All roads lead to Athens

I’ve mentioned structuralism a number of times, occasionally going on a tangent about it, but I haven’t really explained it, nor why it gets rejected by, well, just about everyone except, perhaps, linguists. Perhaps it is time to do that and then, later on, contrast it with what became known as post-structuralism (but that’s something for another day).

Before I cite anyone and get lost in the details, as I usually do, let’s see what a dictionary, in this case the Oxford English Dictionary, has to tell us about structuralism. It is (OED, s.v. “structuralism”, n.):

“Any theory or method in which a discipline or field of study is envisaged as comprising elements interrelated in systems and structures at various levels, the structures and the interrelations of their elements being regarded as more significant than the elements considered in isolation.”

While I’d say that dictionaries aren’t that great with terms, I think that’s an apt definition of structuralism. Key thing here is the structure or the system, which is thought have the elements that are in relations to one another, the focus being on the relations, as opposed to the elements themselves. In other words, this is all about relationality.

The same dictionary will also tell you how this is particularly important in linguistics, having its origins in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (OED, s.v. “structuralism”, n.):

“Any theory or mode of analysis in which language is considered as a system or structure comprising elements at various phonological, grammatical, and semantic levels, the interrelation of these elements rather than the elements themselves producing meaning.”

Like with many other labels, people who could be labeled as structuralist did not refer to themselves as such. The first instance listed in the dictionary (OED, s.v. “structuralism”, n.) is Ernst Cassirer who uses it in the title of his lecture ‘Structuralism in Modern Linguistics’, which was subsequently published in article form.

There’s a lot going on in Cassirer’s lecture turned into an article, so I’ll jump to a point that’s relevant to the topic of this essay. Right, he (103) credits Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for making “a sharp distinction between two different kinds of truth”, one being “a formal or logical” truth that is “eternal and inviolable” and the other being “an empirical or factual truth” that is “changeable and modifiable.” He (103-104) clarifies the former as pertaining to “the ideal world”, dealing with “logic, arithmetic, algebra” and “geometry”, and the latter as pertaining to what we encounter in the “actual world”, dealing with “phenomena in space and time”. In other words, he (103-104) reckons that only logic and mathematics qualify as dealing with the necessary truth (vérités de raison or vérités necessaires), whereas any other fields of inquiry, such as “physics, astronomy” and “history” qualify on as dealing with “a contingent truth” (vérités de fait or vérités contingentes).

Following an example drawn from Viggo Brøndal’s ‘Structure et variabilité des systems morphologiques’ (interestingly listed as Bröndal), he (104) then credits Saussure, as well as Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson (plus others that he doesn’t name), for rethinking this distinction. He (104) points out that language appears to us as paradoxical. On one hand, it is a matter of fact. It cannot exist without us and therefore it cannot have existed before us. On the other hand, it is a matter of reason, because language isn’t just an accumulation of facts. In summary, the way I understand this, without consulting any sources, is that it is factual, yet systematic.

As linguist probably doesn’t need an explanation of this, as he (105) points out, he (105-107) goes on to explain this through biology, comparing the views of Georges Cuvier, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Charles Darwin. In summary, he (106) reckons that while there were many differences between their views, Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire disagreeing with one another and Goethe siding with the latter, they agreed “that there are no mere accidental things in an organism”, while for Darwin that was the key thing to it all, that you can and do have “a definite structure” that “could be brought into being by mere accidental variations of an amorphous material.” So, there are these two opposite views, one that’s static and another that’s dynamic. In the former it was possible for the form to change, the formations only taking place “within the same type”, whereas in the latter it was thought to be possible, as he (105) points out.

He (107) exemplifies with a quite from Cuvier’s ‘Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe : et sur les changemens qu’elles ont produits dans le régne animal’. It has been translated and published as ‘A discourse on the revolutions of the surface of the globe, and the changes thereby produced in the animal kingdom’. Using the (unspecified) translation here, Cuvier (58-59) states that:

“Fortunately, comparative anatomy possesses a principle, which, properly developed, was capable of clearing up all embarrassment: it was that of the natural relation of forms in organized beings, by means of which each sort of creature may by rigorous scrutiny, be known by each fragment of each of its parts.”

