Structuralism: A Helpful Overview

Ok, so today we’re going to take a look at a concept called Structuralism I’m not sure how much you’ve studied this in the past, but I guarantee you that it has influenced your life and our culture more than you might realize It was developed in the early 1900s and it’s basically an approach to understanding of life, and the way it does this is by looking at the underlining systems or the underlining structures– hence, the term “structuralism.” So in this video, I’m going to start out by looking at the historical notions that it overturned, and then we’ll look at it’s early influencers, what exactly it entails, and then we’ll get into the implications of Structuralism and how it’s affecting your life and our culture So get ready for this, it’s going to be intense INTRO Ok, so we’re going to begin by defining a few terms that Structuralism is going to throw out the window This has been communicated very elegantly by Dr. Louis Markos’ lectures on Structuralism, so I want to give credit him for his insights on this Alright, so I have these two terms up here Ontology and epistemology Ontology is the study of being a way of uncovering something’s eternal essence Epistemology is the study of knowing and the notion of belief and how we can access rational knowledge I wanted to define these terms because historically, these have been of great concern to philosophers But as we’re going to see, Structuralism is going to break from this in order to get to a new source of meaning Now how does it do that? Let’s get back to some of the roots of philosophy Remember this guy? I told you, we can’t get away So if you remember, Plato believed in the ‘forms’ and that the ultimate idea, or the essence of everything, existed in the heavens Plato believed ideas were real things, they had real essences, they were not shadowy or insubstantial, manmade—they were real truths Those forms are the origins of everything in our world So here is Plato’s system with the true essence and reality existing in this heavenly realm Structuralism is going to turn that on its head It’s going to say no, no, no—there’s not some kind of spiritual essence or reality that is informing our material experience Any kind of metaphysical meaning that we think we are experiencing is simply arising out of –or is a product of– material system and structures So if you want a perfect example of this, just take a look at the proto-structuralist Karl Marx You have all heard of this guy So Karl Marx argued that religion, philosophy, art are not these pure vehicles of higher truths but claimed that they are products of underlying economic structures For Marx, meaning doesn’t start up there and proceed downward, meaning begins in our world –the physical, material, and all these socioeconomic forces, and then, it makes it’s way upward So things like democracy, religion—for Marx, all of those things are just products of socioeconomic forces So this is how Marx breaks from ontology What about epistemology? Epistemology is the study of knowing, so the idea of the subjective mind Pure consciousness If you recall Descartes “I think, therefore I am.” Historically, the center of all truth was our consciousness, our ego, our way of knowing Well, Structuralism overturns this and they will say that even our identity and consciousness is not the origin of anything They will say it is just the product of material, physical forces I’m going to throw up another proto-structuralist that you will probably recognize This is Sigmund Freud He was hugely influential and basically tried to overturn our understanding of epistemology or our understanding of how we know Freud tried to remove the self as the center or origin of meaning by showing that it is not the clear, meaningful patterns of our conscious mind, but the deep, hidden structures of our unconscious mind that determine who we are as individuals So basically Freud said that our conscious mind cannot be the center because even our

conscious mind is a product of our unconscious mind So for the structuralists, meaning and truth doesn’t come from above or from within, rather, they believe the real source of all meaning and truth are these deep structures As I mentioned earlier, they believe that the source of everything is some sort of material system or underlining structure So let’s take a look at the structure of language, which the structuralists will say is a self-contained system To the structuralist, the only thing giving words meaning are the structure of words that surround it and the relationships and differences that exist Thus words do not have any inherent meaning, they can only act on the principle of differentiation Now, what do I mean by this? Well think about the game “Guess Who.” In this game, you find out who it is by determining who it’s not, structural qualities about it, and by making wrong guesses To the structuralist, this is how language works Take a look at these descriptive words This is the external structure in which you can understand another word Can you guess which word these terms are referring to? It’s the word “tree” Ok so to the structuralist, the term tree doesn’t refer to this object because of some innate quality of the words but mostly because it doesn’t refer to other things “Grass, or bush, or lake.” Structures are not founded on things—or individual elements that have meaning in and of themselves But instead, they are founded on relations between things Structural meaning rises out of the differences between all these different parts The individual elements of a structure have no internal meaning, it’s only when you arrange those things in a system or structure of differences that you have a structure that can determine meaning The word’s structure is merely created by the common understanding of people It’s not fixed or tethered to a higher reality I guess at this point, I should introduce you to one of the ring leaders of Structuralism. His name is Ferdinand de Saussure Because, really, structuralism originates in his linguistic studies And Saussure is going to argue that language and words are completely arbitrary Now for most of us, when we speak, we carry this notion that our words mean something and that our words are not arbitrary and that they’re somehow linked to some kind of Idea with a capital I But Saussure didn’t see it this way For Saussure, a word or what he calls a sign does not unite this pre-existent thing with a perfect name Rather, a word or sign links a concept, which is called “signified” with a sound or symbol, which is called signifier So to the Structuralist, when I say the word “tree” all I’m doing is looking at a concept of a tree and coming up with a sound Words are just letters and sounds we slap on to explain some concept and there’s no real link between what’s coming out of your mouth and the actual concept. Saussure even says the relationship between the signified and signifier is arbitrary And what he offers as proof is that if it were not arbitrary, there’d only be one language in the world What makes the English word for tree any closer to meaning than the French, Spanish or Chinese word? He says our words are arbitrary, they don’t have meaning or capture truth Words are simply arbitrary So you can see how in some way, the structuralist is that annoying brother in the backseat poking holes at everything you say And by picking it apart, they start to undermine our whole notion of reality and understanding of life They assert that everything we have come to know as capital T- Truth can be traced back and explained away in material origins

