Prague Linguistic Circle

Twentieth-century semiotics and structuralism emerged simultaneously from the same source: the postpositivistic paradigm initiated by Ferdinand de Saussure and Russian formalism. The first systematic formulation of semiotic structuralism came from scholars of the Prague Linguistic Circle (PLC), who are now known as the Prague school. The PLC was inaugurated in 1926 by Vilém Mathesius, director of the English seminar at Charles University, and his colleagues Roman Jakobson, Bohuslav Havrânek, Bohumil Trnka, and Jan Rypka. Mathesius gave the group an organized form and a clear theoretical direction. The PLC counted among its members such prominent scholars as Jan Mukafovskÿ, Nikolaj Trubeckoj, Sergej Karcevskij, Petr Bogatyrjov, and Dmitrij CyZevskyj. Russian scholars, former members of the formalist groups, represented a substantial contingent. In the 1930s younger scholars joined, especially René Wellek , Felix Vodiëka, Jiri Veltruskÿ, Jaroslav PrùSek, and Josef Vachek. Many visitors (Edmund Husserl, Rudolf Carnap, Boris Toma Sevskij, Émile Benveniste , and others) presented papers in the Circle.

Travaux du cercle linguistique de Prague (TCLP) contains in eight volumes (1929-39) pivotal contributions by members and “fellow travelers” in English, French, and German. In 1928 the Prague participants of the First International Congress of Linguists in The Hague drafted a program for structural linguistics with the Geneva school scholars (not to be confused with the later Geneva School phenomenological critics). The Thèses du Cercle linguistique de Prague (vol. 1 of Travaux) set out not only the principles of the new linguistics but also a theory of standard and poetic language. In 1929 Jakobson coined the term “structuralism.”

In the 1930s the PLC became a force in Czech culture. Its first `important Czech publication was a tribute to the philosopher president of the Czechoslovak republic, T. G. Masaryk. The volume Spisovná čeština a jazyková kultura [Standard Czech and language culture] (1932) resulted from a polemic with conservative purists; in alliance with avant-garde writers, the PLC formulated principles of language culture and planning that remain significant to the 1990s. In 1935 the PLC launched its Czech journal Slovo a slovesnost [The word and verbal art], exploiting in its title the etymological connection that in Slavic languages links the terms for “language” and “literature.” The PLC maintained its eminent cultural position in rapidly changing political conditions: a jubilee volume, Torso a tajemství Máchova díla [Torso and mystery of Mâcha’s work] (1938), a popularizing work, Čtení a jazyce a poesii [Readings on language and poetry] (1942), and a cycle of radio broadcasts, O bâsnickém jazyce [On poetic language] (1947), were widely known. As the PLC’s influence grew, so did the voices of the critics, coming from both the traditional academics and the Marxists. The polemic with Marxist publicists (1930-34) is probably the first confrontation between structuralism and Marxism in the twentieth century.

When Czech universities were closed by the Nazis in November 1939, the meetings of the PLC continued in private dwellings. Public activities were resumed in June 1945. A few leaders were lost to natural death (Trubeckoj, Mathesius) or to exile (Jakobson, Wellek). But the brief spell of democracy in postwar Czechoslovakia, from May 1945 to February 1948, was a very productive time for the Prague school. The standard, three-volume edition of Mukařovskýs selected works, Kapitoly z české poetiky [Chapters from Czech poetics], and the school’s last representative work, Vodička‘s monograph Počátky krásné prózy novočeské [The beginnings of Czech artistic prose], were published in 1948. The last lecture in the Circle took place in December 1948. After more than forty years, the PLC resumed its activities in February 1990.

In 1946 Jan Mukafovsky presented a lecture on Prague school structuralism at the Institut d’Etudes Slaves in Paris. The lecture was never published in French and had no impact on the Parisian intellectual scene. This incident indicates a discontinuity in twentieth-century structuralism, reinforced by most of its Western historians, analysts, and critics. (This is especially true of structuralist poetics, aesthetics, and semiotics. Prague linguistics has fared better, but even its reception in the West has been hesitant.) Jonathan Culler’s well-known Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975) set the pattern: the “structuralist poetics” is exclusively French. The subtitle of Fredric Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language (1972) promised to give “a critical account of structuralism and Russian Formalism,” but from the Prague school only the concept of “foregrounding” is mentioned. Terence Hawkes’s Structuralism and Semiotics (1977) provides a brief account of the Prague theory of poetic language but ignores all other achievements. Jan Broekman’s Structuralism: Moscow—Prague—Paris (1971) and D. W. Fokkema and Elrud Kunne-Ibsch’s Theories of Literature in the Twentieth Century (1977) should be singled out as exceptions. J. G. Merquior acknowledges that “the foundations of structuralism in criticism and aesthetics were laid down in Eastern Europe” (19) but treats the Prague school as mere “strategic background” to the Parisian “story” (x). He knows that Mukafovsky’s ideas “had no discernible influence on structuralist literary theory of the 1960s” (27). 

