This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Michael Silverstein. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.009



Thinking about the “teleologies of structuralism”

Michael SILVERSTEIN, University of Chicago


On October 3, 2015, we gathered at the University of Toronto for the fifth in a series of events that had moved among three North American universities, Chicago, Notre Dame, and finally Toronto. In a number of formats, these gatherings concerned the theme of “Teleologies of Structuralism,” in a sense punning on the notion that structuralist perspectives presume upon a teleology, a directionality, and a point of realization of full or complete social factuality, notwithstanding the connotations of stasis in the word “structure.” (This is clearly a theme in Descola’s insightful account of Lévi-Straussian thought as well as in Rutherford’s recounting of the essence of interactional relationality.) At the same time the prime movers of these events, Christopher Ball, Alejandro Paz, and myself, have been concerned with the teleology or “fate” of structuralism itself as a mode of thought or approach to social and cultural phenomena, including here, of course, linguistic ones, with which, in a real sense, the whole intellectual movement began.

In 2016 we mark one hundred years since the publication of the Cours de linguistique générale, the posthumously organized account of Ferdinand de Saussure’s reconstructed thoughts on language as a structure both in and abstracted from time, that is, language as a semiotic system with both a diachronic and a synchronic dimension in its own ontic order. Our discussions on structuralism which led to this series of events started as a reflection on the somewhat improbable, if far-reaching, impact of Saussure’s work. Thus, to reflect on the themes of this culminative Toronto event, and for this publication of work from it and from an earlier Chicago event, I want to pause a bit to consider what it was that Saussure actually [80]achieved for linguistic theory, and what was the unlikely telos of his discoveries, which we now, after its dubbing by Roman Jakobson, call structuralism.

The double or duplex character of language was a leitmotif of intellectual struggle for Saussure throughout his career; it runs through decades of notes for unfinished, unrealized projects on linguistic theory, the theory of the linguistic sign as it functions within a system of such that moves in its own dimension of temporal continuity. In this intellectual struggle—never quite reaching a satisfying telos, if you will, even in the posthumous Cours de linguistique—there were extraordinary ironies in the way the Master sought to delimit a structural object of analysis. One is that Saussure largely rediscovered the Fregean philosophical notion of language as an ensemble of sense-bearing forms, sense (Saussure’s signifié or “signified”) being a constant differential conceptual value associable with and projectable from each such form (Saussure’s signifiant or “signifier”). But the signifier–signified relationship, so neatly pictured in the Cours as upper and lower halves of a unitary oval shape, is not primary; it exists only in virtue of the existence of a relational structure of signifiers, langue, or, as we now say, a system of grammatical forms. That is, Saussure’s particular “structuralist” contribution is to theorize, for a given language, where the Fregean sense of any particular linguistic sign in fact comes from.

Saussure understood that the abstract, algebraic relation of signifier and signified can be captured only through a systematic and highly indirect methodology. He postulates that any signifier in langue projects into a particular conceptual value, a signified, only as a function of the signifier’s combinatoric functions within a system, how it (“syntagmatically”) combines with and/or (“paradigmatically”) contrasts with other syntagmatically comparable signifiers. This comes about under an elaborate system of rules of well-formedness that define the very categories of form that users of a language implicitly implement. These are grammatical rules for sequential (in this case) combination, which, in effect, build up hierarchically tiered complex signifiers from relatively more simplex ones. Thus, each linguistic sign, the derived association of a signified with a signifier, is really a projection into the realm of conceptualization of a form definable from the sum total of its privileges of syntagmatic occurrence, and from its relative distribution within the totality of possible signifiers. The proper analogy for the characteristics of signifiers is not economics (as some read Saussure) but a combinatoric algebra—in fact a chemical one: Saussure’s “valeur,” a property of signifiers, is precisely what Dmitri Mendeleev organized as chemical valence—combinatoric possibilities of the various chemical elements insofar as they can potentially occur one with another in relatively stable molecular juxtapositions.

Now I bring up this structuralist understanding of the highly indirect way that forms get meanings in language—only as a function of their valences/“valeurs”— because of a second irony, this one involving Saussure’s own ability to abstract from and to conceptualize the distinction between synchrony and diachrony. Saussure himself was what we now term a scholar of comparative-historical linguistics, interested in comparing the languages of the Indo-European family so as to reconstruct the ancestral form, now called “Proto-Indo-European.” He began his scholarly career in a milieu in which the central problem was how the sonic form of signifiers, their phonetic shapes, seemed to change over time in highly regular, “law”-like ways. Demonstrating such regularity was the criterion for showing that [81]distinct-sounding forms in two different languages in fact had emerged from a common ancestral form in a common ancestral language. Saussure’s Leipzig teachers considered that such regularity—when they thought more generally about it— resulted from fairly mechanical facts about the physiology of pronunciation, where minute changes in pronunciation of certain sequences of sounds cumulated in a particular direction, unbeknownst to and unchecked by those who used the forms in daily communication. This point is crucial to what came next: even at a formative stage of modern linguistic theory, prior to the understanding of language as a social fact, the idea of a telos to the direction of change was firmly established.

