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Elmar Holenstein's phenomenological philosophy of language


Simone Aurora(University of Padova)Lorenzo Cigana(University of Copenhagen)

pp. 1


1Elmar Holenstein’s original contributions to philosophy of language are the result both of a lively career that was punctuated by close friendships and fertile collaborations with the likes of Roman Jakobson, Jan Patočka, J. H. Greenberg, or Hans-Georg Gadamer on the one hand, and of “scientific activities in semiotics, phenomenology and structural linguistics [that] show an extraordinary coherence, a continuous red line” (Holenstein interview, infra) on the other. Produced over a forty years period during which paradigms and dominant research programmes came and went, the papers collected in this volume testify both to Holenstein’s attentiveness to the leading scholars and ideas of his time and to his capacity to put forward a strong, idiosyncratic standpoint that does much more than provide a mere theoretical or historical synthesis of the traditions he engaged with. The scattered, long-drawn and exegetive nature of the development of Holenstein’s thought on language also means, however, that it was never received and interpreted as a coherent whole in its own right, but always in piece-meal fashion, as an array of notes and comments made against the wildly diverging intellectual backgrounds and changing priorities of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

2In this light, the intention and justification of the present collection of essays – almost all of which have already appeared in English1 – is to provide the scientific community with the means both to overcome the dispersed nature of Holenstein’s contributions – which lie scattered across various books and scholarly journals –, and to provide a more coherent, systematic picture of his thought to contemporary readers, which can hopefully allow it to grow beyond its current status as a series of historical commentaries. The present selection of texts was suggested by the author himself yet does not depend on extrinsic factors or arbitrary choice: it is motivated rather by their intrinsic consistency and thematic unity. Indeed, all the papers build upon a number of “invariants” that characterise Holenstein’s historico-theoretical research and give it its orginality:

  1. a rediscovery of the phenomenological memory of structuralism,
  2. a fully intertwined approach between phenomenology and semiotics,
  3. a focus on the cognitive underpinnings of language,
  4. an endorsement of a form of universalism in linguistic research,
  5. a criticism of linguistic relativity.

3By tracking these “invariants” in the texts that compose this volume, the reader will discover not only a conceptual apparatus that provides effective tools for dealing with contemporary discussions on central issues such as the structure of language, the nature of the sign, the functioning of cognition or the role of perceptual experience, but also a set of original ideas and theoretical proposals that suggest viable solutions to the above-mentioned discussions. All these solutions revolve around a precise philosophical idea or methodological approach, namely phenomenological structuralism, which emerges as a “Gestalt quality” of sorts out of the present collection of papers.

4The texts are arranged following a chronological order and cover a time range that goes from 1973 to 2007. This structure has been chosen to emphasize the evolution of Elmar Holenstein’s philosophical insights, which emerged in a constant dialogue not only with the relevant philosophical debates of their time but also with historical advancements in scientific research and technology (see, for instance, the shift of focus from cybernetics to cognitive science in Holenstein’s most recent writings). At the same time and notwithstanding their differing date of publication, all the papers that the reader will find in this book display a common theoretical core that consists in the combination of the above-mentioned five “invariants”. Accordingly, an alternative, thematic order could also have been possible. It would take the following shape:

  • phenomenological structuralism (Holenstein 1973; 1975a; 1977; 1984);
  • phenomenology and semiotics (Holenstein 1974; 1975b; 1979; 1980b);
  • cognitive underpinnings of language (Holenstein 1980a, 2008b);
  • universals research (Holenstein 1985);
  • linguistic relativism (Holenstein 2008a).

5Although this thematic order has the undeniable value of highlighting Holenstein’s specific areas of interest in a clear-cut way, allowing for a more selective and oriented approach to his writings, it nevertheless also comes with two main weak points that make a chronological order much more preferable: 1) such a categorisation is not applicable to all the papers of the book, as the interview conducted by Roberto Benatti in 1991 (Holenstein 1992) is too general, covering the whole range of Holenstein’s scientific interests, while the paper on Frege (Holenstein 1983) is, so to say, too specific, even if can be included into Holenstein’s general frame of reference; 2) it fails to emphasize the fact that, being invariants, the five mentioned topics resonate in all the texts, albeit in different degrees.

