Tracing the Circuit

The “Brief Survey of the History of Linguistics” which opens Saussure’s Course in General Lingusitics discusses two opposed precursor humanistic disciplines. “Grammar” was founded as a prescriptive discipline for normalizing correct usage. Philology, on the other hand, was more concerned with texts and their interpretation than language. Comparative philology and grammar emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century, based on flawed ideas of the structure of languages and the role of comparison as a method for determining a scientific “method” for the study of languages. However, Saussure credits the Neogrammarians of the late nineteenth century as finally dethroning the “illogical metaphors” of the comparativists: “From then on it became unacceptable to say ‘the language does this or that,’ to speak of the ‘life of a language,’ and so in, because a language is not really an entity, and exists only in the users” (5). The study of language, from the late nineteenth century forward, is conceived as the study of a form which exists only in relation to the context of psychology and sociology of beings.

Attributing a form to language which exists outside of the materiality of discourse gave life to a science of linguistics which displaced it from its origin in the humanities. Language was conceived by Saussure as not being limited to vocalic or alphabetic utterances: “The language we use is a convention and it makes no difference what exactly the nature of the agreed sign is. The question of the vocal apparatus is thus a secondary one as far as the problem of language is concerned”(10). The primary distinction for Saussure is that languages are articulated— they are composed of discrete signs which are transmitted across a circuit:

Language is a system of signs expressing ideas, and hence comparable to writing, the deaf-and-dumb alphabet, symbolic rites, forms of politeness, military signals, and so on. It is simply the most important of such systems.

It is therefore possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as a part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, “sign’). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them (15).

Saussure placed semiology firmly in the human sciences, under general psychology. However, the separation of form from being makes this placement somewhat paradoxical. Saussure attempts to explain this by differentiating the terms meaning and value. Units of language convey values, not meanings. Meaning is constructed by a differential association of linguistic values, through their relationship—the code is “empty” without a receiver to calculate the meaning (158). In a sense, language is pure energy which has no material value—though it can stimulate material construction of meanings in the receiver. Thus, the aptness of Saussure’s circuit metaphor seems assured—until the proliferation of radio and the conduit metaphor of communication which supplanted it in the 1930s and 40s.

If semiology is merely the study of the relationship between signs, to be contrasted with semantics which was later proposed as the science of meanings, then it seems devoid of the human context which Saussure sought to place it under. The transformation of metaphors—from the metaphor of language as a “living thing” to language as a “circuit” to language as a “conduit” (in communication studies) is fascinating, though I’m a bit unsure whether progress has really been made.