Letter: Sign of the father

July 6, 2001

It would seem that it is not only the likes of Barthes and Derrida who misinterpret Ferdinand de Saussure, "the father of modern linguistics". He is also misinterpreted by those who castigate Barthes's and Derrida's interpretations. Thus Jacques Guy, in his review of Roy Harris's Saussure and his Interpreters (Books, THES, June 29), offers a garbled account of Saussure's analysis of the "sign", as composed of "signifier"/"signal" and "signified"/"signification".

Taking his example from an ancient Chinese philosopher, Guy suggests that when we point at something, such as the moon, our pointing is the signifier and that at which we point the signified. But this is an account of the sign that Saussure denies. "A linguistic sign," he declares, "is not a link between a thing (the moon) and a name (our pointing), but between a concept and a sound pattern" (Roy Harris's translation). Even if we allow that pointing might be a name, a signifier, the signified is never that at which we point, but the concept of that at which we point.

Given such sloppy thought, it is unlikely Guy could understand Derrida's deconstruction of Saussure's analysis, and the same would hold of Harris if Guy's review is a fair representation of Harris's book. But that must be a moot point.

Gerard Loughlin
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

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