Structuralism is a broad philosophical methodology which sought to explain meaning under a new light, as first proposed by French linguist Ferdinand De Saussure in the early 20th Century. Though structuralism begins as a methodology of linguistics, it soon came to be adopted by many diverse fields of interest within the human sciences and had soon knocked the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre from centre stage, and into the background of intellectual culture.
The broad interest that structuralism received means that as well as a method used by linguists, it was also quickly picked up by leading anthropologists, Marxists, literary critics, and other popular intellectuals. In addition to being used as a method of inquiry for various fields, structuralism should also be thought of as a distinctive worldview in philosophy. This worldview sought meaning not through individual experience, or through phenomena, or concepts, but instead it attempted to explain experience, phenomena, and concepts as only intelligible via their persisting underlying structures.
Existentialism had been the dominant cultural and intellectual movement of the early 20th century, a movement which focussed on subjective experience, and which took the individual subject as it’s center and starting point. It was the life-task of an existentialist to create himself, and his meaning and purpose in life. Structuralism turned things on their head by prioritising the objective structures beneath things, reducing the importance of individualism and subjectivism.
The perspective of structuralism was also at odds with the prevailing philosophy of language at the time, as conceived of by the logical positivists. The logical positivists, including Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, sought to isolate and analyse individual units (or atoms) of language, as a means to uncovering their deeper meaning. In other words, they attempted to come to an understanding of how the whole of language works by putting the small elements of language under a microscope, so to speak, in an approach referred to as Atomism. In contrast, structuralism is known as an Organic Worldview since meaning is acquired only through the total system, with individual units only able to gain a sense based on their place within the structure, as a reflection of their role in the system.
Now that we’ve contextualised the movement – it’s character, and it’s perspective to some extent – we come to the content. It’s important to understand that structuralism is founded from a base of semiology, and semiotics (the study of signs), and it is “The Sign” that takes the central role in the philosophy of Saussure.
As a little bit of background, since at least the time of Plato and his “Problem of Universals,” philosophy has struggled to reconcile the role of words in a language, and the relation they have to referents in the real world. While some words clearly designate individual objects, or people, the argument over the existence and nature of abstract entities (like fear, or love, or green) has had a complicated history. Saussure introduced an entirely new way of regarding words in language, through his conceptualisation of the sign.
Saussure views the sign as being composed of two distinct facets, neither one alone informing us, but together sufficient for us to have understanding and communication. The first facet of the sign is the sensible sound or mark when spoken or written, and this facet is called the signifier. Since in each language the written or verbal sound or mark are different for a given word, this demonstrates that the sounds or marks themselves must be arbitrary and therefore meaningless.
The second facet of the sign concerns the concept and meaning of the word which the sign points toward, and this is referred to as the signified. A word in a new, unknown language will be a signifier without a signified, whereas a word we do understand has our ideas and interpretation of the word combined to the signifier, this collection of ideas is the signified.
So the two facets of the “signs’ that compose our languages are: firstly, arbitrary, and secondly, fused with our interpretation and experience, and thus our subjectivity. So, once again, we are posed with the difficult question of how words and language produce meaning, and this is where we find the most revelatory of all Saussure’s ideas, difference.
It is concluded by Saussure that no term in language can have a positive meaning. Each term is determined solely by its place within the system, and therefore by all of the other terms in the system. Each term in the system is therefore defined solely by its being different to all others. A word is seen as like an empty placeholder, and we find its meaning only by the nature of its being similar to these sorts of words, and different to or opposite to those kinds.
French thinker Louis Althusser applies structuralism to the study of Marxism, creating “structural Marxism.” Traditionally, and particularly through the lens of Existentialism, Marxism had been viewed from a humanistic viewpoint. With an emphasis on Marx’s theory of alienation – concerning how the subject (individual) is isolated by class, and alienated in various ways from their work and lives by the changing forms of production as technology progresses through history. Althusser invigorated Marxism for a new generation of intellectuals by focussing not on the subjects, but on social class as an object of analysis inherent to the structure of society and economy.
French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote about the basic structure of human social relations, concluding that there must be four units at the base of any society that views incest as a taboo, namely: mother, father, brother, sister. As a social scientist, it was his aim to acquire facts, and he considers the incest-taboo an appropriate starting point, since, it forces a relation among the individuals within the structure, regardless of time and place.
Levi-Strauss also wrote a text on the structure of myth to reflect the way that stories and myths can give meaning. He identified different “mythemes,” these being the unchanging elements which make up many different types of stories. The main criticism of this sort of structuralism is that it treats any text dealing with a similar set of tropes, like loss and revenge, or rescuing a damsel in distress, by focussing on those elements which remain the same in all cases, leaving little or no room for individuality and originality.
Although there remains a great deal of interest and has even been a revival of interest in the ideas of Saussure in recent years, the ideas of structuralism were generally abandoned from serious intellectual discussion by the 1960’s. The project was ambitious and indeed revelatory for the new life it breathed into the study of Marxism, Linguistics, Anthropology, and Philosophy, and for the many new ideas which it inspired.
