Notes on Structuralism


– Structuralism is no longer limited to a linguistic theory or even a general theory of language, as is often supposed. Rather, it has become a general metaphysical system.

– Structuralist linguistics, which is based on the idea of fundamental dichotomies or oppositions, was combined with Kantianism and Neo-Kantianism for form a metaphysics based on two central principles: 1. anthropocentrism, and 2. the centrality of trauma.

– Recent thinkers to consider: Saussure, Natorp, Cassirer, Rickert, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Badiou, Žižek.

– Historical thinkers adopted by this tradition: Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel.

– At its most basic, structuralism is a system which says that reality is inherently antagonistic, and that the human being must shield itself from the trauma of the Real. This is done through the construction of meaning.

– See for instance Cassirer on the construction of symbolic meaning, Lévi-Strauss on culture and Lacan on the Symbolic.

– Structuralism is a philosophy obsessed with order. To psychoanalyze structuralism is to stumble upon theoretical OCD; the structuralist fears any sign or semblance of chaos, of disorder, of the Real. Yet while they consciously desire to keep out the creeping chaos outside of the Symbolic Order, they unconsciously rely on its creativity, productivity and energy. More than this however, such thinkers rely on the opposition of order and chaos, presupposing that the latter has existence-for-itself, while the latter is but a network dependent on the mutual opposition of its myriad members.

– Meaning is only seen then as a human function, serving essentially therapeutic purposes. Both Cassirer and Rickert assert that meaning and value are distanced from things like life and are purely rational. This is in opposition to Dilthey, Nietzsche, Bergson and Uexküll who insist that meaning is deeper than humanity and extends to all life. We should follow Peirce, Deleuze and Serres who go even further than this and insist that meaning is a constitutive part of existence, that all things structure reality in meaningful ways.



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10 responses to “Notes on Structuralism

  1. I find this whole trajectory of thought very interesting in you as your vehemence in critiquing structuralism, like mine, suggests that you’re also powerfully attracted to it. Have you, perchance, read Deleuze’s essay “What is Called Structuralism?” I’ve often felt as if Deleuze’s early work (DR, LoS), was an attempt to provide an ontology adequate to structuralist thought.



  2. I find this post very interesting. However, I have the feeling that you lump basically every post-Kantian thinker (who separates noumenon and phenomenon) under the label “structuralism.” For instance, you name Badiou and Žižek as recent thinkers of structuralism. How so? Especially Badiou seems to me to be staunchly anti-structurist (which is however not to say that he is post-structuralist!). That is, he opposes the idea of totalizability of the Real (or of the Ø). Structuralism however is based on the idea of totalizability of human access of the Real.
    Structuralism was at pains to reconstruct total systems that enable meaning. Obviously they believed that humans construct meaning out of the Real – but basically every philosopher believes this (whether pragmatists, post-structuralists, or neo-kantians). Do you not? The point Structuralists stressed was that we actually can reconstruct the systems that enable meaning.
    I believe however that Badiou stands rather in the tradition of Husserl (epoché), Heidegger (Offenhalten des Daseins) and Derrida (l’avenir), who all stress that – yes, the Real is a chaotic pleroma that must be formed into something meaningful by humans- , but more importantly that this revelation of meaning is non-totalizable. The classic showdown between Structuralists and Post-Structuralists was of course Derrida’s Johns Hopkins paper back in 1966.
    So, in my opinion, Structuralism is not only “a system which says that reality is inherently antagonistic, and that the human being must shield itself from the trauma of the Real” – this seems to be one of the few points virtually every modern philosophy agrees on. It is much more about making a claim about the possibility of understanding the process of making the Real meaningful. It is on this point that Badiou and many others disagree with Structuralism. Which is all to say: I don’t see how you can label Badiou a Structualist.

  3. Timothy,

    The problem with your comment is that you redefine what I am terming “structuralism” and then complain about the definition. For instance, I do not agree that structuralism “is based on the idea of totalizability of human access of the Real.” I have defined it in a very specific way as those thinkers who maintain there are things-in-themselves, but that they are not known cognitively, are not imagined, etc, but are experienced as trauma. This is coupled with the notion that this trauma is inherently meaningless and that meaning is entirely human constructed. The Real as that which is experienced only ever as trauma is precisely not totalizable, that is part of the traumatic element for the structuralist.

