Ferdinand de Saussure is known as the founder of modern linguistics and semiotics, as well as one of the forerunners of structuralism and poststructuralism. This is so because, among other things, he proposed to reorganize the systematic study of language. However, his life and work did not only have an impact on this area.

Along with some of his contemporaries, Saussure contributed important elements to create new bases in the study of human behavior. Next we will review the life of Ferdinand de Saussure through a brief biography and present some of his contributions.

Biography of Ferdinand de Saussure, pioneer of linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) was born in Geneva, Switzerland. From a very young age he learned different languages, such as Greek, French, German, English and Latin . After growing up in a family of scientists, he studied natural sciences at the University of Geneva.

He later trained in linguistics at the University of Leipzig, where he obtained his doctorate in 1881. After this he taught courses in ancient and modern languages in Paris, and in 1891 he returned to Geneva.

In his hometown he worked as a teacher of Sanskrit and historical linguistics. It was until 1906 when he taught the General Linguistics course, which directed much of his attention and that of other intellectuals until today.

Ferdinand de Saussure developed the theory of signs that we know as semiotics , as well as other aspects of the linguistic tradition. However, the impact of his work quickly spread to other fields of knowledge.

From linguistics to the study of human behavior

Along with other intellectuals of his time, Saussure provided many of the bases for the development of different approaches to human behavior. Following the American linguist Jonathan D. Culler (1986), we will explain four of the repercussions that Saussure’s work has had in the social sciences.

1. Human systems do not function the same as the physical world

Saussure realized that the understanding of human practices and institutions cannot be complete if we reduce the explanations of our behavior to a series of events that occur just like the events in the physical world. This is because he believes that, unlike systems in the physical world, the interaction and objects that make up a human social system have meanings .

That is why, in studying human behavior, researchers cannot simply dismiss or omit the meanings that things and actions have for members of a society. For example, if people consider some action to be rude or impolite, this is a convention, a social fact crucial to social interaction and individual practices. Thus, the linguistic sign has, for Saussure, two components: signifier (the word) and meaning (the concept to which the word appeals) .

2. Development of semiotics and precursor of structuralism

Among other things, Saussure developed a general science of signs and sign systems (semiotics), as well as some of the bases of structuralism, a current that proposes that socio-cultural systems are delimited by a key structure: language.

This was especially relevant for the development of anthropology, modern linguistics and literary criticism, but some decades later it also had an impact on much of psychology and sociology. In general, it allowed a rethinking of the social sciences.

3. Responses to the chaos of modern thought

Saussure’s proposals also clarified a large part of modern thought, that is, the way in which scientists, philosophers, artists or writers tried to represent and explain the phenomena of the world .

His work opened the way to generate new paradigms of knowledge: the idea that the scientist cannot obtain absolute knowledge , as if he were a god, but always chooses or assumes a perspective under which objects are defined by their relationships with other elements of the same system (beyond the fact that objects have a fixed essence that can be discovered).

4. Relationship between language and mind

The way in which Saussure explains language allows for a focus on a problem that is central to the human sciences, especially those concerned with the relationship between language and the mind.

Saussure considers that humans are beings whose relations with the world are characterized by two mental operations that clearly manifest themselves in language: structuring and differentiation . Part of Saussure’s thought is present in the consideration that there is a tendency of human beings to organize things in systems through which different meanings are transmitted.

Main works

Ferdinand de Saussure’s best known and most studied work is Cours de linguistique générale (General Linguistic Course) which was published three years after his death in 1916. In fact, this work has been considered one of the most influential of the 20th century, not only for linguistics but also for the social sciences . Nevertheless, this work is the product of the compilation made by his colleagues Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, who recovered the lectures and written notes of Saussure’s students.

One of his first works, which was published while he was studying for his doctorate, was Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (Memory of the Primitive Vowel System in Indo-European Languages), in which discusses how the original Indo-European vowels can be reconstructed . This was one of his beginnings in philology and linguistics.

Bibliographic references:

  • Culler, J. (1986). Ferdinand de Saussure. Revised Edition. Cornell University Press: USA.
  • New World Encyclopedia. (2016). Ferdinand de Saussure. New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 15, 2018. Available at http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ferdinand_de_Saussure