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Saussure's view of 'systeme'

It is, I think, unquestionable that the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is one of the leading scholars who profoundly influenced the humanities and the social sciences in the twentieth century. Here I shall consider solely his discussion of the parts-whole question. In this regard, it is worth pointing out what Saussure explicitly disclosed about his view of 'systeme':

Il ne faut pas commencer par le mot, le terme, pour en deduire le systeme. Ce serait se figurer que les termes ont d'avance une valeur absolue, qu'il n'y a qu'a les echafauder les uns sur les autres pour avoir le systeme. Au contraire, c'est , du tout solidaire qu' il faut partir. [One should not start with the single word, the term, and deduce from it the system. It would be like assuming that terms have an absolute value from the very start, and that one should simply put one term on top of the other in order to have the system. On the contrary, it is from the system, from the organic whole, that one should start.]

(Saussure, 1989, p.256)20

Keizaburo Maruyama's comments on Saussure's concept of 'systeme' are worth considering: 'Saussure's conception of the "system" is an explicit denial of atomism underlying a taxonomy. It is always the whole from which one must start. The whole is not equal to the sum of the parts' (Maruyama, 1981, p. 95).

Antoine Meillet, who was at the College de France at the same time as Saussure (1881-91), attempted a synthesis of the points of view of Saussure and Durkheim:

Le langage a pour premiere condition l'existence des societes humaines ... le langage est donc eminemment un fait social. En effet, il entre exactement dans la definition qu'a proposee Durkheim; une langue existe independamment de chacun des individus qui la parlent, et, bien qu'elle n'ait aucune realite en dehors de la somme de ces individus, elle est cependant, de par sa generalite, exterieur a chacun d'eux;...Les caracteres d'exteriorite a l'individu et coercition par lesquels Durkheim definit le fait social apparaissent donc dans le langage avec la derniere evidence. [Language has as its first condition the existence of human societies ... language is thus characteristically a social fact. As a matter of fact, language fits exactly the definition of it proposed by Durkheim: a language exists independently of any particular individual who is using it and, although it does not have any real existence outside the sum total of those individuals, it is however, due to its general character, external to any one of them. The two features of external existence relative to the individual and coercion, by which Durkheim defines the social fact, are thus unquestionably apparent in the case of language.]

(Meillet, 1982 [1905-6], p. 230)

In Meillet's view, a social fact is a kind of unique reality identified by the properties of externality and coercion. It is quite different from an individual's image of it.

 
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