- Saussure and the Grounds of Interpretation
The author of a 1983 English translation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale, as well as two previous books centering on Saussure’s theories of language (Reading Saussure and Language, Saussure, and Wittgenstein), Roy Harris brings a wealth of expertise to his new book on Saussure. More than this, as is amply borne out in the early chapters of Saussure and His Interpreters, Harris is deeply familiar with the various manuscript sources (i.e., students’ notebooks) on which Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye relied in producing/editing what became the Course in General Linguistics, the first edition of which was published in 1916. 1 Added to these other qualifications is Harris’s stature as an expert in the field of linguistic theory more generally. 2 From all of these achievements emerges the profile of a commentator uniquely positioned to interpret—to understand as well as adjudicate between—previous interpretations of Saussure.
To be sure, Harris’s background and research accomplishments—his knowledge of the origins, details, and larger framework of Saussurean language theory—are unimpeachable. 3 But while Harris’s credentials are unimpeachable, there remains the question of whether those credentials have equipped him to take the true measure of Saussure’s interpreters, i.e., those who claim (or for that matter disavow) a Saussurean basis for their work. This question, prompted by the tone as well as the technique of a book cast as an exposé of nearly a century’s worth of “misreadings” of Saussure, is itself part of a broader issue exceeding the scope of the author’s study. The broader issue concerns the exact nature of the relation between ideas developed by specialists in particular fields of study and the form assumed by those ideas as interpreted (and eo ipso adapted) by non-specialists working in other, more or less proximate fields. Also at issue are the nature and source of the standards that could (in principle) be used to adjudicate between better and worse interpretations of source ideas imported into diverse target disciplines—that is, into domains of study in which, internally speaking, distinct methods and objects of interpretation already hold sway. Indeed, even within the same discipline in which the ideas in question had their source, interpretations can vary widely—as suggested by Harris’s chapters on linguists who in his view misunderstand or misappropriate Saussure (the list includes such major figures as Leonard Bloomfield, Louis Hjelmslev, Roman Jakobson, and Noam Chomsky). Although these deep issues sometimes surface during Harris’s exposition, they do not receive the more sustained treatment they deserve. The result is a study marked, on the one hand, by its technical brilliance in outlining the “Rezeptiongeschichte” of Saussurean theory, but on the other hand by its avoidance of other, foundational questions pertaining to the possibilities and limits of interpretation itself. The salience of those questions derives, in part, from the transdisciplinary legacy of Saussure’s own work.
It is worth underscoring at the outset that Harris’s account of Saussure and his interpreters is not merely a descriptive one. Granted, the author carefully traces the transformation and recontextualization of Saussurean ideas as they were propagated within the field of linguistics and later (or in some cases simultaneously) migrated from linguistics into neighboring areas of inquiry. 4 But Harris does not rest content with pointing out where an intra- or interdisciplinary adaptation differs from what (in his interpretation) is being adapted. Persistently, in every chapter of the book, and sometimes in quite vituperative terms, Harris construes this adaptive process as one involving distortion, i.e., a failure to get Saussure right. 5 I discuss Harris’s specific claims in more detail below. For the moment, I wish to stress how this prescriptive, evaluative dimension of the author’s approach is at odds with what he emphasizes at the beginning of his study—namely, the status of Saussure’s text as itself a construct, a constellation of interpretive decisions made by those who sought to record and, in the case of his editors, promulgate Saussure’s ideas...