Saussure, the procrastinator

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

Procrastination is a fact of academic life, particularly during the PhD period, as every academic supervisor knows. However, judging from ever-increasing institutional efforts to control procrastination or from the many self-help guides intended to cure procrastination, it would seem that procrastination is endemic today. Furthermore, every delay is now treated as stemming from procrastination and sanctioned accordingly. The nature of these sanctions (not meeting deadlines triggering reviews of the candidature; automatic unenrollment if no thesis has been submitted after a certain period) is also evidence that procrastination has been upgraded from a minor failing to a serious failure of the individual: a lack of talent, commitment and capability. The institutional message is clear: procrastination is a sign that you don’t have what it takes to be a successful academic.

Everyone with a nagging sense of self-doubt induced by finding themselves procrastinating over this or that writing assignment will find a 1990 article about Saussure’s time in Leipzig immensely therapeutic. “Documenti saussuriani conservati a Lipsi e a Berlino” by Paola Villani surveys Saussure’s four years as a doctoral student in Germany, mostly Leipzig, which, at the time, was the world capital for the study of linguistics. The article’s appendix includes a reproduction of all the materials relating to Saussure that are kept in the archives of Leipzig University, where Saussure studied between 1876 and 1878 and obtained his doctorate in 1880.

Everyone knows that the ‘father of modern linguistics’ did not publish much and certainly not the work that constitutes the basis of his fame, Cours de linguistique générale, which was published posthumously by his students Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye on the basis of their lecture notes. Up to now, I had never given much thought to the question why Saussure might not have published the Cours during his life-time. I had simply assumed that he died prematurely.

However, the Leipzig archives contain a number of short letters Saussure wrote to Wilhelm Streitberg, one of the founding editors of Indogermanische Forschungen. These letters throw a different light on the matter and provide a unique insight into Saussure as an academic writer. Over a period of more than ten years, from 1892 to 1903, Saussure wrote a total of 22 letters to Streitberg asking repeatedly for extensions on an article he had promised Streitberg. In the end, the article was never written.

The reasons that Saussure cites for his tardiness and the grounds on which he continues to seek extensions over such a long period are most unlikely when one considers Saussure’s obvious talent and lasting influence. Saussure excuses himself to Streitberg by explaining that he suffers from “incurable graphophobie” (“incurable fear of writing”). Other colourful turns of phrase he uses to describe his problem include the following: “paresse scripturale” (“scriptorial laziness”); “horreur d’écrire” (“abhorrence of writing”); “une horreur maladive de la plume” (“a morbid horror of the pen”); and “toute rédaction me procure un supplice inimaginable” (“all writing causes me unimaginable torture”).

Contemporaries were well aware that after a brilliant little book as a 21-year-old – Mémoire sur le Système Primitif des Voyelles dans les Langues Indo-Européennes (Note on the Primitive System of Vowels in the Indo-European Languages) – Saussure had never again published anything. Streitberg, for one, simply thought that Saussure was insane. In a letter to Karl Brugmann he says that he has heard that Saussure is suffering from “unheilbarer Geisteskrankheit” (“incurable insanity”).

Other colleagues were more charitable: Antoine Meillet attributed Saussure’s reluctance to publish to an obsession with perfection and Émile Benveniste argued that the nature of the discipline was changing in a way that Saussure felt called for entirely new terminologies and concepts.

The most intriguing explanation was put forward by Georges Mounin, who suggested that Saussure’s inability to write was due to the trauma of studying abroad in Germany. Fanciful as this suggestion may sound, some of the letters in the archive provide evidence of a problematic relationship between Saussure and his peers and teachers in Leipzig. After Saussure’s death, Brugmann, for instance, wrote to Streitberg:

Übrigens ging mir jetzt ein paar mal durch den Kopf, ob bei Ihrer Darstellung des Entwicklungsganges von F. de Saussure richtig zur Geltung kommen werde, dass dieser gescheite Gelehrte die Hauptanregung in Leipzig […] bekommen hat. Merkwürdig ist mir immer erschienen, dass de Saussure selbst meines Wissens nie offen diese Abhängigkeit eingestanden hat. Meine Auffassung ist die: das etwas derbe und rauhbeinige Wesen von Osthoff hat den zartbesaiteten Jüngling abgestossen, und als Franzose (so dürfen wir wohl sagen) war ihm eben die Form die Hauptsache. […] Auch die Pariser Schüler von de S. haben nie diese Abhängigkeit offen eingestanden, und ich bin fast überzeugt, dass da nationale Gegensätze hineingespielt haben. […] Kurz: ich hätte es für anständig gehalten, wenn de S. seinem Buch eine Vorbemerkung vorausgeschickt hätte, in der zum Ausdruck gekommen wäre, dass er von seinen Leipziger Lehrern mehrfache Anregungen erhalten habe. Er empfand eben nie wie wir Deutsche empfinden, sondern fühlte sich uns gegenüber als – Franzmann.

By the way, I have recently been wondering whether your obituary of F. de Saussure will emphasize that this intelligent scholar received the most important impulse in Leipzig. I’ve always found it strange that, as far as I know, de Saussure has never openly admitted this dependency. My view is this: Osthoff’s somewhat coarse and uncouth manner repelled the delicate feelings of the young man. As a Frenchman (and that’s what we may call him) manners were of prime importance to him. […] His students in Paris never admitted this dependency, either, and I am almost convinced that national conflicts played a part in that. […] In short: I would have considered it a matter of decency if de Saussure had prefaced his book with an acknowledgement of the multiple impulses he received from his teachers in Leipzig. The truth is that he never felt like we Germans feel but, with us, always felt himself to be – a Frenchman.

We’ll never know whether Saussure’s experience in Leipzig was in any way connected to his “graphophobia” but it is intriguing to speculate about the difficulties of finding one’s academic voice if one is predominantly seen and treated as a member of a national group. (Writing in an additional language – as most international academics must today in English – was a non-issue for Saussure: theirs was a multilingual world and Saussure happily wrote in French (although there are also some German and Latin notes he wrote in the archive) and, read in German, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and probably a dozen other languages (one of his doctoral exam subjects was Gothic!)

What is Saussure’s lesson for today’s procrastinators? The likelihood of not publishing and still ending up one of the most preeminent scholars in your field is one in a million – so don’t jump to the conclusion that procrastinating will make you the next Saussure! The lesson is that procrastination is normal and you have to work hard to overcome it – just like the best! Paola Villani (1990). Documenti saussuriani conservati a Lipsia e a Berlino Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 44, 3-33

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Very interesting! I think this is also a good reminder that procrastination was not spawned from the internet.

  • Janet Brady

    This post is targeting procrastination amongst PhD candidates. However, it also highlights the differences between academic life in Saussure’s lifetime, and academic life now. How would Saussure have coped with the modern mantra of “publish or perish”?

    • Thanks, Janet! You are absolutely right! I can’t see that Saussure would have stood a chance of ever finding an academic job in our system (and he certainly wouldn’t have got tenure).
      The whole story also throws an interesting light on the current obsession with impact: arguably the linguist with the greatest impact ever would clearly have scored zero on impact in our bean-counting ways …

  • Meredith Izon

    Timely! Thanks Ingrid 😉

    • Thanks, Meredith! The piece is – of course – dedicated to all my wonderful students! 🙂

  • vahid

    Hi Ingrid,
    Very interesting and, as Meredith has put it, “timely”!
    Thank you for sharing.

  • Paul Desailly

    Brugmann’s notions vis-à-vis Saussure’s unwillingness to publish fail to mention the latter’s substantial wealth. (The father of the two famous de Saussure brothers was a member of the nobility, also famous and very wealthy at the time of the Leipzig story) Erroneous is the claim, if I recall correctly (no certainty) that Saussure was a Frenchman; he was Swiss (Geneva) and his father’s visage for many years appeared on a bank note of that country. My Swiss friend Didi is a real expert on all this and he composes articles, essays etc. on related topics

    • Thanks, Paul! You are correct about Saussure being Swiss and Brugmann was well aware of that fact; my interpretation of the passage is that referring to him as ‘Frenchman’ was intended as some sort of slur (this was written in the period after the French-German War and just before WW I …)
      Another intriguing tidbit related to the fact of the Saussure family’s wealth was that one of Saussure’s PhD examiners bring it up: the examiner argues that, given his wealth, the study of linguistics is particularly laudable … not sure what to make of that …

