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Review of  The Cambridge Companion to Saussure

Reviewer: Ludwig Fesenmeier
Book Title: The Cambridge Companion to Saussure
Book Author: Carol Sanders
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Book Announcement: 16.2206

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Date: Thu, 07 Jul 2005 18:43:11 +0200
From: Ludwig Fesenmeier <>
Subject: The Cambridge Companion to Saussure

EDITOR: Sanders, Carol
TITLE: The Cambridge Companion to Saussure
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2005

Ludwig Fesenmeier, Department of Romance Languages, University of Cologne

[This review replaces the version posted at -- Eds.]


The purpose of the Companion is to provide "an up-to-date introduction to,
and assessment of, Saussure's ideas to an English-speaking readership" (p.
3). The aim of the various contributions is thus twofold: discussion of
Saussurean thought in the context of Anglophone approaches (both
linguistics and intellectual history) and the communication of work done
in languages and research traditions other than those of the English-
speaking world.

The book contains fifteen articles which are structured into four parts
and preceded by a "Notes on contributors" section (pp. vii-x) and a
brief "Introduction: Saussure today" written by the editor (pp. 1-6); at
the end one finds the (happily short) "Notes" section (pp. 261-266), a two-
part bibliography ("Works by Saussure and further reading", pp. 267-
272; "References", pp. 273-297) and an "Index" of both names and concepts
(pp. 298-303).

The unifying theme of the first part and the two contributions it contains
is labelled "Out of the nineteenth century" (pp. 7-44). The four articles
of the second part (pp. 45-104) are devoted to "The 'Course in General
Linguistics'" (henceforth CLG, derived from the original title), while the
following part, containing six papers, considers the time "After
the 'Cours'" (pp. 105-202). The contributions of the fourth part
present "New debates and directions" (pp. 203-260).The first part starts
with Anna Morpurgo Davies' "Saussure and Indo-European linguistics" (pp. 9-
29), where Saussure's work in this field of investigation is discussed,
especially his "Mémoire sur le système primitive des voyelles en indo-
européen" (1879). The author sketches briefly the intellectual environment
(historical-comparative method, the school of Lipsia [where Saussure
arrived in 1876], the neogrammarians), the content, the reception and the
impact of the "Mémoire", pointing out on the one hand how already as soon
as 1879 Saussure's argumentation is based (rather implicitly) on such
methodical concepts as 'structure'/'system'; on the other hand it
describes a Saussure constantly in "need for definition, for a terminology
which is actually consistent and explicit" (p. 27).

Carol Sanders presents "The Paris years" of Saussure (he moved there in
1880), first of all drawing a picture of the linguistic (Michel Bréal,
Abel Hovelacque, Arsène Darmesteter) and also the wider intellectual
context (Auguste Comte, Ernest Renan, Hippolyte Taine). She shows how many
of the central concepts which are thought of today as "Saussurean"
("langue", "parole", "valeur", "synchrony", "diachrony" etc.) can be found
in a more or less implicit (and embryonic) way in the works of the persons
just referred to.

At the beginning of the second part there is the contribution by Rudolf
Engler about "The making of the 'Cours de linguistique générale'" (pp. 47-
58; it is in part an abbreviated version of an earlier article (Engler
1987), see p. 51). The author stresses the fact that the CLG "does not
contain Saussure's 'actual words'" (p. 47), but is rather a mixture of
students' lecture notes and some preparatory remarks of Saussure himself
(a fact not always seen so clearly after 1916). He also shows how the
editors of the CLG, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, influenced its
contents with their own points of view, though not in any consistent way.

The following article by John E. Joseph deals with "The linguistic sign"
(pp. 59-75). He presents the basic aspects of how this central notion is
conceived of in the CLG: the distinction "signifier - signified"
("signifiant - signifié"), the concrete vs. the abstract character of the
sign vs. its components, the arbitrariness and the motivation in their
conjunction, the mutability vs. immutability of the sign, the concept
of "value" ("valeur"), the linearity of the "signifier". Joseph also takes
in consideration the problems raised by Saussure's account, but he
concludes nevertheless that "with his conception of the linguistic sign
[...] he got something drastically right" (p. 75).

