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ISSN 1409-6900 | UDK 82+7     Blesok no. 27 | volume V | July-August, 2002



                     Peer-reviewed journal
Blesok no. 27July-August, 2002


Towards a Framework for the Re-unification of Philosophy

p. 1
Derek Gatherer


5.3 Saussure and Signifiers

The founder of 20th century Continental philosophy was a Swiss linguist named Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Virtually unknown in his lifetime, his posthumous influence was immense, due to the publication in 1916 of notes taken at his lectures by two pupils. Many of his concerns were the same as those of the Anglo-American philosophers of his day: the nature of language, meaning and its correspondence with reality etc., but his results were very different from those of his contemporaries Whitehead and Russell. Saussure was originally a comparative linguist working on the evolution of the Indo-European languages, but his later theories tended to emphasise the `synchronic' ie. the existing structure of language at a given point in time, over the `diachronic', ie. the evolution of language over the course of time. Nevertheless, much of his terminology is still compatible with the memetic approach.
    Saussure's theory revolves around the notions of the `signifier' and the `signified'. To use an example provided by Sarup ([37] p. 3), in the case of an apple, the signifier is the sound image made by the word `apple', but it is the concept of an apple which is the signified (not, as one might imagine, the apple itself). The `sign' in Saussure's terminology is the relationship between the signifier and the signified, and it is arbitrary, depending on convention. A case has already been made for equating the propositions and pseudo-propositions of Logical Atomism with memes, but in this case the correspondence is not so easy to tease out. Is the signified the meme? or the signifier? or the sign?
    A further difficulty is provided by the fact that Saussure's followers, the Structuralists, like the Logical Atomists, were not particularly interested in change. Structuralism emphasises the study of structural relations existing at one moment in time, ie. the `synchronic', over the way that these relations change through time, ie. the `diachronic', and thus relegates evolution to a position of lesser importance. As Structuralism has turned into Post-Structuralism, there has been a tendency to concentrate on the signifier rather than the signified, which has been interpreted as an attempt to remove the one-to-one correspondence between propositions and reality. This presents a considerable philosophical challenge (especially for Anglo-Americans), but in effect it brings Structuralism closer to memetics. The potential ambiguity present in Saussure's complex triadic system of signifier, signified and sign is removed. For the

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