Saussure’s Semiotics and Plato’s Ineffable Forms

In the early 20th century, Saussure’s theory of linguistics was published. It delineated the gap that lies between what we say and what is – that is, the relationship between language and the reality it attempts to describe. Saussure’s theory of signs divided words and meanings into two; the signifier (the word) and the signified (the meaning). The relationship between the two is arbitrary. The meaning, or signified, does not exist concretely within reality, but is rather a space in meaning that is defined by absence. For example, take the word door. When identifying an object such as a door, we tend to think we grasp its type through similarities common across all doors. However, if we deconstruct this process of reasoning it becomes more complicated. A door is usually wood, it usually has a handle, it opens from the side – yet this description is ambiguous, and applies to a number of other household objects, like dressers and armoires. A window, which is glass and also can open from the side, in this system of deduction may mistakenly be classified as a door, and vice versa. Instead, Saussure argues that words function through a negative system of definition. A door is a door because it is not a window, or a wall, or a cat or a dog or any other signified space of meaning. This methodology of defining by what is not allows us to categorize new and ambiguous objects with relative ease, and allows vastly disparate objects to be collected together despite their physical or abstract differences.


The dissimilarities between Saussure and Plato are extreme. However, Plato does, in places, prefigure Saussure in the Republic, recognising and addressing the separation of language and reality through his theory of the forms. Plato’s true forms and their direct connection to the words that describe them – beauty and goodness – are diametric opposites to Saussure’s theory of definition by absence, but both philosopher and linguist agree on a conceptual space of meaning that rests above language. This metaphysical realm that Plato attempts to reveal in the Republic is, by its nature, ineffable. As a result, the text remains incomplete, as the reader is led to the brink of a second, true reality and left hanging without resolution. Plato cannot take use any further. Language cannot convey the full truth of the form of the good, the form of the beautiful. It is our mind’s own challenge to transcend this language, to grasp the meaning of knowledge, and to understand ‘what is’. But as Saussure reveals, the question of what is isn’t quite as simple as a singular meaning.

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