welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


A Gentle Introduction to Structuralism, Postmodernism And All That

John Mann explains what the Continentals are up to these days.

In the 1980s there was a lot of excitement about postmodernism, deconstruction, structuralism and post-structuralism. This flood of theory appeared to offer a radical new perspective for understanding and experiencing the world. It was an enlightenment which left all those who rejected it cursed with still being stuck in the murky mire of the old ways of thinking which had dominated western thought for 2000 years and which at last we could escape. Such religious fervour with its condemnation of heretics and establishment of new messiahs has softened, and it is now possible to look quietly and calmly at what was going on.


Structuralism arose on the continent, in particular in France, in the early 60s. The first ‘big name’ was Claude Lévi-Strauss, an anthropologist, who took on Jean-Paul Sartre, the leading French intellectual and philosopher of the time, and didn’t so much win, as went unanswered (which from Sartre’s point of view was worse). Here was France’s main philosopher, Sartre, who usually had something to say about everything, being attacked in Lévi-Strauss’ The Savage Mind, and yet not replying! The implication was that he couldn’t reply, and the intellectual mood began to move towards Lévi-Strauss’ intellectual position, which he called structuralism.

A simple explanation of structuralism is that it understands phenomena using the metaphor of language. That is, we can understand language as a system, or structure, which defines itself in terms of itself. There is no language ‘behind’ language with which we understand it, no metalanguage to explain what language means. Instead it is a self-referential system. Words explain words explain words (as in a dictionary), and meaning is present as a set of structures.

Such an approach was an attack on other types of philosophy which claim that there is a ‘core’ of truth which is ‘reality’, something behind the world of ‘appearance’. For example Marxists might argue that we can understand the world (‘appearance’) by examining the relations of production (‘reality’), or some fundamentalist Christians might argue that we should understand the world as a battle of God against Satan, so this ‘truth’ is hidden, but in fact it explains the world.

Another structuralist was Roland Barthes, who claimed the term for a while, who was a literary critic and wrote about the ‘Death of the Author’. He argued the author could not claim to know what his/her book was about any more than the reader. Again, the idea that there was a hidden reality (hidden to the reader but known to the author) was challenged, and instead a view of the ‘text’ presented which was available to all equally.

Michel Foucault, a philosopher and historian, argued that science has to be understood socially before it can be understood intellectually – for example he showed how ‘madness’ is primarily a social invention, rather than a medical discovery. He claimed that the analysis of systems of thought required analysis of the detail, to show how each part interacted with other parts. It wasn’t enough to simply identify a ‘core’ (such as the evolution of scientific knowledge) and to ignore all other aspects of science.

Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst who claimed that the unconscious is structured like a language, is widely seen as a major structuralist thinker. He claimed to be ‘returning to Freud’ and be working against the Americanisation of psychoanalysis with its emphasis on egopsychology. He emphasised the role of the unconscious by showing that the ‘I’ is not a centralised core ‘ego’ but a dispersed, fragmented, interrelated unknown (the unconscious).

So we can see that a primary feature of the structuralists is their attack on ‘foundationalism’, attacking any thought that claims to have found a Firm Foundation on which we can construct beliefs. Instead they emphasise the ‘relatedness’ of truth, how Truth is not something we ‘discover’, or can ‘own’, or can ‘start from’, but a structure which society invents.


Moving on from the structuralists we come to Derrida and deconstruction. I come to Jacques Derrida next since his first three important books were published in 1967, which is ahead of the main post-structuralist book Anti-Oedipus which came out in the early 1970s.

Derrida can be called a post-structuralist in a sense, since he moves on from structuralism, taking some of it for granted, and challenging other parts of it. Where the structuralists constructed a system, a structure, Derrida deconstructs it, that is, he takes it apart. However, the disconcerting thing is that he does so from the inside. His technique of deconstruction shows how structures or systems of thought contain the seeds of their own downfall.

Derrida does not have a system of thought as such, instead he simply reads an author, for example Rousseau or Lévi-Strauss or Hegel, and shows how their thought contains contradictions. And further, these contradictions are not something which can be corrected, as if the author had errors in an argument which, once corrected, could produce a better argument, no – rather the contradictions were conditions of the system of thought existing in the first place!

