Form in Language: Wittgenstein and Structuralism

Arild Utaker


What kind of object is language? With this question we should aim at an explanation of language – its conditions and causes. This does not mean that the answer has to be naturalistic. In speaking of noises and ink on paper naturalism is as blind as "transcendentalism" to the specificity of language and of linguistic perception. Thus, my aim in this paper is to indicate a way of explaining language by, at the same time, explaining its irreducibility. "Form in language" or "linguistic form" are the terms that – hopefully – will carry my arguments, while my doubts and hopes will be connected to both Wittgenstein and structuralism.
In Wittgenstein's thinking on language there is no concept of linguistic form. Instead we have logical form (and "logical grammar"), language-games and rules. Besides, Tractatus introduced the peculiar way of speaking of language as something general (by having a logical syntax independent of specific languages as for instance sanskrit or urdu). This also gave the subsequent alternative of speaking of occurrences of language-use as if there were no different languages involved. Did the shopkeeper understand english or did he only understand german?
Structuralism can develop a concept of linguistic form that is independent of the concept of rules and of codes; that is as a way of thinking of linguistic form as a "gestalt" not reducible to its elements. Second, linguistic form cannot be understood as something independent of linguistic expression and content. I doubt we can find something like this within linguistics. One of the reasons is that form is commonly thought of as a product of a formalization. Another reason is that language – in spite of Saussure – is seen from the point of view of the speaker. The consequence; a concept of form justifying the distinction between invariant and variant. Against this, I will argue that in language there are only variations and relations between variations. Here there is a use for Wittgenstein's concept of "family-resemblances" and for his hint that a grammar is arbitrary. There is no patriarch or code that determines the identity of a member of our family. Or if we think there is, it is a politically determined identity.
In this way I will try to open the field for a concept of linguistic form as something local, historical (subject to change) and linked to the specific
materiality of language. Something between a picture and a ruler. Something that is neither analogical nor digital. Something that has nothing to do with Hjelmslev's notion of a system under a linguistic sequence. It has rather to be understood as the organization of the sequence with respect to its own temporality. As a form – gestalt – this is of course something that is primarily shown, i. e. perceived. What we hear we cannot write about in the same manner as we hear it.


philosophy; 20th century philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; structuralism; linguistic form; language use; linguistic expression; language; linguistic materiality

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