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Discourse studies in structuralist

and post-structuralist thought

Vuk Vukotic,
PhD student,
Institute of Lithuanian Language

Introduction. A pre-Saussurean perspective.

The aim of this paper is to discuss the treatment of discourse in different schools of
linguistics and to explore the both linguistic and philosophical arguments that shaped this field of
study. The main focus is on the understanding of the relationship between language and
discourse in different schools of thought.

Before the establishment of general linguistics, discourse received various treatments


from a linguistic and philosophical perspective.

In order to illustrate the two main attitudes to discourse studies, I suggest we look at
Wittgenstein's work on language: He changed his view of language dramatically during his
lifetime, one unfavourable of discourse to one favourable of discourse. Here, I am not talking
about the systematic approach to discourse studies, but more of a philosophical starting point that
would allow discourse to be a valid research object.

In his early work, such as the Tractatus, Wittgenstein exhibits a very strict attitude to the
relationship between propositions and reality either true or false, and defines strict categorical of
the inner and the outer, on both a linguistic and semantic level.

“3.2 In a proposition a thought can be expressed in such a way that elements of the
propositional sign correspond to the objects of the thought. (...)
4.121. Propositions cannot represent logical form: it is mirrored in them. What finds its
reflection in language, language cannot represent. What expresses itself in language, we
cannot express by means of language. Propositions show the logical form of reality. They
display it.” (Wittgenstein, 2010)
Later in his work, discourse becomes a perfectly valid object of philosophical
investigation, as he examined language use in his "Philosophical investigations". Here,
Wittgenstein shows that real language - or language in use - is always perfect, because it is
appropriate for the needs of the speaker, so that meaning can be studied in terms of use
(Wittgenstein, 1953: 98). I will label this change of view or meaning-dependant (or inner-focus)
to context-dependant (outer-focus).

The main question that I try to pose here is why linguists were so reluctant to include
discourse into the field of linguistics? In the sections to follow, I will show how linguistics
changed course the same way Wittgenstein did, changing the focus of academic investigations
into language from meaning-focused to context-focused.

Geneva and Prague school

One can safely say that Saussure's linguistic interests were probably most distant from
discourse. Apart from the main difference in the dichotomy to which functional linguists oppose
to, one of langue and parole, we find certain similarities between the notion of discourse and
parole. In his own dichotomy, what we today understand as discourse is parole, and what
Saussure's parole has in common with the modern definition(s) of discourse is context
dependency in meaning, situationlity (Saussure, 1959: 14)

What does not correspond with the modern definition of discourse is that speech is
strictly individual; while langue is social and non-individual, socially shared; (Saussure, 1959:
18). There are the arguments Saussure uses to claim that the focus of linguistic research must be
the parole. That is probably why the strongest criticism Saussurean theory ever received used
exactly discourse (parole) as the main argument. It is what Labov called the Saussurian paradox -
Saussure insists that the socially defined, invisible langue is the only object of linguistics, but
one still studies language in the individual production (where else does one get linguistic date
from?), which is, according to him, psychological and contextual (Labov, 1972: 186). When it
comes to the relation between langue and parole, an interesting moment is that he claims that
speaking (or parole) depends more on the langue, as it is the organizing principle behind speech
(Saussure, 1959: 165), while noting that langue came after parole, historically (Saussure, 1959:
18), where the latter does correspond to the modern understanding of discourse.
Unlike Saussure, Bally's work (1961) provides a good basis for the study of linguistic
system outside Saussure's langue as a valid object of linguistic research, and even more so in the
Prague school of linguistics. The functionalist fashion on linguistic research brought about a
focus on meaning, a systematic description of semantic relations, but also those relations that
exceed a single sentence, identifying discourse tokens to explain complex semantic relations
(Sgall, 1994). Discourse was far from central to the Prague linguistic school, but challenging of
the Saussurian notion of arbitrariness of semantic relations brought about at least some focus on
discursive patterns (such as organization of discourse) and discursive meaning.

