How Structuralism Became “Post”



Every society has its songs, its dances, the stories it tells, the myths it makes, the histories it writes. Every culture has ways of loving and mating, way of forming families and raising children. Each tribe has its taboos and stipulates what is permitted, what sort of behavior is desired, what kind of clothing to be worn, what kind of food can be cooked. These myriad practices, seen in every social system, from the caves to the Internet, are cultural, not natural. Although the shaping of a society by its people is a universal practice, every group has its own distinct and unique ways of being. But despite the specificity of the time and place–the marked differences between the Roman Empire and the British Empire–Structuralism seeks a universal underlying pattern, a deep structure that can reveal that which is timeless about human construction of culture.

The first manifestation of what would be termed, much later, as “Structuralism” flickered in the work of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) a pre-Kantian historian who, as an Italian scholar examined ancient Roman culture through what he called The New Science (1725/1744, edited in 1928). Vico was a transitional writer, aware of the limitations of assigning all events in history to the workings of a Divine being, while remaining deeply religious; aware of the secular limitations of Descartes’ proposition that human beings possessed a priori innate modes of thinking, put in place by God. Writing at the dawn of the Enlightenment, Vico sought to find a middle ground between individual agency and universal forces. His efforts led him to study culture itself and in do doing he proposed, long before Georg Hegel or Karl Marx, that history moves in terms of what would later be termed “dialectics” with barbarism and civilization ebbing and flowing, one following the other.

Interested in how nations formed from cultural world views, Vico proposed that cultures emerged from what he termed “poetic wisdom” (sapienza poetica), which had many offshoots, such as “poetic morality,” which is to be opposed to modern reason and philosophy. Out of needs Vico considered “natural” and inspired by Providence, early societies explained themselves in terms of myths and songs, but these societies would develop and, over time, human history would advance in stages. Vico had developed a “science” of human history, the “physics of man,” which he understood in terms of the symbols, myths, and metaphors. What is significant about Vico and why he is important to contemporary Structuralism is that he understood that human beings, in telling tales through symbolic acts, were creating not just their cultures but also themselves. Vico’s works were not important in his own time but by the 1820s, The New Science was translated into German and French and began impacting philosophical thought.

The leap from Vico’s “poetic wisdom” of the eighteenth century to the modern Structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure and Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was marked by Kant’s Copernican Revolution that the mind created the world, not the other way around, and the concept of the Dialectic–Ideal on the part of Hegel and Material on the part of Marx. In contrast to Kant’s concept of i priori structures that governed epistemology, the formation of knowledge about the world, Piaget, in his study of children, found that the behavior changes with maturation and that over time a structure is formed in response to society’s needs. The structure, he posited, is all-encompassing, that is, it creates an entire frame for society that is coherent, and that this structure changes over time. The structure which is transformational and responsive to changing conditions, but, as Piaget, pointed out the framework is sealed or bounded. The structure rules itself from the inside and–to stress an important point–exists solely in terms of relations among the elements that exist in its boundaries.


Michel Foucault Lecturing to BarthesLacan, and Lévi-Strauss

It is with Saussure that Structuralism and consequently philosophy took a “linguistic turn,” for, as is obvious, culture works though language, its only tool. Therefore it is language, the only human means of expression (literature, songs, music, dance), which must be studied in terms of its internal structure. By the early twentieth century, linguistics moved to the fore and culture was regarded as an entity to be “read” with effects manifesting themselves in the world of art history with the writings of Erwin Panofsky and with the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) both of whom were at the Library of Cultural Sciences, also known as the Warburg Library after its founder Aby Warburg. During his time at the Hamburg Library, Cassirer, a Kantian philosopher, wrote three volumes, Philosophy of Symbolic Form (Die Philosophie der Symbolischen Formen), between 1923-29, with a fourth being published after his death. Volume 1: Language; Volume 2: Mythical Thought; Volume 3: The Phenomenology of Knowledge; Volume 4: The Metaphysics of Symbolic Forms). Like Vico and Piaget, Cassirer perceived of culture as progressing as society progressed, because human culture progressed, a liberal humanist stance that was bound to be disappointed.

