Vertical and horizontal times in Saussure and Nevitt

In ABC of Prophecy: understanding the environment,1 Barry Nevitt cites Ferdinand de  Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics:

All sciences would profit by indicating more precisely the co-ordinates along which their subject matter is aligned. Everywhere distinctions should be made, between (1) the axis of simultaneities (vertical), which stands for the relations of existing things and from which the intervention of time is excluded; and (2) the axis of successions (horizontal), on which only one thing can be considered at a time but upon which are located all the things on the first axis with their changes.2

As noted by Nevitt, the bracketed designations of “vertical” and “horizontal” were added to Saussure’s passage by him.

McLuhan had this notion3 of crossing vertical and horizontal times very early from T.S. Eliot (and even earlier by implication from Lodge in Winnipeg), and of course knew of Saussure, but apparently did not read him until the late 1960’s, perhaps as prompted by Nevitt. Here he is in the posthumously published The Global Village: 

time considered as sequential4 (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous5 (right hemisphere) is ground. (10)

  1. Preview edition, 1980, publication 1985. The reference for the following citation is taken from the preview edition, which was the edition used by Eric McLuhan and may even have been known to Marshall.
  2.  Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Albert Riedlinger, orig 1916, translated by Wade Baskin, 1959 (later 1966 paperback edition used by Nevitt), 80. Saussure’s three courses in general linguistics were given in 1906-7, 1908-9 and 1910-11 and were not published in his lifetime. The Bally-Sechehaye edition used by Nevitt in the Baskin translation brought all three courses together mostly on the basis of students’ notes.
  3. It is a very different thing to ‘have a notion’ and to understand it and its implications. McLuhan continued to think about the plurality of time as times for his entire life, but was arguably as much in the dark about it when he died in 1980 as when he began to think about it in the 1930’s. (‘In the dark’, as used here, does not mean that no progress has been made.  It means that whatever progress has been made has not been understood internally.  It can be seen only by an external observer.)
  4. Diachronic.
  5. Synchronic.