6Let us now take a closer look at the five key strands of Holenstein’s thought.

Phenomenological structuralism

7In one of his most well-known statements, Holenstein claims that “phenomenology constitutes the historical and material condition of possibility of linguistic structuralism” (Holenstein 1976).2 This affirmation is substantiated not only through a philologically accurate reconstruction of the historical relationships between Husserl’s work and the Prague Linguistic Circle, but also by means of a thorough theoretical analysis. According to Holenstein, phenomenology has to be understood as an attitude “characterized by the rejection of the physicalistic explanation of mental and cultural phenomena. Instead of explaining these phenomena physicalistically by means of postulated physical (physiological and neurological) entities, phenomenology “reduces” research to the meaning and structures inherent to these phenomena and to examining to what extent they are intuitively accessible to a subject” (Holenstein 1977, 155). For its part, structuralism builds upon the “fundamental thesis that the objects with which the various sciences concern themselves do not represent an accidental agglomeration; that, on the contrary, they represent a unity which is based on the specific nature of the relations that bind the individual elements together. Therefore, the task that present itself is the description of these relations” (Holenstein 1975a, 84). Given these definitions,the unifying link between phenomenology and structuralism is the fact that both “proceed from a common primary phenomenon, the phenomenon of relationship” (Holenstein 1973, 30). itssemiotic dimension, i.e.the study of language in its different manifestations, from grammar to phonology, from poetic versification to non-linguistic pictorial systems.

8Crucially, according to Holenstein, the strong link between phenomenology and structuralism is materialized by the influence between two of the most representatives figures of these traditions, Edmund Husserl and Roman Jakobson, the latter having not merely applied but further developed what the former had just sketched on a general base:

“Starting from Husserl’s formal definition of relations that are constitutive of a whole, Jakobson has succeeded in uncovering universal laws underlying the constitution of language and in particular its phonological level. This perhaps most consistent and remarkable application of Husserl’s “theory of wholes and parts” certainly merits attention from phenomenological philosophy since it refers to an area which Husserl himself proposed exploring in his Logical Investigations” (Husserl 1977, 147).

9Indeed, Holenstein even suggests employingthe textual articulation of Husserl’s Investigations as a heuristic rationale to pinpoint the interactions between undercurrents of both phenomenology and structuralism:

[…] the so-called Münich-Göttingen school […] focuses attention in particular on the Prolegomenaand the Second Investigation[…]. The second trend, Transcendental Phenomenology, is the product of the […] Fifth and Sixth Investigations[…]. The third trend, East European Structural Linguistics, dealt in particular with the Third and Forth Investigations of the Logische Untersuchungen, that is, with the studies of the formal relations between the part and the whole and of the idea of a universal grammar together with the introductory First Investigationinto expression and meaning” (Holenstein 1975a, 72–73).

10Understood as two synergetic approaches, phenomenology and structural linguistics “agree in assuming the basic law of Gestalt theory, that every given is ‘field-conditioned’, and can be understood only through consideration of its positionality in a referential context” (Holenstein 1973, 21).

11It appears, however, that this remark on Gestaltwas not “gestaltically” applied by Holenstein, since he tends to draw attention only on a specific trend within the broader and richer movement of structural linguistic, which in its turn representsjust one aspect of structuralism. And indeed the attentive reader may think that a somewhat fluid distinction, if not a partial overlap between “Prague structuralism” and “linguistic structuralism” is at work here. As a matter of fact, such overlap is less due to Holenstein’s generally careful use of those labels than to their rather intrinsic vagueness; and yet, he apparently omitsto explicitly point out the connection between phenomenologically-oriented structuralism (Prague structuralism) and other instantiations of both structuralism and structural linguistics, so that the brief mentions to other representative figures3 of the different components of this trend (psychology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, semio-linguistics, epistemology) do not suffice in giving an organic view of potential content proximities between such components. Provocatively speaking: is structuralism a whole or an aggregate?