Without the Prague school, the image of twentiethcentury structuralism is incomplete both historically and theoretically. Prague scholars took a broad view of the tasks and methods of aesthetics and poetics and developed an epistemology that preempts much of the poststructuralist critique:

1. Prague structuralism is functionalistic. All signs, including aesthetic signs, fulfill certain needs of their users. The functionalism inspired by Karl Buhler (Mukařovský, Jakobson) derived the functions from the factors of the speech act, Bohuslav Havránek’s from the social channels of communication. In functionalism the Prague theory receives a pragmatic underpinning without sacrificing to pragmatics the sign’s formal and semantic semantic dimensions. Prague epistemology’s most prominent feature—its synthesizing character, its preferring dialectic to reductionism—can be discerned here.

2. The Prague theory of structure is located within an interdisciplinary mereology. In 1929 Jakobson already recognized the interdisciplinarity of structuralism:

Were we to comprise the leading idea of present-day science in its most various manifestations, we could hardly find a more appropriate designation than structuralism. Any set of phenomena examined by contemporary science is treated not as a mechanical agglomeration but as a structural whole, and the basic task is to reveal the inner, whether static or developmental, laws of this system. (Selected 2:711)

For Mukafovsky, structuralism was “an epistemological stance,” the manner by which concepts are formed and put into operation: “The conceptual system of every particular discipline is a web of internal correlations. Every concept is determined by all the others and in turn determines them. Thus a concept is defined unequivocally by the place it occupies in its conceptual system rather than by the enumeration of its contents” (Kapitoly 1:13). Interdisciplinarity requires that aesthetics and poetics keep in touch with the advancement of human and social sciences: Mukafovsky examined the links between structuralism and Jan Smuts’s “biological holism” (Kapitoly 1:129); Trnka pointed to Russell’s relational logic as one of the inspirations of structuralism (159).

3. The Prague epistemology distinguished between the activities of ordinary readers and those of expert students of literature. In a late evaluation of the structuralist position, Jakobson maintained that the poem, like a musical composition, “affords the ordinary reader the possibility of an artistic perception, but produces neither the need nor the competence to effect a scientific analysis” (Dialogues 116-17). He emphasized, however, that the student of human communication is not an engineer of signals but rather deals with cultural phenomena endowed with meaning, history, and value. Jakobson distinguished a “preliminary stage” of enquiry, where the researcher is “the most detached and external onlooker,” a “cryptanalyst,” and a stage of “internal approach,” when he or she becomes “a potential or actual partner in the exchange of verbal messages among the members of the speech community, a passive or even active fellow member of that community” (Selected 3:574)· Such flexibility satisfies the diverse needs of the student of literature without confusing the practical literary activities of writing and reading with cognitive activities aimed at theoretical understanding.

4. Prague school epistemology reconciled Saussure’s opposition of synchrony and diachrony, of structural and historical study. Jakobson summed up the divergence from the father of structuralism: Saussure attempted

to suppress the tie between the system of a language and its modifications by considering the system as the exclusive domain of synchrony and assigning modifications to the sphere of diachrony alone. In actuality, as indicated in the different social sciences, the concepts of a system and its change are not only compatible but indissolubly tied. (Dialogues 58)

The evolution of language is no less “systemic and goaloriented” than its synchronic functioning (64).

