Structuralism and Poststructuralism

Rachel Hurd Wood
Structuralism and Poststructuralism

Structuralism emerged as a dominant intellectual paradigm in France in the late 1950s in part in response to the existentialist emphasis on subjectivity and individual autonomy—personified in the work and person of JeanPaul Sartre—and in part as a reflection of the rising influence of research in the human sciences.

In fact, structuralism has its origins in the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), whose 1906–1911 lectures at the University of Geneva, published on the basis of student notes in 1916 as the Cours de linguistique générale, provide structuralism’s basic methodological insights and terminology.

While Saussure’s Cours makes frequent reference to a science that will study language as a system, it was the Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) who first used the term structuralism in 1929, and it was Jakobson who introduced the basic principles of Saussurean linguistics to both the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–) and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

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Roman Jakobson

Lévi-Strauss and Lacan, along with the philosopher Louis Althusser (1918–1990) and the literary theorist Roland Barthes, together are viewed as the dominant figures in French structuralism whose work in the 1950s and 1960s revolutionized how one thought about the human sciences, psychoanalysis, literature, and Marxism.

What unites these structuralist theorists is less a shared set of philosophical theses than a shared set of methodological assumptions and a willingness to work with the concepts of Saussurean linguistics.

Drawing on the four binary oppositions central to Saussurean linguistics—signifier (signifiant) and signified (signifié), langue and parole, synchronic and diachronic, and infrastructure and superstructure—and privileging in their analyses the former term in each binary pair, the structuralists were able to develop theories that diminished the role of the individual subject or agent while highlighting the underlying relations that govern social and psychic practices.

Louis Althusser
Louis Althusser

Saussure defined the linguistic sign as the unity of a sound-image (signifier) and a concept (signified). The signifier is that aspect of a sign that can become perceptible, the psychological imprint of the word-sound or the impression it makes on one’s senses, while the signified is a set of psychological associations, the mental picture or description associated with a signifier.

In general, then, the signifier is the material (auditory or visual) component of a sign, while the signified is the mental concept associated with that sign. By langue, Saussure meant the set of interpersonal rules and norms that speakers of a language must obey if they are to communicate; langue is the theoretical system or structure of a language like English, French, or Italian.

By contrast, parole is the actual manifestation of the system in speech and writing, the speech act, language as used. The distinction between langue and parole is the distinction between structure and event, between a collective product passively assimilated by the individual and the individual act.

theoretical system
theoretical system

By synchronic Saussure named the structural properties of a system at a particular historical moment, while the diachronic referred to the historical dimension of a language, the historical evolution of its elements through various stages. Finally, infrastructure refers to the set of underlying relations that explain the superstructure or surface structure that is open to observation and description.

For Saussure, langue functions as the infrastructure to parole as superstructure,while, oversimplifying greatly, on Althusser’s reading of Marx, the relations of means and modes of material production are the infrastructure, while ideology (family, religion, law, social organizations, etc.) is the resultant superstructure, or on Lacan’s reconstruction of Sigmund Freud, the dynamic relations among the id, ego, and superego play themselves out at the infrastructural level, while the observable superstructural effects are displayed through behavior.

Their social scientific emphasis on structures also led the structuralists to downplay the role of consciousness, which figured so prominently in existentialism and phenomenology. This deflation of the importance of consciousness and subjectivity—the so-called “death of the subject”—can be seen in all the structuralists’ work.


Lévi Strauss’s structural analysis of myths, for example, suggests we interpret myths as parole or speech acts that are not the articulations of any particular conscious subject but are instead expressions and variations of a few basic structural relations that form a culture’s langue, the set of interpersonal rules and norms that operate unconsciously and that actors in a culture must obey if they are to function.

So, in The Raw and the Crooked (Le cru et le cuit) (1964), Lévi-Strauss analyzes 187 separate myths, showing them all to be variations, transformations, reversals, inversions, and so on of a deep structural opposition between the raw and the cooked, which is itself at the superstructural level of myth the expression of the underlying infrastructural opposition of nature and culture.

This methodological privileging of structure—the underlying rules or general laws—over event—the act of articulating the myth—leads structuralism to place emphasis on synchronic relations rather than on diachronic developments.

Lévi Strauss
Lévi Strauss

The structuralists are thus concerned with studying particular systems or structures under somewhat artificial and ahistorical conditions in the hope of explaining their present functioning, as we see in Althusser’s concentration on the various ideological state apparatuses at work at a given time in a society rather than the historical evolution of these various cultural formations, or in Barthes’s emphasis on writing (écriture) as a function that exceeds the author’s desire to express or communicate (which Barthes associates with style).

Poststructuralism is the name bestowed in the English-speaking philosophical and literary communities on the ideas of several French philosophers whose work arose as a distinctly philosophical response to the privileging of the human sciences that characterized structuralism.

Under the name poststructuralism are brought together a number of theorists and theoretical positions that, in France, are often positioned far apart. The name is, however, preferable to either deconstructionism or postmodernism, which are frequently taken to be synonymous with poststructuralism as a rubric under which are grouped together the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-François Lyotard, as well as Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Hélène Cixous.

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Jacques Derrida

By contrast, in France only Derrida would be associated with deconstruction, and only Lyotard with postmodernism and, contrary to their English-speaking reception, each of these philosophers is considered to have a distinct project that results only rarely in any two of them being treated together by interpreters sympathetic to their work.

One can locate the emergence of poststructuralism in Paris in the late 1960s: Foucault published Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines in 1966; Derrida published De la grammatologie, L’écriture et la différence and La voix et le phénomène in 1967; and Deleuze published Différence et répétition in 1968 and Logique du sens in 1969.

While not wanting to overlook the important differences between these thinkers, there are nevertheless certain themes and trends that do emerge in various ways in the work of many of the French philosophers and theorists who follow structuralism.

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault

In some cases these should be seen as correctives to the excesses of structuralism, in other cases as various ways in which thinkers coming into prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s were to give expression to the Nietzschean-Freudian-Marxian spirit of the times, and in still other cases as a way of retrieving themes from some of the French traditions that had fallen out of favor during the scientistic orientation of the 1950s and early 1960s—the return of certain ethical, spiritual, and religious themes, along with some positions associated with phenomenology and existentialism.

What cannot be denied, and should not be underestimated, is that the hegemony of structuralist social scientific thinking in the late 1950s and early 1960s was followed by the reemergence of the value of specifically philosophical thinking.

One way to understand their specifically philosophical orientation is to note that while the poststructuralists, like their structuralist predecessors, drew heavily on the ideas of Marx and Freud, unlike the structuralists, they drew at least as much from the third so-called master of suspicion—Friedrich Nietzsche.

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Luce Irigaray

Nietzsche’s critique of truth, his emphasis on interpretation and differential relations of power, and his attention to questions of style in philosophical discourse became central motifs within the work of the post structuralists as they turned their attention away from the human sciences and toward a philosophical-critical analysis of writing and textuality (Derrida); relations of power, discourse, and the construction of the subject (Foucault); desire and language (Deleuze); questions of aesthetic and political judgment (Lyotard); and questions of sexual difference and gender construction (Irigaray, Kristeva, and Cixous).

And so, while the structuralist theorists had turned away from philosophy, theorists following structuralism readily identify themselves as philosophers. This is not surprising when one remembers that most of the poststructuralist philosophers “came of age” in an intellectual environment dominated by Sartre’s existentialism and they all studied and were profoundly influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s thinking on language and corporeality as well as Martin Heidegger’s critique of the history of metaphysics.

But unlike most philosophical thinkers in France who preceded the rise of structuralism, French philosophers after structuralism engage in philosophical reflection and analysis while taking account of the institutional and structural forces that inform philosophical thinking itself.

Hélène Cixous
Hélène Cixous

Although it is impossible to locate any set of themes that unite all the poststructuralist philosophers, it would not be inaccurate to note certain motifs that appear frequently in their works: an attention to questions of language, power, and desire that emphasizes the context in which meaning is produced and makes problematic all universal truth and meaning claims; a suspicion toward binary, oppositional thinking, often opting to affirm that which occupies a position of subordination within a differential network; a suspicion toward the figure of the humanistic human subject, challenging the assumptions of autonomy and transparent self-consciousness while situating the subject as a complex intersection of discursive, libidinal, and social forces and practices; and a resistance to claims of universality and unity, preferring instead to acknowledge difference and fragmentation.