Another important concept, or rather conceptual coupling, namely "'Langue'
and 'parole'" is discussed in the contribution of W. Terrence Gordon (pp.
76-87), who calls it even the "foundational complementarity" of the CLG
for having "privileged status and unique status in itself" (p. 77). A
brief presentation of these concepts is followed by an overview of the
more or less recent criticism attracted thereby (Charles K. Ogden/Ivor A.
Richards, John R. Firth, Rulon Wells, Nicol Ch. W. Spence, John Hewson,
Paul Thibault etc.).

The last paper of the second part is that of Claudine Normand on "System,
arbitrariness, value" (pp. 88-104), where "a historical and theoretical
perspective" on these notions is offered (p. 88). The author discusses in
some detail the notions mentioned in the title, completing them by the
notions "synchrony" and "diachrony". Of greater value is that Normand puts
them together in a comprehensive "system", underlining that "Saussure's
theory consists of a set of dovetailed concepts which have to be unfolded
one after the other, though they are interdependent" (p. 91).

"Saussure and American linguistics" by Julia S. Falk (pp. 107-123) opens
the third part. After a quite brief sketch of the ideas Saussure himself
found in the works of Willian Dwight Whitney (p. 107f), Falk goes on to
describe Leonard Bloomfield's reaction to the CLG as documented in various
publications, but whose acknowledgement of the CLG had no lasting effect.
A certain change took place with the arrival of Roman Jakobson, whose
engagement for Saussurean concepts extended "throughout the four decades
of his life in the United States" (p. 114). Falk concludes that "so-called
American structuralism was not built directly on a Saussurean foundation"
(p. 118), for some structuralist key concepts, as Bloomfield put it,
have "long been 'in the air' and [have] been here and there fragmentarily
expressed" (quoted in Falk, p. 108).

Christian Puech draws attention to "Saussure and structuralist linguistics
in Europe" (pp. 124-138), taking a closer look to "the milestones of the
French reception of the 'Cours' in a European context" (p. 125). He
therefore proposes a chronological and a method-based differentiation,
favouring the latter, which goes as follows: "adoption of a conceptual
framework constructed [...] on the basis of the 'Cours'" (e. g. Prague
phonology, Danish glossematics) vs. "a 'heritage' consisting of the
belated recognition of a source, and post-hoc imitation, borrowings and
recourse to numerous intermediaries" (p. 128). The author further
considers the attitudes of (partial) acceptance or rejection of the ideas
put forward in the CLG, assumed by important French linguists (Ferdinand
Brunot, Jacques Damourette/Edouard Pichon, Gustave Guillaume, Émile
Benveniste, André Martinet).

Stephen C. Hutchings' article is about "The Russian critique of Saussure"
(pp. 139-156), considering in particular Valentin Voloshinov/Mikhail
Bakhtin, Iurii Tynianov and Roman Jakobson. His aim is "to establish the
parallels and trace the divergences" between the "currents in literary
structuralism" (p. 140) which emerged during the application to "new
fields", strongly influenced by Roman Jakobson, of ideas present in the

In his contribution "Saussure, Barthes and structuralism" (pp. 157-173),
Steven Ungar aims "to trace and comment on the evolving role of
Saussure's 'Course' in the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes
and Jacques Lacan" (p. 157). He concludes that in particular Barthes'
reading of the CLG brought about a strong polarization among social
scientists whose attitudes can be summarized as a serious misreading vs. a
further elaboration of a programme only sketched in the CLG.

Peter Wunderli's paper offers a sketch of "Saussure's anagrams and the
analysis of literary texts" (pp. 174-185), a field of activity which only
many years after the CLG would become known as also entered by Saussure.
His anagram studies were received enthusiastically in France (Jacques
Derrida, Philippe Sollers, and Julia Kristéva, among others), although the
theory developed proved not to be adequate. As Wunderli argues, the
anagram studies only apparently contradict certain views found in the CLG
(linearity, conjunction of signifier and signified etc.), because "[t]he
anagram [...] is not a linguistic, but a poetic phenomenon", "a poetic
epiphenomenon" (p. 181) with regards to "normal" language use.

