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What is Post-Structuralism?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Post-structuralism is a modern philosophical school of thought. It grew out of, and in response to, the philosophy of structuralism, which many of the pivotal thinkers of post-structuralism were extremely critical of. This school of thought is one of the major driving forces in philosophy today, and is intricately connected with postmodernist thought.

Structuralism as a school of thought hit its stride during the radical movements of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in France, although it had its roots back at the beginning of the 20th century. Structuralists look at the foundational structures implicit in all productions of a culture, and undertake an analysis of the many parts that create something, to get a better understanding of the creation. Linguistics was one of the first fields to use structuralism to its advantage, and its application quickly spread to other fields. The basic premise of structuralism is that all things have a structure below the level of meaning, and that this structure constitutes the reality of that thing.

Post-structuralism grew as a response to structuralism’s perceived assumption that its own system of analysis was somehow essentialist. Post-structuralists hold that in fact even in an examination of underlying structures, a slew of biases introduce themselves, based on the conditioning of the examiner. At the root of the philosophy is the rejection of the idea that there is any truly essential form to a cultural product, as all cultural products are by their very nature formed, and therefore artificial.

This concept of non-essentialism was famously expanded upon by Foucault in his History of Sexuality, in which he argues that even gender and sexual orientation are contrived formations, and that our concept of essentialist notions of gender or sexuality is flawed. For example, he argues that the entire class of homosexuality is in fact quite recent, built up by cultural norms and an interplay between different groups in society, but with no more essential a quality than, for example, the idea of beauty.

One of the pivotal moments in the history of the philosophy occurred in 1966, when Derrida delivered a talk at John Hopkins University. Derrida was respected as one of the great thinkers of structuralism, and so was invited to speak on the subject at length, as it was just beginning to receive a great deal of attention in the American intellectual community. Derrida’s lecture, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences,” was a sharp critique of structuralism, pointing out its inherent limitations, and laying out some basic principles for a new language of discourse.

Post-structuralism is importantly different from postmodernism, although the two are often considered one and the same by the general subject. Although there are certain areas of overlap, thinkers from one school almost never identify themselves with the other school of thought. Postmodernism importantly seeks to identify a contemporary state of the world, the period that is following the modernist period. Postmodernism seeks to identify a certain juncture, and to work within the new period. Post-structuralism, on the other hand, can be seen as a more explicitly critical view, aiming to deconstruct ideas of essentialism in various disciplines to allow for a more accurate discourse.

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Discussion Comments

By anon151771 — On Feb 11, 2011

Careful when laying Marxism and post-structuralism alongside one another. Post-structuralism focuses attention on linguistics and narrative structures of knowledge, where as Marxism's fundamental motivation for analysis is the observation of how large-scale social arrangements conspire to physically and epistemically disempower people.

Not to mention that Marxism begins with ontological commitments and Post-structuralism begins with epistemological commitments. Fundamentally they are very different.

By elizabeth23 — On Nov 07, 2010

@sherlock87, Marxists, though, at least might understand that these boundaries led somewhere, though they blame many characters' faults on these. In Jane Eyre, for example, Marxists might argue that Jane was formed by the oppressive way she was treated at home, and then at school, leading her to accept even the oddest of Mr. Rochester's actions. A Post-Structuralist, however, might argue that it is because of these things that Jane Eyre is a worthless piece of literature, and should not even be accepted as important in our time.

By sherlock87 — On Nov 07, 2010

Both Derrida and Foucault changed not only philosophical thought, but psychology and literary critique with their post structuralist ideas. Similarly to Marxist literary theory, the ideas of post structuralism argue against accepting boundaries of gender, age, class, race, and others when reading or writing literature.

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