Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who died at the age of fifty-five on the eve of the First World War, went on to have a profound impact on twentieth-century thought. More cited than actually understood, he inspired a modernist turn in the humanities in the middle of the century, when variants of structuralism spread through anthropology, literary theory, psychoanalysis and beyond. Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics – the lecture series he gave towards the end of his life – became a touchstone in an era in which linguistic theory was exported into models of culture, the unconscious and literary discourse.
Variously portrayed as an austere Calvinist intellectual or a half-mad romantic, Saussure the man has remained an enigma. John E Joseph’s well-researched biography finally gives us the full picture; what emerges is a character of multiple contradictions,