gallery of russian thinkers...

selected by Dmitry Olshansky

'Without a contradiction between language and reality there is no mobility of concepts, no mobility of signs, and the relationship between concepts and signs become automatized. Activity comes to a halt, and the awareness of reality dies out.'

Roman Jakobson What is Poetry? 1933

Roman Jakobson
Yury Lotman

Roman Osipovich JAKOBSON (23. 01. 1896, Moscow — 18. 07. 1982, Boston) — Russian linguist and semiotist. Jakobson was the founder of the structural analysis of language and a key figure in 20th century structuralism. Born to a rich family in Moscow, in 1914 he entered the Department of Slavic studies at Moscow State University. In 1915 he became a founder and leader of Moscow Linguistic Circle and became interested in Edmund Husserl and Ferdinand de Saussure. Under their influence, Jakobson proposed the idea of the analysis of the structure of linguistic phenomena, but not the history of development of idioms and words across time, as in official neogrammarian studies of language.

Following the Russian revolution, he left his motherland in 1920 and for more than 60 years lived abroad. First he went to Prague, where in 1926 with Nikolay Trubetskoy he was the founder of Prague School of Linguistics where Jakobson continued his Ph.D. research. While Trubetskoy insisted that language is a way of the preservation and self-understanding of culture, Jakobson on the contrary considered it to be a way of expression and development of culture. Although their approach was different, their collaboration was very prolific both for Slavic studies and linguistics of the 20th century. At that time Jakobson also wrote some basic works on phonetics and the language of Russian poets: Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky and Pasternak. In 1929 he used the term 'structuralism' for the first time to describe what was distinctive in Russian studies, which looked for one and the same structure both in literature, geography, anthropology, and visual arts. He believed that Russian studies should move away from historical analysis to structural investigations. That is why Kristeva portrayed the history of structuralism as Trubetskoy — Jakobson — Levi-Stauss (La revolution du langage poetique, Paris: Seuil, p. 117), and why Jakobson was investigated as key figure of structuralism by Ricoeur, Geleuze, and Derrida.

After the Nazi invasion of Prague in 1941, he traveled to Sweden and Denmark, where he met Louis Hjelmslev and the Copenhagen linguistic circle. Jakobson was interested in anthropology, and it also helped him to predestine a 'linguistic turn' in the humanities. After Jakobson fled to the United States, he taught at the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes from 1942 — 1946, hosted by the New School for Social Research in New York, where he met and collaborated with Claude Levi-Stauss, on whose work he has a profound influence. In his book 'Linguistics and Poetics: Closing Statement' he describes his famous model of communication acts; all of them contingent on six elements: context, code, message between addresser (sender) and addressee (receiver), and contact. Therefore Jakobson is also recognized as a classic of communication studies and no investigation on this theme can ignore his works.

Lecturing at Columbia University, Harvard University, and M.I.T., Jakobson had acquaintance with many American linguists, such a Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir. In 1949 Jakobson eventually received a post at Harvard University, where he taught for the rest of his life. His interests shifted from Russian poetry to common peculiarities of poetic language. With his research on this topic he became a world famous thinker. According to Jakobson, poetic language shifts the common language balance between word and thing; in such a way lingual shifts make it possible (1) to use the language individually for each person and therefore (2) to create new literary precedents called poetry. In his book Elements de semiologie (1964) Barthes considers Jakobson as the creator of a coherent discourse of structuralism (like psychoanalysis and marxism), which is based on inner logic rather than on rational proofs.

Although Jakobson never practiced psychoanalytic research, he was also prolific author on the further development of Freud's theory. Freud specified two fundamental processes in unconscious: displacement and condensation. Jakobson introduced them in a different way as a basic mechanisms of poetic language: metonymy (rapprochement according to contiguity; ability of selection) and metaphor (rapprochement according to similarity; ability of combination). Roland Barthes, Paul Ricoeur, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan borrowed such a differentiation between metonymy and metaphor for further development.

