How to reconcile Luhmann with Saussure: The principle of intrasystemic differentiation as a basis for a neo-structuralist approach

2021. №1, 121-141

Suren T. Zolyan
Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, Kaliningrad, Russia; Institute of Information on Social Sciences, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia; Institute of Philosophy, Sociology and Law, National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, Yerevan, Armenia;


The notion of system is fundamental to linguistics and has been elaborated thoroughly from various perspectives. At the same time, linguistics is still largely unaware of the development of this notion in the neighboring areas, including general theory of systems and Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems, which offers a discussion of language, its organization and its functions. Luhmann’s perspective on language remains insufficiently taken into account because of its peculiarity. We attempt to show that despite his polemics with Saussure and the basic principles of structural linguistics, Luhmann reproduces these principles, while providing them with new features. This concerns in the first place the principle of differentiation. Luhmann’s theory enables a new perspective on such central issue in linguistics as functioning of linguistic system in connection to mind and communication, and his understanding of system can substantially deepen our understanding of language as a system — not a system of signs, but that of relations and operations. Luhmann’s approach makes the notion of systemicity multi-dimensional and dynamic by transforming paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations into operations. Extrapolation of his ideas makes it possible to propose a more adequate view on the levels of language organization and overcome the dualism of synchronic and diachornic description. It opens the way to neo-structural linguistics, which will bring the traditions of systemic language description in the spirit of Sassure and Hjelmslev to a new level, and also actualize some ideas that found no place in the Sassure’s Course.

For citation:

Zolyan S. T. How to reconcile Luhmann with Saussure: Principle of intrasystemic differentiation as a basis for neo-sctructuralist approach. Voprosy Jazykoznanija, 2021, 1: 121–141.


The research was supported by Russian Science Foundation (project No. 17-18-01536).