And they do this by pointing to the underlining structures To them, the underlining structures can explain anything There is no mystery, no metaphysical essence, just a systematic and deterministic string of ones and zeros So here’s a quick overview of the qualities of a structure And for the Strucuturalist, this is what undergirds every subject of understanding To them, the structure is unconscious, materialistic, and deterministic Again, we are not the makers of our own destiny, we are determined by these structures Secondly, structures are not founded on things, but relations between things I mentioned this when talking about language, but let me give you another example Think about a CD As many of you know, it works on a binary code So every bit of information is encoded as either a 1 or a 0 Now the ones and zeros have no meaning in and of themselves But when you take them together as a system of differences (1 is not zero, zero is not one), and you string them out, they produce a complex symphony So 1 and 0 is nothing, only the structure of differences that create this sound That’s kind of what the structuralists are arguing here Think about your DNA MY DNA is a kind of structure and it’s formed of four elements abbreviated: C, A, T, G Now the individual C, A, T, G have no meaning in and of themselves, but when you string together a C, A, T, G in a system of differences, you have a living, breathing, conscious human being. So you get what I’m saying, the structures are not founded on inherent things but on the relationship between those things. Thirdly, structures are complete, logical, and all-encompassing They not static but dynamic and are constantly transforming themselves to form new elements and change over time And lastly, structures are found in all areas of thought and study Basically, any discipline can be interrogated at its structure How does this affect you? Well, for one, ithis kind of explains why the sciences taking over most disciplines Some have even said “humanity is being drained from the humanities.” And you certain see this in contemporary art, in fact a lot of contemporary artists take a little bit more cold and calculated approach to their art and what was once considered a discipline of transcendence, it now has more of a scientific approach And beauty becomes arbitrary and explainable The influence of structuralism cuts very deep in contemporary art Because people can analyze the arts at its structure, music becomes reducible to its structure and can almost be treated like an equation Many of you have taken personality tests These tests are designed to analyze the structures underlining your actions and try to help explain why you are the way you are I wanted to introduce you to somebody else. This is Claude Levi-Strauss He developed structuralism further Most people think horizontally, but Strauss says, “Look at all these myths. What if we pay attention to the vertical rows?” And when we do this, we notice the hidden structure that underlies the system and we see the all the differences. So that’s what Strauss contributes to this whole discussion. He starts analyzing structures and thinking about them in different ways– not just horizontally, but vertically, and by doing so is able to pull out other things you can notice from this distance Ok, so I’ve outlined the main ideas of structuralism, but now I wanted to offer a bit of a critique or raise some questions considering whether or not this is an adequate way of understanding things So first of all, let’s consider the ironies of structuralism:

Irony #1- The structuralist insists that meaning is not a product of human desire, yet their obsession to organize all thought and practice into a universal system betrays this So that’s the first irony The second irony: The structuralist rejection of all ontological and epistemological centers is followed by their own structure as a new center You can see the ironies that arise from this I would also add that to them, words are arbitrary Yet, they remain the necessary tools in which they construct their arguments So needless to say, there are some unresolved issues I think if we are not careful, we will look to these underlining structures and assume that we are just pre-programed individuals operating in a deterministic system This has huge implications for understanding free will and our own autonomy, and how we find meaning It’s important to remember that while a structural scientific approaches may explain the “how,” it is not a field of study to explain the “why.” And it cannot give an account for human agency John Lennox, a mathematician and Emeritus Professor at Oxford addresses this notion in his book, “Can Science Explain Everything?” John Lennox uses the example of boiling water And asks us to consider the question “Why is it boiling?” One explanation would be to say “Well, it’s boiling because heat is being conducted through the base of the kettle and agitating the molecules of water, and the water’s boiling.” There you go That explains it That’s a structural, scientific explanation But Lennox says there’s another kind of explanation, and that is the water is boiling because I’d like a cup of tea Now, you can see how both of those explanations are valid, they don’t conflict, they don’t compete, but they’re complementary, and one could say they’re both necessary One is a scientific explanation, and the other is an agent explanation And just because you can break apart and analyze something’s underlining structure, does not mean you have a full explanation And this is where I think structuralism falls short And it’s ironies only point to this further Ok so just as a recap, today we just looked at this concept called Structuralism We talked about how it attempted to overturn major historical concepts like ontology and epistemology I’m thinking about Marx and Freud We also talked about how linguists like Saussure and Levi-Strauss used the structure of language and dismantled it– ultimately, declaring that words are arbitrary For the structuralist, the meaning of words is completely dependent on what they believe to be a man-made structure and therefore not tethered to some type of absolute truth or essence To them, everything can be explained by analyzing the material structures, which are ultimately arbitrary because they’re man-made So next time, we will see the ideas established in Structuralism will eventually bleed into what we call Post-Structuralism Something to look forward to! Thank you for your attention We’ll catch you next time!