And, following a paragraph break, he (59) adds that:

“Every organized being forms a whole, unique and perfect system, the parts of which mutually correspond, and concur in the same definitive action by a reciprocal reaction. None of these parts can change without the whole changing; and consequently each of them, separately considered, points out and marks all the others.”

And, following another paragraph break, he (59) exemplifies this with a segment not included by Cassirer (107):

“Thus, as I have before remarked, if the intestines of an animal are so organized as only to digest flesh, and that fresh, it follows that its haws must be constructed to devour a prey, its claws to seize and tear it, its teeth to cut and divide it, the whole structure of its organs of motion such as to purse and catch it, its perceptive organs to discern it at a distance; nature must even have placed in its brain the necessary instinct, to know how to conceal itself and lay snares for its victims.”

I included this and what’s to follow, because I think it helps us to understand Cassirer’s (107) point. So, Cuvier (59) has more to say about this:

“Such will be the general conditions of the carnivorous kingdom; every animal of this species will infallibly unite these qualities; for its race could not exist without them. But under these general conditions there are particular ones, relative to size, species, and haunts of the prey, for which each animal is inclined; and each of these particular conditions result from modifications of the detail in the formations which they derive from the general conditions; thus, not only the class, but the order, the genus, and even the species, are detected in the formation of each part.”

He (59-61) goes on and on, and on, with this, which is why I think it makes sense to jump to the part that Cassirer (107) also includes:

“[S]o the claw, the scapula, the articulation of the jaw, the thigh bone, and all the other bones separately considered, require the certain tooth, or the tooth requires them reciprocally; and beginning with any one, he who possessed a knowledge of the laws of organic economy, would detect the whole animal.”

Cuvier (61) moves on from this carnivore example to a herbivore example, in which it is clear for him that animals with hoofs must all be herbivores. The point here is, however, not to get fixated on his examples, to pile on him for such views, this all being from the early 1800s, so I’ll return to Cassirer (107) who uses Cuvier’s examples as “a very interesting mental experiment” in which the biological terms are replaced by linguistic terms. According to him (107), that’s structuralism for you:

“Of course, the subject-matter of Cuvier is very different from that of the linguist, but what matters
here are not the objects that are studied in biology and linguistics, but the connections and relations which we can ascertain between these objects.”

To prove his point, he (107-108) weaves in an example from Antoine Meillet’s ‘La méthode comparative en linguistique historique’. It has been translated and published as ‘The Comparative Method in Historical Linguistics’. Again, I’m using a translation, in which Meillet (25-26) states that:

“It means nothing to posit only partial comparisons: each linguistic fact is part of a system where everything holds together. We must not compare one fact of detail with another fact of detail, but one linguistic system with another system.”

Cassirer (107-108) cites Cuvier once more, but I think you should get the point already. So, skipping that example, he (108-109) notes that while Cuvier’s views are no longer in vogue, for reasons already mentioned, his way of thinking in holistic or organicist terms appears similar to linguistic structuralism. He (109-110) cautions his audience, subsequently his readers, not to think of them as a 1:1 match, because that may lead people to think of language as a living being, with its stages of life from its birth to its death:

“To speak of language as a thing that comes into being and withers, that has its youth, its prime of life, its senility, and its death is to speak in a mere metaphor.”

He (110) acknowledges that it’s not inherently wrong to think of language in this way, but it is what it is, just a metaphor. It doesn’t prove anything about language, as he (110) points out. Comparing language with biology gets you only so far, as he (110) goes on to point out:

“Language is neither a mechanism nor an organism, neither a dead nor a living thing. It is no thing at all, if by this term we understand a physical object. It is—language, a very specific human activity, not describable in terms of physics, chemistry, or biology.”

As a sidenote here, this is the problem with language and, more broadly speaking, with semiotics. It can be tremendously difficult to get the point across, that we have this … capacity … no … that’s not right … activity … or, better yet, practice that we engage in that has no physical bearing on the world, whatsoever, yet it is the only thing that can not only explain any of it, but also responsible for having an impact that cannot explained in physical terms. Yeah, ain’t that lovely?

For Cassirer (110), language is, as Wilhelm von Humboldt puts it very concisely, a matter of not of ergon (ἔργον), i.e., the act, but of energeia (ἐνέργεια), i..e, the acting. This pushes him (110) to state that language is, indeed, organic, like a living thing that is organic, but only in the sense that it is organized in a certain way, i.e., having a certain organization:

“It is organic in the sense that it does not consist of detached, isolated, segregated facts. It forms a coherent whole in which all parts are interdependent upon each other.”

