Monday, May 25, 2020

Structuralism’s Attack on Logocentrism

Structuralism’s rejection of all ontological and epistemological sources of meaning can be seen as an attack on the logocentric approach that lies at the core of the philosophical and religious thought of the ancient, medieval, and modern periods. Originated by Ferdinand de Saussure in his 1913 work on linguistic studies, Course in General Linguistics, and further refined by Claude Lévi-Strauss, structuralism is an anti-metaphysical philosophy which denies the existence of Aristotelian reality and the higher reality (Platonic forms or religious Trinity), and posits that the world of human beings is the product of deep structures that pre-date consciousness.

Saussure holds that words precede the idea of things—a word (a sign) does not represent the union of a thing (a pre-existent thing-in-itself) with a name; rather, it unites a concept (signified) with the sound-image (signifier). By analyzing the deep structures, Lévi-Strauss interprets several popular myths—he arranges each element of the myth into a system which can be read both horizontally and vertically. The mythic structures that he traces are wide in scope and encompass not only the tales of heroes but also the economic realities, the incest taboos, and the routine household rituals of cooking and eating.

The structures are unconscious (not conscious), material (not metaphysical), and deterministic (not humanistic); they do not exist in things, or in elements which have meaning by themselves, but in the relation between things—the differences between the constituent parts gives rise to the structural meaning. The structures are complete, logical, and all-encompassing; they are dynamic and not static. Structuralism, however, is not free of a metaphysical desire for order—as Derrida showed in his philosophy of deconstruction. I talk about Derrida’s attack on logocentrism in my post, “On Derrida’s Deconstruction of Logos”.

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