Phenomenology and linguistics


Simone Aurora, Patrick Flack

pp. 7-12

Although it is not difficult to track reflections on the theory and practice of the language sciences within the phenomenological corpus – from Husserl to Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger or Derrida via authors such as Adolf Reinach, Karl Bühler, or Gustav Špet – the relation between phenomenology and linguistics has rarely been taken as the subject of detailed analyses. For instance, one finds but few explicit discussions of this topic, such as Rozalija Šor's « Expression and Signification : The Logicist Trend in Linguistics » (1927, translated for this issue), Hendrik Pos's « Phenomenology and Linguistics » (1939), John Verhaar's « Phenomenology and Present-Day Linguistics », Ernst Wolfgang Orth's « Phi­losophy of Language as Phenomenology of Language and Logic » (both 1973) or, more recently, Jean-Claude Coquet's Phusis et Logos. Une Phénoménologie du langage (2007) and Jordan Zlatev's « Phenomenology and Cognitive Linguis­tics » (2010). In the majority of historiographies of linguistics or in the rare stu­dies on the philosophy and epistemology of the language sciences, moreover, one will struggle to find anything more than passing mentions to the work either of Husserl or of any other phenomenologist.

A notable exception to this rule is constituted by a line of research that can be traced back to two pioneering works published by Elmar Holenstein in the 1970s (Holenstein 1976a; 1976b) and which aims to show the existence of a theoretical and historical filiation both between phenomenology and structural linguistics and, more specifically, between Husserl’s philosophy and the works of Roman Jakobson and the Prague Linguistic Circle. The main assumption here is that pheno­menology and structuralism emerged as pan-European and interdisciplinary paradigms and, far from representing conflicting or alternative schools, develo­ped within a wide and complex network of mutual influences at the beginning of the 20th Century (Cf. Sériot 1999, Espagne 2014). After years of neglect, this approach has regained both vigour and traction and has led to the publication of a significant number of studies (E.g. Burda 2001, Sonesson 2012, Aurora 2015, Stawarska 2015, Flack 2016, etc.), of which the present issue is in many ways a continuation.

As a result of this new research, a number of historical and theoretical focal points have emerged in the relationship between phenomenology and linguis­tics – almost all of which are explored in the present volume. The first of these is the seminal role of Husserl's Logical Investigations. As evidenced by authors such as Špet, Pos, or Derrida (Pos 1939, Špet 1914, Derrida 1967), by the above-mentioned studies of Holenstein, by our own work and by the articles by Rozalija Šor, Filippo Silvestri, Simona Cresti, and Manuel Isaac in this issue, Husserl's text served as a crucial starting point for gaining new insights into fun­da­mental problems of linguistics such as the nature of the linguistic sign, the scope and uses of a pure grammar, the inter-subjective basis of meaning in mutual understanding, or the relations between linguistic expression, ideal signification and empirical object.

A second aspect of the relation between phenomenology and linguistics is its deep imbrication in « Russian Theory » (Zenkin 2004), i.e. the original context of Russian and Soviet thought in the Humanities in the first decades of the 20th Century. Jakobson's or Špet's theoretical debt to Husserl constitute the most ob­vious manifestations of this Russian connection. But, as Šor's and Emanuel Lan­dolt's articles in this issue show, Russian inputs go well beyond these two authors. On the one hand, the reception and interpretation of Husserl in Russia was less than straightforward, inscribed as it was in a wider process of re-appropriation of the psychologistic traditions of German philosophy. On the other hand, this productive reception and the vast intellectual horizon that it involved was also conducive after WWII to other, more hermeneutic approaches to a phenomeno­logy of the language sciences, such as that of Vladimir Bibikhin.

The third focus of recent research on phenomenology and linguistics is a critical re-reading of Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale and its instrumen­talisation in historiographies of linguistics and structuralism (Cf. Salverda 1991, Daylight 2011, Stawarska 2015). As is made clear in the articles by Beata Stawarska and Lei Zhu, the mainstream view of Saussure as having expunged the speaking subject from his model has for a long time constituted the biggest obstacle to a rapprochement between linguistics and what is often seen as a science of subjectivity, phenomeno­logy. The two strategies for a re-appraisal of Saussure are on display in this issue: Stawarska's philological re- and de-construction of our canonical reading of Saussure, and Zhu's invocation of Merleau-Ponty as the concrete exemplifi­cation of a success­ful conceptual meeting of phenomenology and (Saussurean) linguistics.

Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology itself represents a further focal point of the relation between phenomenology and linguistics. Merleau-Ponty's interest in the problem of language and his close involvement with structuralism (Saus­sure, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss) are well-known. What the insistent refe­rences to his work by Stawarska, Zhu, as well as Martin Thiering & Johan Bloom­berg and Antonino Bondi, David Piotrowski & Yves-Marie Visetti re­veals, how­ever, is the extent to which Merleau-Ponty's thought is connected with lin­guis­tics or semiotics themselves, i.e. not only with language as an object, but with its treatment and conceptualisation in the language sciences. Also, that con­nection is doubly significant, since it involves not only Merleau-Ponty's debt to the concepts and insights of linguistics or semiotics, but the conceptual potential of his ideas for the further development of those disciplines.

A fifth and final aspect discussed in this issue is a recently emerged con­cern over the relationship between phenomenology and cognitive linguistics. In their articles, Thiering & Bloomberg and Cresti turn their attention to speci­fic topics (space, vagueness) whose linguistic treatment, they argue, can greatly benefit from a joined, cognitive and phenomenological approach. Revealingly, Husserl's Logical Investigations and Merleau-Ponty's work both figure promi­nently as the phenomenological points of references in these articles.

In summary, this issue of Metodo provides a relatively exhaustive historical overview of the interactions between phenomenology and linguistics. In doing so it also addresses topics such as, among others, the nature and structure of language, the relationship between linguistic structure and lived experience or between language and mind, the historical connections that link pheno­meno­logy to linguistic research, theories of meaning and semantic forms and episte­mological reflections on linguistics from a phenomenological point of view.

Aurora Simone (2015) "A forgotten source in the history of linguistics: Husserl's Logical investigations", Bulletin d'Analyse Phénoménologique 11 (5), pp.1-19.
Burda Milan (2001) Prague entre l'Est et l'Ouest: l'émigration russe en Tchécoslovaquie, 1920-1938, Paris, L'Harmattan.
Coquet Jean-Claude (2007) Phusis et Logos: une phénoménologie du langage, Paris, Presses Universitaires de Vincennes.
Daylight Russell (2011) What if Derrida was wrong about Saussure?, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
Derrida Jacques (1967) La voix et le phénomène: Introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl, Paris, PUF.
Espagne Michel (2014) L'ambre et le fossil: Transferts germano-russes dans les sciences humaines XIXe-XXe siècle, Paris, Armand Colin.
Flack Patrick (2016) "Roman Jakobson and the transition of German thought to the structuralist paradigm", Acta Structuralica 1, pp.1-15.
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Holenstein Elmar (1976) Roman Jakobson's approach to language: phenomenological structuralism, Bloomington, Ind., Indiana University Press.
Orth Ernst Wolfgang (1973) "Philosophy of language as phenomenology of language and logic", in: Natanson Maurice (ed), Phenomenology and the social sciences Volume 1, Evanston, Ill., Northwestern University Press, pp.323-360.
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Salverda Reiner (1991) "The contribution of H. J. Pos (1898-1955) to early structural linguistics", in: J. Fenoulhet; Theo Hermans; (ed), Standing clear: A festschrift for Reinder P. Meijer, London, University College London, pp.220-237.
Sériot Patrick (1999) Structure et totalité: Les origines intellectuelles du structuralisme en Europe centrale et orientale, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.
Sonesson Göran (2012) "The foundation of cognitive semiotics in the phenomenology of signs and meanings", Intellectica 58, pp.207-239.
Šor Rozalija Osipovna (1927) "Vyraženie i značenie: Logističeskoe napravlenie v sovremennoj lingvistike", Učenye zapiski Instituta jazyka i literatury RANION 1, pp.98 – 110.
Stawarska Beata (2015) Saussure's philosophy of language as phenomenology: Undoing the doctrine of the course in general linguistics, Oxford-New York, Oxford University Press.
Verhaar John (1973) "Phenomenology and present-day linguistics", in: Natanson Maurice (ed), Phenomenology and the social sciences Volume 1, Evanston, Ill., Northwestern University Press, pp.360-465.
Zenkin Sergey (2004) Russkaja teorija: 1920-1930e gody, Moskva, RGGU.
Zlatev Jordan (2010) "Phenomenology and cognitive linguistics", in: Gallagher Shaun; Schmicking Daniel (ed), Handbook of phenomenology and cognitive science, Dordrecht, Springer, pp.415-443.

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