It is, however, not an organism, a living being that is organized in an organic way, as he (110) points out emphatically. He (110) reckons that it is more like it is with art or philosophy, so that you have the whole, that organic whole, if you will, which would make no sense as a mere collection of a bit of this and a bit of that, so that:

“Everything hangs together: nothing is accidental or superfluous.”

He (110) then exemplifies this, I’d say rather aptly with how works of art function:

“In a tragedy by Shakespeare or in a lyric poem of Goethe we can hardly remove one word without destroying the character and the beauty of the whole. [Doris] Lessing said of Shakespeare that it is just as impossible to steal a verse of Shakespeare as to steal the club of Hercules.”

As apt as that may be, being, in a sense, organic, the problem for him (110-111) is that calling it that, organic, tempts as to think of language as an organism. That’s why he (111) isn’t fond of such views, nor the use of those terms.

He (111) tries another way of addressing this by posing the question: is linguistics a science (as in one of the natural sciences) or a scholarly endeavor (as in arts and humanities or, at best, one of the social sciences)? He (111) sidesteps this, not answering his own question, because while there are two camps, and I would agree, there being those who see it as a science (cough, cough, structuralists) and those who see it as more of an art (which can, of course be studied, but my point being that it’s creative, rather than informative or communicative), it’s not clear what’s even meant by language. As he (111) points out, we may talk the talk, like literally just talk, yet somehow we are capable of forgetting that language is about speech (writing would also count, yes, but I’m just covering what he is covering):

“Neither in … nor in … do we find a chapter on human speech. To my mind this was a very regrettable lack, a sin of omission that could not fait to have its consequences.”

Now, I removed the specifics here because they aren’t that important. I wouldn’t say that this is still the case, as there are plenty of books, book chapters and articles on speech. I’d say that this issue still persists though, because we are, nonetheless, in the habit of thinking of language as something beyond that and not just, speech (or writing). I’d say that it is rare for people to think of language or languages as abstractions that are abstracted from speech. I’d say that they are more tempted to think the other way around, that their speech or writing is merely them applying language in this and/or that situation.

He (111-112) goes as far as to hope for the exact opposite:

“A theory of knowledge should be a sort of map of our ‘globus intellectualis.’ But this map is, as yet, very incomplete. In our modern theory of knowledge[,] linguistics is entirely neglected; it is treated as a stepchild.”

To comment on that, before I let him continue, I couldn’t help but to smirk. I mean, that’s pretty funny, the way he compares to how stepchildren tend to be treated. Anyway, he (112) continues:

“Yet how can we hope to get a clear picture of our [that] if such an important province is left out? Many excellent books have been written on the logic of science, of mathematics, physics, and biology. But a book on the logic of linguistics is still missing.”

Following this, he (112), perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly (I was anticipating this already, as I am writing this as I’m reading this), connects this to Platonism. For him (112), this all goes to hell once we think of language as its own thing, because one party, “the partisans of matter”, wants to ground it in what we’d call natural sciences (or physics) and another party, Plato’s “‘friends of ideas’” (or metaphysics, as in beyond physics), wants to think of it as this otherworldly thing, as this “spiritual reality” that is “the only true reality.”

He (113) reckons that linguists probably wouldn’t agree with his take, like how is Plato relevant to any of this, but at least I agree with his take. I think he (113) is right when he contrasts those who vouch to be materialists with those who vouch to be formalists or structuralists. The former are typically interested in the sounds and seek to explain the laws of language through all that, whereas the formalists or structuralists account for the sounds with the forms or the structures, “defend[ing] themselves ‘with weapons from the invisible world above’”, as he (113) puts it in terms used by Plato in ‘Sophist’.

I think he is also right when he (113) points out that this issue is ages old, going all the way back to Plato. So, if I take issue with Platonism, in one form or another, right now, in the 2020s, it’s because we are still dealing with the same issue. I’ll let him (113) explain this:

“[T]here are some fundamental philosophical problems and some problems of scientific methodology which never lose their importance. They never grow obsolete; they reappear, in a modified form, at all ages and under the most various conditions.”

