Structuralism’s nihilism

A discarded fragment from a larger paper.

Structuralism arose from the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure. He distinguished between the langue, the system of a language, and the parole, the particular utterances of a language. There is a circular relationship between them, since no parole makes sense unless there is a pre-existing langue, but no langue takes shape except as speakers speak their parole. As a system, as langue, languages are systems of differences. Meaning resides not in words themselves, nor in any direct association they have with the things to which they refer. Signifiers are arbitrarily attached to things, the signifieds, and this combination of signifier and signified constitutes the sign. What produces meaning in language is the difference between one item and another within the system of language. “Pin” does not contain within it the sense of “thin, pointy metallic stick” but has meaning in English because it both shares features with, and differs from, other linguistic items: tin, sin, fin; pan, pun, pen; pit, pill, pick.


Early in the twentieth century, structuralism seemed to hold promise of becoming a master discipline, and its emphasis on difference and binary oppositions was taken up by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who attempted to explain the mythologies, kin structures, and table manners of primitive cultures as expressions of a fundamental set of oppositions, especially the differentiation of nature and culture. Post-structuralism took root because structuralism failed to live up to its promise, and because post-structuralists rejected the whole notion of a “foundational” master science.

Beyond that, however, structuralism itself contains some of the seeds of the diffusion of the self and of language that is taken up in post-structuralism. After all, if meaning is constituted by difference, then the meaning of a word is “located” somewhere other than in the word itself. Meaning is somewhere along the invisible bridge that connects one word to the other. And perhaps my meaning as a person is constituted not by my inherent qualities but by my differences from the other.

To be “Peter Leithart” is not to be the subject of a particular story, or to be the bearer of certain titles and roles, but only to be not-George-Bush and not-Laura-either. Every one of my personal characteristics could be dissolved into negation in this fashion. I suffer a noticeable lack of hair, but that is a meaningful characteristic only because most people have hair. I am uncommonly tall, but that is only meaningful in making me who I am because other people are shorter. I am a professor of theology, but that is only to say I am not a software engineer or a plumber – which is to say, I earn less than both. Every one of my “positive” characteristics can be seen to be nothing but negations of the “other.” Within the “langue” of modern American life, my particular “parole” depends on difference. I dissolve into what I am not, into being not-someone-else. Structuralism appears to have a nihilistic trajectory, where the fundamental reality of all things is nothing.

Post-structuralism extends this nihilistic direction of structuralism, but deconstruction, like Foucault’s archeological or genealogical method, arises more directly from the failed promise of structuralism. In the hands of some practitioners, structuralism became another form of foundationalism that claimed to discover the ground of language and culture, and post-structuralists have come to doubt the scientific pretensions of structuralism. Structuralism also claimed to discover meaning in difference, but Derrida argued that the whole of Saussure’s linguistics was anchored by something outside the system that escaped structuralization. If all meaning is difference, Derrida suggested, it has to be difference all the way down, difference deferred to the end of time, which never comes.


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