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The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism

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Linguistic Model
Thus it is on account of the peculiar nature of language as an object of study that Saussure is led to strike out in a new direction. Once again, of course, the dilemma of linguistics is only part of a vaster crisis in the sciences in general: in physics for instance, where the alternation between the wave and particle theories of light begins to cast some doubt on the conception of the atom as a substance, and where indeed the idea of a "field' is not without analogies to Saussure's notion of a system. In all these areas, scientific investigation has reached the limits of perception; its objects are no longer things or organisms which are isolated by their own physical structures from each other, and which can be dissected and classified in various ways. Saussure's concept of the "system" implies that in this new trackless unphysical reality content is form; that you can see only as much as your model permits you to see; that the. methodological starting point does more than simply reveal, it actually creates, the object of study....On a larger scale, it is clear that this kind of thinking has the gravest implications for the human studies for disciplines such as history and sociology whose object of study is almost as fluid and ill-definable as language itself. Saussure was of course well aware of this: When a science has no immediate recognizable concrete units, then it follows that such units are not really essential to it. In history, for instance, what is the basic unit? The individual the period, the nation? No one is sure, but what difference does it make? Historical investigations may be pursued without a final decision on this point."...Thus, philosophically, we are faced with a rather peculiar identification between change and matter, on the one hand, and meaning and the a-temporal, on the other. It should be noted that the most adequate philosophic analogies are not with the older and rather simplistic versions of the mind/body problem, but, once again, with the newer phenomenological ones, where matter becomes Husserl's hyle...

All this - the concept of system, the notion of language as a perception of identities and differences -- is thus implicit in the initial distinction between synchrony and diachrony. It is therefore no real service to Saussure's thought to attempt to compromise, as many of his followers have done, by trying to show that this initial distinction is not really so marked, not really so absolute, as its terms might at first glance imply. The plain fact of the matter is that one cannot have it both ways. It was precisely the unrelieved starkness and intransigence of the initial antithesis that proved the most suggestive for future development, and on which the subsequent parts of the doctrine are founded. Once you have begun by separating diachronic from synchronic, in other words, you can never really put them back together again. If the opposition in the long run proves to be a false or misleading one, then the only way to suppress it is by throwing the entire discussion onto a higher dialectical plane, choosing a new starting point, utterly recasting the problems involved in new terms.
Pages 14 - 16

© 1972, Princeton University Press. The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.


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