Saussure’s Structuralism

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A movement of thought in the humanities , widespread in anthropology , linguistics , and literary theory , and influential in the 1950s and 1960s , Structuralism is based primarily on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure , Broadly speaking Structuralism holds that all human activity and its products , even perception and thought itself , are constructed and not natural , and in particular that everything has meaning because of the language system in which we operate . It is closely related to Semiotics , the study of signs , symbols and communication , and how meaning is constructed and understood . In literary theory , such a view challenged the belief that a work of literature reflects a given reality ; instead , a text is seen as constituted of linguistic conventions . The anthropologist Claude Levi – Strauss was an important champion of structuralism , as was Roman Jakobsen . Northrop Frye , Noam Chomsky , Roland Barthes and the Marxist theorists Louis Althusser were also instrumental in developing the theory and techniques of Structuralism .

There are four main common ideas underlying Structuralism as a general movement : first, a system has a structure; secondly, the structure is what determines the position of each element in a whole; thirdly ‘structural laws’ deal with coexistence rather than changes ; and forurthly structures are the ‘real things’ that lie beneath the surface or the appearance of meaning.

Ferdinand de Saussure’s 1915 work , ‘A Course in General Linguistics’ ( English translation in 1959 ) , proposed that language is a system in which various components exist in relation to each other. Saussure makes three significant moves in his analysis of language –

First of all , he divides language into two main components :
( i ) The set of fixed rules by which we combine words into sentences , use certain words in certain ways.This he termed langue .
( ii ) Everyday speech where we use words in particular contexts.This he called parole.If langue is the system of rules and conventions that govern how we use words and meanings parole is,then , langue in context,parole , therefore , is live language.

In his second move , Saussure proposes a relational theory of language where
( i ) Words exist in relation to other word.
( ii ) The meaning of each word is dependent upon the meaning of other words .
Thus , meaning is the result of being able to recognize the difference between words : ‘cat ‘ is cat because it is not ‘bat’ or hat ‘. It is different in terms of the sound produced and the way in which it is written . Meaning thus emerges in the difference or opposition between Words . We work with binary or paired oppositions to make sense of words and sound in speech .

In his third move Saussure suggests that words and their meanings are not natural but created through repeated use and convention. The pronunciation or the writing of the word ‘ cat ‘ does not invoke the animal or its nature , but the word has come to be associated with the animal only thorough long use . Therefore , the word (or ‘signifier’) is connected to the meaning or concept ( the ‘signified’ ) in an arbitrary relationship . Together the signifier and signified constitute a sign.

Unlike the Romantic or Humanist models , which hold that the author is the starting point or progenitor of any text , Structuralism thus argues that any piece of writing has no origin , and that authors merely inhabit pre – existing structures (‘langue’) that enable them to make any particular sentence or story (‘parole’) , hence the idea that “language speaks us” rather than that we speak language . If a poem is taken as a structure constituted by units such as sounds , phrases , pauses , punctuation and words , its meaning depends upon the interrelation of these units .

By the 1960s , Structuralism had become a major force within the overall Continental Philosophy movement in Europe , and came to take Existentialism’s pedestal in 1960s France . In the 1970s , however , it came under increasing internal fire from critics who accused it of being too rigid and ahistorical , and for favouring deterministic structural forces over the ability of individual people to act , and schools like Deconstructionism and Post – Structuralism attempted to distinguish themselves from the simple use of the structural method and to break with structuralistic thought .

Saussurean Structuralism

Saussure and Structuralism

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