[previous discussion questions]
Is speaking (la parole), as opposed to language (la langue), an individual
act, as Saussure avers?
To what extent does language exist only "by virtue of a sort of contract signed by members of a community" (76)?
Must language be a "union of meanings[signifieds] and sound-images[signifiers]" within a system of signs?
Why is "value" an important concept as distinguished from "signification?"
Why don't concepts have positive content?
Flores's succinct account/observations on Ferdinand de Saussure:
For Saussure, there are no objects (words/texts/others) that carry inherent, autonomous, "positive" meaning: there are only points of view whose meanings depend on their interrelatedness: Saussure states that "in language there are only differences without positive terms" (LT 88). Signifiers (sound images) and signifieds (concepts/meanings) are not fixed and universal and do not simply reflect or represent prior categories (the world/ideas/forms): language articulates or makes such categories and concepts possible. Because there is no necessary or inherent relation between words and objects, the relation between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary (e.g., similar meanings correspond in practice rather than in some natural or essential way to different words across languages or across time as words change). Yet because the sign's structure is arbitrary, it is subject both to history and to a synchronic study of its relational function within a signifying system (la langue) that is not arbitrary but conventional and socially constructed. To explain a signifying action (individual utterance, speech act, parole) is therefore to relate it to the underlying system of norms (conventions/practices) that makes it possible: hence, a structural rather than a strictly causal explanation (synchronic rather than diachronic/historical).
Saussure offers an analogy between language and chess: "The respective value of the pieces depends on their position on the chessboard just as each linguistic term derives its value from its opposition to all the other terms. . . . Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others . . . .Signs function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position" (LT 82-86). Hans Bertens, writing about Claude Lévi-Strauss, is helpful here: "Cultural signs position themselves somewhere on a gliding scale between pairs of opposites and in so doing express a relation between two terms, one of which represents a presence while the other represents an absence" (Literary Theory 63-64).
The supposed union of sound-image (signifier's abstract form) and its signified, however, may still suggest that signs mediate or represent a world of phenomena and ideas via a system of differences (language/discourse, though the production of meaning via such relational differences also suggests that language is prior to thought, and that we apprehend or determine reality via language). But if we think of the sign as the possibility of distinguishing signifier from signified, then the structure of the sign can be understood as an effect of difference or "différance" rather than as something stable and unified. "Language works--gains meaning . . . through opposition [and] identity is a function of difference" (Jane Tompkins 736). Linguistic values/meanings depend upon their relations to other terms within particular frameworks/contexts. "Although meaning is in first instance produced by difference, it is at a more fundamental level produced by the structure: by the relations between signs that make up a language, or, to give this a wider application, between the elements that together make up a given structure" (Hans Bertens 60).
In contrast, rather than identifying or uniting the signifier with the signified, Jacques Derrida portrays the sign as deferring the presence of the signified (a poststructural view).
See also Dr. Mary Klages's notes on Saussure