The article by Geoffrey Bennington on "Saussure and Derrida" (pp. 186-202)
focuses on the role of "writing", more precisely on the relations between
the phonic and the written realization of language as discussed mainly in
Derrida's "De la grammatologie". According to Derrida, in a "general
grammatology [...] linguistics-phonology would be merely a dependent and
circumscribed region" (quoted in Bennington, p. 188).

The fourth part starts with Simon Bouquet's contribution about "Saussure's
unfinished semantics" (pp. 205-218). He intends to point out "the central
importance of the interpretative point of view" in Saussure's thoughts (p.
205). As emerges from some notes, the decision to omit discussing a
linguistics of 'parole' turns out to have been made only for didactic
reasons. In fact, in such notes there are numerous occurrences
of "discourse" in the sense of "utterances in use" (p. 210) neglected by
the editors of the CLG. The concept of 'discourse' seems to be used in
different contexts (see pp. 210-213). Bouquet then concludes that there is
a "doubly incomplete nature of his [= Saussure's] conception of meaning"
(p. 217), because, firstly, Saussure fails to give a properly semiotic
theory of 'in praesentia' relationships; secondly, it remains unclear "to
which 'semiotics' a linguistics of 'parole' [...] belongs" (p. 218).

In "Saussure, linguistic theory and philosophy of science" (pp. 219-239)
Christopher Norris deals, on an epistemological level, with "the
relationship between Saussurean linguistics and debates within twentieth-
century philosophy of science" (p. 219). As one "salient feature" (p. 220)
of Saussurean linguistics, he identifies the insight that linguistics, in
order to count as a science, must necessarily be aware of the difference
between its object and that object's description. In the final analysis,
this means that linguistics as a science must be able to decide "what
counts as a relevant 'fact' within its own (properly specified) object-
domain" (p. 224), but serious problems arise due to the very nature of the
object of linguistics - problems Saussure was surely aware of, but whose
solution required tools that Saussure did not yet possess.

The last article, written by Paul Bouissac, intends to review and
assess "Saussure's legacy in semiotics" (pp. 240-260). Saussure's impact
in this field can roughly be "traced along three paths" (p. 243): Eastern
Europe (Prague functionalism, Moscow-Tartu school), Denmark (glossematics)
and France (French structuralism). Nevertheless, one must not forget that
there was also an influence "the other way round", i. e., among others,
the influence of Russian Formalism, Cybernetics or Lacanian Freudism (see
p. 244), leading to "some kind of hybridising and creolisation" of
Saussurism (p. 246). As far as the relevance of Saussure to actual
semiotics is concerned, the author considers "Saussure's contribution to a
general science of signs" as "a mine of heuristic questions and uneasy
tentative solutions" (p. 256).


The explicitly stated aim of the "Cambridge Companion to Saussure" is to
provide "an up-to-date introduction to, and assessment of, Saussure's
ideas to an English-speaking readership" (p. 3) and (more
generally?) "offer a fresh new account of Saussure's work" (p. i). In
spite of the minor contradiction between these two statements, the first
goal can surely be considered to have been achieved. The latter is so the
more important, since the influence of Saussurean thought both on
linguistics and other social sciences was so crucial that one might indeed
speak of a profound difference between the scientific communities where
these thoughts have become part of the scientific foundations right from
the beginning and those that only lately and indirectly have taken into
account these ideas.

But even if one is rooted in one of the formerly-mentioned fields or has
scientifically "grown" inside a "Saussurean" framework and thus is
familiar with such notions
as "langue", "parole", "synchrony", "diachrony", "value" etc., the book
under review is a good reminder of how many aspects of Saussure and his
work have become and continue to be taken for granted all too easily. As
far as the CLG is concerned, among other things one could mention:
Saussure is not the author of the CLG in any traditional sense; the
abovementioned concepts form complementaries rather than oppositions;
their status is better conceived of as methodical concepts rather than as
something belonging to the object itself. With regards to Saussurean
thought, its novelty concerns less the single concepts in "isolation", but
more the fact of having them brought together in a systemic way. Last not
least, Saussure himself appears to be an extremely scrupulous scholar who
was well aware of the preliminary character of his insights and the
problems they could raise. Though it is highly improbable that he would
ever have consented to the publication of his lectures, it is the
many "shortcomings" of the CLG which are responsible for its success and
its role in the history of ideas.

