Taine, Saussure and Aarsleff

by pieterseuren

This posting is about a minor but mysterious problem in the history of modern linguistics. The problem is this. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) is usually taken to be the ‘father’ of European structuralism in linguistics. All right. But Hans Aarsleff (born 1925), emeritus professor of English at Princeton, wrote an article in 1979 (I don’t think there is a published English original), entitled “Taine: son importance pour Saussure et le structuralisme” (Romantisme 1979, vol. 9, No. 25–6, pp. 35–48; see also his From Locke to Saussure, Athlone, London, 1982, pp. 356–71), in which he argues, with plenty of quotations and a thorough historical analysis, that Saussure had his main ideas from the Frenchman Hippolyte Taine (1828–1893). I have checked all references to Saussure and to Taine in Aarsleff’s article I could lay my hands on and they are all one hundred percent correct. So take it from me that Aarsleff was right. Yet the world of saussurologists has paid no attention to Aarsleff’s findings even though they are well known in that world. In fact, Aarsleff has been effectively marginalized, and so has Taine. Question: why? Was it perhaps because of Aarsleff’s savage but again factually correct attack on Chomsky in his article “The history of linguistics and professor Chomsky” in Language 1970, pp. 570–585? I think not, because the saussurologists have no particular sympathy for Chomsky, to put it mildly. Or is it perhaps because Aarsleff’s findings put Saussure in a slightly poorer light—something the saussurologists might not like to see happen? If so, it would throw a poor light on the saussurologists, which is something I don’t want to happen because I know quite a few of them and they are all conscientious and, I’m sure, impartial scholars. In short, I don’t know and I want to share this lack of knowledge with you.

Saussure’s main ideas, expressed in his posthumous Cours de linguistique générale of 1916 and in his many private notes, most of which have been published, were (a) the distinction between langue and parole (the language system and the use made of it, or: competence and performance), (b) the distinction between synchrony and diachrony (the language system as it is at any given moment and the historical development leading up to it), and (c) his notion of ‘linguistic sign’ as a mental unit of a mental ‘form image’ and a ‘concept’, which are united like the recto and verso of a piece of paper: tear the paper and you tear the unit.

Aarsleff argues that all these ideas are found, with much of the terminology in common, in the writings of Hippolyte Taine. As I said, I have checked this, not in all of Taine’s many publications referred to by Aarsleff, but in Taine’s masterpiece De l’intelligence (2 vols., Hachette, Paris 1870, with multiple editions till well into the 20th century but now largely forgotten), which I have in the recent facsimile reprint of the third edition of 1878, and in his monumental L’histoire de la littérature anglaise (5 vols., Paris, Hachette, published during the 1860s), which I have in the English translation of the time (History of English Literature, translated by H. van Laun, 2 vols., 3rd edition, Edinburgh 1872) and which contains a great deal of general theory on the nature of societies and the sociology of language and literature. The result of my thorough checking is that Aarsleff is completely right. He is also right in putting forward the strong conjecture that Saussure must have known Taine’s writings, since every educated Frenchman knew them or knew of them during the period that Saussure lived and taught in Paris, that is, from 1881 till 1891. It is true that Saussure never mentions the name Taine, either in his publications or in his private notes, but there are many other authors known to have influenced him that he never mentions (see below). Moreover, Taine was such a public figure—his books sold by the tens of thousands—that it is indeed unthinkable, as Aarsleff says, that Saussure would not have known about him, all of which makes it extremely likely that Saussure has in fact been influenced to a considerable extent by Taine’s ideas.

Saussure is also known for a few other ideas, which are not found in Taine’s work, but these are, I am sorry to say, either pedestrian and unoriginal or outright incoherent. I am referring to his thesis of the phonological arbitrariness of non-composite lexical form (which is as ancient as Plato and Aristotle), to his notion of the mainly linear character of sentences and utterances (which is pedestrian), and to the incoherent thesis that “nothing is positive in language: all there is is negative oppositions” (oppositions between what?—if there are no positively defined units). These three theses or ideas do not find their origin in Taine’s work.

But who was Hippolyte Taine? He was born in 1828 in Vouziers, in the very north of France, close to the Belgian Ardennes, and he died in Paris in 1893. Although he never (as far as I know) had a university appointment, he was a, or the, dominant cultural figure in the French-speaking world and far beyond from 1860 till the end of his life (a few months ago I found his portrait in a corridor of the Arts faculty of the University of Florianopolis in Brazil). In my 1998 book Western Linguistics I call him “a critic, philosopher and historian, a man of great erudition and a correspondingly wide range of interests, a ‘généraliste’ in the best of French intellectual tradition.” His influence was enormous.

