Jan 252016

Beata Stawarska, Saussure’s Philosophy of Language as Phenomenology: Undoing the Doctrine of the Course in General Linguistics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; 286 pages. ISBN 9780190213022.

Reviewed by Miglena Nikolchina, University of Sofia

Nearly a century after the publication of one of the most influential works of the 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Beata Stawarska sets out to challenge the predominant structuralist view of Saussure, expose the phenomenological aspects of his work, and enable a renewed accord between structure- and subject-based approaches to language. As the author herself notes, she does not purport to rewrite the intertwined history of structuralism, post-structuralism, and phenomenology. What she does, rather, is lay bare the misconceptions that have become entangled in this history and that can be traced back to the impact of Saussure’s posthumous reception. Making its way into philosophy, literary theory, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and other fields beyond the field of linguistics proper, and leaving its mark on major 20th century figures like Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Lacan, and Althusser, Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics became the legitimating source of structuralist dichotomies (langue-parole, synchrony-diachrony, signifier-signified), for which it came under the fire of post-structuralists like Derrida and Kristeva, and for which it was ultimately discredited. Stawarska’s lucid and energetic analysis questions the identification of Saussure with prevalent views on structuralism and makes the case for reexamining Saussure’s legacy from a phenomenological perspective in order to reveal philosophical complexity of his work. In doing so, her study succeeds in challenging received ideas with broader implications, emphasizing the need to rethink the history of ideas in Europe and to retrace the intellectual connections severed after the Second World War. As it turns out, doing justice to the complexity of Saussure’s thought involves the uncovering of a continent of transnational interdisciplinary scientific engagements that were later obscured by political divisions and institutional politics. Аs Stawarska’s investigation forcefully insists, the fortunes of Saussure’s legacy demonstrate “the extent to which a life of ideas is enabled—and in times of crisis, tragically undermined—by a political and institutional context.” (245)

Saussure belongs to this curious brand of influential thinkers who, beginning with Socrates, leave little to no finished writings, and whose ideas are posthumously reconstructed by students and followers on the basis of notes and memories of oral communications. The case of the Course in General Linguistics is further complicated by the fact that its editors, Bally and Sechehaye, did not attend any of the lectures and, as subsequent research showed, introduced misconceptions and biases into the text that substantially diverged from what a more careful study of Saussure’s Nachlass would reveal. In fact, later research led to a shift from the first to the second editorial paradigm of Saussure’s general linguistics and imposed substantial reinterpretations of Saussure’s views on language. This reinterpretation, however, remained confined within the sphere of linguistics and had little or no effect on the larger areas associated with Saussure’s legacy, especially in Anglophone academia.

In the first part of her book, Stawarska addresses this discrepancy by focusing on the dichotomies linked with Saussure’s general linguistics in light of materials drawn from the Nachlass. Ranging from various questionable decisions by the editors of the Course (the famous picture of the tree, to quote a humorous example, seems to have been added by them) to Derrida’s assumptions in his critique of Saussure, Stawarska’s analysis presents and uncovers a fascinating blend of misreadings that were dictated by the need to simplify to psychological projections, institutional considerations, or genre-related oversights. The last one is not so much the editors’ problem but, rather, concerns the commentators and followers who seem to have “frozen” Saussure’s statements in the initial lectures at the expense of later developments, and who fail to take into consideration the Course’s pedagogical strategies of questioning, expanding, and complicating concepts from one lecture to the next.

There is a further problem to which Stawarska’s study calls attention: despite the lip service to inter- or multi-disciplinarity in recent decades, there is a general lack of awareness in the spheres formerly affected by Saussure’s work regarding subsequent linguistic reassessments of his ideas. Rightly or wrongly edited and read, Saussure’s Course is a monument to a bygone era when the interaction between philosophy and other disciplines was not a slogan but a standard practice. Turning to this practice, the second part of Stawarska’s book introduces another example of intellectual links severed. Stawarska’s invocation of the phenomenological tradition, which has a bearing on Saussure’s work—with Hegel, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty at the centre of her considerations—brings back to life the Kazan School of Linguistics and the influence that Polish linguists Baudouin de Courtenay and Mikolaj Kruszewski exerted on Saussure. It also gives prominence to Roman Jakobson, whose name has not exactly been forgotten, but whose altogether different take on Saussure’s ideas has not been incorporated into standard portrayals of structuralism, in spite of the fact that he invented the term. This aspect of Stawarska’s exploration is crucial to her project to reclaim the philosophical significance of Saussure’s work in the direction of a linguistic phenomenology.

Ultimately, Stawarska’s analysis provides overwhelming evidence that the misrepresentation of Saussure is bound up with the reduction of structuralism to a post-WWII French phenomenon cut off, on the one hand, from its prior developments and, on the other, from its contemporaneous deployments, especially in what was then communist Eastern Europe. Although she does not follow this second lead, her study opens up clearly the road for rethinking structuralism itself. While it is frequently accused of being ahistorical, apolitical, and of evacuating the problem of the subject, perhaps it is precisely structuralism’s critics who forget its historical and political stakes. After all, structuralism made its appearance in the interwar period, an epoch driven by extreme ideologies and personality cults, to which it opposed its utopia of intellectual detachment and, with its initial links to the avant-gardes, artistic innovation. Later, in the communist East, it clashed with dogmatic theories of art as a reflection of reality and sided with the subversive potential of the incriminated modernist project. In what is possibly the most disturbing move in her critique, Stawarska demonstrates that institutional contexts—or what she terms the “elementary structures of kinship in academia” that were perhaps as effective in the ideologically repressive East as they were in the West–played at least as decisive a role in the history of misappropriations of Saussure, as the key political, social, and intellectual trends. Her contribution to resolving contemporary theoretical aporias by reuniting phenomenology and structuralism is hence simultaneously a plea for taking care of our own academic backyards. Due to Saussure’s influence across a wide array of disciplines, instigating this task with a philosophical revaluation of his work might prove to be a most appropriate place to begin.