art as not autonomousOverview

Structuralists view society and its rules as expressions of deep structures, often binary codes, that express our primary natures. A systematic study of such codes is semiotics, which was later hijacked by Poststructuralists as evidence that language alone provides a true reality.

Introduction: Pierce

Ferdinand de Saussure was not the first to propose a science of signs: the American Charles Pierce (1839-1914) independently {1} developed semiology within the context of pragmatism. Pierce side-stepped Descartes' scepticism, observing that we are persuaded by the number and variety of arguments supporting a conclusion, rather than by the meditations of one individual, even ourselves. "The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed upon by all who investigate is what we mean by truth, and the object represented in this opinion is real." Pierce examined these investigations (methods of inquiry, standards of inference, ways of clarifying, identifying hypotheses, etc.), classifying them by the number of relations they exhibit. Meaning and understanding involve threefold relations, and as such constituted signs. Semiotics is a theory of how we are guided and constrained in interpreting signs, and some of Pierce's terminology is still widely used: iconic (sign resembles referent), indexical (sign is causally associated with referent) and symbolic (sign has an arbitrary relation to referent). Indeed, most things ultimately could be seen as signs: mathematical and logical symbolism, even science itself.

Saussure's Semiotics

Saussure worked on a much smaller canvas and devised a semiology that properly applied to linguistics. Certainly the signified (concept) and signifier (sound or letter group) were connected only arbitrarily, as had been noted since Aristotle. But Saussure made it a cardinal feature of his system: the principle of arbitrariness, he said, dominates all linguistics. The English call their faithful friend dog and the Spanish perro. Historically, there are reasons for the difference, but Saussure's approach removes them from consideration: we look only at language as normal speakers use it now.

Binary opposition is a common feature of the western intellectual tradition (e.g. individual versus society, true versus false) and Saussure writes this opposition into his system. No particular unit (word, sound, concept) has any intrinsic value beyond what it derives from the presence of other units in the system, similar or dissimilar. Any unit (and that includes larger elements of syntax and meaning) can substitute for any other, or be compared to another. Words acquire their values in two ways. One is by virtue of being strung together in sentences: their syntagmatic relationships. The other is paradigmatic, associative, from experience of the world outside, whether directly through sense impressions or via mental operations. This paradigmatic way is not logical: we build up chains of associations — school, playtime, games, competition, etc. — where the end members have no obvious connection with each other. {2}

Two points need to be made. Firstly, language can be studied from many aspects (as individual expression, social need, aesthetic shape, etc.) but Saussure's approach cuts these off, treating language as a self-contained system of signs. The arbitrary nature of signs is a product of that approach: it is not proved by his system but presupposed by it. Secondly, the binary opposition is a structuring device: a conscious choice. Formal logic has a stronger case for the opposition (true or false) but has in practice an imperfect grasp on the world, commonly uses more than two values, and has branched into deontic, modal etc. forms.


Structuralism originated in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss on pre-literate peoples. Lévi-Strauss {3} was a contemporary of Sartre and French existentialism, but his thinking went back to the collectivist notions of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who saw society as the determining force. Societies controlled the reasoning and morals of their citizens, and it is therefore societies as a whole that should be studied, in a rational, secular and scientific manner. In this spirit, Lévi-Strauss analyzed the kinship and myths of Brazilian peoples, deriving sets of rules or structures that represented them in a quasi-mathematical terminology. His doctoral thesis, published in 1949 as The Elementary Structures of Kinship, described marriage in preliterate societies as an exchange between social groups, an expression of a universal "reciprocity". Feminists were attracted to this explanation of the subordinate role of women. Grander still was the claim that Structuralism disclosed the foundations of society, and therefore the true meaning of human existence.

Literary critics didn't go that far, but they did seek to understand the rules by which we interpret a piece of writing. Jonathan Culler remarked in 1970 that "the real object of poetics is not the work itself but its intelligibility. One must attempt to explain how it is that works can be understood; the implicit knowledge, the conventions that enable readers to make sense of them must be formulated. . ." {5} Of course the readers has to be competent, skilled even, but Culler did not elicited structures independent of social class and period, as Structuralists would.


Lévi-Strauss was a theoretician par excellence. He drew widely on the work of others, but had only six months of practical field experience to his credit. His writing was very technical, and couched in a style unusual in science, with gnomic, metaphorical, abstractions to illustrate the practical. "If birds are metaphorical human beings and dogs are metonymical human beings, cattle may be thought of as metonymical inhuman beings and racehorses as metaphorical inhuman beings" is a typical example.

Though his writing brought Structuralism to public notice, and was hailed as important for that reason, many anthropologists now think the approach unnecessary. {4} All the same, Lévi-Strauss's novel insights range over an astonishingly wide field, and his analysis of unsuspected relationships in myths, totemism, and kinship, together with his demonstrations of ways that natural and social behaviour lend themselves to cultural elaboration, were important contributions in their own right.

