Theory and Criticism

Hearing Heidegger and Saussure

by Elmer G. Wiens

In their theories of language, Saussure and Heidegger concern themselves with the correspondence between words and ideas. Whereas both writers discuss the duality between a word and the concept it represents, and how this duality as a link mutates with time, Heidegger focuses on how words as concepts come into being. While Saussure emphasizes that language is form, a system of sound-images linked to ideas, Heidegger deliberates on how language as language speaking permits new concepts into language.

Saussure perceived that the paradigm of language based on a one-dimensional variable labelled "word," with its domain of a dictionary's list of words, lacked sufficient variables to explain itself. Saussure split the variable "word" into signifier (sfr) and signified (sfd), creating two dimensions from one dimension. Using Heidegger's language, dif-ference is the "pain" of this split, the rupture in the theory of language, shifting and expanding language, and the unfolding of one's perception of the world that language conceals and reveals. The "gain" in language from this split is the new dimension of the sign thing, S, denoted as the complex S = (sfr, sfd). The new variable, S, exists in Saussure's theory of language as a dimension that subordinates the prior dimension of the variable "word."

The variables sfr and sfd form a language grid, with particular sfrs and sfds located at arbitrary but specific locations along the sfr and sfd axes, respectively. Their arbitrary location implies the language grid has no centre. By virtue of its specific location, each sfr or sfd obtains a value as a negative difference from each other sfr or sfd. The pairing of a particular sfr with a particular sfd is represented as the node, (sfr, sfd), in the language grid. A node, S, on the grid is active—turned on—for a language provided the language's speakers accept the sign, S = (sfr, sfd), as a word in their language. Since a speaker links sfr and sfd for no reason intrinsic to either signifier or signified, this pairing, as S, is arbitrary, based on tradition. Tradition determines which nodes are active, rendering arbitrary the pairing (sfr, sfd) as the sign S, an acceptable word in the language.

Each speaker of a language inherits the "golden blooms" of the community's language grid or "tree of graces," unable to activate or deactivate nodes at will. By listening to other speakers speak, a speaker experiences and speaks language. However, Heidegger remarks that such speaking is mostly "a residue of a speaking long past." If so, how does a new word as a sign enter language if speakers just experience what others speak? How does language give birth to a new concept?

According to Saussure, a particular sfr and an sfd come into existence as S only through their combination. The combination of sfr and sfd yields a sign, S, standing in opposition to existing signs. According to Heidegger, people hearing language speaking purely perceive a new word where existing words break off. They respond by speaking what previously was silent, unfolding their perception of the world. Word and concept, language and thinking, each pair bonds to exist. The pain of birth, the dif-ference of birth, is the simultaneous splitting of S into sfr and sfd, concomitant with their combination as S.

As a sign, each S = (sfr, sfd) obtains value in opposition to other signs, through similarity, contiguity, and their antonyms. In Saussure's "algebra" of language, the value of each S in relation to other signs is positive. Each S can stand in opposition to other signs because of the negative differences between sfr and other signifiers and the negative differences between sfd and other signifieds. The negative values placed on each element of the domain of sfr or sfd in relation to other elements of the domain by language, envisaged as a signifying system, permit S to stand in discernible opposition to other signs.

By thinking of language as a grid, one avoids characterizing Saussure's signifying system as closed. A new sign, the articulus as S = (sfr, sfd), is represented by adding two new lines to the grid that intersect at S = (sfr, sfd). If sfr or sfd is already present on the grid, the existing sfr or sfd is overloaded as part of more than one active node. As examples, there is the signifier, internet, and there are the many signifieds linked to the overloaded signifier, cool. This process of adding lines to the grid or activating existing nodes on the grid can continue indefinitely.

One can thrust the notion of language as a grid farther into language, by splitting the community into its list of individuals, and opening the dimension of the variable, individual. If individuals are endowed with a personal language grid, reflecting differences in linguistic inheritance and experience, the three-dimensional community language grid that emerges subordinates the universal, two-dimensional grid. For a sign to be acceptable to the community, corresponding nodes on individuals' grids must be active to permit comprehensible communications. Heidegger's dif-ference is the new dimension of the individual, permitting the traverse between collective and individual properties of language. Alienation is the pain of being alone, the ache of "Being" an individual, the "Schmerz" of "Angst."

