Structuralism and its Objects

There’s a traumatic process of recantation and scapegoating going on among former users of the French form of structuralism that developed in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (take Levi Bryant’s post here). The stock of structuralism has never been so low. For example, its apparent inability to conceptualize the difference between the sense and reference of a term has been blamed for the reflex idealism of structuralist and poststructuralist criticism (Devitt and Sterelny 1987, Chapter 13). Others, like Jon Elster, have drawn attention to its apparent inability to explain agency or social change.

However, Saussure’s famous formulation of linguistic difference in the Lectures on General Linguistics (In language there are only differences, and no positive terms) also gave rise to a poststructuralist concern with the metaphysics of non-identity. For if identities depend on internal relations and these are, in turn, of a temporal, unrealized nature, then the former are similarly open-textured. Thus we get Derrida’s famous formulation of differance. The identity of an element within a system is differed-differed because ‘vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element’ (Derrida 1982, 13).

Paradoxically, the stock of structuralism has also never been so high. The metaphysical questions prompted by French structuralism are undergoing a queer kind of recrudescence in the literature on ontic structural realism (OSR).

One of the frustrating things about the post-Saussurean linguistic-cum-anthropological structuralism is that a concept of structure articulated in terms of differences is impoverished. It can’t deal with the functional relationships between constituents and wholes or programs (structure-sensitive rules for adding, replacing or deleting constituents).

The strain of structuralism exemplified in the mathematical logic and set theory favored by proponents of OSR is seemingly more powerful because it can represent constituent structure and symbolic dynamics. Once we can program we can represent agents in object-oriented terms as programs + data. We can construct notional worlds with complex dynamic properties which arise as a result of structure sensitive algorithms applied to data.

But if agents can be represented as programs + data, what does there have to be for data to exist? Must there be substances, individuated things that can undergo changes of state? Or must there only be, as Luciano Floridi has argued, ‘a lack of uniformity, that is, a binary difference, like the presence and the absence of a black dot’ (Floridi 2008, p. 236). In this model both presence and absence are co-original. There can’t be the presence of a black dot without its absence; or more strictly, without the difference between presence and absence. Substance supervenes on structure.

Sound familiar?

Devitt M and Sterelny K (1987), Language and Reality, Oxford: Blackwell.

Derrida, J, Margins of Philosophy¸ trans. Alan Bass (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982)

Floridi, Luciano (2008) ‘A defence of informational structural realism’, Synthese 161:219–253


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