Strange Life of a Sentence

Philosophy Today 59 (2):305-316 (2015)
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In this essay, I follow the lead of recent scholarship in Saussure linguistics and critically examine the Saussurean doctrine associated with the Course in General Linguistics, which later became a hallmark of structuralism. Specifically, I reconstruct the history of the concluding sentence in the Course which establishes the priority of la langue over everything deemed external to it. This line assumed the status of an oft-cited ‘famous formula’ and became a structuralist motto. The ‘famous formula’ was, however, freely inserted by the editors of the Course who effectively ghostwrote the book after Saussure’s death, and authored a series of early book-reviews of the same text in dedicated scholarly venues. I argue that the editorial success turning their vision of Saussure’s teaching into official doctrine was enabled in part by the dominant social structures regulating twentieth-century European academia.

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