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Saussure And Beyond: Renewing Semiotic Foundations

Instructor: Paul J Thibault


Course Description

In this course I argue that a renovated Saussurean theory of the dynamics of signs in social life is possible. I re-examine many of the key concepts in Saussure's theory and call into question the standard readings of Saussure. In so doing, I attempt to show that in Saussure's social-semiological theory, language and other social sign systems do not simply interpret an already given reality. Instead, they constitute it in and through the dynamic processes of making and enacting signs in social life. The course does more than simply engage with Saussure's theory in a new and up-to-date way. It also refracts our own contemporary thinking and practice as linguists and semioticians through the questions Saussure sought to answer and endeavours to contribute to the contemporary discussion of these issues.

Some of the questions that inform and motivate the course include:

Aims of the course


Course Outline

This course is a theoretical and practical re-reading of Saussure in the light of contemporary developments in both the human sciences and the physical and life sciences. The aim of the course is to show the continuing relevance of the questions Saussure set out to answer and his theoretical framework for doing so. The course also seeks to extend this framework in the light of the most recent developments in our thinking about the social basis of meaning-making. The course is not, therefore, a critical or historical exegesis, though I do pay careful attention to the Saussurean texts in the discussion.

My principal argument is that it is time for a major re-thinking of the issues which Saussure set out to explore. By and large, Saussure's thinking has been assimilated to the structuralist paradigm, with its emphasis on 'static' synchronic principles of organization. Recent developments in the physical and life sciences concerning the dynamic, open, and evolving nature of physical, biological, and cultural systems allow us to see more clearly that Saussure's was a major pioneering attempt to theorize the dynamics of historically specific cultural systems. His was an attempt to provide an overall conceptual framework for modelling the dynamics of historically specific systems of human social meaning-making. In my reading, Saussure participated in an emerging New Dialogue between the sciences of culture and society, on the one hand, and the physical and life sciences on the other. It is a dialogue which has only recently been resumed in the light of a renewed emphasis on the dynamic, topological, evolutionary, ecosocial, and constructivist aspects of cultural phenomena.

The course also argues that Saussure's thinking is very much in tune with recent shifts away from formal and cognitive models of language and mind, to one in which structure and meaning are integrated into a more dynamic account of how meanings are made in and through the social practices of a given community. The course re-examines many of the key concepts in Saussure's theory and calls into question much in the standard readings of Saussure. In so doing, I hope to show that in Saussure's social-semiological theory, language and other social sign systems do not simply interpret an already given reality. Instead, they constitute it in and through the dynamic processes of making and enacting signs in social life.

The coverage of the course is broad. It ranges across linguistics, semiotics, discourse analysis, psychology, cultural theory, political economy, philosophy, sociology, biology, and the theory of complex open systems.

A full outline of the proposed lecture topics will be provided along with lecture I in October.


Preliminary Reading:

Primary Texts

Godel, Robert (ed.) (1957) Les Sources Manuscrites du Cours de Linguistique Générale de F. de Saussure, Geneva and Paris: Droz and Minard.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1957) 'Cours de Linguistique Générale (1908-1909). IIe Cours. Introduction', Robert Godel (ed.). Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 15: 2-103.

--- (1961 [1894-1911]) 'Lettres de Ferdinand de Saussure à Antoine Meillet' (published by Emile Benveniste), Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 21: 89-135.

--- (1967) Cours de Linguistique Générale [= Saussure-Engler] Critical edition in three volumes, Rudolf Engler (ed.), Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

--- (1971 [1916]) Cours de Linguistique Générale [= CLG], Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (eds.), Paris: Payot.

--- (1959) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, New York and London: McGraw-Hill.

--- (1983) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris, London: Duckworth.

--- (1994 [1967]) Corso di Linguistica Generale, introduction, Italian trans. and commentary Tullio de Mauro, Rome and Bari: Laterza.

--- (1994) Manoscritti di Harvard, Herman Parret (ed.), Italian trans. Raffaella Petrilli, Rome and Bari: Laterza.

Starobinski, Jean. (1971) Les Mots sur Les Mots. Les anagrammes de Ferdinand de Saussure, Paris: Gallimard.

Secondary Texts.

Culler, Jonathan. (1976) Saussure, London: Fontana.

Harris, Roy. (1987) Reading Saussure, London: Duckworth.

Holdcroft, David. (1991) Saussure. Signs, systems, and arbitrariness, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thibault, Paul J. (1996). Re-reading Saussure. The dynamics of signs in social life. London and New York: Routledge.

Note: The course will mainly focus on the published version of the Cours de Linguistique Générale. However, other source material will also be referred to. The secondary texts referred to above serve as a guide to the most readily available book length studies of Saussure that are currently available in English. A more detailed reading list will be provided with each lecture.


copyright 1996, Paul J Thibault
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