Topic for #51: Semiotics and Structuralism (Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Derrida)

We've posted our episode (here) on a historical progression in thought that is still responsible for a lot of the hard-to-read parts of continental (mostly French) philosophy today.

First, we read Part I and Part II, Chapter IV of Ferdiand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics(read it online here), published posthumously in 1916 (it's basically lecture notes by his students; Saussure didn't write it down himself in full). This text sharply distinguishes structural analyses of a particular language at a particular time with analyses of linguistic changes over time.

This was read by French structuralists like Claude Levi-Strauss as a blueprint for talking about structures in other cultural creations, so we read a short essay by him: "The Structural Study of Myth" (1955), which you can find online here, or you can pick up a used copy of the compilation in which it appeared,Structural Anthropology,which will help you further connect the dots between Saussure and Levi-Strauss.

Finally, we read a short essay by Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (1966), which you can read here, where he discusses Levi-Strauss and characterizes the limitations of structuralism, thereby laying out his own post-structuralism. This essay was published in Writing and Difference(1966).

The transition here is a funny one: Saussure didn't see himself as a philosopher at all. He was a linguist, and from what I've read, his linguistics is pretty obsolete at this point. What stuck (and what we discussed) was the basic picture he sketched of the relation of words to thought. He saw thought as blurry and formless before language comes along to carve some particular concepts out from others, and these concepts can really only be understood in opposition to other concepts. There's no question, as you might attribute to Frege or early Wittgenstein, of language being based ultimately on pointing out some psychologically distinguished object in the world and saying "tree." Instead, for Saussure it's language that creates the concept. Now, whether it does so entirely arbitrarily is not really something Saussure is concerned with, but the epistemological position that it does--that language in effect creates our reality--is what many of his successors ran with. Since words and concepts, then, don't have any ultimate grounding in the world, the only way they can be understood is through contrast with other words and concepts according to this view. This is the root of Derrida's famous concept différance, which is among other things "the notion that words and signs can never fully summon forth what they mean, but can only be defined through appeal to additional words, from which they differ."

Levi-Strauss picked up on the idea of a language as an unconscious group production whose elements are distinguished by difference and (along with a number of other structuralist writers) extended this idea to other cultural products: they're all semiotic systems (systems of meaning). In analyzing the myth of Oedipus (which is worth your reading, we didn't really recap the analysis on the 'cast), he makes a chart with underlying, opposing (meaning here's where "difference" comes in) themes in the myth that demonstrate conflicts in what you might think of as the unconscious ideology of the culture. Levi-Strauss saw this sort of analysis as getting at timeless qualities of myth, and ultimately structures of the human mind.

The Derrida essay (which was the early work that really got him famous) was presented at a conference meant to honor Levi-Strauss but in effect rejected Levi-Strauss's scientific pretensions, largely using quotes from Levi-Srauss himself. Derrida thought that there was no reason to privilege Levi-Strauss's interpretation of the myth over any of the extant versions of the myth: they're all just stories related to each other. For Derrida, meanings don't lead to some knowledge of deep human nature, but just to other meanings, other words, other stories. The chain never terminates in something extra-linguistic; we live in a world of language and nowhere else. Don't expect a full-on explanation of Derrida's deconstruction project in this discussion; we got as far as the critique of Levi-Strauss, and that's it.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. dmf says

    for the structuralists in question what did they see as the means/mode of the transmission of these imagined commonalities/rules/structures, and how much of their work was rooted in observations of everyday action/speech?

    seems like a big bite to throw Derrida into the mix but his related discussion of Austin might be a bridge to thinkers like Searle and Cavell and or the whole post-Wittgenstein question of rule-following and even the Pitt school, Brandom and all.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Your question is a good one, Derick, and I don’ t think we really answered it on the recording. For Saussure, it’s just linguistic practice, which inevitably drifts as geographically dispersed people talk to each other. Presumably Levi-Strauss thought the same thing about the verbiage of myth, though he related the themes to what he took to be structures of the human psyche or something like that. Though we compared him a bit to Freud, I don’t think he talks about the mechanism by which these structures fight their way to evidence w/in cultural products (via the Jungian universal unconscious or something like that); that’s just what they do.

  2. C.J. says

    In addition to Part 1 of Saussure’s Course In General Linguistics, you may also wish to read Part 2, Chapter 4: Linguistic Value, pages 111 – 122. Catherine Belsey in her book Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction says the most crucial points of the book are made in that chapter. Apparently that’s the section that gets the hearts of Derridians pumping.

  3. Tchaikovsky says

    What is the relationship between the signified and the signifier? Is it arbitrary or based on our lived experience?

    Can the Bouba/Kiki effect (VS Ramachandran) tell us anything about the relationship between the signified and signifier and more broadly the human mind?

    How do metaphors convey complex and abstract ideas in simple terms?

    I haven’t read any Derrida or Saussure yet but I’m looking forward to this episode.


  1. […] On Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1916) (Part I and Part II, Ch. 4), Claude Levi-Strauss’s “The Structural Study of Myth” (1955), and Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966). What is language? What is the relation between language and reality? Saussure argued that a language at a given time has a structure, where you can only really understand the meaning (or “value”) of a word by contrasting it with other words. Structuralists like Levi-Strauss generalized this to all of culture, and Derrida, while rejecting the structuralist project, takes the notion of “difference” between words to uproot all meaning from any non-linguistic reality. (Probably… even our guest C. Derick Varn who’s read the Derrida essay dozens of times isn’t sure what it means.) Learn more about the topic and get the readings. […]

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