Friday, 24 March 2017

What's the Connection Between Writing and a Game of Chess?

Saussure on Language - Limited Boundaries

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is widely held to be a father of twentieth century linguistics. He says: “Language is a system based entirely on the opposition of its concrete units,” and this leads him to believe that units do not have value except within the system to which they belong. They have value only:

“…from the simultaneous presence of other units.”

To be of value, the unit must function and establish its role within the system.

This leads on to Saussure’s conviction that no thing has intrinsic value. His example is that “…chess pieces change in value according to the moves that are made.” By this, he means that the pieces are the internal grammar of the set, taking on a diachronistic (ie. historical) role within the synchrony (the now) of the game. This can be applied to any other set, for example, language.

Saussure's Linguistics - Signifier and Signified

The most obvious point is that a book or a symphony is not a chess-set.

As Stuart Sim says, in his essay on Jacques Derrida:

“…structuralist criticism also blurs the distinction between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic.”

Functional value might apply to the piece in the chess set, but that is not a sufficient condition for aesthetic experience, and, therefore, for aesthetic value. (Although - if the chess set were beautifully carved, this might then be true.)

Further, Saussure’s structuralism has no place within its limited boundaries to accommodate and recognise, for example, poetry’s creative energy.

From his analysis of words, Saussure produces three notions:
  • The signified, which is the mental concept.
  • The signifier, which is the sequence of sounds related to the concept.
  • The sign, which is the union of signified and signifier.

The relationship of the signifier to the signified is arbitrary; meaning it is agreed upon by a linguistic community. Therefore: “Signs function through their relative position” and from this conclusion the judgement of their value is derived.”

Criticism of Saussure by Jacques Derrida

All of this is logical in terms of understanding structure, but is attacked by Jacques Derrida as sterile as far as aesthetic value is concerned.

“Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself.”

Derrida means that Saussure’s theory tells us nothing about aesthetic value, the psychological or social aspects of novels, the drama of a great painting, the ineffableness of music.

“It is,” says Derrida, “a tyranny of form…which is held to inhibit the creative imagination.”

While Saussure insists on combining words according to the rules of syntax, Derrida breaks with this tradition. Derrida allows language to develop in new ways, creatively, aesthetically and, at least in theory, valuably. “Deconstruction relies heavily on this notion of paradigmatic relation.” Derrida and his followers make extensive use of punning and wordplay. This suggests: “a much more random motion for thought.”

Saussure argues that complications would arise through paradigmatic relations, causing our common language to break down, but this seems unlikely. Derrida says: “It (meaning structuralism) classifies and corrects rather than interprets or creates.” Derrida derides the interior design of the structuralist movement with what he describes as: “…the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth and without origin, which is offered to an active interpretation.” Structuralism imposes form rather than discovers it.

Stuart Sim and the Limitations of Saussure's Theory

Stuart Sim makes a strong criticism of Derrida’s extreme opposition to Saussure. He accepts the limitations of Saussure’s theory of reducing everything through wholeness, self-regulation and transformation in order to determine value. However, he also finds inadequacies in Derrida’s theory. “In Derrida’s scheme, meaning is endlessly being produced and just as endlessly being erased, so that there are no fixed points of reference.” This puts more pressure on the reader to interpret, so that: “Value judgements of the traditional kind become impossible,” and so, in Sim’s opinion, this isolates readers.

Sim asserts: “Reference points can only be jettisoned after they have been learned and absorbed.” It seems that we need Saussure’s structuralism to give us reference points to guide us, because: “…it still generates illuminating data about the internal relations of texts,” and this is Saussure’s main intention of determining value.

Saussure's structuralism seems to be a kind of formalism, and it is argued by many that this approach is too narrow to cover all the types of aesthetic values and qualities, like the psychological insight of Shakespeare, and the beauty of nature, music and paintings.

Aesthetic value, as a subjective quality that might, perhaps, lead to objectivity through Kantian theory, cannot be confined within Saussure’s account.


"Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences," Jacques Derrida, Art Context and Value, Ed: Stuart Sim, The Open University, 1992.

Literary Theory, Jonathan Culler, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1997.

Positions, Jacques Derrida, Translated and Annotated by Alan Bass, The University of Chicago Press, 1972.

"Structuralism and post-structuralism," Stuart Sim, Philosophical Aesthetics, Ed: Oswald Hanfling, Blackwell Publishers in association with OUP, 1992.

"Introduction to the structural analysis of narrative," Roland Barthes, Art, Context and Value, Ed: Stuart Sim, The Open University, 1992.

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