by Paul J Thibault

Saussure And Beyond: Renewing Semiotic Foundations

Course Description

In this course I argue that a renovated Saussurean theory of the dynamics of signs in social life is possible. I re-examine many of the key concepts in Saussure’s theory and call into question the standard readings of Saussure. In so doing, I attempt to show that in Saussure’s social-semiological theory, language and other social sign systems do not simply interpret an already given reality. Instead, they constitute it in and through the dynamic processes of making and enacting signs in social life. The course does more than simply engage with Saussure’s theory in a new and up-to-date way. It also refracts our own contemporary thinking and practice as linguists and semioticians through the questions Saussure sought to answer and endeavours to contribute to the contemporary discussion of these issues.

Some of the questions that inform and motivate the course include:

  • Why has linguistics failed adequately to explain the dynamics of signs in social life?
  • Can a new reading of Saussure help us out of the theoretical impasses created by formal and cognitive theories of language?
  • How can the individual and social dimensions of meaning-making be explained and reconciled in a conceptually unified way?
  • Can language be related to a more general science of signs in social life?

Aims of the course

  • To challenge the received wisdom about Saussure and provides alternative arguments based on a detailed examination of the French language originals of the Saussurean texts;
  • To bring Saussure into the late 20th century, showing the relevance of his ideas to recent theoretical developments in the attempt to build a unified theory of social meaning-making;
  • To apply and develop Saussure’s ideas through a range of analyses of both linguistic and non-linguistic texts;
  • To argue that Saussure was a key early player in the New Dialogue between the human and social sciences, on the one hand, and the physical and life sciences, on the other – a dialogue which has only been re-opened as recent developments witness a decline of formal and cognitive models of language;
  • The course will be controversal for all those who seek to keep Saussure safely in a museum of past orthodoxies;
  • To bring an up-to-date interdiscplinary focus on Saussure, showing the relevance of a new reading of Saussure to socially informed linguistic and semiotic theory, social psychology, critical theory, discourse analysis, and philosophy.

Course Outline

This course is a theoretical and practical re-reading of Saussure in the light of contemporary developments in both the human sciences and the physical and life sciences. The aim of the course is to show the continuing relevance of the questions Saussure set out to answer and his theoretical framework for doing so. The course also seeks to extend this framework in the light of the most recent developments in our thinking about the social basis of meaning-making. The course is not, therefore, a critical or historical exegesis, though I do pay careful attention to the Saussurean texts in the discussion.

My principal argument is that it is time for a major re-thinking of the issues which Saussure set out to explore. By and large, Saussure’s thinking has been assimilated to the structuralist paradigm, with its emphasis on ‘static’ synchronic principles of organization. Recent developments in the physical and life sciences concerning the dynamic, open, and evolving nature of physical, biological, and cultural systems allow us to see more clearly that Saussure’s was a major pioneering attempt to theorize the dynamics of historically specific cultural systems. His was an attempt to provide an overall conceptual framework for modelling the dynamics of historically specific systems of human social meaning-making. In my reading, Saussure participated in an emerging New Dialogue between the sciences of culture and society, on the one hand, and the physical and life sciences on the other. It is a dialogue which has only recently been resumed in the light of a renewed emphasis on the dynamic, topological, evolutionary, ecosocial, and constructivist aspects of cultural phenomena.

The course also argues that Saussure’s thinking is very much in tune with recent shifts away from formal and cognitive models of language and mind, to one in which structure and meaning are integrated into a more dynamic account of how meanings are made in and through the social practices of a given community. The course re-examines many of the key concepts in Saussure’s theory and calls into question much in the standard readings of Saussure. In so doing, I hope to show that in Saussure’s social-semiological theory, language and other social sign systems do not simply interpret an already given reality. Instead, they constitute it in and through the dynamic processes of making and enacting signs in social life.

The coverage of the course is broad. It ranges across linguistics, semiotics, discourse analysis, psychology, cultural theory, political economy, philosophy, sociology, biology, and the theory of complex open systems.

A full outline of the proposed lecture topics will be provided along with lecture I in October.