Situating these philosophical thinkers after structuralism, then, three themes in particular can be highlighted: the return to thinking historically, the return of thinking about the subject, and the emphasis on difference.

The return to thinking historically

There are many ways in which philosophical thinking in France after structuralism can be viewed as a corrective to the overemphasis on synchrony that one finds in structuralist writing. There is no single reason behind this, nor a single form in which French philosophy after structuralism seeks to think time, temporality, or history.

thinking historically
thinking historically

But where the structuralists sought to understand the extratemporal functioning of systems (whether social, psychic, economic, or literary), thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, or Lyotard attend to the historical unfolding of the phenomena they choose to examine.

In part, the attention to time, temporality, and history can be viewed as a consequence of the intellectual resources to which these thinkers appeal, resources that were not necessarily central to the work of their structuralist predecessors.

Foucault, for example, draws on the study of the history of science and scientific change in the work of Georges Canguilhem (1904–1995) and Gaston Bachelard, while Deleuze returns to Henri Bergson’s theories of time and durée (duration) as well as Nietzsche’s eternal return.

Gaston Bachelard
Gaston Bachelard

For Derrida, it is primarily Heidegger’s focus on Being and the history of philosophy as a history of the forgetting of the ontological difference (the difference between Being and beings) that leads him to think in terms of the history of metaphysics as a history of logocentrism and ontotheology.

The return of thinking about the subject

Where the rhetoric of the “death of the subject”was characteristic of the structuralists, this was never really the case with most of the philosophers labeled poststructuralist. To be sure, thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, or Deleuze were never comfortable with the subject-centered thinking of the existentialists or phenomenologists.

But they were equally uncomfortable with the straightforwardly antihumanist rhetoric of structuralist thinkers like Althusser or Lévi-Strauss. Thus, Derrida could reply to a question concerning the “death of the subject” that the subject is “absolutely indispensable” and that he does not destroy the subject but situates it in terms of “where it comes from and how it functions.”


Even Foucault, who can arguably be associated with the rhetoric of the “death of the subject” in his works of the early 1960s, can at the same time be shown to have been thinking about the question of the construction of the modern subject throughout his oeuvre.

That is to say, a distinction can and should be drawn between the “end of man” and the “death of the subject.” It may be the case that Foucault’s early work engages in thinking the end of man, as we can see, for example, in the closing pages of The Order of Things (Les mots et les choses). But it would be a mistake to equate the referent of “man” in these early contexts with what Foucault means by “subject.”

There is no question that the subject named “man” in philosophical discourse, from René Descartes’s cogito to Immanuel Kant’s autonomous rational moral agent, is a concept toward which Foucault has little sympathy. But even in a supposedly antihumanist work like the essay “What Is an Author?” (1969) Foucault’s desire to deflate the subject as epistemically and discursively privileged is not conjoined with an attempt to eliminate the subject entirely.

René Descartes
René Descartes

Instead, Foucault seeks to analyze the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse and power, which, he writes, means to ask not “How can a free subject penetrate the substance of things and give it meaning?” but “How, under what conditions and in what forms, can something like a subject appear in the order of discourse? What place can it occupy in each type of discourse, what functions can it assume, and by obeying what rules?”

What this means, and what has been largely misunderstood by many of Foucault’s critics, is that his socalled antihumanism was not a rejection of the human per se; it was instead an assault on the philosophically modern idea that sought to remove man from the natural world and place him in a position of epistemic, metaphysical, and moral privilege that earlier thought had set aside for God.

Foucault’s work is less an antihumanism than an attempt to think humanism and the subject after the end of (modern) man. Far from being a thinker of the “death of the subject,” Foucault simply refuses to accept the subject as given, as the foundation for ethical or rational thinking.

Julia Kristeva
Julia Kristeva

The subject is, instead, something that has been historically created and Foucault’s work, in its entirety, is engaged in analyzing the various ways that human beings are transformed into subjects, whether subjects of knowledge, of power, of sexuality, or of ethics.

