The [ ] walked down the street

Michael Silverstein

  • Saussure by John Joseph
    Oxford, 780 pp, £30.00, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 969565 2

Ferdinand de Saussure, who died in 1913 at the age of 55, sowed the seeds of structuralist thought that first took root in linguistics, then effloresced throughout the 20th century in fields as seemingly distinct as literary criticism, architecture, social anthropology and psychoanalysis. Yet, as John Joseph’s biography shows, Saussure struggled for his entire career to systematise as general theory what he had implicitly understood and put to stunningly successful use at the age of 19: that human language is the prime abstract ‘semiological’ (we now say semiotic) structure on which the possibility of interpersonal communication depends. He died without ever getting close to writing his magnum opus – which nevertheless exists, an ‘as if’ work imaginatively simulated in his name shortly after his death.

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