    As for Badiou specifically, he entirely accepts the structuralist program as I have defined it: Events are chaotic ruptures that are meaningless until structured by faithful subjects into a new situation. The present situation (as Being) is unchanging, the repetition of the self-same and thus has no novelty or meaning for Badiou (of course he doesn’t use such “hermeneutic”-laden language as to talk explicitly about meaning; we could instead say that there is really no value to the same).

    I also find this comment interesting: “So, in my opinion, Structuralism is not only “a system which says that reality is inherently antagonistic, and that the human being must shield itself from the trauma of the Real” – this seems to be one of the few points virtually every modern philosophy agrees on.”

    The point of my posts diagnosing structuralism is precisely to move away from it. The commonalities between Neo-Kantianism and contemporary thinkers like Badiou and Zizek is virtually unrecognized. Many people treat contemporary philosophy either as if it takes place in a vacuum or as if we should only treat the lineage explicitly referenced by the thinker in question. I’ll have another post soon on the structuralist myth, which should help shed further light on this.

  4. Hey Michael,
    thanks for the reply.
    Your point that you are defining Structuralism in a specific (and rather unorthodox) manner is helpful. Defining Structuralism as a philosophical movement that is mainly interested in how the Real is experienced as (meaningless) trauma is not traditional for sure. Especially since you also have Saussure, Cassirer and Jakobson in your list. The common definition has a much more limited scope, I believe. But nonetheless I think I see your general point about the Real and trauma of experience.
    But then what would you do with Heidegger (I’m thinking for instance of his mystical “Beiträge zur Philosophie”)? Paul Tillich (with his Kairos idea)? Levinas? And who also immediately comes to mind Kierkegaard (“Fear and Trembling”). With your definition of Structuralism, it would seem to me that these thinkers would have to be on your list.

    As you might be able to tell, I’m still not quite convinced. But I am interested in your thoughts and in the dialogue.

  5. Timothy,

    I think you’re misunderstanding my list above. Not all of the thinkers listed would accept the current form of structuralism as I have outlined it. As I said, structuralist linguistics (Saussure, Jakobson) is combined with Neo-Kantianism (Cassirer, Natorp, Rickert) to form a contemporary metaphysical position (Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Badiou, Žižek, and consequently their followers). It is this last position that I am interested in, but it must of course be contextualized.

    As for the thinkers you list, I don’t think they fit what I’m describing. Heidegger and Levinas for instance would not say the Real (or the in-itself) is traumatic in the same way Lacan or Žižek would. For the latter, this is something that must be guarded against, something from which humans must shield themselves. I think the thinkers you list would be open to the infinite possibility of the Real rather than horrified by it.

  6. Hi Michael,

    While reading this (and your other recent posts on structuralism), I was pondering how to position Deleuze. What suddenly struck me now is that perhaps the most interesting point of entry is Meillassoux’ article on Deleuze, “Subtraction and Contraction”, in Collapse III.
    For what Meillassoux can be seen as claiming, on Deleuze’s behalf, is that structuralism as commonly understood has got hold of the wrong end of the stick, that chaos is Symbolic. For instance, that “death, thus understood, is the triumphant reign of communication” (Collapse III, p. 104). That it is the structuralist virtual of differential relations which constitutes what D&G calls chaos in What is Philosophy?, that we must shield ourselves from, or at least sieve.
    On this reading, Deleuze is still a “structuralist” in your sense of the term, since he continues to believe that “the human being [the living being, in Deleuze’s case] must shield itself from the trauma of the Real”. But he is a weird kind of structuralist, since he claims that this Real is actually what other structuralists have termed the Symbolic….
    I don’t know if this rather spur-of-the-moment train of thought holds water or not. In any case, thanks for a stimulating post.

  7. J.

    The PoMo gang has misread Peirce for decades–really CSP’s views are neo-platonic, if anything, not really “structuralist” –tho…informed by modern science, language, pragmaticist….and not transcendental with a capital T, and for that matter, not entirely without quackery–(tho someone who admired…Lovecraft might find correspondences in CSP.) Quite different than post-Hegelian continental tradition (as is CSP’s reading of Hegelian process).

    They misread Kant as well (….as did Cassirer, arguably)–at least get Kant’s mistakes right.

  8. Pingback: Structuralism: An Extremely Short Introduction « The Wordsmithy

  9. Pingback: A Brief History of the Real, or, Laruelle’s Niche: Ontological Reification « The Wordsmithy

  10. Toby Simmons

    Hmm. Very, very interesting indeed. I enjoyed reading it!
    A great blog all-round, by the way. Let me know what you think of mine . . .
    Keep on posting!

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