12The real risk of not taking into account the complexity of structuralismliesnot so much in aninability to provide a complete picture of it – which in any casewas never Holenstein’s purpose – than in an exaggeration ofthe differences between these components, adopting, for instance, a much too sharp, binary (and thus possibly reductive) distinction between a “phenomenological structuralism” and a “logical one” (cf. 1987, 18). In fact, this kind of partitioning seems to be consistent with other similar classifications, for instance the one proposed by Dosse 1997:

scientifistic structuralism is represented in particular by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Algirdas Julien Greimas, and Jacques Lacan, and simultaneously involved anthropology, semiotics, and psychoanalysis. Contiguous with this search for the Law was a more supple, undulating, and shimmering structuralism to be found particularly in the work of Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov, and Michel Serres, and which we might call semiological structuralism. There is also, finally, a historicized or epistemic structuralism. The work of Louis Althusser, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and, more broadly, the third generation of the Annales falls into this group (Dosse 1997, xxiii–xxiv).

13These labels and demarcation lines have been largely abandoned by recent scholarship, since the current interpretation of structuralism is more prone to acknowledge its internal complexity by employing the unity-in-diversity-connoting plural-form (“structuralisms”).4In this perspective, Holenstein’s hermeneutic choice is even more striking if we consider the historical and theoretical connections between the Prague and Copenhagen approaches, as well as the undeniable role that Hjelmslev’s terminology played in the constitution of linguistic and semiotic structuralism as such. Indeed, Holenstein himself draws from a repertoire of notions also linked to a Hjelmslevian background (like “paradigmatic” and “syntagmatic”, “commutation”, “expression” and “content”, “form” and “substance”, “kenematik” and “plerematic”, “immanence”), yet never ventures to situate Copenhagen’s structuralism within the framework of phenomenological structuralism. Hints in Holenstein’s papers seem to suggest a difficulty in dealing with the Danish tradition – or even with the Saussurean sources – as his words often merge with Jakobson’s own perspective.5 By emphasising what the author believes to be Prague’s specific contributions, affinities between structuralism (as a whole) and phenomenology are obscured. For instance, the idea of an Aufhebung of the synchrony-diachrony opposition was explicitly formulated by Hjelmslev as early as 1934 (cf. Hjelmslev 1972a); he even struggled to identify a principle of internal, morphogenetic causality6 closely resembling the “immanent causality that is distinguished from the mechanistic form” that Holenstein highlights (6, 151). On the same ground, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the need for a panchronic analysis of language was put forward by Saussure himself. The assumption according to which a “systematic, structural treatment is no longer confined to the synchronic dimension, as it was in the early phase of phenomenology and in Saussure’s Cours” (6, 151) can thus be quite misleading. Furthermore, as Herman Parret has shown (cf. Parret 1987), a chiastic relation can be identified in the development of the theory of markedness,7 opposing Hjelmslev, who tapped some of Marty’s insights, and Jakobson, who placed himself in Husserl’s footsteps. By comparing these two trends, resonances between Jakobson’s Zur Struktur des russischen Verbums (Jakobson 1932) and Hjelmslev’s La catégorie des cas [1935–1937] (cf. Hjelmslev 1972b) become apparent. In fact, both Jakobson’s and Hjelmslev’s models stress the idea of a “phenomeonological theory of opposition”, as opposed to a purely logical one (as Holenstein has it; cf.), along with an impulse towards a “decentering of the Ego”. Once fully taken into account, such perspective could easily show to what extent Ricoeur’s label of structuralism (a “Kantianism without transcendental subject”), is inapplicable to both approaches.