While all the aforementioned aspects are repeatedly highlighted by the
authors, there seems to be one important point - or rather name - missing
in the section "After the 'Cours'". At least in the Spanish and German
(but also other Romance) linguistic traditions the ideas put forward in
the CLG are closely associated with the work done - from 1952 onwards - by
Eugenio Coseriu (1921-2002), who "completed" some of the
central "dichotomies" discussed in the CLG: lengua - NORMA - habla,
sincronía - diacronía - HISTORIA (these are the original Spanish terms;
see Coseriu 1958 and 1962). Unfortunately, Coseriu has published very
little in English, but this is not sufficient for explaining his absence
from the book under review (there is one (minor) title quoted in the
bibliography, see p. 269; a list of Coseriu's publications can be obtained
from In a possible second edition, this missing point
should be completed. One might also include, then, Saussure's interest in
onomastic questions (see Arsenijevic 2000), maybe putting it together with
Peter Wunderli's - important - contribution on the anagram studies which
does not seem to fit quite well in the part "After the 'Cours'" because
these studies became known only many years after Saussure's death and
there is no direct link between them and the topics discussed concerning
the reception of the CLG. A further useful complement would have been a
short bio-bibliographical sketch of the "person" Ferdinand de Saussure (in
tabular form) to help the reader get an overview of his (scientific) life
(see e. g. Bouquet (ed.) 2003, 502-512).

Furthermore, the reader, who has been reminded in many other parts of the
book of the "Master's" need for consistent terminology, may be irritated
somewhat by a number of cases in which this ideal is not upheld:

- Isn't there a difference between "general" and "theoretical" linguistics
(see p. 9 and passim)?
- Were the scholars working using the comparative method really concerned
with phonology and not rather phonetics (see p. 13 and passim;
vs. "phonetic" on p. 21)?
- Must "la langue" really be called "a synchronic system" or similar (p.
35 and passim)?
- Can Saussure be considered a neogrammarian or not? (rather negative
Morpurgo Davies, p. 25f - affirmative Bouquet, p. 206)?

Among the (happily few) typographical errors, the more annoying
are "'coefficient_ sonantiques'" (pp. 22, 26), "'antimonie'" (p.
36), "ComPte" (pp. 37, 298, but p. 206), "the German 'NiEbelungen'" (p.
42), "that was it was" (p. 161).

In conclusion, despite the problems discussed so far, the "Cambridge
Companion to Saussure" is a book which has been long overdue and will
serve quite well the goals it is intended for. And when in
the "Introduction" Carol Sanders talks about possible reasons
for "Saussure's almost cult-figure status", one perhaps stops wondering
why there is a Canadian company that sells pins featuring images of and
inspired by Saussure ...


Arsenijevic, Milorad (2000): "Ferdinand de Saussure onomasticien: valait-
il la peine de continuer?", in: Englebert, Annick et al. (edd.) (2000):
Actes du XXIIe Congrès International de Linguistique et de Philologie
Romanes, Tübingen, vol. IV, 77-83.

Bouquet, Simon (ed.) (2003): Ferdinand de Saussure, Paris.

Coseriu, Eugenio (1958): Sincronía, diacronía e historia, Montevideo.

Coseriu, Eugenio (1962): Teoría del lenguaje y lingüística general, Madrid.

Engler, Rudolf (1987): "Die Verfasser des C[ours de] L[inguistique] G
[énérale]", in: Schmitter, Peter (ed.) (1987): Geschichte der
Sprachtheorie 1. Zur Theorie und Methode der Geschichtsschreibung der
Linguistik, Tübingen, 141-161.


Ludwig Fesenmeier teaches Romance linguistics at the Department of Romance
Languages, University of Cologne, and is currently working on his post-
doctoral thesis on lexical synonymy in the Romance languages.

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