For feminist thinkers writing after structuralism, the question of the subject was also central to their work as they sought to challenge both philosophical and psychoanalytic assumptions concerning the subject as sexed or gendered male or masculine. The feminists don’t object to the subject simply being sexed or gendered; it is the subject’s being sexed/gendered male that is the object of their criticisms.

Although there are important differences between the theoretical positions of Cixous, Irigaray, or Kristeva, insofar as these “difference feminists” argue for sexual difference and the significant and important differences between male and female desire, they had to argue that there were important differences between male and female subjects. And to make this argument required that they refuse to follow the structuralist project of entirely eliminating the subject.

structuralist project
structuralist project

So, for example, while Irigaray acknowledges that insofar as the logic of subjectivity has relegated women to the position of object, one should not give up the possibility of occupying the position of the subject insofar as this is a position that women have heretofore never been able to occupy.

In fact, she suggests that insofar as the circulation of women as objects of social-sexual exchange has been foundational to the Western patriarchal social order, one should not underestimate the possibilities for radical social transformation if women were to finally emerge as “speaking subjects.”

The “speaking subject” is also a central focus of Kristeva’s work, as she defines her project of analytical semiology or semanalysis, in part, as one of reinserting subjectivity into matters of language and meaning. Such a subject would not, of course, be a Cartesian or Husserlian subject, who could function as a pure source of meaning.

pure source
pure source

Rather, following the discoveries of Freud, Lacan, and structural linguistics (Saussure and Émile Benveniste [1902–1976]), the “speaking subject” will always be a “split subject,” split between conscious motivations and the unconscious, between structure and event, and between the subject of the utterance (sujet d’énonciation) and the subject of the statement (sujet d’énoncé).

Elsewhere, in Revolution and Poetic Language (La révolution du langage poétique: L’avant-garde à la fin du XIXe siècle, Lautréamont et Mallarmé) (1974), this subject is developed as a subject-in-process/on-trial (sujet-en-procès), a dynamic subject at the intersection of the semiotic and the symbolic, making itself and being made, but a subject nonetheless.

The emphasis on difference

One of the essential themes of Saussure’s linguistics was that “in language there are only differences without positive terms”. By this, he meant that language functions as a system of interdependent units in which the value of each constituent unit results solely from the simultaneous presence of other units and the ways each unit differs from the others.

positive terms
positive terms

This attention to difference led the structuralists to emphasize in their analyses relations rather than things and to focus on the differential relations between the objects they studied rather than the objects themselves. While the structuralists all took note of this theme, the emphasis on difference did not become truly dominant until after the hegemony of the structuralist paradigm began to wane.

It has already been noted that sexual difference is a theme that almost all the feminist thinkers after structuralism have addressed. Indeed, Irigaray goes so far as to suggest that, if Heidegger is right in thinking that each epoch has but a single issue to think through, then “sexual difference is ... the issue of our age”.

Similarly, Cixous sees the rigid conceptualization of sexual difference as what supports the identification of the male/masculine with the Same, while the female/feminine is rendered Other. For Cixous, the way out of this patriarchal system is not through the elimination of difference but through escaping the dominant logic of difference as hierarchal opposition to a new logic of difference in which “difference would be a bunch of new differences”.

feminist thinkers
feminist thinkers

Sexual difference is only one form in which the poststructuralist attention to difference has appeared. Insofar as Derrida’s philosophical project began as an attempt to deconstruct the logocentric history of metaphysics as a metaphysics of presence that invariably privileges the temporal present, his coining of the neologism différance sought to situate at the foundation of deconstructive analysis an attention to difference by highlighting both meanings of the French verb différer: to defer in terms of delay over time and to differ in terms of spatial nonidentity.

Insofar as différance names the movement of both temporal deferring and spatial differing, it stands as the transcendental condition for the possibility of differentiation, that is, différance is what makes differences possible.

This attention to difference—rather than a focus on identity or the Same—is particularly central to the projects of Lyotard and Deleuze. For Deleuze, whose work often takes a form of presentation much more in the mold of traditional philosophical analysis than the other philosophers writing after structuralism, difference has been a central and constant focus of his thinking.