By adding yet another dimension, time, to the model, one can discuss with Saussure how social forces change the language grids, incrementally, over time. Modelling language as a relational grid eliminated questions about the "centre." With the variable time included, can one avoid the question of the "origin," and the related question of getting something from nothing? Can one ignore the "origin" by asking how there can be nothing without something? Why do questions about the "origin" arise? Of Heidegger's fourfold universe, only mortal man speaks with language. Is mortal man's house of language a house of death, called primarily by death's stillness? Pain tearing birth and death asunder unites spirit with time allowing "Being" towards beginning and end. Death crystallizes "Being." Death empties, "versteinert," one's surging "Schmerz."

According to Heidegger, Saussure's scientific theory of language cannot "bring us to language as language." While Heidegger helps to elucidate Saussure's semiology, Heidegger requests language as language speaking to grant "an abode for the being of mortals." Language that speaks merely the emotions of mortals, at most, repeats itself. As such, Heidegger calls on language speaking and Heidegger listening to direct his choice of an original poem that speaking purely will provide the learning experience for mortals to "live in the speaking of language." Poets such as Georg Trakl privileged with primal knowledge experience language speaking—calling mortals into the experience—an experience spanning the abyss of reason and language containing each other. Is primal knowledge awareness, a pre-experience of one's death hearkening to birth? The poet of Psalms writes, "I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," addressing his Lord. Unlike the Psalmist, Heidegger's poet absents his presence from the "place of arrival" of the poem, not having called himself there.

Trakl's poem, as text, is linear, a string of words. Writing as recorded speech is linear. Speech encountered verbally or thought is also linear. Saussure says speech and writing are one-dimensional. Trakl, responding to language speaking, imagines "A Winter's Evening," expressing linearly his non-linear experience. He writes, turning his learning into the stillness of the onefold's string of words. Though Heidegger posits a fourfold world in "A Winter Evening," he experiences the mental associations of the poem's string of words linearly in time. As Heidegger writes, he recursively deconstructs preceding sub-strings of his text, reconstructing his experiences encountering Trakl's poem. Trakl, acutely aware of the dif-ference between his original experience and the experience of reading linearly his poem, abnegates not only himself but also the poem's narrator. This alienation is the sign of mastery according to Heidegger. Trakl's self denial is absolute. Explicating the poem, Heidegger accepts his call into Being as the poem's narrator and involves himself in the text of "A Winter Evening."

Has Heidegger spoken purely? His prose is certainly not prosaic. Is there a dif-ference? Juxtaposing Heidegger and Saussure on language, can one uphold that Heidegger's hermeneutics and ontology add a dimension to the theory of language that is independent of Saussure's theory of language? Namely, are there independent sub-strings of words in Saussure and Heidegger that are also independent of the other author's work yet spanning a significant theory of language? Are these sub-strings of words independent of the oeuvre of other writers? Problematically, the answers to these questions depend on how one interprets and experiences the questions themselves concurrently with the text of the sub-strings. To start, how is one to interpret and experience the words significant and independent?

Using Heidegger's hermeneutics, Saussure's work presents a dif-ference, a neologism Heidegger coins to generalize Saussure's use of the word difference. Heidegger's method of interpretation, at each moment, anticipates by projecting into the void the emptiness to be occupied by text reflecting his understanding of the deconstructed text being received with the lingering apprehension of deconstructed text already received. As examples, he casts forward the tautology, "language is language," and the poem's image of "language is the house of Being," searching for the signifieds to these signifiers. He continues his recursive anticipating and deconstructing, deconstructing and anticipating, until he reaches his "base case"—something or nothing. The associative springs of "A Winter Evening" sucked dry, only "die Steine," the rocks, of Trakl's words remain.

Ein Winterabend

Wenn der Schnee ans Fenster fällt,
Lang die Abendglocke läutet,
Vielen ist der Tisch bereitet
Und das Haus ist wohlbestellt.

Mancher auf der Wanderschaft
Kommt ans Tor auf dunklen Pfaden.
Golden blüht der Baum der Gnaden
Aus der Erde kühlem Saft.

Wanderer tritt still herein;
Schmerz versteinerte die Schwelle.
Da erglänzt in reiner Helle
Auf dem Tische Brot und Wein.

A Winter Evening

Window with falling snow is arrayed.
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.

Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earths cool dew.

Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.


Mountain Shadows — Full Moon Night — Tamihi Mountain
Mountain Shadows - Full Moon Night - Tamihi Mountain

Works Cited and Consulted

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, and Thought. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. New York: Harper, 1971.

Heidegger, Martin. On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz. New York: Harper, 1982.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State U of NY, 1996.

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B.Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw, 1959.

Wiens, Elmer G. "Reduction of Games Using Dominant Strategies." M.Sc. Diss. U of British Columbia, 1969.





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