Ferdinand de Saussure is known as the founder of modern linguistics and semiotics, as well as one of the precursors of structuralism and poststructuralism. Indeed, among other things, he proposed to reorganize the systematic study of language. However, his life and work have not only affected this area.
Along with some of his contemporaries, Saussure provided important material for creating new foundations in the study of human behavior. So we go a review of the life of Ferdinand de Saussure through a brief biography and we present some of his contributions.
Biography of Ferdinand de Saussure, pioneer of linguistics
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was born in Geneva, Switzerland. From an early age he learned different languages, such as Greek, French, German, English and Latin.. After growing up in a family of scientists, he studied natural sciences at the University of Geneva.
He then studied linguistics at the University of Leipzig, where he obtained his doctorate in 1881. After that he taught courses in ancient and modern languages in Paris, and in 1891 he returned to Geneva.
In his hometown, he worked as a teacher of Sanskrit and historical linguistics. It was not until 1906 that he taught the course in General Linguistics, which has directed much of his attention and that of other intellectuals to the present day.
Ferdinand de Saussure developed the theory of signs that we know as semiotics, As well as other aspects of the linguistic tradition. However, the repercussion of his work quickly shifted to other areas of knowledge.
From linguistics to the study of human behavior
Along with other intellectuals of his time, Saussure provided many bases for the development of different approaches to human behavior. Following the American linguist Jonathan D. Culler (1986), we will explain four of the repercussions of Saussure’s work on the social sciences.
1. Human systems do not work the same as the physical world
Saussure realized that an understanding of human practices and institutions cannot be complete if we reduce the explanations of our behavior to a series of events that occur just like the events of the physical world. This is because he believes that, unlike the systems in the physical world, the interaction and objects that make up a human social system have meanings.
That is why, in studying the behavior of human beings, researchers cannot simply dismiss or omit the meanings that things and actions have for members of a society. For example, if people consider an action to be rude or rude, it is a convention, a crucial social fact for social interaction and for individual practices. Thus, the linguistic sign has, for Saussure, two components: the meaning (the word) and the meaning (the concept to which the word refers).
2. Development of semiotics and precursor of structuralism
Among others, Saussure developed a general science of signs and sign systems (Semiotics), as well as some of the foundations of structuralism, a movement that proposes that socio-cultural systems be delimited by a key structure: language.
This was particularly relevant to the development of anthropology, modern linguistics, and literary criticism, however, a few decades later it also has a strong impact on much of psychology and sociology. It has generally made it possible to rethink the social sciences.
3. Responses to the chaos of modern thought
Saussure’s proposals also clarified much of modern thought, that is, the way in which scientists, philosophers, artists or writers. they tried to represent and explain global phenomena.
His work paved the way for the creation of new knowledge paradigms: the idea that the scientist cannot get absolute knowledge, As if he were a god, but is always chosen or assumed from a perspective under which objects are defined by their relationships with other elements of the same system (beyond that, objects have a fixed essence which can be discovered).
4. Relationship between language and mind
Saussure’s way of explaining language helps focus attention on a central problem in the humanities, especially for those interested in the relationship between language and mind.
Saussure thinks that humans are beings whose relations with the world are characterized by two mental operations which are clearly manifested in language: structuring and differentiation. Part of Saussure’s thought is present in the consideration that there is a tendency in human beings to organize things into systems by which different meanings are transmitted.
Ferdinand de Saussure’s best-known and best-studied work is Cours de Linguistique Générale, published three years after his death in 1916. In fact, this work has been considered one of the most influential of the twentieth century, not only for linguistics but for the social sciences. However, this work is the product of a compilation by his colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, who retrieved the lectures and written notes from Saussure’s students.
One of his earliest works, which was published during his doctoral studies, was Southern Memoir on the Primitive Sentence System in Indo-European Languages (Memoir of the Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages), where explains how the original Indo-European vowels can be reconstructed. This was one of his beginnings in philology and linguistics.
- Culler, J. (1986). Ferdinand de Saussure. Revised edition. Cornell University Press: United States.
- New World Encyclopedia. (2016). Ferdinand de Saussure. New World Encyclopedia. Accessed May 15, 2018. Available at http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ferdinand_de_Saussure