14Of course all these elements might just show the need for a revised interpretation of such a theoretical network. Yet this renewed interpretation could be carried out by extending Holenstein’s idea beyond its original perspective– the line connecting Husserl’s phenomenology and Prague structuralism – to structuralism as a whole. His remarks could form a set of coordinates enabling affinities, proximities and differences between structural and phenomenological trends to be mapped on a broader scale. One of the possible outcomes of such mapping could be the identification of a non-gestaltic (!) constructivist trend, that – far from acknowledging the “phenomenon of relation” (Holenstein 1, 30) as an evidence – builds upon the need of having such insight constituted as a methodological principle.

Phenomenology and semiotics

15Holenstein’s phenomenological approach to semiotics is motivated, to a large extent, by a general theoretical project that calls for a “linguistic-semiotic transformation of transcendental philosophy” (Holenstein 1977, 158). This call itself can be understood from two different viewpoints:

“1) as evidence that besides the categories taken over from logic, there are other categories that are not logical […] but rather grammatical in nature; 2) as evidence that the table of categories itself originates not so much in logic as in language” (Holenstein 1977, 158).

16In this respect, the philosophical recovery of a theory of association, although one deprived of all its psychologistic elements, becomes a necessary precondition8. Holenstein identifies three basic principles of association: similarity – which in the “theory of the two axes of language”, endorsed by Kruszewski, Saussure and Jakobson, is connected with the paradigmatic axis –, contiguity– which is related with the syntagmatic axis – and contrast, to which, according to Holenstein, a prominence must be given, since it represents a “latent prerequisite for the significative, selective, and combinatorial operations” (Holenstein 1974, 123) that are at work in language. Indeed, opposition, which is considered to be one of the most important discoveries of structural linguistics, derives from the three principles of associations and, specifically, from contrast, viewed as a primary phenomenon. As mentioned, these principles are not to be understood as psychological principles, bur rather as transcendental-phenomenological ones, that is as

principles that are just as immanent to as they are constitutive for the objects of consciousness. As universal principles of consciousness they make themselves felt in various outgrowths of consciousness, in perception, in thought, in language, etc., in accordance with the nature of their respective objects (Holenstein 1974, 126).

17The refusal of empiricist, atomistic and psychologistic theories of association and the correlative adoption of a Gestalt-oriented framework 9 is a qualifying feature of phenomenological structuralism as a general philosophical paradigm.10 Indeed, according to this view

form is intrinsic to the most primitive sensory data, even if it is only the formal relation of difference between figure and background. It is not the result of an interpretative act. The data of a field of perception refer to each other intentionally through the associative relations of similarity, contiguity and contrast. On the basis of this network of references, they form manifold phenomenal entities. Associative entities are not semiotic relations; they only constitute the basis for potential semiotic relations (Holenstein 1975b, 155).

18Originating from these Gestalt-phenomenological associations, semiotic systems can be classified on the basis of the functions borne by their discrete elements, where a function is defined as the relationship that obtains between a part and the whole of which it is a part (cf. 1981, 5). Accordingly, it is possible to distinguish between simple semiotic systems – characterized by monofunctionalism – in which each element has both a univocal function and a clear-cut and rigid relation with the whole in which it is embedded, and complex semiotic systems – characterized by multifunctionalism – in which each element has more than one function, and displays a variable and fluid relation with the whole in which it is embedded. While “monofunctionalism is typical of machines, of highly devel­oped biological organs, of formalised languages and – strikingly – of an early stage in the development of children’s intelligence” (Holenstein 1981, 26), multifunctionalism is a distinctive feature of natural languages.

