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Structuralism in literary theory

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M038-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

Article Summary

‘Structuralism’ is a term embracing a family of theories that between them address all phenomena of the human world – notably language, literature, cookery, kinship relations, dress, human self-perception. In all these domains, structuralists claim, the observable, apparently separate elements are rightly understood only when seen as positions in a structure or system of relations.

The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is generally recognized as the founder of the structuralist movement. For him semiology – the science of the meaning of natural languages – consists in determining the formal place of any signe within the inclusive system of signs that is language (langue), that is, to see it as a ‘difference’ among the system of inseparably linked ‘differences’. Literary significance is treated in a similar way. But both in linguistic and literary studies the existence of a complete and closed system has been largely anticipated, presupposed rather than confirmed, where no more than fragments of the supposed system could ever really be collected.

This itself is a point of serious contention: for one thing, the meaning of any fragment of a would-be system seems, on the structuralist view, not to be defined if the full system is not accessible; for another, there is no way to approximate to the inclusive system to which apparent fragments belong. But if that is so, it is asked, then can structuralism – whether applied to literature or to language in general – be a science at all?

Citing this article:
Margolis, Joseph. Structuralism in literary theory, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M038-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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