In Prague, a comprehensive theory of literary history was developed: “What most sharply distinguishes Czech structuralism from the other twentieth-century literary theories is its commitment to literary history” (Galan 2). The PLC scholars unanimously claimed that literary history has to be based on literary theory. Even so, Mukafovsky’s first formulation of the principles of structuralist literary history in 1934 led to a polemic with traditionalists (see Galan 56-77). In 1936, Wellek published the penetrating essay “The Theory of Literary History,” while perhaps the most significant contributions to literary history are Vodiëka’s 1942 paper “Literární historie, její problémy a úkol” (reprinted in Strucktura) and his 1948 monograph. The PLC model of literary history was derived from the model of literary communication, with its three factors: writer, literary work, reader. Genetic history reconstructs the origins of literary works, structural history, and transformations in the “literary series”; and reception history, successive concretizations and interpretations (Struktura 16). In accepting genetic and reception history, the Prague scholars transcended their original historical “immanentism,” recognizing that “literary works are made by people, they are facts of social culture and exist in numerous relationships to other phenomena of cultural life” (25).

5. The Prague epistemology is empirical: the problems, concepts, and metalanguage of theory are rooted in the praxis of literary analysis. “Today,” according to Cervenka,

there is much speculation about the relationship between Marxism and structuralism, existentialism and structuralism, etc., as if we were dealing with a confrontation of contradictory philosophical trends. However, structuralism as conceived by Mukafovskÿ, Jakobson, VodiCka and their disciples… is not a philosophy, but a methodological trend in certain sciences, especially those concerned with sign systems and their concrete uses. (331-32)

Thanks to its empirical character, Prague school epistemology was able to overcome the postpositivistic split between sciences of nature (Naturwissenschaften) and human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). Because of the repeatability and regularity of the phenomena of nature, natural sciences are nomothetic; they aim at formulating universal laws. The Geisteswissenschaften, dealing with individualized and unrepeatable phenomena (historical events, human actions and personalities, works of art and of literature, etc.), are ideographic; they try to understand the uniqueness of form, meaning, relevance, and value (see Doležel). Some structuralists restricted literary theory (poetics) to the nomothetic study of categories and regularities, but the Prague epistemology is synthetic. It combines an abstract poetics of universal categories and general laws with an analytical poetics of individual literary works. Mukařovský’s 1928 monograph (reprinted in Kapitoly, vol. 3) already demonstrated this synthesis. A theoretical system is developed in the introduction and then used to describe a particular poem (Mácha‘s May) in the uniqueness of its sound patterning, its semantic organization, and its thematic structure. Later Mukafovsky proposed and explored the concept of semantic gesture, a poet’s idiosyncratic “constructional principle,” “which is applied in every segment of the work, even the most minute, and which results in a unified and unifying systematization of all the constituents” (3:239). Both in its name and in its sense, semantic gesture ties the literary structure to the creative subject; the organizational principle of the work’s semantics has a pragmatic base.

In the same spirit, Jakobson’s well-known poetological studies explore the role of abstract grammatical categories in the patterning of particular poems. Diverse works, such as the Hussite battle song, Aleksandr Pushkin’s love poetry, and a political poem by Bertolt Brecht, are idiosyncratic in their use of personal pronouns. Even each of Pushkin’s poems is “unique and unrepeatable in its artistic choice and use of grammatical material” (Language 136). Jakobson’s method, as Pomorska noted, “allows us both to generalize and individualize the phenomena under investigation” (Dialogues 230).

The combination of nomothetic and ideographic poetics was perfected by VodiCka in his most significant work, Počátky krásné prózy novočeské (1948). The monograph adopted an appropriate compositional pattern alternating analytical segments with theoretical reflections, a pattern invented by Wilhelm von Humboldt in his 1799 monograph on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea (see Doležel 66-68); Roland Barthes’s S/Z (1970) is a more recent, and more celebrated, example of this pattern. For instance, VodiCka reformulated the traditional system of narrative thematics by defining action, character, and setting in terms of elementary narrative units, motifs; then he demonstrated how in François-René de Chateaubriand’s Atala the motifs of setting (of nature, human habitats, social and cultural customs, etc.) become polyfunctional, taking part in the structuring of character or action. Overall, Vodička developed a systematic theory of narrative on both the thematic and the discourse levels and analyzed in its terms a unique historical event: the rise of modern Czech prose fiction.

Further Reading
Roman Jakobson and Krystyna Pomorska, Dialogues (trans. Christian Hubert, 1983); Felix Vodiëka, Poéàtky krâsné prôzy novoceské [The beginnings of Czech artistic prose] (1948),Felix Vodiëka, “The Integrity of the Literary Process: Notes on the Development of Theoretical Thought in J. Mukafovskÿ’s Work,” Poetics 4 (1972)
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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