A Simple Model of the Saussurian Sign Concept

Ferdinand de Saussure was primarily a linguist who only occasionally held some lectures about more general sign-aspects of linguistics. And it have been the notices of his students based on which the students posthumously published a book about these lectures 13.3, which became foundational for the modern ideas of semiotics13.4

In the following I will report the essential characterizations of Saussure.

Figure 13.1: Simple scenario to generate a sign

In figure 13.1 one can see as a starting point the situation that a human person can perceive some properties of the environment by its senses. These properties can be acoustic events indicating a speech event as well as other kinds of objects which later can become associated with these speech events. In the light of our actual knowledge we have to assume that the events external to the body will be translated by sensors into neural events which in turn can - partially - become conscious13.5.

Saussure himself did not explicitly use such a framework, but implicitly, when he is talking about the circle of the spoken language (cf. [322]:27f) he distinguishes between the physical processes between the speaker and hearer, the physiological processes to convert external physical events into internal psychic events, and the brain as the locus of associations. Thus Saussure assumes that the primary reality is not the thing ('chose') and the word ('nom') 'outside' but the the psychical counterpart of these ('concept', 'image acoustique') 'inside' the body (cf. [322]:100). Between acoustic events and object concepts a relationship generated in the brain by an associative connection(cf. [322]:100) can be built up, although in the real world such an association does not exist. Therefore such a relationship is 'not motivated' and in this sense 'arbritrary' ([322]:103). The sign as this unit of 'image acoustique' connected with the object 'concept' exists only as a known entity; only within such a semiotic knowledge does the one 'calls the other' (cf. [322]:101). (cf. the figure 13.2).

Figure 13.2: Sign usage within a minimal cognitive framework

Because Saussure does not explicitly formally describe this presupposed framework the characterization of all his terms keeps some 'vagueness'. Especially the relationship between consciousness and brain is open: Does the consciousness only 'repeat' some processes of the brain in a way which we call 'conscious' or is the region of the 'consciousness' a more active area which can be the source for some 're-actions' to other parts of the brain. Both could principally be possible.

Gerd Doeben-Henisch 2013-01-14