The Flournoy affair : an inquiry into Ferdinand de Saussure’s analyses of glossolalia

  • Elliot Cooper

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The sources for Ferdinand de Saussure’s thought on the psychology of language are few, and there has been little consensus over their interpretation. Yet, there is one group of writings by Saussure on language and mental operations that has been largely excluded from debate. From 1896 to 1899, the experimental psychologist Théodore Flournoy called on Saussure’s expertise in a study of a case of somnambulism with glossolalia. The subject of Flournoy’s study was Catherine-Élise Müller, who believed that she could communicate with the spirits of the dead, even if it required speaking a language she had never learned. In her somnambulist state she sometimes claimed to make contact with a few inhabitants of 15th century India. On these occasions ,the sitters at her séances witnessed her speak and sing in sounds which, she said, were Sanskrit. Flournoy found Müller’s explanations charmingly ludicrous. Nonetheless, as Saussure himself was to find, something in the speech she did produce seemed disturbingly like the Sanskrit Flournoy had himself been exposed to in the undergraduate unit he took on the subject. But how was she able to speak a language without the usual requisite knowledge? Saussure began his analyses of Müller’s utterances with the view to discover what, if any, Sanskrit they contained. But his line of thought soon turned a corner when he began to consider what kind of mental operation would be capable of assembling the sound combinations that Müller produced. Flournoy found the linguist’s ideas to be good evidence for his theory of Müller’s condition, and quoted large sections from Saussure’s analyses in the resulting book of the study, Des Indes à la planète Mars: étude sur un cas de somnambulisme avec glossolalie (1900). Those analyses – a series of twelve documents in the form of letters and other hand-written notes that Saussure passed on to Flournoy – have been published in Théodore et Léopold: De Théodore Flournoy à la psychoanalyse (1986),a hard-to-come-by book by Théodore Flournoy’s grandson, Olivier Flournoy. The present study offers all twelve of these documents in full English translation. Of course, the fact that the father of modern linguistics spent valuable time attending séances, and analysing the seemingly meaningless speech of one individual, has attracted some attention. The majority of commentators who have expressed an opinion on Saussure’s analyses of glossolalia – Todorov (1977), Certeau (1980), Yaguello (1984) and Gadet (1986) – have found them useful as a way of creating a link between Saussure’s general linguistics and symbolism. By arguing that Saussure should have recognised a ‘logic of symbolism’ in Müller’s glossolalia, these authors claim to have discovered a point of failure in his thought. But that ‘logic of symbolism’ is at odds with what Saussure did have to say on symbols in his later analysis of German myths. By framing Saussure’s analyses of glossolalia as an irrational display of sympathy for the scientifically disreputable topic of spiritism, they have long prevented any sustained investigation into this highly interesting episode of Saussure’s career.. Should we interpret Saussure’s participation in Flournoy’s study as a moment of poor discretion, or recognize it as an important event in the history of ideas? Recent accounts by Fehr (1995), Gasparov (2012), Joseph (2012) and Feshchenko and Lao (2013) show that there is more to Saussure’s ideas about Müller’s attempts to speak Sanskrit than had previously been suggested. Though these three treatments are promising, the question of the value of Saussure’s analyses of glossolalia is still in abeyance, because no one has submitted the ideas they hold to the kind of close consideration that befits a thinker of Ferdinand de Saussure’s stature. In a close reading of Saussure’s analyses of glossolalia, I argue that they contain valuable information about the development of psychological ideas that would later be presented in Saussure’s Cours de lingistique générale (1916). I offer two examples of how Müller’s glossolalia provided Saussure with a stimulus for thinking differently about the mental operations behind language. First, I discuss Saussure’s methodological strategy in his analyses, and its relation to his famous dual synchronic and diachronic linguistic methods. Second, I discuss how Müller’s glossolalia helped him develop what he would later call, ‘the language mechanism’. Saussure’s application of his ideas, I argue, allowed him to think more concretely about these psychological aspects of his general linguistic theory. This study finds that Saussure’s analyses of glossolalia are of exceptional value in understanding the early workings out of his key psychological ideas, including synchrony, diachrony and the language mechanism. With a close reading of the primary texts, this study contributes a new understanding of some much overlooked documents, and sheds light on the psychological underpinnings of the Cours.
Date of Award2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Canberra
SupervisorPaul Magee (Supervisor) & Jen Webb (Supervisor)

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