Derrida’s reception of the Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916): after a century, a plea for a philosophical rapprochement

The reception of Saussure's work has been largely based on the posthumously published edition of the Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916). This volume was ghostwritten and published by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Riedlinger; while their edition is typically assumed, in the philosophical circles at least, to offer, in an academic book format, a simple recast of the lectures on general linguistics that Saussure gave between 1907 and 1909 at the University of Geneva, recent research based on authentic materials from Saussure's Nachlass suggests that it is largely an editorial projection based on a naïve conception of science and a reductive view of language. In my talk, I focus on one notable case of a philosophical reception of the 1916 Cours as developed by Derrida in Of Grammatology and Glas. I complicate Derrida's influential charge of phonocentrism, that is, the charge that Saussure privileges the medium of sound and/or speech as a site of unmediated signifying presence, by re-examining relevant sections from the Cours in light of the materials from Saussure's Nachlass. Specifically, I turn to the primary object of Derrida's deconstructive reading: sections from the Course dealing, first, with 'natural' expressions like onomatopoeias and interjections in relation to linguistic arbitrariness, and, second, with the relation between speech and writing. Based on a discussion of relevant materials from Saussure's Nachlass, I call into question the presumed primacy of sound and/or speech as a site of unmediated signifying presence within Saussure's linguistics. Contrary to the editorial presentation from the 1916 Cours, the materials from the Nachlass reject a possibility of authentic or 'pure' onomatopoeic expressions, considering that the latter are subjected to linguistic rules in the same measure as any other terms. This resonates with Saussure's understanding of arbitrariness as a process of intra-linguistic motivation whereby any individual sign is informed by relations to other signs within the system, as well as by temporally sedimented social conventions of usage. In agreement with Derrida, the 'entrainment' of an individual sign by the language system has always already begun, and the 'contamination' of the language system by forces deemed 'external' to it is a regular and normal state. Derrida's charge that Saussure's linguistics is burdened by an allegiance to the metaphysics of presence carries therefore a limited force; in fact, Derrida and Saussure share the view that signification emerges within a tightly woven system of relations and is undecidable between 'intra-' and 'extra-linguistic' forces. Saussure's linguistics offers in fact a sophisticated reflection on the mediated quality of signification, and on the ambiguous status of what we usually call 'language' in relation to what we usually call 'society' and 'history.' And while the 1916 Cours may have provided Derrida (and many others) with insights for developing some of these complex and ambiguous themes, one century after its original publication, the time is ripe for integrating the materials from Saussure's Nachlass to fully flesh them out.

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