Course in General Linguistics


Astronomical Opposition in Course in General Linguistics

Originally submitted for English 481, Fall 2007

By Rachael Hodder

This short essay was originally written for my course in Modern Critical Theory in the fall of 2007.

Our writing assignments were exercises in clarity, brevity, and critical thinking. The primary task in these brief 1,000 word essays was to deconstruct each author’s argument by critically analyzing the grammatical and linguistic mechanisms with which each author constructed his/her theory. This piece examines

Ferdinand de Saussure’s use of metaphor and opposition in Course in General Linguistics. I deconstruct two instances of metaphor in Saussure’s text in order to better understand his definitions of language and thought and the way they relate to each other. This essay exemplifies my ability to think critically and construct a clear, concise argument about a dense, difficult text.

In Course in General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure famously implements the astronomical figure of the nebula to describe thought in its pre-language state. “Without language,” he instructs, “thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.” The “most precise characteristic” of a particular word is being what other words in the particular word’s system are not, Saussure says further regarding negative definition. Precise, according to the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, means “exact and accurate.” Then, the most exact and accurate characteristic—not necessarily definition of a word—is found in the relationship a word has to other words in its system. Without such a relation, the word is isolated from its system and has no value. A word must belong to a system to have any value. That said, it cannot be ignored that the figure of the nebula does not—by generally accepted scientific terms—is out of place in Saussure’s discussion.

Although “nebula” is a term which belongs to the language of astronomy and space, the metaphor of the nebulous which Saussure employs effectively helps to define the role of language in human thought.

Saussure necessitates his entire theory based on the metaphor of the “vague, uncharted nebula” in reference to thought without language. Within the excerpt, he juxtaposes thought and language, emphasizing their opposition. While the nebula metaphor directly addresses the definition of thought in what it does say, a great deal is indicated about the function of language in Saussure’s theory by what is not said. This works on the principle that Saussure outlines in section 2 of “Linguistic Value”—that is,

“concepts… are defined not by their positive content but negatively with their relations with the other terms of the system.” He later qualifies that “the entire mechanism of language… is based on oppositions.”

Therefore, the meaning of a word emerges not purely through the positive definition of the word “language,” for example, but from the opposition with the metaphor of the nebula to describe thought as well. In this sense, if the nebula of thought is vague, uncharted, indistinct, “chaotic by nature,” and a “floating realm,” then language, is vivid, mapped, distinct, ordered, and grounded. These negative definitions create new oppositions: vague/vivid, uncharted/mapped, indistinct/distinct, etc. By recognizing the emergent negative

definition of language—or any other word, if speaking generally—is that the system that is otherwise unseen when paying attention only to the positive definition of the word is made visible. By breaking down the opposition of thought and language, we expose the other related oppositions that constitute the system

Saussure constructs as the premise and foundation for the theory of semiotics he delineates in “Course in

General Linguistics.”

Saussure deliberately emphasizes the value of the negative definition of language when he says,

“Language is a form and not a substance.” Here, we see that he uses another opposition to further articulate language and its value—substance/form. This opposition also advances our understanding of the value the nebula in Saussure’s teachings. As part of the system in “Course…,” substance/form is defined in relation to thought/language: substance corresponds to thought which corresponds to nebula in the system.

It may be helpful now to iterate the astronomical definition of a nebula to more clearly see why Saussure uses it as a main premise for his theory. In Latin, the word nebula means “cloud.” Seen as a hazy patch in the sky by the naked eye, a nebula is an immense, low-density, shapeless cloud of interstellar dust and gas. It is from nebulous formations which stars are formed. Saussure refers to the shapelessness and unboundedness of thought by using the metaphor of the nebula in his explanations for the value of language. Nebula, in its sprawling, chaotic nature is the antithesis of form. In our system, nebula corresponds to thought because of the metaphor relating the two words; thought connects to substance because it is not language. Nebula, then, is purely substance. We can draw the visual connection between substance and nebula in figure A in “Linguistic Value:” the lines on the page squiggle and sprawl across the image formlessly—they leave only an impression that something is there, the impression of substance.

Although the nebula metaphor is central to Saussure’s “Course,” it does not directly correspond to another word in the system Saussure lays out. The negative definitions of thought and positive definitions of language we have so far unpacked from this metaphor do not stand directly in opposition to nebula, only the figure’s characteristics. What, we must ask, is the form to the nebula’s substance, the metaphorical astronomical figure for language? Saussure does not leave this metaphor without opposition by the end of our selection. In his discussion of how words form associations in language, he says, “A particular word is like the center of a constellation; it is the point of convergence of an indefinite number of co-ordinated terms.” The system of associations in language, then, is likened to a constellation, literally a system of stars which are socially defined as resembling a particular figure. The constellation is the form to the substantive nebula, literally in space and metaphorically in Saussure’s teachings. The figure of the constellation effectively maps the uncharted nebula; it is a distinct figure in the sky by which people can tell the time of year and find direction. Constellations are ordered entities amidst chaos. The figure of the constellation is therefore what language is.

On the one hand, the constellation metaphor is the summation of Saussure’s argument about language. From its grounding in social agreement and qualities of orderliness and distinctiveness in the sky, it indicates the function of language as a form. On the other hand, without the metaphor of the nebula to bring out these characteristics by negative definition, the constellation metaphor would have little value in the understanding of language as a form. Thus, it must be recognized that the opposition of “nebula” and

“constellation” and the rest of the system that unfolds from within it are essential to an understanding of

Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics.