Hendrik Pos and the epistemological foundations of structuralism

Patrick Flack
Charles University, Prague

The name of Dutch linguist and philosopher Hendrik Josephus Pos (1898-1955) is not one that rings many bells today, except perhaps in the Netherlands and the (growing) circles of Merleau-Ponty specialists. But to the keen student of the history of the language sciences who does accidentally bump into him and decides to lend his work some attention, Pos will reveal himself as a fascinating source that offers an intriguing new perspective on the development of linguistics in the first half of the 20th century.

During his lifetime, Pos was an important figure who enjoyed a solid international reputation both within academic philosophical and linguistic circles and as a public person. A student of the neo-kantian Heinrich Rickert and then of Edmund Husserl, he was one of the first to put forward an explicitly philosophical reflexion on the foundations of linguistics in his 1922 dissertation “Zur Logik der Sprachwissenschaft” (The Logic of the Language Sciences) – a book that alledgedly* made a very strong impression on none other than Louis Hjelmslev (who possessed a heavily annotated copy). During the 1930s, Pos entertained frequent and amicable relations with all the structuralist Circles (Geneva, Prague, Copenhagen) as well as with thinkers such as Karl Bühler, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger. Both Roman Jakobson [1973, p.13] and Nikolaï Trubetzkoy [1936, p.5], with whom he corresponded, mention him as an important contributor to the development of linguistics. After the war, his hybrid brand of philosophy of language attracted the sustained attention of Merleau-Ponty (who argues extensively with him, e.g. [Merleau-Ponty 1952]) and Eugenio Coseriu (who got one of his students to write a thesis about him [Aschenberg 1978]).

On their own, these historical connections do not prove of course that Pos was a great or interesting contributor to linguistics and philosophy of language, whose work might therefore be obviously worthy of our renewed attention. It is in fact generally fair to say that Pos was not a particularly original or idiosyncratic thinker and that he did mostly play secondle fiddle to the above-mentionned luminaries of linguistics and philosophy. That being said, the rather peripheral or derivative nature of Pos’s contributions to our understanding of language and linguistics does not mean that they were insignificant in their time or irrelevant to us today. As I would like to very briefly argue here, Pos’s work can in fact play a crucial role in helping us understand the conceptual dynamics and disciplinary networks of early structuralist linguistics.

The key to a fair evaluation of Pos and his contribution to either linguistics or philosophy of language is to start by considering him not as the author of a strong, systematic theory (which he never produced), but as an important interlocutor in an ongoing dialogue about language and its study. Such an approach is warranted first of all by the structure of Pos’s own work: except for his two dissertations (Zur Logik der Sprachwissenschaft, 1922 and Kritische Studien über philologische Methode, 1923) and two short summarising studies, he never wrote a book-length treatise, preferring instead to express himself through numerous articles, reviews, conferences, letters, etc. Tellingly, one of his most influential ideas – on the nature of linguistic oppositions – was set out in “La notion d’opposition en lingusitique”, a two-paged paper delivered at the fourth Congress of linguists in Geneva [Pos, 1938]. In most of his publications, one can see Pos constantly reacting to new ideas, inflecting the course of his own thought and trying to stimulate intellectual exchanges between fields and schools.

In other words, Pos’s work itself bears all the hallmarks of an essentially “dialogical” thought, which was conceived and intended as part of a broad, incessant conversation. Pos himself, it is worth adding, was a man of dialogue, who engaged in difficult political causes with a sense of moderation and compromise[Derkx 1994], and who was always interested in fostering exchanges. As Pieter Seuren recently commented on his blog, one of Pos‘s foremost achievements was to have had a very broad and positive impact on the Dutch “scene”, and to have taught his students (including Seuren himself) to think independently.

When one approaches Pos’s work from this dialogical angle, its interest becomes quite evident. This relevance derives first and foremost from the obvious quality of his dialogue partners. Pos, as I hope has already been made clear, was not an isolated scholar working in a marginal intellectual context, but interacted with the greatest philosophers and linguists of his time. He was not content, moreover, to react to the ideas of the thinkers he was in direct contact with (Rickert, Husserl, Cassirer, Heidegger, Bühler, Meillet, Jakobson, Trubetzkoj, etc.), but also commented almost the whole spectrum of the relevant theories on language at that time (Bergson, Marty, Paul, Stumpf, Vossler, Wundt, etc. – the notable exeptions being Saussure, Frege and the Vienna Circle). Because Pos (unlike Saussure) quotes his sources extensively and precisely and because (unlike Marty) he is not engaging in incessant polemics, his work takes on the quality of a precious historical witness of the linguistic debates of the interwar period.

Pos’s importance as an historical witness of the interwar period is strengthened by the fact that he was not only an echo-chamber or a diligent quotation machine. He did not only analyse and comment the ideas he drew from the neo-kantians, the neo-hegelians, the phenomenologists, the neo-grammairians, the early structuralists, the empirical psychologists, etc., but he sought to bring them into dialogue, to apply the discoveries of one school, one field, to the other and thus to cross-fertilise them. His 1922 dissertation is a particularly good example of such productive cross-overs: in effect, he attempts there to apply neo-kantian epistemology (and in particular, Lotzean and Rickertian epistemology) to the most recent findings and theories in the field of linguistics. Whilst attempting to provide a new, coherent methodological framework to the sciences of language, Pos explicitly resisted the temptation to simply subsume the empirical linguistic facts to a speculative philosophical system, a fact which helped him produce a theory that was really about language and the methodological conditions of its study.

An intriguing aspect of the theory of linguistics that emerged as a result of Pos’s synthetic effort in “Zur Logik der Sprachwissenschaft”, is that it is remarkably similar to the one put forward some 10 years earlier in the “Cours de linguistique générale” [Salverda 1991]. One might want of course to brush aside that similarity by arguing that Pos simply drew from Saussure. The fact of the matter is that Saussure is one of the rare thinkers not to be quoted in “Zur Logik der Sprachwissenschaft” and one has good reasons to believe that, although he probably knew the text, he did not consider it particularly relevant (Uhlenbeck 1977, p.489). In any case, Pos’s detailed arguments clearly and convincingly make use of neo-kantian concepts and arguments (and not of saussurean ones), which at the very least shows that a theory similar to the the one suggested in the “Cours de linguistique générale” can be derived from such premisses. In fact one might rather want to ask whether the Cours itself isn’t based on such neo-kantian arguments. Key neo-kantian concepts such as that of “value” (Wert), or the clear distinction between the concrete, unknowable facts of experience and our abstract, transcendental knowledge of them seem indeed to be at work in Saussure’s notions of “valeur” and his distinction between langue and parole.

This last observation is clearly very speculative and will probably be hard to demonstrate conclusively, as Saussure never quotes any neo-kantian sources. My point here, however, is not so much to suggest that we should re-interpret Saussure himself in a neo-kantian light (although I believe that might be done and would certainly be interesting to attempt), but rather that we should reconsider the genesis of structural linguistics as whole in that way. Pos, indeed, offers us the concrete historical example of a theoretical model of linguistics that was clearly elaborated as the result of a meeting between neo-kantian philosophy and neo-grammairian linguistics. Crucially, that hybrid model was met with explicit and strong approval by almost all the great structuralist linguists (although in fairness, one should also mention that it was thrashed by Antoine Meillet [1922] – but maybe that’s a mark of honour). In Prague – after Pos had given his conception of language and linguistics a much more phenomenological, anthropological and Hegelian turn – it went on to serve as one of the main philosophical justifications of the new phonology [Fontaine 1994, p. 15]. In short, all this is more than enough to warrant taking another look at the genesis of structuralism through the prism of Pos’s work.

* I cannot find the reference, it is an article (by Boon?) in Daalder 1990.

References and further reading

Aschenberg, Heidi (1978), Phänomenologische Philosophie und Sprache, Tübingen, Narr.

Coquet, Jean-Claude (2007), Phusis et Logos: Une phénoménologie du langage, Paris, Presses Univ. de Vincennes.

Daalder, Saskia (1999), H. J. Pos (1898 – 1955): studies over zijn filosofie van taal en taalwetenschap, Amsterdam, Vrije Universiteit Diss.

Daalder, Saskia; Noordegraaf, Jan (eds.) (1990), H.J. Pos: taalkundige en geëngageerd filosoof, Amsterdam, Huis aan de Drie Grachten.

Dennes, Maryse (1997) “L’influence de Husserl en Russie au début du XXème siècle et son impact sur les émigrés russes de Prague“, Cahiers de l’ILSL 9, pp. 45–65.

Derkx, Peter (1994), H.J. Pos, 1898-1955: Objectief en partijdig, Hilversum, Verloren.

Jakobson, Roman (1973), Main trends in the science of language, London, Allen & Unwin (Main trends in the social sciences, 6).

Fontaine, Jacqueline (1994)  “La conception du système linguistique au Cercle linguistique de Prague“, Cahiers de l’ILSL (5), pp. 7-18.

Meillet, Antoine (1922) “Pos: Logik der Sprachwissenschaft”, Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 23 (2).

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1952) “Sur la phénoménologie du langage”, In: Herman Leo van Breda (ed.), Problèmes actuels de la phénoménologie, Colloque international de phénoménologie, Bruxelles, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, pp. 91–109.

Parret, Herman; van der Velde, Roger (1980) “Structuralism in Belgium and in the Netherlands”, Semiotica 29, pp. 145–174.

Pos, Hendrik Josephus (1922), Zur Logik der Sprachwissenschaft, Heidelberg, Winter.

Pos, Hendrik (1923), Kritische Studien über philologische Methode, Heidelberg, Winter.

Pos, Hendrik (1938) “La notion d’opposition en linguistique“, In: H. Piéron, Meyerson I. (eds.), Onzième congrès international de psychologie, Paris, Alcan, pp. 246–247.

Pos, Hendrik (1939) “Perspectives du structuralisme“, In: Collective (ed.), Etudes phonologiques dédiées à la mémoire de M. le Prince N.S. Trubetzkoy, vol. 8, Praha, Jednota Československých matematiků a fyziků (Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Prague, 8), pp. 71–78.

Pos, Hendrik (1939) “Phénoménologie et linguistique“, Revue internationale de philosophie (1), pp. 354–365.

POS, Hendrik (2013) “Ecrits sur le langage “, Genève-Lausanne, sdvig press.

Salverda, Reiner (1991) “The contribution of H.J. Pos (1898-1955) to early structural linguistics”, In: J. Fenoulhet, T. Hermans (eds.), Standing Clear: A Festschrift for Reinder P. Meijer, London, University College London, pp. 220–237.

Trubetzkoj, Nikolaj (1936) “Essai d’une théorie des oppositions phonologiques“, Journal de psychologie XXXIII, pp. 5-18.

Uhlenbeck, Eugenius Marius (1977) “Roman Jakobson and Dutch linguistics”, In: Cornelis van Schooneveld, Daniel Armstrong (eds.), Roman Jakobson: Echoes of his scholarship, Lisse, Peter de Ridder, pp. 485–502.

Note: I have digital copies of quite a few of the shorter texts if you are interested

How to cite this post:

Flack, Patrick. 2013. ‘Hendrik Pos and the epistemological foundations of structuralism.’ History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2013/10/30/hendrik-pos-and-the-epistemological-foundations-of-structuralism

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Posted in 20th century, Article, Europe, History, Linguistics, Phenomenology, Philosophy, Structuralism
3 comments on “Hendrik Pos and the epistemological foundations of structuralism
  1. Els Elffers (University of Amsterdam) says:

    In Flack’s interesting text about Pos’s position as a philosopher of language and linguistics, Pos’s contributions to the early foundations of structuralism are justifiable stressed. As additional information, I would like to emphasize that Pos also developed ideas that are entirely at odds with structuralism. These ideas are extensively discussed in Daalder (1999, esp. ch. 2). One of them is Pos’s philologically-inspired idea of grammars, not as a structural theories about linguistic systems but as subject-oriented pragmatic tools for understanding difficult texts. Germs of this view can be found already in Pos (1922), but later texts contain further elaborations (esp. Pos 1933 “Über den Aufbau der grammatischen Interpretation”). This idea was less influential than his structuralism-related views, but, at least in the Netherlands, it played some part in contemporary discussions about the usefulness or uselessness of school grammar. Especially Martinus Langeveld (1905-1989), who later developed into an internationally renowned educationist, appealed to Pos’s view in his 1934 dissertation Taal en denken (Language and thought), in which a new approach to school grammar is defended. I recently devoted a small article to this subject; bibliographical data can be found below.

    E. Elffers ‘Langeveld, Pos en de grammatica’ In: Th Janssen & J. Noordegraaf (eds.) Honderd jaar taalwetenchap. Artikelen aangeboden aan Saskia Daalder bij haar afscheid van de Vrije Universiteit. Amsterdam/Münster 2013: 29-40.

    • Patrick Flack says:

      Thanks Els for your very relevant comment. You are absolutely right in pointing out this other facet of Pos’s work, which should indeed not be generically subsumed under the banner of structuralism. Thanks also for the bibliographical reference, I’ll take a keen look at your article and the book as a whole.
      I would like to quibble here with your qualification of Pos’s subject-oriented pragmatic as being “at odds with structuralism”. Although Pos’s inspiration here was clearly not structuralist (you correctly point out it has a philological origin) and that it contradicts some of the ideas laid out in Zur Logik der Sprachwissenschaft, there is in fact no real “clash” between these different facets of Pos’s work. To be more precise, I think Pos was constantly playing different perspectives against each other, taking inspiration respectively from the neo-kantians, from phenomenology, Bergson, Hegel, etc. etc. to correct imperfections or find new solutions to problems that had cropped up in his earlier writings. As such, the transcendantal, very formal conception of linguistics that appears in Zur Logik der Sprachwissenschaft, – which also corresponds to what we usually think structuralism represents -, was quickly inflected by Pos in a more pragmatic, phenomenological perspective (without being refuted however). His “structuralist” conception of linguistics thus quickly evolved, as can be clearly seen from his 1939 articles, into something much more dynamic, “empirical” and pragmatic. Tellingly, it is precisely this more dynamic and pragmatic conception that interests Coquet. Indeed, Coquet bases himself on Pos (and Merleau-Ponty) to correct his originally very Greimasian (i.e. formal and static) conception of semiotics, into a “semiotics of instances”.
      So I think one should consider the tention between the “classic” structuralism and the pragmatic aspects of Pos’s work not as being “at odds” with each other, but as representing the extreme poles in a productive discussion within Pos’s own work, which eventually led him to a very different conception of what structuralism could be. That very different conception, as I mentioned, was well received in Prague, but seems to have gone under the radar after WWII and to have been overshadowed by the classical understanding of structuralism as the formal analysis of abstract systems.

  2. […] Flack, Patrick. 2013. ‘Hendrik Pos and the epistemological foundations of structuralism.’History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2013/10/30/hendrik-pos-and-the-epistemological-foundations-of-structuralism […]

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