19Indeed, “for every linguistic unity a distinction can be made between an invariant core-meaning and variable context-meanings” (Holenstein 1981, 34), depending on the multiple relations that a linguistic unity can potentially undertake: “‘Coach’ has quite different connotations when uttered in a station and when uttered in a garage, although the two referents have many common properties, a fact that is decisive for the use of a term. The context determines which are the connotations which the core-meaning acquires” (Holenstein 1981, 34). Although multifunctionality is a defining quality of natural language as such, since it is an authomatic consequence of its mechanism, it is in poetry that this semiotic property is the most apparent. This explains why Holenstein, in the wake of Jakobson, devotes himself to an in-depth analysis of poetic texts.

The cognitive underpinnings of language

20In Holenstein’s view, arguing for a “linguistic-semiotic transformation of transcendental philosophy” does not require the endorsement of any form of “linguistic turn” in philosophy, according to which language should become “the primary object of a prima philosophia”, being it “constitutive for our knowledge of the world” (Holenstein 1980a, 107). Indeed, while language represents an essential tool for human knowledge – since it represents the most powerful and complex semiotic system – it cannot be said to be constitutive for human knowledge – since language is not something primitive, inasmuch as it is based on non verbal and pre-semiotic performances, which Holenstein names “cognitive underpinnings of language”. This means that, according to Holenstein and against the main tenets of old and new versions of linguistic relativism, language and cognition do not coincide. Holenstein’s position can be summarized as follows: 1. Basic mental experiences, i.e. elementary cognitive operations (for instance, perception) are based on pre-linguistic patterns ruled by Gestalt-phenomenological principles of association; 2. Complex mental experiences, i.e. higher-rank cognitive operations (for instance, inference) are semiotic systems ruled by structural laws; 3. Among these semiotic systems, natural language is the most powerful, since it can translate all other semiotic systems in its own verbal code. Thus, logic categories derive from linguistic categories – and this is the core idea of the “linguistic-semiotic transformation of transcendental philosophy” – but linguistic categories are note primitive and derive, in turn, from cognitive categories.

21Understood in this way, a linguistic-semiotic oriented transcendental philosophy is

concerned with the reconstruction of cognitive achievements that are preseupposed by such high-level phenomena as predication, dialogue, and linguistic competence in general. A verbal event has been transcendentally justified when it has been shown to be founded in more elementary cognitive achievements that necessarily precede it, and finally in cognitive phenomena in terms of whose structure it is intuitively transparent that they do not in turn refer to a foundation in preceding phenomena (Holenstein 1980a, 125).

22A terminological clarification must be made at this point, concerning the expression “cognitive”. Indeed, Holenstein’s focus on the “cognitive underpinnings of language” does not involve any form of reductionism. From the point of view of an “intolerant” naturalist, who claims that “there are only physical and biological phenomena and in addition semiotic phenomena of the kind which the computer sciences address, but no psychic phenomena such as colour sensations and conscious intentions” (Holenstein 2014, 261–262), the term “cognitive” would point to those mental phenomena that are located in brain and that can be investigated only by means of “categories, ontological assumptions and methods that are acceptable in the natural sciences” (Holenstein 2014, 251).

23On the contrary, Holenstein means by “cognitive” something which is categorially different from “physical”. “The analysis of the intelligent operations of human beings and machines with cognitive categories – he observes –“is radically different from the physical analysis of processes in which they are instantiated” (Holenstein 2008b, 10). In this sense, Holenstein’s investigations need to be considered as fundamental not so much for the project of a “naturalization of phenomenology” – according to which “phenomenological data can be adequately reconstructed on the basis of the main tenets of Cognitive Science, and then integrated into the natural sciences” (Petitot, Varela, Pachoud & Roy 1999, 48) – as for the discipline of Cognitive semiotics. It is no accident that Holenstein “is probably the first scholar to suggest the designation Cognitive Semiotics for a preferential project in contemporary research on meaning” (Brandt 2003. Cf. also Brandt 2010). Indeed, while “cognitive science has from its beginnings in the 1950s adopted an explicitly physicalist (computational and/or neuroscientific) take on mind, connecting to the humanities quite selectively and with strong reductionist tendencies, viewing mind and meaning as ultimately physical phenomena”, cognitive semiotics is “considerably more pluralist in its ontological and methodological commitments, and thus, with a firmer foot in the humanities than cognitive science” (Zlatev 2015, 1044). The following negative definition of what a cognitive semotician can usefully be applied to Holenstein’s scientific attitude:

