A Brief Introduction to Structuralism
The English word “structure” comes from structum, the past participle of the Latin struere, meaning “put in order.” There are two kinds of structuralism: structuralism as a mode of thinking, a general tendency of thought, or a philosophical view, and the narrower definition relating it to a method of inquiry, deriving chiefly from linguistics. Structuralism as a way of thinking can be traced back at least to Aristotle, whose Poetica is an interpretation of literary structure. G. Vico’s The New Science may also be a modern structuralist work. The contemporary structuralists, in both senses of the term, include the French Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gérard Genette, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Jean Piaget, Roland Barthes, Algirdas J. Greimas, the Russian Roman Jacobson, Mikhail M. Bakhtin, and the American C. S. Peirce, Edward Sapir, and Noam Chomsky. All of them share the belief that “the reality of the objects of the human or social sciences is relational rather than substantial,” and practice a critical method that “consists of inquiring into and specifying the sets of relations (or structures) that constitute these objects or into which they enter, and of identifying and analyzing groups of such objects whose members are structural transformations of one another”. Structuralist linguistics was a more recent development. Until the turn of the twentieth century, language study was “philology,” i.e., the comparative study of language in its historical development, especially its actual use. Language in this study was taken to be the product of thinking, and language study, essentially the collection of empirical language data, was comparatively simple, transparent, and closed. Then a fundamental change took place: language, from the philosophical perspective, concerns the nature of meaning, and preconditions the way people think. This conceptual revolution was initiated by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. At 15 he wrote an “Essay on Languages” trying to derive linguistic universals from the phonetic patterns of the few languages he knew, but was denounced as “presumptuous.” Though his structuralist tendency was more apparent in the “Dissertation on the primitive vowel-system in Indo-European Languages” concerning “a system for all vowels” published at 21, Saussure never published anything substantial thereafter. In 1916, three years after his death, two of his students published, in his name, the Course in General Linguistics, based on the notes taken by the students in his lectures, which, in spite of its dubious authorship, remains “the best introduction there is to the principles on which Structuralism rests”. The core concept of the Course is that of langue/ parole. While individual utterance is “parole,” the language regulated by linguistic “rules” or conventions to be observed by every member of the community is “langue”: “parole generates a message and langue understands or interprets it.” For a science of signs, Saussure had to “bracket” the idiosyncratic parole so that he may directly confront the ideational object, the more stable system of langue. What distinguishes langue from parole is its arbitrary, relational and systematic nature. Before Saussure, language was generally taken to be a “naming process,” i.e., linguistic phenomena were the mechanical reflection of the material world, whose change pre-determined the change of language. The first distinction Saussure made was that of the signifier (the linguistic sign), signified (concept or sound-image aroused by the signifier), and referent (related material world). To emphasize the non-referentiality of signification, its process is understood to be the relationship of the signifier and the signified leaving no room for the referent. Since this relationship is arbitrary, the meaning of language does not relate to the external world, and its generation is the result of the interaction of...
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