Jakobson was familiar with Jacques Lacan, who used Jakobson's earlier works 'Child Language, Aphasia and Phonological Universals' and 'Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances' in his own research of speech disabilities. Aphasia in Jakobson's mind is the impairment of the faculty of selection or the impairment of the faculty of combination and contextualization. The aphasic person's word refers to another one, not to reality, therefore the patient cannot separate the signs one from another or contextualize them and make a coherent sentence. Poetic language deals with the same distinction between words and things, when each word refers to another one (like in association or rhythm), but not to reality. Coupled with Kojeve's idea that the symbol replaces the thing, Jakobson's work helped Lacan to reach his key conclusion that any subject deals with signs only, not with the real world, and to be a subject is be included into the bond of the symbols. According to Lacan, what we call reality is a Symbolic system, and it is almost nothing in common with the Real order.

Derrida cast doubt on Jakobson's and his disciple Halle's differentiation between speech and writing — as well as in other suassurian binary oppositions — and the idea that writing appears after speech. Derrida tries to show on the contrary that the experience of writing is already included in any act of speech. Second, he also doubted the understanding of poetry as a special code that is opposite to the common language. As if it were any original language and any secondary codification, and complication of primary meaning, that could be called poetry. Derrida asks for a criterion of such differentiation between primary and secondary codification and refuses any hierarchy of lingual acts. Eventually, Derrida agrees in distinguishing metaphor from metonymy, but he problematizes Jakobson's idea of common balance between word and thing, and his consideration of poetry as a shift from the normal relations. Although he neither accepts nor rejects Jakobson's idea of balance, but he tries to deconstruct it to discover any new prolific way to understand a phenomenon of individual being in language, which Derrida discusses in his several works: De la grammatologie (1967), Des tours de Babel (1985), and Le monolinguism de l'autre (1996).


by Jakobson

Jakobson R., Remarques sur l'evolution phonologique du russe comparee a celle des autres langues slaves. Prague, 1929

Jakobson R., Child Language, Aphasia and Phonological Universals, 1941

Jakobson R., Style in Language (ed. Thomas Sebeok), 1960

Jakobson R., Selected Writings, (ed. by Stephen Rudy). The Hague, Paris, Mouton in 6 volumes:

I. Phonological Studies, 1971
II. Word and Language, 1971
III. The Poetry of Grammar and the Grammar of Poetry, 1980
IV. Slavic Epic Studies, 1966
V. On Verse, Its Masters and Explores, 1978
VI. Early Slavic Paths and Crossroads, 1985

Jakobson R., Questions de poetique, 1973

Jakobson R., Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time (ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy), 1985

Jakobson R., Six Lectures of Sound and Meaning, 1978

Jakobson R., The Framework of Language, 1980

Jakobson R., Halle M., Fundamentals of Language, 1956

Jakobson R., Waugh L., The Sound Shape of Language, 1979

Jakobson R., Pomorska K., Dialogues, 1983

on Jakobson

Roman Jakobson: Echoes of His Scholarship. Ed. by Daniel Armstrong and Cornelis H. van Schooneveld, 1977

Brooke-Rose C., A Structural Analysis of Pound's 'Usura Canto': Jakobson's Method Extended and Applied to Free Verse,1976

Culler J., Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature, 1975

Holenstein E., Roman Jakobson's Approach to Language, 1974

Ihwe J., Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik. Ergebnisse und Perspektiven, 1971

Kerbrat-Orecchioni C., L'Enonciation: De la subjectivite dans le langage, 1980

Le Guern M., Semantique de la metaphore et de la metonymie, 1973

Lodge D., The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature, 1977

Riffaterre M., Semiotics of Poetry, 1978

Steiner P., Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics, 1984

Todorov T., Poetique de la prose,1971

Waugh L., Roman Jakobson's Science of Language, 1976


© Dmitry A. Olshansky, M.A. in Philosophy (St. Petersburg)



International Society for Philosophers