Saussure was an early master of following through this teleological logic. In 1878, at the age of nineteen or so, he hit upon a solution to one of the then most vexing of problems in comparative Indo-European: the seeming irregularity of the vowel sounds that developed, it was supposed, from those in the forms of the common parent language of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Gothic, and so on. The consonants of the presumed descendent words corresponded one to another in regular—and reconstructable—ways. On the other hand, the vowels looked wildly irregular, a fact which threatened the very intellectual foundations of late nineteenth-century theory and method.

In his Mémoire of 1878, then, young Saussure demonstrated that if we look at word forms in each of the descendent languages as rule-bound constructs of word-parts, each a syllabically organized sequence of abstract, idealized sound types, then we can infer the former presence in Proto-Indo-European of certain sound—“phonemic”—segments at the older prehistoric stage. These reconstructed phonemic segments are transformed in completely regular and predictable— “law”-like—ways in the later languages, leaving their trace in the only apparently irregular vowels in the descendent word forms.

Structure was the key factor that Saussure brought to this incredible flash of insight, yielding a solution: structure in some sense was preserved yet transformed over time into multiple new structures.

Observe how structure in this way is both “synchronic”—determining systematicity of combinatoric and contrastive relationships of units —and “diachronic”—law-like in its regularities of transformation on the basis of a structured initial condition. This diachronic as well as synchronic systematicity allows us to predict what form one should find in Language B, if we know that a form of a particular shape in Language A is in the same historical linguistic family, the correspondences of which have been worked out. (By the way, the disappeared sounds—now termed “laryngeal consonants”—did, in fact, eventually turn up as such in precisely the predicted places in Hittite, an Indo-European language deciphered only in 1917 and investigated comparatively only in 1927, an, alas, posthumous triumph for Saussure.) Saussure had found the key to understanding the telos of the regular direction of change: structure. Furthermore, he had discovered that such regularities—structural types—are immanent in token events of human social practices, like speaking and hearing discourse (parole), that proceed unproblematically only by virtue of the structure that relates the units of langue one to another.

Here was the fundamental structuralist insight about sound as a valence system, just like the system that the mature Saussure postulates in the Cours as the condition of grammar itself. Yet Saussure himself, while clearly intuiting the proper and [82]eventually confirmed structuralist analysis of the relation of synchrony to diachrony, could never make this breakthrough the basis of a generalized concept of sound structure (or phonological structure, as we now term it). It remained for others, long after Saussure’s untimely and unhappy demise—in America it was principally Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield, while in Europe it was Roman Jakobson, Nikolai Troubetskoi, Daniel Jones, and others—to model both synchronic phonological structure and structural “sound” change (diachrony) as an orderly transformative force. In matters of a grammar of sound, Saussure was a structuralist avant la lettre insofar as not being able to understand and conceptualize his own major empirical breakthrough. (This is the central impetus of Jakobson’s 1942 lectures at the École Libre des Hautes Études in New York City, “Six leçons sur le son et le sens,” among the audience of which was Claude Lévi-Strauss. See the charming foreword he wrote for their later publication in French and in English.)

Now I want to move to a more abstract contrast that brings in other cultural phenomena, perhaps language-like to the extent that they are meaningful human phenomena instantiated in the relational real time of social (inter)action. Let us keep in mind the Saussurean contrast between diachrony—the fate of a system in its own order of structural “time”—and synchrony—the way a system is experienced through events that actualize it for the people who presume upon it as an affordance for their daily affairs. Most people think synchronically within a framework for understanding the effectiveness or efficaciousness—or, as it has been called, the “performativity”—of social action, its telic or goal-realizing character. For the Saussure of the Cours de linguistique générale, the shape of such a performative event looks merely to be the “execution [i.e., actualization] of the system of valences,” human teleological or purposive conceptualization of such acts notwithstanding. In such execution, for Saussure, the linear or serial syntagmatic relations of the abstract units of langue are transparently instantiated in the time-bound way in which we experience stretches of discourse in parole as having duration. There is not much more that the Ascended Master had to say about parole, save to identify what he termed “nomenclaturism,” seeing language as a vast dictionary of words-for-things, as the unfortunate prestructuralist view in the West for which the postulation of langue was the corrective lens. And yet, paradoxically, all effective change of the system in diachronic time, he recognized, originates in such social action; all change of langue, in his terms, originates in the realm of parole. But how does innovation within parole come to be a cause with effects in the order of the diachrony of langue? Strictly within Saussurean structuralism, there is a real problem of disjuncture here, along several dimensions.

