Saussure and his intellectual environment

History of European Ideas 42 (6):819-847 (2016)
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Abstract

SUMMARYThe present study paints the intellectual environment in which Ferdinand de Saussure developed his ideas about language and linguistics during the fin de siècle. It sketches his dissatisfaction with that environment to the extent that it touched on linguistics, and shows the new course he was trying to steer on the basis of ideas that seemed to open new and exciting perspectives, even though they were still vaguely defined. As Saussure himself was extremely reticent about his sources and intellectual pedigree, his stance in the lively European cultural context in which he lived can only be established through textual critique and conjecture. On this basis, it is concluded that Saussure, though relatively uninformed about its historical roots, essentially aimed at integrating the rationalist tradition current in the sciences in his day into a new, ‘scientific’ general theory of language. In this, he was heavily indebted to a few predecessors, such as the French philosopher-psychologist Victor Egger, and particularly to the French psychologist, historian and philosopher Hippolyte Taine, who was a major cultural influence in nineteenth-century France, though now largely forgotten. The present study thus supports Hans Aarsleff's analysis, where, for the first time, Taine's influence is emphasised, and rejects John Joseph's contention that Taine had no influence and that, instead, Saussure was influenced mainly by the romanticist Adolphe Pictet. Saussure abhorred Pictet's method of etymologising, which predated the Young Grammarian school, central to Saussure's linguistic education. The issue has implications for the positioning of Saussure in the history of linguistics. Is he part of the non-analytical, romanticist and experience-based European strand of thought that is found in art and postmodernist philosophy and is sometimes called structuralism, or is he a representative of the short-lived European branch of specifically linguistic structuralism, which was rationalist in outlook, more science-oriented and more formalist, but lost out to American structuralism? The latter seems to be the case, though phenomenology, postmodernism and art have lately claimed Saussure as an icon.

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Corrigendum.[author unknown] - 2016 - History of European Ideas 42 (6):855-855.

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