This is a puerile dig from the archives. Just wanted to park it here to rest and rust and then probably forgotten, until a new post on structuralism as a philosophy of mathematics comes up, which, it shall soon. In the meanwhile, this could largely be skipped.


Structuralism is an umbrella term involving a wide range of disciplines that came to fruition with the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The basic idea revolves round the study of underlying structures of significations that are meaningfully derived from ‘texts’. A ‘text’ is anything that owes its existence to a document or anything that has the potential of getting documented. The analyses for the discovery of structures underlying all these significations and texts and the conditions of possibilities for the existence of these significations and texts is what structuralism purportedly does. Saussure’s ‘Course in General Linguistics’, published posthumously, and seeing the light of the day because of his students’ note taking influenced ‘Structural Linguistics’, thereby explaining the adequacy of language for describing things concrete and abstract and in the process expanding the applicability of what language could do.

The starting point of Saussure’s analysis is Semiology, a science that undertakes the study of signs in society. These signs that express ideas build up the system of language for him. Signs are comprised of langue (language) and parole (speech). Langue is an abstract homogeneous system of language that is internalized by a given speech community, whereas parole is a concrete heterogeneous act of putting language into practice. In Saussurian jargon, Langue describes the social, impersonal phenomenon of language as a system of signs, while parole describes the individual, personal phenomenon of language as a series of speech acts made by a linguist subject. Signs attain their iconic status for Saussure due to meaning production when they enter into relationships with their referents.(1) Every sign is composed of a pair, a couple viz, signifier and signified, where signifier is a sound image (psychologically considered rather than materially), and signified is a concept. Signifier is the sensible part of the sign. A signified on the other hand is a connotation, an attachment that the signifier carries, a meaning, or a mental image of an entity that somehow misses out manifesting in the proximity. In other words, the signified of a signifier is not itself a sensible part of the sign. Signifier without the signified and vice versa strips a sign of its essence and therefore any meaning whatsoever (metaphysics ruled out for the moment!), and meaningfulness of signs in any discourse is derived from internal systemic relations of difference. This is precisely what is meant when Saussure says that language is a system of differences without positive terms (for the record: this is accepted even in Derrida’s post-structuralist critique of Saussure). The positivity of terms needs deliberation here. We recognize language, or more generally the marks inhabiting the language by virtue of how each and every mark is distinct/difference from each and every other mark inhabiting the same language. This distinction or difference is neither a resident with the sensible part of the sign, or signifier, nor with the mental/insensible part of the sign, or signified. Now, if the signifier and the signified are separated somehow, then language as guided by differences connoting negativity is legitimate. But, as has been mentioned; a sign is meaningful only when the signifier and the signified are coupled together, the meaning attaches itself a positive value. This only means that language is governed by differences. In the words of Saussure,

Whether we take signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or a phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. Proof of this is that the value of a term may be modified without either its meaning or sound being affected, solely because a neighboring term has been modified.

Signs were value laden, for only then would linguistics become an actual science, and for this realization to manifest, signs in any language system were determined by other signs in the same language system that helped delimiting meaning and a possible bracketed range of usage rather than a confinement to internal sound-pattern and concept. A couple of ramifications follow for Saussure from here on viz, signs cannot exist in isolation, but emanate from the system in which they are to be analyzed (this also means that the system cannot be built upon isolated signs), and grammatical facts are consolidated by taking recourse to syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses. The former is based on the syntactic or surface structure in semiotics, whereas the latter is operative on the syntagms by means of identifying its paradigms. The syntagmatic and paradigmatic analyses were what made Saussure assert the primacy of relations of difference that made any language operate. Syntagms particularly belong to speech, and thereby direct the linguist in identifying the frequency of its usage before being incorporated into language, whereas, paradigms relationalize associatively thus building up clusters of signs in the mind before finally imposing themselves on syntagms for the efficient functionality of the language.

