Philosophy 242 - 12.5.1 Structuralism and Post-structuralism

The philosophical battle over whether there is one nonnegotiable reality took shape in conversations around structuralism and post-structuralism. Structuralists historically looked to verbal language and mathematics to show that symbols cannot refer to just anything we want them to refer to. For example, most people would say it is ridiculous to use the word car to refer to a dog. Rather, language and mathematics are universal systems of communication emerging from a universal structure of things. This claim sounds similar to Platonic idealism, in which the structures that ground our world are understood as intangible “forms.”


You can learn more about Plato’s concept of forms in the chapter on metaphysics.

Post-structuralists argue that universal structures are abstract ideas that cannot be proven to exist. They contend that structuralists are mistaken in their understanding of the internal workings of language—or any system—as unmediated (or not influenced by the outside world). This mistake, they argue, had misled people into believing in a universal structure of things. Post-structuralism suggests that the meaning of things is in perpetual authorship, or is always being created and recreated. Post-structuralists dispute the claim that any universal system of relations exists. Rather, they argue that anything presented as a universal system is in fact the product of human imaginations and almost certainly reinforced by the power dynamics of a society.

One clear example of the post-structuralist critique of structuralism can be found in the debate over psychoanalysis.

Freud’s Structuralism in Psychology

The theory of psychoanalysis is based on the idea that all humans have suppressed elements of their unconscious minds and that these elements will liberate them if they are confronted. This idea was proposed and developed by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). For Freud, psychoanalysis was not only a theory but also a method, which he used to free his patients from challenges such as depression and anxiety. In Freud’s early thinking, the “unconscious” was defined as the realm in which feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that exist outside of consciousness reside. These elements of the unconscious were understood to set the stage for conscious experience and influence the human automatically (Westen 1999). Freud later abandoned the use of the word unconscious (Carlson et al. 2010, 453), shifting instead to three separate terms: id, referring to human instincts; superego, indicating the enforcer of societal conventions such as cultural norms and ethics (Schacter, Gilbert, and Wegner 2011, 481); and ego, describing the conscious part of human thought. With these three terms, Freud proposed a universal structure of the mind.

Post-structuralist and Feminist Critiques of Psychoanalysis

Post-structuralists point out that Freud’s ideas about psychoanalysis and universal structures of the mind cannot be proven. The subconscious foundations on which psychoanalysis is grounded simply cannot be observed. Some have argued that there is no substantive difference between the claims of psychoanalysts and those of shamans or other practitioners of methods of healing not grounded in empirical methods (Torrey 1986). French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and French psychoanalyst Felix Guattari (1930–1992) took an even harsher approach, presenting psychoanalysis as a means of reinforcing oppressive state control.

Belgian philosopher Luce Irigaray (b. 1930) and others have criticized Freud’s ideas from a feminist perspective, accusing psychoanalysts of excluding women from their theories. In this view, psychoanalysis is based on a patriarchal understanding. Those taking this view point out that Freud made a number of patriarchal claims, including that sexuality and subjectivity are inseparably connected, and that he viewed women as problematic throughout his life (Zakin 2011). Yet many psychoanalytic feminists express a critical appreciation for Freud, utilizing what they find valuable in his theories and ignoring other aspects.

Ferdinand de Saussure and the Structure of Linguistics

Along with US pragmatist C. S. Pierce (1839–1914), Swiss philosopher, linguist, and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) was responsible for creating a system of linguistic analysis known as semiotics. Semiotics is an analysis of how meaning is created through symbols, both linguistic and nonlinguistic. One of the foundational tenets of Saussure’s linguistic theory is the idea that language has both an abstract (langue) component and an experiential (parole) component, what we hear or see when it is used every day. A word alludes to an intangible essence represented by a sound or collection of visible symbols (Fendler 2010). This audible or visual expression has a distinct life from that which it represents. Language is a system that functions according to certain rules, which allow for some things but not others. For example, we can’t say a person is walking and standing still at the same time (Nöth 1990). As an audible or visual expression, however, language is also a product of society. For example, the word dope, which conventionally meant narcotics, has also come to signify something that is well-done. Saussure held that there were structural laws that define how linguistic signification operated; the semiotics of Saussure and Pierce were the means of discovering these laws. Semiotics became a cornerstone of structuralism.

Wittgenstein and the Linguistic Turn

Structuralism was accompanied by what is known in philosophy as the linguistic turn. The term linguistic turn comes from Austrian philosopher Gustav Bergmann (1906–1987). It refers to philosophical movements in the Anglophone world starting in the early 20th century that privileged verifiable statements over statements that could not be verified. Since the statement “I can see clearly now” could be verified by a vision test, it would have more value than the statement “God exists,” which is not verifiable (Rorty 1991, 50).

The view that language has internal continuity was championed by the early work of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) but rejected in his later work. In later works, such as Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein concludes that language is verifiable only within its particular context. For example, the claim “God exists” may not be verifiable for an adherent of analytic philosophy (a term for the branch of philosophy concerned with statements that can be proved to be logically possible through analysis). However, the claim might be verifiable for a person who has had an experience with a particular deity or deities, as their very experience is the proof.

Key Post-structuralist Ideas about Self and Text

Associated with the thought of French philosophers Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), and Roland Barthes (1915–1980) and US philosophers Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) and Judith Butler (b. 1956), among others, post-structuralism proposes new ideas about our understanding of the self and our interpretations of texts. Post-structuralism proposes that there is no such thing as a preexistent human “self” outside of its construction by society; what we call the “self” is a confluence of geographical region of birth, upbringing, social pressure, political issues, and other situational circumstances. For the post-structuralist, however, there is an experiencing entity perpetually in process, and that experiencing entity cannot be constricted to the boundaries of what we think of as the “self.” Similarly emphasizing context, post-structuralists argue that the meaning intended by the author of a text is secondary to the meaning that the audience derives from their encounter with the text and that a variety of interpretations of a text are needed, even if the interpretations that are generated are conflicting.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax