[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.)
The terms “signifier” and “signified” were not introduced until one of his last general linguistics lectures in 1911. But the idea of a psychological sound pattern corresponding to a spoken word, functioning purely through its difference from every other such signifier, is found in his notes as far back as 1881, when he was in Paris working towards a French doctorate that he never completed. “Language”, he wrote at that time, in a manuscript now in Harvard’s Houghton Library and published in 1995, “is composed of a system of acoustic oppositions.” Acoustic only: no indication as yet that the conceptual side, the signified, is similarly oppositional in its nature – that it too has no positive content, just a value generated by its difference from other signifieds, as claimed in the quote from the Course.
This remains vividly controversial, as I was reminded some months back when I was drawn into an e-conversation with a philosopher of language who is convinced that the meanings of words must have some primordial reality that is not simply differential, and blames Saussure for introducing a fundamental error. Yet, in philosophy itself, and in sciences other than linguistics (because linguists just did not think about such things), it was a commonplace view in the second half of the nineteenth century that all thought and all consciousness was purely differential and negative in nature. It was a defining feature of British psychology, as opposed to Continental (particularly German) psychology, which, before the British approach made inroads into it, took thought to be made up of ideas, maybe innate, maybe acquired, but with real, substantive content... No one becomes as famous as Saussure did without both admirers and detractors reducing them to a paragraph’s worth of ideas that can be readily quoted, debated, memorized and examined. Those ideas then become “Saussure”, while the human being, in all his complexity, disappears. From The Times Literary Supplement
Home >Arts & Entertainment > The TLS November 14, 2007
The poet who could smell vowels
Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structuralism, owed much to Hobbes and Mill, and numbered Henry VII among his ancestors
John E. Joseph]
A number of questions arise for the modern reader trained to think of Saussure as the founder of general linguistics or, more specifically, as the author of that posthumous Cours de linguistique générale (1916) which is often seen as marking the beginning of general or theoretical linguistics. If Saussure was in fact a professor of Sanskrit and Indo-European languages for most of his life, if practically all that he published of his own volition during his lifetime concerned historical and comparative linguistics, what is the link, if any, between these two sorts of activities? Is it true that there were two Saussures, as the title (though not the content) of a famous paper (Redard, 1978a) may suggest?
The Cours is well known, but in its published form it was not written by Saussure. We must focus on the work actually published. Saussure and Indo-European linguistics
Anna Morpurgo Davies Home > Catalogue > The Cambridge Companion to Saussure
Edited by Carol Sanders]
[Pāṇini, and the later Indian linguist Bhartrihari, had a significant influence on many of the foundational ideas proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure, professor of Sanskrit, who is widely considered the father of modern structural linguistics. While this is maintained by Prem Singh in his foreword to the reprint edition of the German translation of Pāṇini’s Grammar in 1998, George Cardona warns against an overestimation: "As far as I am able to discern upon rereading Saussure's Memoire, however, it shows no direct influence of Paninian grammar. Indeed, on occasion, Saussure follows a path that is contrary to Paninian procedure." From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]
Despite Saussure's ambivalent involvement with Sanskrit, "that the meanings of words must have some primordial reality," is an idea that refuses to subside. [TNM]