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Friedrich Nietzsche and Ferdinand de Saussure

June 23, 2010

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) were both philosophers who attempted to create a systems which incorporated different views on the way time affects one’s perspective. Using the ideas of succession and simultaneity, Nietzsche showed how the main perspectives he identified differed in how they perceived time. The two main perspectives Nietzsche identified were a causal perspective and a functional perspective, which Nietzsche called the will to power. These pairs of concepts are similar to the distinction de Saussure found in his new approach at linguistics. Taking up where Nietzsche left off, de Saussure picks up on the ideas of  succession and simultaneity, instead calling them diachronic approaches and synchronic approaches. Both figures lived in the same area, Nietzsche living in Swiss and Italian boarding houses in 1879(1) and de Saussure living in Geneva, Switzerland. Nietzsche and de Saussure do differ in some areas, but by combining their thoughts together, one can create an interesting frame work in which to view the world.

Nietzsche is a very rich and interesting philosopher who offers very different insights and methods of philosophical pursuit. One of his most interesting insights fits well as an introduction to his system, which does not seem to have been completed. Nietzsche says, “The ‘external world’ affects us: the effect is telegraphed into our brain, there arranged, given shape and traced back to its cause: then the cause is projected and only then does the fact enter our consciousness.”(2) The idea Nietzsche is trying to put across is that our brain is always filtering our perceptions to us through its many systems. This is unavoidable, but Nietzsche points out our mistake; “the world of appearances appears to us as a cause only once ‘it’ has exerted its effect and the effect has been processed.”(3) What Nietzsche is saying here is that the brain reaches out and shapes what we see so we can better understand it and survive.

The idea that Nietzsche is trying to put across is that your brain interprets what all your organs of perception are feeling, and then you take up a perspective in which to view the world. This is kind of similar to the idea of ideology, in the way one uses it as a filter to ‘reality’. There are many different perspectives, such as a marxist, causal, functional, liberal, however Nietzsche is most interested in the functional and causal perspectives.

In Nietzsche’s day the dominant perspective was a scientific view based on causality. Nietzsche did not like the way people assumed that a causal view provided the ‘big picture.’ One of the points that Nietzsche uses against a causal perspective is that “we have absolutely no experience of a cause.”(4) Nietzsche goes on to make an interesting argument that we “have summarised our feeling of will, our ‘feeling of freedom’, our feeling of responsibility and our intention to do something into the concept of ‘cause’”(5) This is how perspectives come into play. They filter down complicated chains of thinking and reasoning into something lesser. Saying something caused us to do something is easier to explain then the true motivations, or perhaps even just easier to comprehend. One thing to remember though is that Nietzsche does not want to out right dismiss causality at all. What he believes should happen is that it is to be recognized as just one of many perspectives one can draw on depending on the goal.

Nietzsche also presented other perspectives one could take, but the two I focusing on are a succession perspective and a simultaneity perspective. This two examples are very close to what de Saussure later called diachronic and synchronic methods. In the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche writes about both perspectives, equating the succession perspective to things like causal processes and origins, whereas the simultaneity perspective relates to functionality. This is again similar, but not quite as refined as what de Saussure later presented. Nietzsche writes “the origin of the emergence of a thing and its ultimate usefulness, its practical application and incorporation into a system of ends are [cause of the coming into being] separate.”(6) Nietzsche here is noting the basic difference between the two perspectives, one takes time into account, the other one is not really concerned with time.

Nietzsche notes another difference when he says “no matter how perfectly you have understood the usefulness of any physiological organ (or legal institution, social custom, political usage, art form, or religious rite) you have not yet grasped how it emerged.”(7) The difference between the two views means that they each produce a different sort of view of a thing. Both are useful for different goals. Take for example going to the eye doctor. You sit in front of this machine which is loaded with different sets of lens to determine what helps your eyes. If you are near-sighted then you will need a different style lens than if you are far-sighted, and if you got the wrong lens you would have problems. The same is true is you try to use a functional perspective to explain origin, which is Nietzsche’s point in the quote. They are such different sorts of views that the results of those methods form truths that are somewhat independent of each other. There is a balance however, which must be sustained, because the predominance of any single view is bad.

Lastly I want to draw attention to another thing Nietzsche said which resonates very strongly in the work of de Saussure. Nietzsche says “a tradition can to this extent be a continuous chain of signs, continuously revealing new interpretations and adaptations, the causes of which need not to be connected even amongst themselves but sometimes just follow and replace another at random.”(8) That quote is very much how de Saussure would come to view language, with the changes being small and random out of the whole system.

Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist who created a very interesting style of linguistics called semiotics. Another one of de Saussure’s accomplishments was a system of language. de Saussure helped launch what would become known as the structuralist approach. However interesting semiotics would be, our main concern is de Saussure’s concepts of diachronic and synchronic. A most basically definition of the terms would be that synchronic refers to one point in time, which can be the present, and diachronic which looks at development over time. This split mirrors the distinction Nietzsche made between origin and function.

de Saussure comments more on the distinction between diachronic and synchronic when he says it is useful to compare synchrony to “the projection of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional plan. Any projection depends directly on the subject projected, but none the less differs from it.”(9) de Saussure’s metaphor is interesting, as it takes into account the way the projection would be distorted by only looking at it only at one single point in time. If you freeze a video of a group of people speaking it is quite likely that some of the faces will look funny paused, or as if the person was in pain. de Saussure adds to his discussion of synchrony something else very similar to what Nietzsche said previously, that “studying objects, that is to say diachronic events will give us no insight into synchronic states.”(10) the reasons for this have already been covered, but it is interesting the way de Saussure took Nietzsche’s more general ideas about the world and applied them specifically to language to great effect.

