as its object of study, as indicated by Vološinov (60).

Now, as approving as Vološinov (58) is of the clarity and rigor of how de Saussure presents his view on language, he (61) just doesn’t buy it and states it contains a proton pseudos, a false premise that undermines de Saussure’s whole project (which I hope to address sooner or later). Here it’s worth reminding that, again, reading the previous chapter helps immensively as it covers the issue that comes with false premises. In short, in case you didn’t read it or forgot about it already, the issue is that if your premise is false, your conclusions end being false, no matter how much of your blood, sweat and tears there’s in between the premise and the conclusions. Vološinov (60) turns to de Saussure’s (129) own wording again here:

“C’est ainsi que le « phénomène » synchronique n’a rien de commun avec le diachronique …”

Which translates to (91):

“The synchronic and diachronic ‘phenomenon,’ for example, have nothing in common …”

The synchronic is explained by de Saussure (140) as:

“La linguistique synchronique s’occupera des rapports logiques et psychologiques reliant des termes coexistants et formant système, tels qu’ils sont aperçus par la même conscience collective.”

Which translates to (99-100):

Synchronic linguistics will be concerned with the logical and psychological relations that bind together coexisting terms and form a system in the collective mind of speakers.”

Whereas, for de Saussure (140), the diachronic is about:

“La linguistique diachronique étudiera au contraire les rapports reliant des termes successifs non aperçus par une même conscience collective, et qui se substituent les uns aux autres sans former système entre eux.”

Which translates to (100):

Diachronic linguistics, on the contrary, will study relations that bind together successive terms not perceived by the collective mind but substituted for each other without forming a system.”

It’s not hard to figure from the definitions which form of linguistics is important for de Saussure (if it wasn’t obvious already). There’s also something peculiar about stating that language is a system that exists in the collective mind of speakers, in the sense that it is outside them. That seems awfully superorganic, transcendent or holistic to me. It doesn’t do much good either when Vološinov (60) indicates that alongside de Saussure’s school of linguistics there is another similar school of linguistics that builds on the sociological school of Émile Durkheim, as represented by Antoine Meillet. I mean this has Durkheim written all over it. Collective mind of speakers? Did you mean collective consciousness? Anyway, I won’t get tangled up on this as not long ago I wrote an essay that focuses on this very issue.

This is pretty much everything that Vološinov has to say about the two trends in this chapter. In the very final paragraphs he (61-62) notes that, of course, there are more trends than these two trends and he only opted to cover them because they are the major trends. If we think how things are now, in glorious retrospect, it’s rather evident that only the abstract objectivism is still around. Of course that doesn’t mean that individualistic subjectivism is gone altogether. It’s rather that there isn’t much of a competition in linguistics these days. The are minorities that seek to undermine abstract objectivism, also known better known as structuralism, typically under the heading post-structuralism, because, well, structuralism, as I see it, should be largely, no, sorry, should have been binned ages ago.

I have to separate this, as this is going to be a rant. Feel free to skip this paragraph if you can’t be bothered with me ranting. I realize that I anger my fellow linguists with all this … heresy! I was actually going to write that I ‘probably’ anger them but, well, judging by the lack of appreciation to what I do, especially in terms of funding (except for travel???) and peer review, it’s rather evident that it’s not just ‘probably’. I do anger them. Of course no one expresses it, at least not in their own name. I would actually welcome open anger, confrontation and combat, instead of what it gets morphed into because it serves them, their desires: anonymous satire, judgment and appeals to asylums of ignorance, such as appealing to consensus or propriety. I’d have respect for challengers, just as I have respect for Plato, despite everything that I disagree with with him.

Where was I? Right, yeah, things have changed alright, ever since Vološinov wrote this book. There are challengers, namely those who engage in sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and pragmatics, to name a few. Of course, compared to the mainstream, it’s all very bubbling under and not considered linguistics proper. Anyway, skipping his brief elaboration of minor trends, say various philological strands, which do, of course exist, Vološinov (62) expresses his unhappiness with linguistics, as well as other disciplines:

“In linguistics, as in any other discipline, there are two basic devices for avoiding the obligation and trouble of thinking in responsible, theoretical, and, consequently, philosophical terms.”

Ooooh! How dare he! Do go on (62):

“The first, way is to accept all theoretical views wholesale (academic eclecticism), and the second is not to accept a single point of view of a theoretical nature and to proclaim ‘fact’ as the ultimate basis and criterion for any kind of knowledge (academic positivism).”

These days the first way is known as ‘anything goes’, which, is, oddly enough, what the people subscribing to the second way accuse people who are, in their view, just off the hook with all the, whatever, unnecessary theoreticism, esotericism or mysticism. I wonder though. I don’t think there is much room for the first way these days though, except in the views of those who subscribe to the second way, which is, at least the way I see it, the majority in academics. I usually despair when I have to read academic papers, not because they are eclectic but because they tend to be devoid of any theory, grounding, premise, plane, philosophy, whatever you want to call it. It’s all just supposedly factual, which is exactly what Vološinov (62) is upset about here. I know I’ve expressed this before, but, yeah, it’s a bit sad that, somehow, some obscure Russian fellow (62) who lived in the early 1900s, managed to put it all so, so well already back in the day:

“The philosophical effect of both these devices for avoiding philosophy amounts to one and the same thing, since in the second case, too, all possible theoretical points of view can and do creep into investigation under the cover of ‘fact.’”

Oh dear, oh dear. If only this wasn’t so to the point and so well expressed. This is exactly what I mean when I complain (oh, and I DO complain about it) about people sneaking in a premise, a presupposition, some a priori, through the backdoor, as if nothing of such ever happened, as if it all was simply a matter of facts. Vološinov (62) even picks the most fitting word for such behavior:

“Which of these devices an investigator will choose depends entirely upon his temperament: the eclectic tends more to the blithe side; the positivist, to the surreptitious.”

Aye, an eclectic would be like, yeah, dude, whatever, anything goes, can’t be bothered, but, I can’t think of such people in the academics, except, perhaps the people who are about to retire and just don’t care and give the students better grades than they should be getting, just because, because it’s not like it makes any difference if you do or don’t as no one is going to fire you for it. Surreptitious. What. A. Great. Word. For. This. Doing something stealthily, you know like … when sneaking. Wicked mischief! That’s exactly what I keep running into in a lot of texts, talks and presentations, even if it happens, I guess, unwittingly to certain extent.

While the first chapter of the second part of the book is dedicated to the elaboration of the two major trends, the chapter that follows it, the second chapter, expands the discussion, moving on from explaining the trends to properly analyzing them (there is some analysis already in the first chapter, but it’s still rather superficial, more contrastive than critical). Rather than presenting things in the same order as in the previous chapter, Vološinov (65) continues on the second trend in order to the questions posed at the end of the previous chapter (63), which is what I hope to get around to do next, in the next essay.


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