He was also the main originator of structuralism in the human sciences. The background to this is the following. As from the 17th century, the physical sciences had developed a highly successful view of the physical world, including the human body, as a system of interconnected ‘machines’, the well-known ‘mechanization of our world picture’. An important source on this is the classic by the Dutch mathematician and historian of science Eduard J. Dijksterhuis (1892–1965), The Mechanization of the World Picture, Oxford University Press, 1961 (published in Dutch in 1950). What happened during the second half of the 19th century was that the same ‘mechanization’ view began to be applied to the mind, which came to be seen as a complex ‘machine’, to be unearthed by hypothesis and experimental testing. This was the origin of structuralism in the human sciences (see my Western Linguistics of 1998, pp. 141–44).

This application of the ‘machine’ view to the mind was probably not Taine’s original idea, as one finds earlier allusions, for example in the works of Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828), but Taine was certainly the man who developed the idea in an analytical way and presented it to the world as a unified theory or approach to such. For Taine, mental occurrences and physical processes take place hand-in-hand, so to speak. Therefore, if the physical processes are machine-like and rule-governed, so are their mental counterparts. Taine’s two volume book De l’Intelligence is, in fact, one extended argument to show the parallelism between physiological events in the physical brain on the one hand and mental events on the other. The bridge between the two is his (unfortunately unsound) notion of ‘sign’, taken over lock, stock and barrel by Saussure, but without the philosophical background provided by Taine. On pp. 175–6 of De l’Intelligence we read (translation mine):

At the present day, psychology is faced with what look like simple sensations, just as chemistry, in the beginning, found itself faced with what looked like simple substances. In fact, observation, whether through the senses or through self-reflection, at first grasps only composites; its task is to decompose these into their elements, to show which compositions the elements allow for so that it becomes clear how the diverse composites have come about.

Then, on p. 188:

There thus comes about in us an infinite underground work, of which only the products come to our conscience, and that only in rough outline. As regards the elements and the elements of the elements, these are out of reach for consciousness; we come to them by reason; they are to sensations what the secondary molecules and the primitive atoms are to bodies; we only have an abstract idea of them and what represents them for us is not an image but a notation.

And on p. 329:

This is sufficient reason to admit that cerebral and corresponding mental events are at bottom single events, the one mental, the other physical, the one accessible to consciousness, the other to the senses.

This view is then applied to the sensation of musical chords, which are composed of elementary sounds, and to other forms of perception.

The same idea is applied to history and to the structure of societies (History of English Literature, vol. 1, Introduction, pp. 7–8; English translation by H. van Laun, 1872):

There is then a system in human sentiments and ideas; and this system has for its motive power certain general traits, certain marks of the intellect and the heart common to men of one race, age or country. As in mineralogy the crystals, however diverse, spring from certain simple physical forms, so in history, civilisations, however diverse, are derived from certain simple spiritual forms. The one[s] are explained by a primitive geometrical element, as the others are by a primitive psychological element.

And on p. 19:

Just as in its elements astronomy is a mechanical and physiology a chemical problem, so history in its elements is a psychological problem. There is a particular inner system of impressions and operations which makes an artist, a believer, a musician, a painter, a wanderer, a man of society.

Then, still on p. 19, referring to Stendhal:

[H]e treated of sentiments as they should be treated,—in the manner of the naturalist, namely, and of the natural philosopher, who constructs classifications and weighs forces.

Durkheim, in particular, the father of modern sociology, was strongly influenced by Taine, as is commonly accepted by sociologists.

(Others, in particular Taine’s contemporary, the German Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), felt that the study of the mind would become scientific not by taking over the ‘machine’ view but by a deep ‘verstehen’, an introspectively felt understanding or recognition of what goes on in the mind. This methodology, which led to an enormous amount of Continental European philosophy and, partly doubtful, psychology, including Freudianism, has now been generally discredited as being potentially therapeutical but in principle unscientific.)