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philosophical analysis

His Nietzsche et la philosophie (1962), which was the first of the major French interpretations of Nietzsche to appear, appeals to the concept of difference to show how Nietzsche departs from the Hegelian tradition (where Hegel’s dialectic supersedes difference, Nietzsche’s philosophy affirms it), to explicate Nietzsche’s will to power (as the differential element between active and reactive forces), and to interpret Nietzsche’s thought of the eternal recurrence (not as the eternal return of the same but as the repetition of difference).

Deleuze develops these themes much further in Différence et répétition as he attempts to think the concept of difference in itself while challenging the metaphysical tradition for associating difference with opposition and the negative and privileging identity and the Same as primary.

metaphysical tradition - Love Nguyen
metaphysical tradition

For Lyotard, whose work is more closely tied to postmodernism than the other French philosophers, what characterizes the postmodern, as he puts it in the introduction to The Postmodern Condition (La condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir) (1979), is an “incredulity toward metanarratives.”

Rather than naming a specific epoch, the postmodern names, instead, an antifoundationalist attitude that exceeds the legitimating orthodoxy of the moment. Postmodernity, then, does not follow modernity but resides constantly at the heart of the modern, challenging those totalizing and comprehensive master narratives (like the Enlightenment narrative of the emancipation of the rational subject or the Marxist narrative of the emancipation of the working class) that serve to legitimate its practices.

French philosophers - Rosie Jones
French philosophers

In place of these grand meta- and master narratives, Lyotard suggests one looks instead to less ambitious “little narratives” that refrain from totalizing claims in favor of recognizing the specificity and singularity of events. To refuse to sanction the move to a metanarrative in the ethical, political, aesthetic, and metaphysical domains commits one to a philosophy of difference in that it accepts that oppositions will not be resolved in some higher unity and concludes that multiple and discordant voices are not only inevitable but desirable.

Beyond his postmodernist polemic, reflecting on difference operates at the core of what Lyotard considered his most important work, Le Différend (1983), in which he attempts to account for radical and incommensurable differences in the discourses of ethics and politics, that is, those incommensurable differences that will not admit any shared standard to which one could appeal in making judgments concerning what is different.

making judgments
making judgments

The différend is thus defined as “a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments” (Lyotard 1988). For Lyotard, once one has given up on master narratives, one must also give up on a master narrative of justice or the good to which all parties will agree.

While such a master narrative is presupposed for a democratic politics based on consensus and agreement, the political question for Lyotard is ultimately the question of how to make decisions in the case of a différend in which, by definition, no consensus is possible.

political thinking - Chen Zi Rui
political thinking

The choice, it would seem, is either violence or a new kind of political thinking that can accommodate différends in a shared social space where norms work to minimize evil rather than maximize good and where evil is itself defined in terms of the continued interdiction of different possibilities.


The impact of poststructuralism on philosophy, aesthetics, literary studies, and social theory has been extensive. While Continental philosophy was, during the 1970s, dominated by issues related to phenomenology, existentialism, and the works of Edmund Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, in the early 2000s the scope of Continental philosophy is increasingly focused on issues that originate in the works of post-1960 French thinkers.

Influence - Maggy Gibb

Derrida, and deconstruction, has been a major force in literary theory and criticism since the early 1970s. Since the early 1980s, Derrida has become a major influence in philosophical studies and he and Foucault have had the widest influence on English-language writers.

Since 1980 other poststructuralist texts have appeared in translation and, as a consequence, we now see the impact on philosophers of Deleuze’s important and innovative readings of major philosophical figures (David Hume, Benedict [Baruch] de Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Kant, Nietzsche, and Bergson) as well as his analyses, alone and in collaboration with Félix Guattari, of psychoanalysis, cinema, art, literature, and contemporary culture; Lyotard’s essays on politics, aesthetics, and art history, plus his important reflections on Kant’s Critique of Judgment and questions of modernity and postmodernity; Irigaray’s critical rereadings of Freud, the philosophical canon (Plato, Descartes, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, and Emmanuel Levinas), and her reflections on language and sexual difference; Cixous’s engendering writing and reflecting on its relations to the body, particularly the feminine body; and Kristeva’s thinking on semiotics, abjection, and desire in language.

Félix Guattari - Nana Ogura
Félix Guattari
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