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Auteur: David BOE

Saussure, Plato, and Arbitrariness

Abstract/Résumé: One of the central themes developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) in his posthumously published Course in General Linguistics (1916) concerns “the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign,” which involves the notion that the relationship between a word’s physical representation (the signifier) and the corresponding meaning/referent (the signified) is conventional and socially constructed, and not natural. The relevant discussion of signs and signification occurs in Part One, Chapter 1 of the Course (in an opening section entitled “Nature of the Linguistic Sign”), and the idea that the linguistic sign is arbitrary is presented as “the organizing principle for the whole of linguistics, considered as a science of language structure,” and “the consequences which flow from this principle are innumerable” (p. 100). As relevant as this “first principle” of arbitrariness may be for modern linguistics, however, this formulation was far from new when Saussure was lecturing on general linguistics at the University of Geneva between 1906 and 1911. More than 2,000 years earlier, the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.E.) wrote his middle-period dialogue Cratylus, which arguably represents the earliest extended “linguistic” discussion in western intellectual thought. The dialogue features Socrates (i.e., Plato) adjudicating a language-oriented dispute between Cratylus, who argues that names have a natural relationship to their referents, and Hermogenes, who argues that the relationship is conventional (i.e., arbitrary), and although “Socrates” makes an effort to consider both sides during the discussion, in the end, the implication is that he supports the arbitrariness position, as initially proposed by Hermogenes (though, interestingly, the dialogue is named after Cratylus). The idea that the signifier/signified relationship is arbitrary thus appears to be one of the fundamental constructs related to the formal study of language. This presentation will re-examine Saussure’s notion of arbitrariness in the Course in General Linguistics, as contrasted with Plato’s original reflections on the same topic in his Cratylus, and these will be compared to historically intervening treatments of the subject. This principle will then be examined in the context of current academic work in linguistics, for if “the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign” is indeed the foundational conceptualization in the history of the language sciences, then the implications of this development should be clearly evident in current linguistic scholarship.