  • Hussein M. Farsani

    Thanks dear Ingrid Piller for the insightful post.
    I published a couple articles here and there as part of the requirement for eligibility to defend my Ph.D. thesis at the University of Isfahan.
    However, the problem of procrastination for most graduates and postgraduates, including myself unfortunately, might not relate to what Saussure has termed “scriptoral laziness”; the problem more or less is sometimes coming up with many ideas and not knowing which one to pursue, which is going to prove more yielding in the current competitive job market, and which is going to bring with itself more attention and response from the academia. A wide-ranging interest in many subfields of your area of interest can bring another halt as you may wonder where you’re going to finally land before you get to find yourself some post-studies (tenure or non-tenure) position somewhere!

    But thank you again for sharing that insight with us 🙂

    • Thanks, Hussein! I suppose that’s another pathology of academic writing: writing for no obvious audience … German even has a term for this affliction: “Vielschreiberei” (writing a lot, in a pathological kind of way …)
      Good luck with your job search! 🙂

  • Hussein M. Farsani

    Lol! So there’s a term out there describing this condition: “Vielschreiberei”! That’s precisely it. Tnx 🙂

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  • Andrew McDouall

    Is it procrastination? I don’t think it is. It is distraction. Increasingly grad students work outside of academia to make ends meet. Often they are in relationships that require them to take on responsibilities, such as child rearing and housework. And, of course, there is the internet – ubiquitous and never still. But, a scholar requires peace and time to think, work, and enter into dialogue with other academics. Students today procrastinate no more than those of previous decades, but they are more distracted. Consequently, everything takes a bit longer…

  • Paul Desailly

    ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ reverberates down the rock of ages
    ‘Never put off till tomorrow what u can defer to the day after’
    is its antonym i m o
    Speaking of antonyms, what’s an antonym for ‘consultation’ as in ‘discussion’?

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  • 44277660

    I could not agree with you more on the lesson that procrastination is normal. It seems to me that even disciplined people procrastinate at some points. We’ve been taught that procrastination is bad. It means we are lazy, careless, disorganized, or unprofessional. Although we all try to avoid procrastination, we couldn’t help ourselves. However, it sometimes bring some benefits to procrastinators, at least to me. Waiting until the last minutes forces me to focus and work faster as when deadline approaches, I fear the consequences of not getting it done on time. I am the type of person who work well under pressure but to others, the pressure goes up, the quality goes down. It is not an excuse for me to procrastinate as I still think that it is better not to wait until the last minutes. I only procrastinate on tasks I do not like.


    Thank you for this interesting topic. I think that procrastination is something that a lot of university students struggle with. Perhaps this is because the task can be quite daunting and the freedom of time they had compared to high school is quite different. Other students may have other reasons for such, but personally procrastination should be accepted than shunned because it IS normal. Moreover, having the limit of time pushes me forward to actually BE on time. What can I say? Pressure is oddly one of my motivators.

  • I don’t think going for a walk qualifies as procrastination. In fact, walking boosts your creativity and productivity. It’s a great way to stay creative and get some thinking done – when writers talk about good habits or what keeps them productive, “going for walk” usually features prominently (e.g.,
    The contemporary scourge of procrastination is YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and all those other social media … weapons of mass distraction and mass procrastination …

  • Luc Belliveau

    My procrastination in writing, and one of the main reasons I don’t see myself going much further into academia, is largely because of my love of reading and researching broadly. I love to dig into archival information and if an obscure christian mystic is mentioned in a secondary source, I will dig up her journal and take in her revelations. It got to the point in my undergraduate honours thesis that my supervisor, frustrated, told me “You can’t call ‘Luc reads 2000 books’ a thesis project!”

    It seems like being an academic today requires one to be able to produce peer reviewed articles at a rate that stifles broader study (not to mention the imagination). I wonder if we would be aware of Saussure had his academic context been that of “publish or perish,” or if a Saussure is still possible in this context.