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Chiasmi International

Volume 15, 2013

Existence, Diacritics, Animality

Emmanuel Alloa
Pages 167-181

The Diacritical Nature of Meaning
Merleau-Ponty With Saussure

“What we have learned from Saussure” affirms Merleau-Ponty “is that, taken singly, signs do not signify anything, and that each one of them does not so much express a meaning as mark a divergence of meaning between itself and other signs.” While it has often been stressed that Merleau-Ponty was arguably among the earliest philosophical readers of Saussure, the real impact of this reading on Merleau-Ponty’s thinking has rarely been assessed in detail. By focusing on the middle period – the years between the publication of the Phenomenology of Perception and the abandonment of the book project The Prose of the World – a special interest in language and its ideality becomes all the more evident. Now this period is crucial for understanding the turn of the later years: similarly to Saussure, who shifted the problem of meaning from a problem of referentiality to an issue of self-differentiation of the linguistic field, Merleau-Ponty shifts his account of perception from a relationship based on sensory subjects and perceived objects to an immanent differentiation of the sensible world. The genesis of an articulated world can be conceptualized with the experience of children’s language acquisition and the phenomenon of “deflation.” At a certain point in her development, the child interrupts her incessant babbling and learns to shape pauses and silences, which are the precondition for meaningful sounds. Learning how to speak – as it were – would thus be learning how not to speak. The child may only enter a specific language by means of a phonematic restriction; to become a member of a language community is to lose the capacity to speak all languages.

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