Professor Hugh J. Silverman, Department of Philosophy, Stony Brook University

Spring Semester 2006 (Mon & Wed 5:20-6:40)

Protocol # 11

Revisiting Saussure’s Semiology

March 01, 2006

Protocol by Joe Son and Arsalan Memon (revised by HJS)


Last class, we saw that de Saussure's linguistics is phonocentric. His structural linguistics takes sound or voice as central. Derrida says that all the history of texts of metaphysics are embedded within binary oppositions. The major binary pair in Saussure’s semiology is signifier/signified. The French term for signifier is signifiant, which can also mean “signifying.” That is, it is something that indicates meaning, but also is participial as active element.  The signifier signifies a signified. The signifier as word corresponds to a concept. De Saussure uses the example of a tree' (arbre). The tree as a word or signifier is contrasted with all words in a differential web of arbitrary relations. And tree is the concept-image (or the signified) as the other side of the binary pair.

According to de Saussure, when using a word, a corresponding concept is actualized, but when saying the word tree, the concept "tree" allows for communication to occur.  But when saying tree, what concept is communicated?  What does the word tree have to do with the concept of tree in a given language? Why the word “tree”?  The word “tree” would be arbre, arbol, Baum other languages  The connection between word and concept is arbitrary. Generally speaking, words don't have any necessary connection with their concept. Basically, Saussure states that a word and its correspondent concept(s) is "the arbitrary nature of the sign." The sign, according to Saussure, is a binary pair of signifier/signified.  Some words are motivated by concepts, such as in onomatopoeia. The word sounds like the concept, for instance, ‘wow,’ ‘huh,’ ‘yaw,’ etc. The sounding of the word somehow sounds like the concept.  But most words have no exact connection with the concept.  These are basic elements of language.

In language of signs, there is no sign that can stand alone without a concept. A sign only makes sense within a system of signs. Any sign is a sign only by its difference from all of the other signs in that language system.  This is an important difference. By the way, this is similar to the ontic distinctions that one finds in Heidegger where beings are distinct from one another. This is how one can discriminate between signs. Saussure also makes a distinction between the two French words, langue and parole. The former is language (French, German, Russian, etc) while the latter is the spoken word or language spoken. Language is a semiological system. There is language and then there is the speaking of it. This is where phonocentrism comes into play. The binary that Saussure uses to explain this is synchronic or language at any given time and diachronic or language over time, in history.

The class ended with some words on Husserl, the transcendental signified, and the transcendental/empirical binary pair. Transcendental is outside experience (empirical) and moves to a subjective conceptual realm.  This is the realm of essences and is also that to which all the signifiers refer. This is the transcendental ego. It is the ultimate transcendental signified.   For Heidegger, the transcendental signified would be Being (Sein).