Imagining the unimaginable value of 'value' in Saussure

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

From his earliest work onward, Ferdinand de Saussure conceived of a language as a system of values arising from the difference of the values themselves – a concept which eludes attempts to explicate it in a clear and straightforward way. The archival record shows him repeatedly struggling to do this, and giving up. Finally, tasked with teaching a general course for students lacking sufficient language background to do more specialised linguistic work, he felt compelled to lay it out for them in a way they could comprehend, using metaphors such as ‘image’ and ‘concept’. Although graspable, they gave rise to as many misunderstandings as they cleared away. He gradually let go of these pedagogic devices, and by the end of his final course was making it clear that signifiers and signifieds – which together with their syntagmatic ordering constitute a language system – are not auditory, not images, not physical in any sense, but values of a nature we would now call abstract, though Saussure insisted (in a time when abstract and concrete had different values than they do today) that they were the concrete elements of a language. There is some evidence to suggest that Saussure understood value in the way he had encountered it as a student attending lectures by the economist Henri Dameth, but any overlap is superficial. Saussure’s linguistic value is so conceptually challenging that, still today, readers of the posthumously published Cours de linguistique générale (1916) continue to resist grappling with its full implications. We tend instead to fall back on the simplified explanations offered by Saussure as pedagogical devices, and incorporated into the Cours by Bally and Sechehaye, who assembled it from Saussure’s notes and those of students from the three courses of lectures. This paper examines what form an accurate representation of value might take, and considers how the next chapter in language theory can be a radically innovative one if we finally come to grips with this most elusive yet essential dimension of Saussure’s linguistic thinking.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2021
EventModern Language Association Annual Convention - Online, Toronto, Canada
Duration: 7 Jan 202110 Jan 2021


ConferenceModern Language Association Annual Convention
Internet address

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Saussure


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