Preliminary Reading:

Primary Texts

Godel, Robert (ed.) (1957) Les Sources Manuscrites du Cours de Linguistique Générale de F. de Saussure, Geneva and Paris: Droz and Minard.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1957) ‘Cours de Linguistique Générale (1908-1909). IIe Cours. Introduction’, Robert Godel (ed.). Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 15: 2-103.

— (1961 [1894-1911]) ‘Lettres de Ferdinand de Saussure à Antoine Meillet’ (published by Emile Benveniste), Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 21: 89-135.

— (1967) Cours de Linguistique Générale [= Saussure-Engler] Critical edition in three volumes, Rudolf Engler (ed.), Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

— (1971 [1916]) Cours de Linguistique Générale [= CLG], Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (eds.), Paris: Payot.

— (1959) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, New York and London: McGraw-Hill.

— (1983) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris, London: Duckworth.

— (1994 [1967]) Corso di Linguistica Generale, introduction, Italian trans. and commentary Tullio de Mauro, Rome and Bari: Laterza.

— (1994) Manoscritti di Harvard, Herman Parret (ed.), Italian trans. Raffaella Petrilli, Rome and Bari: Laterza.

Starobinski, Jean. (1971) Les Mots sur Les Mots. Les anagrammes de Ferdinand de Saussure, Paris: Gallimard.

Secondary Texts.

Culler, Jonathan. (1976) Saussure, London: Fontana.

Harris, Roy. (1987) Reading Saussure, London: Duckworth.

Holdcroft, David. (1991) Saussure. Signs, systems, and arbitrariness, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thibault, Paul J. (1996). Re-reading Saussure. The dynamics of signs in social life. London and New York: Routledge.

Note: The course will mainly focus on the published version of the Cours de Linguistique Générale. However, other source material will also be referred to. The secondary texts referred to above serve as a guide to the most readily available book length studies of Saussure that are currently available in English. A more detailed reading list will be provided with each lecture.


  1. Speech and Writing: Two Distinct Systems of Signs – Speech, Writing, and the General Linguistic Faculty
    The status of writing and its relationship to (1) the language system; and (2) to the spoken language have presented Saussure’s commentators with a number of difficulties of interpretation.
  2. The Problematic of Écriture – Most instances of writing are not representations of some prior speech event. Instead, they have a semiotically independent existence. The resources of visual semiosis which are embodied in the graphological system mean that writing is less tied to the here-and-now of speech.
  3. The Phoneme: Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Dimensions of Contextualization – In Saussure’s account, langue, or the language system, comprises the two orders of difference – phonic and conceptual – which have the potential to combine in the making of signs. The combination of terms from these two orders “produces a form, not a substance”.
  4. The Sounds of Language – In some respects, Saussure’s phonological theory stands at an important crossroads. Much of latter day phonology and phonetics has focussed on the auditory modality. This has lead to what Repp has characterized as a preoccupation with psychophysical approaches to the study of speech sounds in relation to auditory perception.
  5. Speech Sounds, The Speech Circuit, and Embodied Meaning-Making Activity: An Ecosocial Perspective – Saussure begins his analysis of the speech circuit by postulating three fundamental levels of relationships
    1. a psychic act of association
    2. a physiological act of brain-mouth and/or ear-brain transmission of nerve impulses
    3. a physical act of the propagation of sound waves
  6. The Brain in Social Semiosis – The starting point for this lecture is the way in which langue has both a social and an individual dimension. This dual character of langue is critically important for understanding the place of the brain-body complex in Saussure’s social-semiological theory.
  7. Mental Activity, Memory, and Context – Connectionism and The Dialectical Duality of Syntagmatic and Associative Relations
  8. Embodiment, Perception, Consciousness, Personhood – The Cascading/Collecting Dialectic of Langue and Parole in the Individual

Paul J Thibault | Biography

Paul J. Thibault was born in Newcastle (N.S.W., Australia). He completed his Ph.D. under Prof. Michael Halliday’s supervision in the Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney in 1985. Currently associate professor in English language and linguistics in the Dipartimento di Letterature e Civiltà Anglo-Germaniche at the University of Venice (Italy), he has taught and researched in linguistics, semiotics, literary theory, educational linguistics, and English language at the Universities of Padova, Verona, Bologna, and Sydney and Murdoch University (Western Australia).

Send comments or questions to Paul J Thibault