If there is an inherent teleology in the human experience of parole, the way humans endow action with a telic Verstehen (as Weber would have it), is there also an inherent teleology in langue, more generally in sociocultural systems, as well? And is such a teleology of the system linked to the telic way we experience social action, or autonomous of it? This was the particular interest of our fifth commemorative event, in which Descola’s paper was presented: How is social action, conceptualized in its own order of structuralist synchrony, with normed inherent meaningfulness, perhaps even systematicity, to be understood in relation to transformative diachrony of the very bases for meaningfulness within an always-structured system over time? Further, we continue to wonder about the fate of insights about such issues [83]in the human and hermeneutic sciences in a period in which most scholars assume we have moved beyond structuralism (a presumption Rutherford calls into question, note): Are we in fact reproducing its insights in regularly transformed ways, exactly as Saussure and other structuralists would predict?

As, during the 1920s, the full force of the structuralist insights about language were being worked out, linguists such as those noted above began not only to explore the system-relative nature of diachronic change but also to think—as we now say—“typologically” about how one particular linguistic system might relate to others within a universe of possible system structures. That is, each particular phonological or grammatical structure came to be seen as one from among a manifold of possible types, in essence systems related one to another as transforms differing along parameters or dimensions of variance within a metasystemic framework. (One need only think of Praguean phonological theory or Boasian theory of grammatical categories to note the trend.) And further, if systems can be, in effect, located one with respect to another within such encompassing comparative frameworks, then the diachronic transformation one type of system into another ought, too, to follow parameters channeling possible vs. impossible—or at least likely vs. unlikely—changes of structural type, given the structural initial conditions. All this has flowed in the study of grammatical structure from working with the initial Saussurean insights.

Both of the accompanying papers, Rutherford’s from our second Chicago event and Descola’s from the fifth, the Toronto conference, worry these respective themes in interesting ways. Descola uses the term “transformation” to characterize the frequently multidimensional relationships of difference across structural systems as they may constitute points within a metastructural array, what Lévi-Strauss himself wrote about as a permutation group, invoking the authority of algebra. While in the first instance such “transformational” relationships bespeak typological variation of cultural forms, the open questions are, first, if there is an ordering relationship to the variation, and, second, if systems can be ordered along a diachronic or developmental dimension. Lévi-Strauss himself, as Descola notes, is rather suggestive in such matters in the realm of the marital exchange systems of kinship, where “elementary,” “direct,” and “generalized” look at first to be typological variants but strongly suggest diachronic elaboration under the influence of more and more complexity to corporate groupings presumed upon as the agentive units of exchange under a unitary functionality of avoiding “incest.” At the same time, Lévi-Strauss at once hints at diachronic processes of diffusion and reintegration in the working out of all the variants of any mythic structure across multiple local-scale societies. The diffusion and reintegration Lévi-Strauss suggested was without end and without a unifying functionality, it turns out, like in the mythic structures he described for the indigenous Americas. This was precisely the problem Boas had earlier articulated in a pre- or protostructuralist understanding of culture as a spatiotemporally locatable collective characteristic of people unconsciously synthesized from elements via diffusion.

In Lévi-Strauss’ version of structuralism, what survives in all these transformations from the language-focused inspiration of linguistics is the concept of a manifold of calculable differences, but not much more. As Jakobson’s 1942 lectures (and certainly his later work on distinctive features) made clear, the nature of the [84]manifold is what is at issue and of interest in linguistics. With the exception of the (Radcliffe-Brownian) structural-functionalism of Lévi-Strauss’s kinship work, none of this has ever been clarified in the more general realm of anthropological structuralism.

And, notwithstanding Rutherford’s clear invocation of certain very general principles such as role relationality as fundamental to what we focus upon in ethnographic work, the vast area of modern understanding of cultural semiosis is absent from much of this older cultural structuralism. The description of cultural semiosis centrally involves indexical (context-presupposing and context-entailing) construal/construction of the contexts of social (inter)action and the essentially textual coherence of such events in which relationships of “power,” and so on, are manifest—an emergent order of sociocultural reality, the “interaction order,” as the late Erving Goffman termed it, that we now have a firm semiotic means of comprehending. Having set it itself up in a kind of pointed contradistinction to accounts of telic action-on-the-ground, the issue of how structural forms are instantiated— and, thus, how we can recognize evidence for/against a certain interpretation of what is immanent in social action—has long remained an open one. So open, in fact, that the countermovements self-advertised as poststructuralist, whether in relation to how interaction articulates “power” as institutionalized structures of social asymmetry or how interaction is essentially ambiguous or fluid in relation to them, have had no little success at supplanting the earlier vision of a language-like “grammar” of culture. Rethinking both the thesis and the proposed antithesis in a more semiotically sophisticated way is the agenda now before us.


Michael SILVERSTEIN, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Psychology at the University of Chicago, has lectured and published extensively on the intellectual and organizational history of these disciplines.

Michael Silverstein
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1126 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637-1580