However, the downfall with structuralism was that it sought to make the social sciences, well, scientific. They wanted objective knowledge, and facts; however, their work never wandered far from the speculative and was always deeply philosophic in nature. Seeking the objective meaning in the world, and in language, but while claiming that words are meaningless, albeit via the medium of words. Despite this, structuralism offered an entirely new philosophy of meaning and of language that breaks from the tradition of Aristotle to Bertrand Russell. Perhaps the main reason that structuralism will be remembered, though, is the legacy which it left in its wake, namely the ideas stemming from “Deconstruction,” and “Post-Structuralism.”
Deconstruction is a philosophical concept from French thinker Jacques Derrida. Derrida writes taking many aspects of structuralism as granted, while extending many of them to their next logical conclusions, and at the same time, dismantling many of the ideas at the same time. It’s hard to define deconstruction because Derrida generally refused to do so, and any attempt by a variety of great minds since kind of fails too, however, this is part of the point of deconstruction. Derrida himself described deconstruction as “impossible”, as “nothing”, as well as spending plenty of time explaining what deconstruction is not.
Deconstruction is essentially Derrida’s way of dismantling the structures set up in structuralism, since, as structuralism explicitly accepts, there are no stable meanings. His work moved on from studying language, to studying writing and texts, and he is known for his famous quote that “there is no outside-the-text.” What he means by this is that within the text lies the potential for infinite re-readings and interpretations. That while language itself may not give us the clarity we seek, by reading between the lines and by breaking down the meaning that can be inferred beneath the text, within the ideology of the reader and the writer, deep in the presuppositions of the language, we may reach an infinitude of interpretations.
Here re-enters the culminating term of structuralism – difference, and it lies at the heart of Derrida’s project. In approaching the meaning of a term in language, structuralism tells us that we must reference other words in the system and that we can only know the meaning of a term by its difference. It is logical, then, as Derrida explains, that the other terms in the system which we use to comprehend the first must equally be subject to the same instability. The best way to illustrate this is that if we were to look up a term in the dictionary, and then proceeded to look up each and every term within the definition, and so on, we would find an infinite regress. For this reason, Derrida creates the term différance, to mean difference, but also defer-ance, since meaning must always be deferred.
Like deconstruction, poststructuralism is best thought of as a reaction to and continuation of structuralism via the work of Derrida, and like the work of Derrida, much of poststructuralism is based on a refutation of the conclusions of structuralism. The major poststructuralist thinkers were French intellectuals spanning the 1960’s and 1970’s, and their work still has a significant role in philosophy, linguistics, and literature today.
One of the dominant paradigms of post structuralism is that there are no absolutes. Traditionally important terms to philosophy like truth and meaning lose their stable meaning, and an emphasis on how meaning is relative (to time, place, culture, individual) took precedence over a search for absolute meaning. Whereas Saussure saw words themselves as arbitrary and focussed on the structure beneath, poststructuralists saw even the structures which organise our ideas as historically bias and subject to interpretation, and therefore all knowledge as a construct worthy of further analysis.
Roland Barthes advanced one of the most important ideas at the foundation of poststructuralism in a text called The Death of the Author. The Death of the Author posits that, based on the instability of meaning, the author is in no better a position to understand the meaning underlying their text than is their audience, the reader. The consequence of the idea is that the author of any text is no longer looked to as the authority, and just as Derrida demonstrates, that there are infinitely many possible re-readings and re-interpretations of any text, and all will be subject to present and personal bias. Barthes de-centered meaning in a way that opened literary theory up to a multitude of new perspectives such as postcolonialism, feminist theory, and queer theory.
Michel Foucault was a poststructuralist historian, and his text Madness and Civilization demonstrates how poststructuralism seeks to understand the meaning of a concept, in this case, madness. He traces the development of our notion of madness from the Renaissance to the Modern day, investigating the changes that have taken place and the cultural presuppositions which underlie their development.
Foucault considers the perspective that once regarded the mad as being in possession of some unusual, albeit disjointed kind of wisdom, into one which viewed them as objects of medical study and confinement. He uses many different sources and texts, including literary works, to build up a picture of a historical understanding of madness. His conclusion, in short, is that the age of reason brought about the idea of the mad as those lacking reason, and the social constructs which sought logic and reason as the highest goals, therefore marginalised and tried to reverse and to study the unreasonable mind.
One of the overarching conclusions of poststructuralism is that while our preconceived ideas and biases push us toward certainty, that it is the job of the free-mind to always question the authority and to rebel against fixed viewpoints. In poststructuralism, there are no absolutes, and the cultural movement quickly came to emphasise why there were no good definite reasons that drug use should be stigmatised, nor homosexuality, nor why the nuclear family was definitively the “right” way to live our lives.