Language theorists were more critical. {6} Lévi-Strauss's theories were vaguely expressed or tautological: i.e. not scientific, couldn't be falsified. Individuals become symbolic concepts, lacking existence outside these conceptual schemes, which is a useful notion for theorists like Foucault and Althusser, but hardly credible to the workaday world. What, moreover (to press the questions that plague Chomsky's deep grammar) was the status of these structures? It is one thing to identify underlying structures in the mythology and social behaviour of illiterate peoples, but something else to suppose that such structures really exist, that they find expression in language and unconsciously control action.

Anthropologists themselves are currently much divided, even as to whether Lévi-Strauss properly collected the evidence {7} Being visible to none but the specialist, can these structures really influence the laity? Abstracted in a simplistic, reductionist manner, these structures may simply be taxonomic systems, useful for classifying, but hardly providing man with his raison d'être. Certainly they employ a mathematical notation, but that does not guarantee that mathematics adequately represents the situation. The controversy surrounding Eynsenck's introversion-extroversion axes of personality theory, and more particularly Cattell's trait theory, demonstrates how variously human behaviour can make fun of mathematical treatment. {8}

Perhaps the proof is in the eating. Has Structuralism provided interpretations that more exactly describe our aesthetic responses to literature? Are we clearer why we like some works and find others wanting? Can we look deeper and with a more generous discernment at novels, plays, poems? Not generally. As with myth analysis, results have been very disappointing. Structuralism does not illuminate the work so much as substantiate its own models. {9} Or illustrate them, might be fairer, since substantiation calls on evidence that Structuralists and Poststructuralists have generally disdained to produce.

The last is worth stressing. Historians commonly use a structuralism when they talk of underlying trends and social movements: the growth of secular power in Tudor England, the loss of spiritual confidence in thirteenth century Islam, etc. But the structures they adduce are not simple and universal, but complex and empirically derived. Evidence is collected, reasonably interpreted, and findings defended against alternative views. Much the same applies to Chomsky's grammar, which also employs deep, largely hidden structures.

Whatever the shortcomings, the movement soon branched into new areas: ideology and Poststructuralism. Books continue to appear, which literature students must include in their reading, but Paris grew bored with Structuralism after the middle seventies. {10} The theorists undermined their own precarious assumptions. Foucault adopted the looser, anti-rationalist approaches of Lacan. Derrida attacked the very notion of structure, or of language saying anything definite at all.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. C.J. Hookways's Pierce, Charles Sanders in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995).
2. Chapter 10 of Oswald Hanfling's Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992).
3. J.L. Merquior's From Prague to Paris (1986), and J. Sturrock's Structuralism and Since: From Lévi-Straus to Derrida (1984), and Edith Kurzweil's The Age of Structuralism: Lévi-Struass to Foucault (1980).
4. Simon Clarke's The Foundations of Structuralism (1981).
5. p. 64 in Raman Selden's A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (1985, 1989).
6. Chapter 7 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture (1990) and pp. 73-9 in Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning: Reclaiming the Study of Literature (1996).
7. Clarke 1981.
8: Outlined by standard psychology textbooks: e.g. Peck and Whitlow's Approaches to Personality Theory (1979), and Derlaga, Winsted and Jones's Personality Theory and Research (1991).
9. pp. 98-105 in Bergonzi.
10. Chapter 10 of Kurzweil 1980, and Chapter 11 of George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986).

Internet Resources

1. Structuralism. Introduction noting practitioners and precursors.
2. Structuralism/Poststructuralism. Mary Klages. Feb 2003. Humanism contrasted with the newer theories.
3. Structuralism. 1997.
. Rather technical exposition in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory.
4. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Garth Kemerling. Aug. 2002. Introduction and good links.
5. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Eugene Halton. 1992. Brief outline of His philosophy with some relations to linguistics.
6. Structuralism and Saussure. Mary Klages. 2001. Simple introduction.
7. Ferdinand de Saussure. Dec. 2003. Wikipedia entry with in-text links.
8. Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1997.
. Johns Hopkins Guide entry with links and bibliography.
9. Third Course of Lectures on General Linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure. 1910. Introductory chapter: Brief survey of the history of linguistics.
10. Semiotics: Saussure. A detailed analysis.
11. Claude Lévi-Strauss. Extended Wikipedia article, with in-text links.
12. Claude Lévi-Strauss: "The Structural Study of Myth" and Other Structuralist Ideas. Mary Klages. Sep 2001.
. Detailed if somewhat uncritical account of Lévi-Strauss's work.
13. The Structural Study of Myth. Claude Levi-Strauss. 1958. Excerpt from Structural Anthropology.
14. Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology. Claude Lévi-Strauss. 1958.
. Chapter 2 of Structural Anthropology.
15. The Savage Mind. Claude Levi-Strauss. 1962.
. Three contrasting views of the book.