The structuralist claim to the Cours de Linguistique Générale and a phenomenological alternative

The reception of Ferdinand de 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 consider some of the ambiguities surrounding the presumed antagonism between the phenomenological and the structuralist traditions of inquiry considering that the supposed foundation of structuralism, the Course in General Linguistics, is an editorial construct while the materials from Saussure's Nachlass are teeming with phenomenological references. The dominant structuralist claim to Saussure's linguistics turns out in fact to be largely based on a selective reading of the Cours by French intellectuals after the Second World War, including Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, who adopted the Cours as a programmatic statement on which to model their research in the human sciences and who glossed over the sections from the Cours that advance distinctly non-structuralist themes such as the socially and historically situated conditions of any signifying system. This selective and programmatic reading of the Cours within structuralism contrasts with Merleau-Ponty's engagement with Saussure's linguistics. I argue that Merleau-Ponty's reception offers an unusual, if not an uncanny reading of the Cours, in that it identifies a phenomenological dimension within this text, against the grain of the dominant structuralist claim. This phenomenological dimension is corroborated by the authentic sources of Saussure's linguistics from the Nachlass, even though the latter were beyond the philosopher's own power to know. Merleau-Ponty's unorthodox reading of the Cours as being broadly compatible with the tradition of Husserlian phenomenology has been dismissed as an error (Ricoeur, 1967) and a contresens (Mounin, 1968), but I argue that such deviant appropriations of foundational texts are the ones to cherish the most, since they effectively dismantle received dogmas and official doctrines. I argues specifically that Merleau-Ponty's contested distinction between "a synchronic linguistics of speech (parole)" and "a diachronic linguistics of language (langue)" (Signs, 1964, p. 86), which gives primacy to la parole over la langue, and raises the possibility of a systematic study of la parole, contains a more faithful response to Saussure's own project than the received structuralist view that la langue alone constitutes the proper object of linguistic study.

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Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Signs. Trans. by Richard C. McCleary. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

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Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Prose of the World. Edited by Claude Lefort. Translated by John O'Neill. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

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