Cassirer in the Context of Saussurean Semiotics


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Ernst Cassirer and Ferdinand de Saussure are two of the most important semioticians of the 20th century. Both of them view language not as an instrument through which the objective world can be represented, but as a formative event which actively organizes otherwise indistinct streams of human experience. Despite their agreement on the constitutive nature of language, however, Saussure and Cassirer differ significantly on the issue of how the formation of concepts is achieved. According to the former, it is not enough to individually consider a particular combination of a sequence of sound and a concept, because to do so is to assume that one can start from the terms and construct the system by adding them together when, on the contrary, it is from the interdependent whole that one must start and through analysis obtain its elements. Thus, instead of specific words that de facto connect us with the world through their meanings, Saussure starts his explanation of concept formation with the two preexisting continua of sound and thought which, when they combine, supposedly articulate phonic units on the one side and conceptual units on the other. In this way, language somehow takes on the attributes of an autoeffective spirit which decomposes itself into various components. For Cassirer, the formation of concepts is fulfilled by a universal consciousness with the help of language and other symbolic forms. Although there are no ready-made concepts or ideas before the appearance of language, the thinking subject still encounters chaotic extralinguistic life experience which Cassirer calls " indeterminate outward material". Only, in its pursuit of the universal, consciousness does not require the entirety of information from the particular itself. Instead, it resorts to sequences of sounds in its creation of necessary complexes of meaning. The result is the birth of verbal concepts or ideas which do not belong to any specific situation but can be used to evoke those meanings that belong to a whole class of similar situations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)56-67
Number of pages12
JournalChinese Semiotic Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2010


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