If semiotics studies meaning, and cognitive science studies the mind, then cognitive semiotics is the study of mind and meaning — the way meaning exists and works in human minds (and ideally, in animal minds in general). By contrast, if meaning in the semiotic sense is considered a part of inanimate nature, such as solar systems, or a part of living beings that do not have minds, such as botanical beings, or a part of genetics, such as DNA sequences, as it occurs in many versions of bio-semiotics, then such a framework is not cognitive semiotics (it may instead be some variant of bio-semiotics). Furthermore, if minds are considered to only consist of sensory perceptions or of content that cannot be described, because it does not offer any stability or regularity, then that framework is not cognitive semiotics (it may instead be some variant of behavioral science or analytic philosophy). If someone believes that there is no meaning and there are no minds, but that there still are signs, signifiers, signifieds, and semiotic functions, then that person is definitely not a cognitive semiotician (Brandt 2011, 49).

24In this respect, one of Holenstein’s finest contributions is probably the setting out of a clear, integrated three-layers model of human experience, which can be sketched as follows:

Levels Principal Phenomena Method of Inquiry Scientific Discipline
1. Cognitive Contrast Experimental Cognitive science
2. Semiotic Opposition Structural Semiotics
3. Phenomenological Intention Hermeneutic Phenomenology

25This model is defined as integrated in the sense that : 1) no rigid demarcations are possible between the different levels, since there are overlapping cases within the wide range of possibilities that pertain to human experience (for instance, natural languages are primarily semiotic systems and work according to structural oppositions but, nonetheless, they are also intentional instruments designed to express meanings); 2) human experience is the organic outcome of the complex intertwining of allthese three levels.

Cognitive universals and linguistic relativism

26The above schema highlightsanother lasting interest in Holenstein’s research, closely connected to the former one, namely the relationship and mutual influences between linguistic, cognitive and perceptive organisation (cf. Holenstein 2008a, 1). Holenstein’s main argument is that each of these three dimensions has its own immanent, not mutually reductible architecture, so that the twin issues of “linguistic relativity”, concerning the alleged dependence of both perception and thought from language, and of “cognitive universals”, as the set of constraints that can be mainly (but not only) explained viahuman neurobiological endowment (cf. Holenstein 2008a, 5), find both a redefinition and a reciprocal limitation. Indeed, Holenstein’s general attitude toward this double question canbe resumed as follows: the issue of relativism concerns the boundaries between language, perception and cognition, whereas the research of universals deals with the internal constitution of each of these three domains, built on regularities which cannot be regarded as logicalanymore. Since the task of semiotic phenomenologyis to give a coordinated, fully integrated account of the layers sketched above, such integration can only be attained by postulating a “material connection” (457), thus an empirical one, between proprieties manifested in each layer. This means that the very notion of an “absolute universal”, typical of traditional linguistic and philosophical research, is rejected and substituted with the more appropriate and modern notion of “quasi-universal”, based on statistical frequency or implicational laws (cf. 1985, 451):

Traditionally, universals were in general given an a priori, logical foundation, based on the sense of respective categories [...]. In conformity to the logical foundation, absolute universality was claimed for such regularities. For the kind of unviersals that have been uncovered by modern universals research, on the contrary, psychological and biological explanations seem more appropriate, the nature of the human brain or mind. Like other psychological and biological explanations they are correspondingly not claimed to be valid without exception, but only to have a statistical validity or high probability. The are not “strict”, but only “near-universals” (Holenstein 1985, 456).