de Saussure discusses the diachronic method by way of example, which in this case is a game of chess. de Saussure presents three main points, which he calls diachronic facts about the game. The first fact is that “only one piece moved at a time, similarly linguistic change affect isolated elements only.”, the second fact is that  despite the first fact, “the move has repercussions on the whole system….it is impossible for the player to foresee exactly where its consequences will end.” The final rule is that “Moving a piece is something different from the proceeding state of the board and also from the state of the board which results. The change which has taken place belongs to neither. The stakes alone are important.”(11) What the rules indicate is while a game of chess is a series of moves, each move is on its own board, and the landscape changes every time a move is made. Similar to the idea that you cannot walk through the same river twice, each successive move irrevocably changes the previous board. de Saussure however does something that Nietzsche would not really appreciate, which is subordinating the diachronic to the synchronic. de Saussure says “it is clear that the synchronic point of view takes precedence over the diachronic, since for the community of language users that is the one and only reality.”(12) Although de Saussure does privilege one over the over, in the case of language it makes some sense, although there is some objections. One is that by only taking into account the present meaning of language one looses all the words who’s meaning has changed or is developing. Take the word wicked for example, is ‘good’ to be called wicked or not?

Despite the subordination of one to the other, de Saussure addresses the difference in the methods the two styles would take. de Saussure says “synchrony has only one perspective, that of language users….diachronic linguistics however needs to distinguish two perspectives, one prospective, the other retrospective.”(13) The fact that the diachronic method combines two perspectives takes most of the wind out of the sails of the previous objection, as it would take into account the changing meaning of words. There is also a problem in the way de Saussure seems to think that the synchronic is the perspective of all language users. It seems to assume that everyone holds the same views on the purpose and function of language and on the way it is developing. I think it is wrong to assume that the synchronic would be just one perspective, rather than a multitude. de Saussure adds to the difference in methods when he says “diachronic facts are individual facts. The alteration of a system takes place through events which not only lie outside it but are isolated through events which not only lie outside it, but are isolated events and form no system amoung themselves.”(14) This is once again very similar to the quote I ended the Nietzsche section with, the idea that small alterations happen to the system without creating a new system. English has changed a lot over the years, yet it is still called English because the switch is slow. A ship can have it’s damaged parts repaired without being renamed.

de Saussure also talks about the possibility of a panchronic perspective. He says it is possible, but because of the radical difference in what is being combined, the results would not be that grand. de Saussure says “from a panchronic point of view a part of a sequence is not a unit. It is just a formless mass which lacks definition.”(15) He also goes on to say “there is no value because there is no meaning. The panchronic point of view never gets to grips with specific facts of language structure.”(16) This kind of result does not seem so surprising when you take into account the fundamental differences between the two methods. It is like trying to create an extremely high performing sports car with only green technology. What I mean to say is that the combination of view points is doomed to fail from the beginning. As Nietzsche has shown before, there needs to be balance amoung the perspectives, and that would include not mixing them together to dilute the parts.

The last main difference de Saussure  addresses is the difference between synchronic linguistics and diachronic linguistics. For de Saussure “synchronic linguistics would be concerned with psychological connexions between coexisting items constituting a system.”(17) Diachronic linguistics would be concerned with “connexions between sequences of items not perceived by the same collective consciousness which replace one another without themselves constituting a system.”(18) The difference reflects the fact that de Saussure  privileges synchronic over diachronic, which denies that there can be a diachronic system.

This is the type of chauvinism that Nietzsche argued against. de Saussure  takes Nietzsche’s problem with the over-privileging of the causal perspective, turning it on its head, makes it so the only system is that which can be found in what Nietzsche identified as the functional perspective. de Saussure would  do well to take a more Nietzschean perspective, and build a balance around the diachronic synchronic mix, as well as attempting to find new perspectives which help shed more light on the subject. It is somewhat useful to take an idea from Gadamer, which is the idea of horizons. A horizon is basically the limit to how far the eye can see. What Gadamer’s point is that if you include the views of more people, or to phrase it differently, their perspectives, you have fill in the horizon, and push it take, as what you can ‘see’ has just expanded.
de Saussure does a very good job of picking up where Nietzsche left off in distinguishing the difference between diachronic and synchronic, which mirrored Nietzsche’s concepts of a succession perspective and a simultaneity perspective. Only problem however is the way he does not balance the perspectives. Had de Saussure done this, his system may have gotten better insights from a diachronic perspective if it had not been subordinated.
Nietzsche’s perspectivism is a very rich source of methods and ideas on which to look at the world. Taking into account his idea that our brains interpret things before we even realise it, to the fact that we have to balance our perspectives and make sure we choose the appropriate one for the appropriate time. The fact that de Saussure used some of Nietzsche’s concepts but still fell short of a Nietzschean system  cannot be considered a fault of his, as Nietzsche never really finished his system the way he would have liked, plus Nietzsche also hid what he was really saying. By closely studying Nietzsche one can find a new perspective that is refreshing to consider next to the common analytic/continual debate, as well as providing an opportunity to overcome it.


1. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Writings from the Late Notebooks. Ed. Rudiger Bittner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xxxvi

2. Late Notebooks 34[54]

3. Late Notebooks 34[54]

4. Late Notebooks 14[98]

5. Late Notebooks 14[98]

6. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Nietzsche Reader. Ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Pp 416

7. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Nietzsche Reader. Ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Pp 416

8. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Nietzsche Reader. Ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Pp 416

9.   de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 87

10.   de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 87

11. de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 88

12. de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 89

13. de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 89

14. de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 93

15. de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 94

16. de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 94

17. de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 98

18. de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966. pp 98

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