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Émile Benveniste

(1902—1976)


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(1902–76)

Frenchlinguist, generally regarded as one of the main precursors to structuralism. Born in Aleppo in Northern Syria, then a French Mandate, Benveniste's family, who were Sephardic Jews, sent him to Marseilles to attend rabbinical school, but one of the scholars there, recognizing his talent, suggested he go to the Sorbonne instead to study Indo-European linguistic forms under Antoine Meillet (a former student of Ferdinand de Saussure). The connection proved fortuitous and Benveniste flourished. His early work was highly specialist and for that reason little known outside the closed circles of linguistics, but it was distinguished enough to see him elevated to a chair at the Collège de France at the comparatively young age of 35. Although he worked in the shadows for most of his academic career, Benveniste was propelled into the spotlight with the publication in 1966 of Problèmes de linguistique générale, translated as Problems in General Linguistics (1971). The two doyens of Parisian structuralism, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan recognized him as an important ally in the development of their projects, thus encouraging Benveniste to broaden his range of interests and cease to write exclusively for linguists (who ignored him in any case). Benveniste's work set him apart from other linguists of his generation for his willingness to embrace ideas drawn from analytic philosophy at a time when French thought was dominated by the work of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and for his interest in the problematic of the subject. Benveniste broke once and for all with the idea that language is a signal system by arguing that bees do not have language because while a bee can report back to the hive what it has seen, it cannot use an intermediary to do the reporting on its behalf; language, for Benveniste, arises only with the possibility of reported speech (a notion that is central to Gilles Deleuze's theory of literature). By the same token, if language is not purely a signal system, then there must be a dimension to it that exceeds the basic requirements of signalling—a dimension often referred to as the poetic. In order to grasp this, Benveniste distinguished between the énoncé (statement) and the énonciation (utterance), or to put it more simply the thing said and the way it is said. This in turn created a logical paradox that would prove central to Lacan's reformulation of psychoanalysis, namely that the ‘I’ of the statement is not the same as the ‘I’ of the utterance, that in effect the ‘I’ is always an ‘other’.

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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