So, fundamentally structuralism is concerned with signifiers and relations between signifiers, and requires a diligent effort to make visible what is imperceptible and at the same time responsible for the whole phenomenon to exist, and that being the absent signified. The specialty of absent signified is to carry out the efficacy of structuralism as a phenomenon, without itself sliding into just another singifier, and this is where Derrida with his critique of structuralism comes in, in what is known as post-structuralism. But, before heading into the said territory, what is required is an attempt to polish structuralism by viewing it under some lenses, albeit very briefly.

Structural anthropology as devised by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his Structural Anthropology (1 and 2) studied certain unobservable social structures that nonetheless generated observable social phenomenon. Lévi-Strauss imported most of his ideas from the structuralist school of Saussure, and paralleled Saussure’s view on the unknow-ability of grammar usage while conversing, with the unknow-ability of the workings of the social structures in day-to-day life. Thought as such is motivated by various patterns and structures that show proclivities towards redundancy in these very various situations. This means that the meaning or the signified is derived from a decision that somehow happens to have taken place in the past, and hence already decided. And the very construction of thoughts, experience is what structural anthropology purports to do, but with beginnings that were oblivious to social/cultural systems and wedded to objectivity of scientific perspective. Although criticized for the lack of foundations of a complete scientific account and ignorant towards an integration of cultural anthropology and neuroscience, the structural anthropology remains embraced amongst anthropologists.

Other important political variant of structuralism is attributed to Louis Althusser, who coined the idea of structural Marxism as against humanistic Marxism by emphasizing on Marxism as a science that has ‘studying’ objective structures as its goal, as against the prison house of pre-scientific humanistic ideology embraced by humanistic Marxism. The major tenet of this school of Marxism lay in its scathing critique of the instrumentalist version that argued for the institutions of the state as directly under the control of those capitalist powers, and instead sought out to clarify the functionality of these institutions in order to reproduce the capitalist society as a whole.

After these brief remarks on structural anthropology and structural Marxism, it is time for a turn to examine the critiques of structuralism in order to pave a smooth slide into post-structuralism. The important reaction against structuralism is its apparent reductionist tendency, wherein deterministic structural forces are pitted over the capacities of people to act, thus anthropologically weakening. Within the anthropological camp itself, Kuper had this to say,

Structuralism came to have something of the momentum of the millennial movement and some of its adherents thought that they formed a secret society of a seeing in a world of the blind. Conversion was not just a matter of accepting a new paradigm. It was, almost, a question of salvation.

Another closely allied criticism is confining to biological explanations for cultural constructions, and therefore ignoring the social constructions in the process. This critique is also attached with the Saussurian version, for it was considered as too closed off to social change. This critique could not have been ameliorated for the presence of Voloshinov, who thematized dialectical struggles within words to argue for the language to happen primarily through a ‘clash of social forces’ between people who use words, and thereby concluding that to study changes in signs and to chart those changes mandates the study of class struggles within society.

(1) Back in the 19th Century an important figure for semiotics, the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, isolated three different types of sign: The symbolic sign is like a word in so far as it refers by symbolising its referent. It neither has to look like it nor have any natural relation to it at all. Thus the word cat has no relation to that ginger monster that wails all night outside my apartment. But its owner knows what I’m talking about when I say “your cat kept me awake all night.” A poetic symbol like the sun (which may stand for enlightenment and truth) has an obviously symbolic relation to what it means. But how do such relationships come about? Saussure has an explanation. The indexical sign is like a signpost or a finger pointing in a certain direction. An arrow may accompany the signpost to San Francisco or to “Departures.” The index of a book will have a list of alphabetically ordered words with page numbers after each of them. These signs play an indexical function (in this instance, as soon as you’ve looked one up you’ll be back in the symbolic again). The iconic sign refers to its object by actually resembling it and is thus more likely to be like a picture (as with a road sign like that one with the courteous workman apologising for the disruption).

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