27The rejection of “absolute universals” is grounded on the rule that clearly represents the corner stone of Holenstein’s approach: not everything that is possible from a logical point of view is natural from a linguistic and cognitive standpoint (Holenstein 2008a, 3; 1985, 458)11. In this perspective, the broad spectrum of linguistic possibilies are conceived as both grounded on and constrained by the psycho-cognitive and biological architecture of mind, thus including perception (cf. § underpinnings). According to Holenstein, modern research of universals, which was inaugurated by Marty and Husserl and carried out consistently by Jakobson and Greenberg, is characterised by two main turning points : 1) not only content-categories are taken into account, but also categories of expression12(namely phonology, word-order and morphology, cf. Holenstein 1985, 452–453, 460) ; 2) not only abstract, but also concrete categories shall be taken into account (cf. Holenstein 1985, 452; 461), so that the too strict and often implicit correlation of “abstract” and “universal” and of “concrete” and “particular” is weakened. The main – or better said the “prototypical” – argument formulated in support of implicational universals of perception, and, at the same time, against linguistic relativity, draws from the domain of colours:

If speakers of different languages are asked which segment of the colour spectrum they regard as the optimal red and which as the optimal yellow, they will point to the same segments. For speakers of different languages, the difference between an optimal red and an optimal yellow is just as obvious as for speakers of one and the same language. But speakers of one language are no less uncertain and divided as to how far red extends on the colour spectrum and where yellow begins than are speakers of different languages (Holenstein 2008a, 7).

28The conceptualisation of colours is thus conceived as a categorisation, yet as a stratified one: firstly, the spectrum of colours forms a continuumonly from a physical point of view; secondly, the perceptive organisation intervenes between the physical spectrum and the linguistic categorization, so that the latter is said to graft onto the perceptual organisation. As a result, linguistic categorisation of colours is, according to Holenstein, far from being “arbitrary”. Just to the contrary,

The segmentation is almost universally the same, dependent only on the number of color terms. If one looks for a reason, a cognitive explanation presents itself. Our neurologically conditioned perception decides on the number and order of color terms, and not the other way around. The color spectrum is only physically a continuum, as regards the light waves underlying the perception of color, not however perceptually or, as can be shown, neurologically (Holenstein 1985: 455).

29According to Holenstein, the ability to identify the “prototypical segment” of a colour, and the correlative uncertainty in setting the boundary among the nuances of two colours, are two facets of one and the same interaction, which occurs between perceptual categories and linguistic classes.

30Analogous remarkshold true for the grammatical distinction between individual entities (countable) or mass substances (uncountable), for which Holenstein quotes Quine (Holenstein 2008a): the lack of this distinction in a given language does not allow usto speak of a corresponding lack of cognitive ability in recognizing such difference for speakers of that language, which remains intact. As Georg Michael Roth13hasit, the difference lies not in the Vorstellungof individual entities or mass substances (that is in the intellectual, internal representation of the mind), but in their Darstellung– that is in the conveyed, external representation that occurs in communication and that found the possibility of an objective knowledge. The same insight was – surprisingly – taken upby Hjelmslev, who claimed that the phenomenon designated by linguistic sign is not objective but subjective. The speaker doesn’t choose the grammatical forms according to the “objective” or “real” state of affairs, but according to a principle imposed by the conception or idea (Anschauung oder Idee) through which he considers the objective fact (cf. Hjelmslev 1972b: 37); but while Hjelmslev landed on a strong version of linguistic relativism, since the organisation of language and its interrelations with the cognitive level can only be explained by assuming the point of view of Darstellung14, Holenstein arrives at the exact opposite conclusion:

it is not only true that the limits of our langages are not the limits of our worls experience. By the same token, it is not so that the structure of language irresistibly determines the structure of our experience of the world. Our languages are not that powerful (Holenstein 2008a, 13).