Taine and Saussure differed greatly as regards the depth of their thoughts. Whereas Taine was a true philosopher, who had clear ideas about the old Kantian paradox of knowledge, the problem of the unknowability and unprovability of the outside world, including other minds, Saussure never got beyond the simple experiential world of language. The fact that nouns in utterances refer to things in the world and not to concepts of things was, apparently, lost on him. But it was not lost on Taine, who devoted long passages to the fact that all we know about the outside world is necessarily in the mind, which can give us no logical proof that the impressions we receive correspond to actual things—the central problem of Descartes and Kant, to mention just two. Saussure may have been anything, but he was not a philosopher. In this respect, he couldn’t hold a candle to Taine.

So where are we? I have the impression that Aarsleff has somehow been ‘marginalized’ in the sense that a prevalent feeling or notion has come about that he should not be taken seriously. Strange, because what I have read of him was always professional and extremely well researched. I don’t know the man personally, so I can’t comment on that, but even if he were to turn out to be a terrible man, that should be totally irrelevant to one’s appreciation of his work.

Take the recent monumental study by John Joseph, Saussure (OUP 2012), almost 800 pages. A fantastic book, making all further biographical study of Saussure superfluous, setting off in great detail his self-consciousness as a member of the Geneva, and to some extent European, aristocracy against his great lack of intellectual confidence and his continuous doubts. But when it comes to Aarsleff and Taine, even Joseph appears to be not entirely consistent. On p. 173, Joseph writes:

The great difficulty for Aarsleff’s conjecture is that Saussure never cites anything by Taine, never gives any direct indication that he has read him or absorbed ideas associated with him. Aarsleff maintains that, nonetheless, such are the coincidences in their views and their terminology that ‘it would be implausible to argue that the young French-speaking Genevan did not know Taine’s work’; ‘I do not think that my analysis leaves room for doubt that Saussure […] was deeply indebted to Taine.’

And on p. 174:

The claim that Taine exerted a unique and universal influence on Saussure’s conception of language is far too strong. Similar claims could be made for dozens of nineteenth-century writers whose ideas show certain affinities to Saussure’s. What cannot be determined, in the absence of any documentation that Saussure read them, is whether there was ‘influence’ from them to him, or whether perhaps both they and he had drunk from the same trough—some common source, or ideas that were ‘in the air’ at the time.

Yet, when discussing the possible influence on Saussure of J. B. Stallo’s book The Concepts and Theories of Modern Physics (Kegan Paul, London, 1882) via his correspondence with his younger brother René, who was a mathematical physicist, Joseph writes (p. 367):

Even more directly ‘Saussurean’ material is found elsewhere in Stallo’s book, which Ferdinand, taking such a meticulous interest in his brother’s work, is unlikely not to have read.

Again on p. 396, where we read:

The phrase ‘inner speech’ echoes Egger’s book of 1881, which was central to psychological understanding of language in the French-speaking world in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and seems to have set Saussure’s linguistic thinking in a new direction.

And on p. 461:

Pareto wrote frequently on economic issues for the Journal de Genève, and later moved to Geneva, where he died. Some have seen in his work a possible inspiration for remarks on ‘political economy’ that Saussure would make in his lectures on general linguistics.

And on p. 499, referring to a book of 1896 by the French linguist Victor Henry (1850–1907):

The echo of Henry’s Antinomies linguistiques is unmistakable. An ‘antinomy’ as a pair of opposed concepts with a dialectical dynamic between them is a term associated with Kant, and not a regular part of Saussure’s vocabulary. Saussure’s library did, however, contain a copy of Antinomies linguistiques, with a handwritten dedication to him from Henry.

Finally, on p. 508:

Nowhere in Saussure’s lectures, publications, or unpublished papers are the names of Durkheim or Tarde [Gabriel Tarde, 1843–1904, French sociologist; PAMS] to be found. Consequently, as with so many other figures he never cites, their purported influences on him are inferences based on shared terms such as ‘collective consciousness’ that could well have come via an intermediary source …

So what is given to others is denied to Taine, even though Saussure is much more likely to have been familiar with Taine’s work than with, say, the works of Stallo, Egger or Pareto. As I see it, Taine looms large behind Saussure, as he did behind Durkheim and quite a few others in related disciplines. Why not just recognize that fact and take Taine to be one of the fathers of 20th-century structuralism in the human sciences, even if that diminishes somewhat the role and importance of Saussure, the perennial doubter who could not get his ideas into a publishable form and who had the bad habit of not mentioning his sources? This would not only reinstate Hippolyte Taine but also give due recognition to Hans Aarsleff.