American structuralist school

It is somewhat strange that discourse analysis stayed in the shadow of linguistic research,
especially as Bloomfield popularized a behavioralist view of language, namely that meaning is
contained in both the situation and in the response from the hearer (Bloomfield, 1933). This led
to a change in the understanding of the relationship between lexical items, bet leaving discourse
analysis to other fields such as rhetoric’s and poetics (Norrick, 2003). The work he did on what
he called secondary and tertiary responses to language." (Bloomfield, 1944) could even be
called metalinguistic discourse and critical discourse analysis, from a today's perspective, but for
some reason, this approach gained no significant echo in the linguistic world of the time.

A scholar who is often labelled as neo-Bloomfieldian, Zillig Harris, took discourse


analysis to the next level. He published the first book entitled "Discourse analysis" (1952), even
though this was an entirely structuralist take on discourse, heavily criticized by some modern
linguists, such as van Dijk (1980: 14), who points out that it is a theory of syntactic structures,
not discourse, because it was missing the aspect of context. Still, this shows that discourse was
an inevitable fact, which would sooner or later appear as a study object in linguistics.

Post-structuralism and discourse

As I showed in the previous sections, there must have been enough theoretical basis for
introducing a non-Saussureian view of discourse and developing discourse analysis, however it
was not until the 70ties that the actual theoretical basis was laid down.

What was clearly necessary for discourse to gain the deserved academic attention, was a
much larger and systematic change in the scientific world, and this came with the anti-positivist
and social constructivist philosophy. The pioneer of philosophical investigations into discourse,
Foucault, located the socially constructed reality precisely in discourse - we can only know about
the social world through personal experience, shaped by our minds, and realty is, thus, socially
constructed (Foucault, 2012).

As it is well known, Foucault’s philosophy has certain common grounds as


Wittgenstainian philosophy, especially in the part that concerns the critique of the reality: Realty
has to be taken not per se, but as created and shaped by individual’s experience (as Wittgenstein
himself criticized scientism (Benjafield, 2008)). In linguistics, this provided an excellent tool for
systematizing the study of all linguistic input that structuralist dismiss as "arbitrary" - contextual
meanings, discursive patterns, the influence of real-life and situational factors on language.
Discourse was shaped by contextual features that were not even mentioned in structural
linguistics - power relations, societal institutions and many other social factors (Foucault, 1980).

Here lies the solution to the issues structuralist linguists had with discourse and the
variation in meaning. They were connecting meaning itself to grammatical and discursive
patterns, which obviously could not yield too fruitful conclusions, instead of looking at the
broadest possible social (and physical) context to find explanations (similar criticism of
structuralist approach to communicative act can be found in Hymes, 1964). In turn, Foucault's
study object was not language, but social reality and power relations. Nevertheless, it brought
about a new empirical focus - just like Wittgenstein's view of language changed from meaning-
dependant to context-dependant, linguists now focused on exploring context-dependant language
changes, variation and even the very nature of language itself.

In conclusion, linguistics was no longer solely theoretical; it turned to empirical


investigations of language. This direction enabled the pioneer of empirical linguistics Labov to
identify how age, ethnicity, profession and gender influences language (Labov, 1972), Silverman,
Lakoff and Goffman to show how the dynamics of conversation influence linguistic production
(Silverman, 1998; Goffman, 1981; Gordon & Lakoff, 1971), leading to the systematic
description of discourse analysis as both theory and method (Stubbs, 1983).
References:

 Benjafield, J. G. (2008). Revisiting Wittgenstein on Köhler and Gestalt psychology.


Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 44(2), 99-118.
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Winston.
 Bloomfield, L. (1944). Secondary and tertiary responses to language. Language, 45-55.
 Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-
1977. Random House LLC.
 Foucault, M. (2012) [1972]. The archaeology of knowledge. Random House LLC.
 Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. University of Pennsylvania Press.
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Michigan.
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 Stubbs, M. (1983). Discourse Analysis: The sociolinguistic analysis of natural language.
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 Шарль, Б. (1961) [1909]. Французская стилистика/Шарль Балли. М.: Изд-во иностр.
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