Derrida shows each system of thought to be necessarily contradictory. How he does this is quite technical, but the idea is to show how the system (1) creates binary pairs – for example good and bad, male and female, black and white, writing and speaking, mad and sane etc, (2) prioritises one term over another, and indeed defines one in terms of the other – for example male over female (what Derrida calls ‘Phallocentrism’), sane over mad, good over bad etc. (3) then show that in fact you may as well prioritise the second term over the first – show how the first term is dependent on the second, (4) finally show how the system is dependent on this marginalising of the second term, when in fact it relies on the second term (the marginal) also, in some sense, being at the centre.

Jacques Derrida has gained a strong group of followers in the USA, particularly amongst literary critics, who take literally his phrase “there is nothing outside the text” to treat anything as a ‘text’ and so subject to literary interpretation.


Post-structuralism’s main book, Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Guattari, is in fact an attempt to combine Marx and Freud (the subtitle is ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’) by liberation through free desire. Post-structuralism is really a cultural movement more than an intellectual movement. Structuralism in the 60s was at least in part an intellectual programme, and it was possible to analyse phenomena by treating them as being parts of a system. Post-structuralism moved beyond this, questioning the very notions of Truth, Reality, Meaning, Sincerity, Good etc. It regarded all absolutes as constructions, truth was created, it was an effect, it wasn’t present ‘in’ something. Similarly there was no authority, no Real, everything was defined in terms of everything else, and that process itself was relative and constructed.

The main philosopher for the poststructuralists was the nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose main thought began with the realisation that if God is dead, anything is possible – everything is permitted, everything is relative. There are no absolutes anymore. Nietzsche also wrote in a style similar to an Old Testament prophet (see for example his Thus Spoke Zarathustra) – his style is full of such phrases as “we are living among the ruins of God” – and post-structuralists tend to follow this poetic style.

The Origins of Postmodernism

As this movement was growing in popularity in the 70s some other important things were happening. The radical political groups from the 60s (for example the Maoists) were coming to an ideological dead-end. Solzhenitsyn was being translated, and revealing in detail the horrors of Eastern Europe. The importance of the media as an agent for social change was being realised and media saturation of life was becoming an important cultural phenomenon. These trends now mixed with the philosophical currents just described with the following effects.

Firstly, there was a large backlash against Marxism and socialism. It was argued that Marxism was a ‘totalizing’ system, whose intellectual totalitarianism moved necessarily to the Gulag, and instead liberalism and capitalism were embraced as being more open and relative. Secondly there was a move of intellectuals away from political engagement (Sartre for example had always been out marching with the students, and Foucault was often in demonstrations for prison rights, amongst other things), and back to ‘intellectual’ work. Finally there was great interest in the role of the media in defining reality for us, and an analysis of society as fragmentary, full of images, saturated by the media, making everything relative, ephemeral and short-lived: in other words, postmodern.

Criticism and Evaluation

People are now criticising post-structuralism and deconstruction as providing philosophical justification for conservatism, reaction, depoliticising society and encouraging an irresponsible, hedonistic lifestyle (for example, did Foucault still have unsafe sex when he knew he had AIDS? Should Derrida have tried to defend his fellow philosopher Paul de Man’s Nazi record? What of Heidegger’s Nazi past? What of Baudrillard’s claim that the Gulf War never happened?)

As a result of these criticisms, some of the excesses of post-structuralism and deconstruction are now over. Currently there appears to be a more sober mood among Continental philosophers as they try to re-position these intellectual movements within the fight for human rights, and to create better human values.

Recommended Reads:

Structuralism and Since John Sturrock (ed.)
(published by Oxford University Press) Introduction to various thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault, Barthes etc.

Against Postmodernism Alex Callinicos
(Polity Press) Marxist criticism of structuralism, deconstruction and post-structuralism – clearly written and well argued.

The Transparency of Evil Jean Baudrillard
(Verso) Baudrillard is the postmodern author, writing about how the media has taken over.

Deconstruction Christopher Norris
(Methuen, 1982) Norris is a critical supporter of deconstruction, generally in favour of it – or at least in favour of what it is capable of – but his book on Baudrillard and the Gulf War, Uncritical Theory shows that he is certainly against its excesses.

Contingency and Irony Richard Rorty
(Cambridge University Press) Rorty is an American liberal who takes arguments from Derrida and others and uses them to defend his ‘relativist’ views – very readable and enjoyable.

© J. Mann 1994

John Mann is a Software Engineer and lives in Hadleigh, Suffolk

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X