31More arguments should be discussed in order to show how the hiatus on linguistic relativity can be recomposed – or at least to present its ideological foundations – yet this would lead us away from the aims of this presentation15. One point should be clear, however: that in discussing the twin-issues of universals and relativism, Holenstein was less concerned in belittiling linguistic “omniformativity” than in ackowledging one of the essential traits of language, namely “multifunctionality”:

“Human linguistic competence includes [...] the ability to speak about everything and secondly the ability to say everything differently. Human beings can speak about everything that they can imagine and conceive in some way, and certainly not only about what they perceive and what really is the case” (ibid.).

32Elmar Holenstein was born in Gossau in 1937. After having studied philosophy, psychology and linguistics at the Universities of Leuven, Heidelberg, and Zurich, he earned his doctorate at the University of Leuven in 1970 with a dissertation on the phenomenology of prelinguistic experience, which occasioned his first monograph (Holenstein 1972, Phänomenologie der Assoziation: zu Struktur und Funktion eines Grundprinzips des passive Genesis bei E. Husserl). He thencompletedhis Habilitationat the University of Zurich by publishing his ground-breaking book on Roman Jakobson’s “phenomenological structuralism” (Holenstein 1974, Jakobson ou le structuralisme phénoménologique). This work paved the way to a general reassessment of the relationships between phenomenology and structuralism – a research-trend that has been getting renewed attention in the last years16. In 1975 he edited the first volume of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations(Prolegomena zur reinen Logik). In 1975–76 he was involved in a collective project of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschafton language universals, and between 1973 and 1982 he took part in various research programs, mainly with Roman Jakobson at Harvard and J. H. Greenberg at Stanford. He edited three books by Jakobson (1976, Hölderlin, Klee, Brecht: zur Wortkunst dreier Gedichte; 1979, Poetik: ausgewählte Aussätze 1921–1971 [with Tarcisius Schelbert]; 1992, Semiotik: ausgewählte Texte 1919–1982), with whom he became a long-lasting friend from their first encounter in Leuven in 1972 onward. In 1984, he coedited a volume on Hegel (1984, Das Erbe Hegels) with Jakobson and Hans-Georg Gadamer. From 1977 to 1990, he was Professor of Philosophy of language at the Ruhr University in Bochum, and from 1990 to 2002 Full Professor of Philosophy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where, since 2002, he has been Professor Emeritus. His production includes over a hundred scholarly articles, a small selection of which will be republished in the two volumes of this series17.


Albano Leoni Federico (2015) „Les parties et le tout: Jakobson, Husserl et la phonologie“. Histoire Épistémologie Langage 37 (1), 27–42.

Aurora Simone (2017) Filosofia e scienze nel primo Husserl: Per una interpretazione strutturalista delle Ricerche logiche. Padova, Cleup.

Brandt Per Aage (2003) „Towards a cognitive semiotics“. Recherches en communication 19, 21–34.

Brandt Per Aage (2010) „Entrevista com Per Aage Brandt“. Revista digital de tecnologias cognitivas 2, 49–60.

Brandt Per Aage (2011) „What is cognitive semiotics?: A new paradigm in the study of meaning“. Signata 4, 82–86.

De Angelis Rossana, Aurora Simone (2018) Phenomenology and structuralism. Acta Structuralica Special Issue 1.

De Palo Marina (2016) Saussure e gli strutturalismi: Il soggetto parlante nel pensiero linguistico del Novecento. Roma, Carocci.

Dosse François (1997) History of structuralism I: The rising sign, 1945-1966. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Evans Nicholas, Levinson Stephen C (2009) „The myth of language universals: language diversity and its importance for cognitive science“. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32, 429–492.

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Publication details

Published in:

Holenstein Elmar (2021) Phenomenological philosophy of language: collected papers, ed. Aurora Simone; Cigana Lorenzo. Genève-Lausanne, sdvig press.

Pages: 1

Full citation:

Aurora Simone, Cigana Lorenzo (2021) „Elmar Holenstein's phenomenological philosophy of language: introduction“, In: E. Holenstein, Phenomenological philosophy of language, Genève-Lausanne, sdvig press, 1.