Philosophical roots of discourse theory
By Ernesto Laclau
1. Discourse theory, as conceived in the political analysis of the approach linked to the notion of hegemony – whose initial formulation is to be found in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy – has its roots in the three main philosophical developments with which the XXth Century started. In the three cases there is an initial illusion of immediacy, of a direct access to the things as they are in themselves. These three illusions were the referent, the phenomenon and the sign, which are at the root of the constitution of three currents of thought: analytical philosophy, phenomenology and structuralism, respectively. Now, at some point this initial illusion of immediacy dissolves in the three currents – from this point of view their history is remarkably parallel – and they have to open the way to one or other form of discourse theory. This means that discursive
mediations cease to be merely derivative and become constitutive. This is what happens in analytical philosophy in the work of the later Wittgenstein, to phenomenology in the existential analytic of Heidegger, and the structuralism in the post-structuralist critique of the sign (Barthes, Derrida, Lacan).
These three currents have been important in shaping the philosophical foundations of the theory of hegemony, but it is the latter – the post-structuralist one – which has been the most important, and we will refer to it in what follows.
2. We can differentiate three moments in the structuralist tradition in the XXth Century. The first is to be found in the work of the founder of structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, and it was articulated around three basic distinctions and two fundamental principles. The three distinctions were those of 1) langue (the treasure of language deposited in the mind of the speaker) and parole (the individual instances of the use of language); 2) signifier (stream of sounds) and signified (concept) which together constitute the sign, which is the fundamental unit of linguistic analysis; 3) sintagma (relations of combination between the signs) and paradigm (relations of substitution). The two principles were that in language there are no positive terms but only differences (each term signifies what it does only through its differences with other terms), and that language is only form and not substance (each term relates with other terms only through the rules of combination and substitution linking them, independently of their material contents).
This approach, in spite of its coherence and novelty, had two central flaws. The first, that, for Saussure, a linguistic of discourse – conceived by him as any linguistic unity longer than the sentence – was impossible given that the concatenation of sentences depended on the whims of the speaker and could not be submitted to any structural regularity. With this, the possibility of moving from the linguistic level stricto sensu to a more generalised semiology (science of signs in society), which was also part of the Saussurean project, was severely limited. The second and most serious flaw was that 1) there is a strict isomorphism between signifier and signified (which means that one and only one concept corresponds to each stream of sounds); 2) there is, however, the strict principle that language is form and not substance – which means that the purely substantial difference between sound and concept has to be ignored.