Linguistic utterances–human symbolic expression–evolves throughout time from elementary or what Vico termed “primitive,” thinking to modern modern ways of thought which favored reason. Cassirer, however, used different categories of speech to explain different ways of thinking, all of which exist at the same time in any society. These ways of thinking, modes of thought, fulfilled very different needs and performed distinct functions. The foundation of symbolic thought was that which Cassirer termed “expressive” (Ausdrucksfunktion) in which humans could not see the distinction between reality and myth, or between the actual world and the stories that people tell to explain that world. The practice of representation (Darstellungsfunktion) exists at a higher level and devotes itself to the pragmatic existence in the here and now. The final category of thought, termed “signative” (Bedeutungsfunktion), or the practice of conceptual signification, was completely disconnected from real life and existed only in the abstractions of science and mathematics.

Each mode of thought, Cassirer asserted, had its place and each was equally valuable, and no one way of thinking should be elevated above another. He understood that myth, like science, was a way of explaining the world, but Cassirer also came to think of mythic thought as regressive and, in the case of the Nazis, even dangerous. While he was writing his magisterial three volumes, he also wrote a small book, Language and Myth (Sprache und Mythos) in which he placed the origin of language in myth. Myth is a purely symbolic/expressive form of language but language itself evolved away from mere expression to a more descriptive and exact denotation or pragmatic function. But because humans are symbol-making creatures animal symbolicum), we cannot/do not use words to “copy” the world but to “represent” the world symbolically. At whatever level it is working, mythic or symbolic, the mind creates the world. As Cassirer said,

The fundamental concepts of each science, the instruments with which it propounds its questions and formulates its solutions, are no longer regarded as passive images of something, but as symbols created by the intellect itself.

In this position, Cassirer was a pure Kantian, evoking the Copernican Revolution, which was, he asserted, the only way to avoid the “self-dissolution” of knowledge unfounded in palatable reality that is, at the same time, not totally dependent upon forms “outside” the mind. There are no forms outside the mind. As Cassirer stated in Language and Myth (1946),

Instead of taking them as mere copies of something else, we must see in each of these spiritual forms a spontaneous law of generation; an original way and tendency of expression which is more that a mere record of something initially given in fixed categories of real existence. From this point of view, myth, art, language and science appear as symbols; to in the sense of mere figure which refer to some given reality by means of suggestion and allegorical renderings, but in the sense of forces each of which produces and posits a world of its own. In these realms the spirit exhibits itself in that inwardly determined dialectic by virtue of which alone there is any reality, any organized and definite Being at all. Thus the special symbolic forms are not imitations but organs of reality, since it is solely by their agency that anything real becomes an object for intellectual apprehension, such as such is made visible for us. The question as to what reality is apart from these forms, and what are its independent attributes, becomes irrelevant here. For the mind, only that can be visible which has some definite form; but every form of existence has its source in some peculiar way of seeing, some intellectual formulation and intuition of meaning. Once language, myth, art and science are recognized as such ideational forms, the basic philosophical question is no longer that of their relation to an absolute real it which forms, so to speak their solid and substantial substratum; the central problem now is that of their mutual limitation and supplementation. Though they all function organically together in the construction of spiritual reality, yet each of these organs has is individual assignment..Man lives with objects only in so far as he lives with these forms; he reveals reality to himself, and himself to reality, in that he lets himself and he environment enter into this plastic medium, in which the two do not merely make contact, but fuse with each other.

After Cassirer, contemporary Structuralism split into two major “camps.” First, if one followed Cassirer’s logic, then philosophy itself it but a symbolic form born of language and should be understood in terms of linguistic structure. Second, if myth is, as Vico and Cassirer claimed, the basis for language, then myth itself needed to be reexamined by contemporary philosophy. That would be the task of Claude Lévi-Strauss and his version of anthropology as analyzed through the lens of Structuralism, as discussed in the post “Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structuralism.”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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