Okay, I wouldn’t call them fundamental and would hesitate to use the word never, because that may make it seem like we are doomed to witness their apparition. I’d rephrase that, just a bit, so that it’s “never [appear to] lose their importance”. That way I’m not insisting on that this must be the case. Instead, I’m saying that it seems to be the case. That I’m leaving it open whether it is the case, after all. I’m not fond of absolutes.

I do get the point though. When someone says something like ‘this always happens’, ‘this never happens’ or ‘this is strange’, I know that the person is being hyperbolic. I know the person would be willing to concede that it’s not always, nor never, that it’s, rather, often and rarely. I also know that the person isn’t hellbent on something being strange by its very essence, but rather commenting on the strangeness of the situation. Even when I state that ‘I know …’, I’m not really claiming that I know for sure. What I’m really stating is that ‘I’m aware that … is likely the case’.

This is where pragmatics creeps into the discussion. If someone states that they know, I’m going to challenge that on the basis of whether the person knows it for sure or not. If it seems agreeable to me, I won’t object to it. I know what the person means by knowing in that context. If I say something like ‘this is so dumb’, in response to whatever it is that I consider to be dumb, perhaps some Kafkaesque situation, and someone else responds to it, there and then, with ‘I know’, neither do I claim that it is, for sure, dumb, like by its essence, nor does the other person know it to be dumb. Instead, I claim it to be dumb, attributing it as such, and the other person does the same by agreeing with what I said. As Valentin Vološinov (79) explains this in ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’, “[t]he meaning of a word is determined entirely by its context”, so that “[i]n fact, there are as many meanings of a word as there are contexts of its usage.” This does not, however, mean that anything goes, that semantics has no role to play in this, as otherwise we’d have individual words for individual contexts, as he (79-80) points out.

Semantics is, nonetheless, subordinate to pragmatics, if you ask me. This is what Vološinov (104) also points out when he notes that you can say a word and mean a different thing, a thing that’s not even there, referentially, to be pointed at. So, to make more sense of my example, which is about knowing, the way we make sense of something like ‘I know’ is often based on how someone says that. If we get stuck on the semantics of what the verb ‘know’ is all about, what the word means, we miss the point entirely, that it is the context that defines the meaning, hence the importance of pragmatics.

To put this another way, as he (106) does, there is a “generative process” that “is reflected in the generation of semantic properties in language”, so that “[a] new significance emanates from an old one, and does so with its help, but this happens so that the new significance can enter into contradiction with the old one and restructure it.” By this he means that we start from semantics, from what we know and what we assume others to know, as well as what we assume them to know about what we know, ballparking it. That’s like a baseline. It’s a good start, a smart way to go about it, if you ask me, but that’s hardly specific. I love a good dictionary, but it won’t do you much good in a conversation.

For example, if I know someone particularly well, I not only know what I know, but I also know what the other person knows, as well as what the person knows about what I know. In other words, we know each other so well that we might as well complete each other’s sentences. So, if I say something, that person has little trouble understanding what I mean by it in that context. I might say something like ‘wow, what a sick burn’, in response to what someone else said, let’s say on a video clip. The other person, knowing me well, knows that I don’t mean sick (OED, s.v. “sick”, adj. and n.) as “[s]uffering from a physical ailment” or being “[d]eeply affected by some strong feeling” that is capable of “producing effects similar or comparable to those of physical ailments”, nor even as pertaining to “humour, a joke, etc.” that is “macabre, providing amusement by reference to something that is thorough unpleasant”, nor any of the other numerous dictionary definitions that are similar to these definitions. Similarly, the other person knows that by burn (OED, s.v. “sick”, adj. and n.) I don’t mean “[t]he act or effect of burning” that results in “an injury to the body” or anything similar that has anything to do with flames. The person knows fully well that it’s me, being particularly impressed by someone’s clever insult directed at someone else. In this case burn is still something that hurts, but only figuratively, and sick is not a bad thing, but rather a good thing. This example that I made up, on the spot, how semantic properties are generated, being based on old semantic properties, like here with ‘burn’, and how the new ones can even contradict the old ones, like here with ‘sick’ that is ameliorated, having been something negative and now something positive.

We could go further with this, to consider how I say that. I might say that with excitement, very loudly. The other person would then take it as such, me being impressed by someone’s insult directed at someone else. I might also be saying in a dull voice, taking my time with each word. The other person would then take it differently. It would come across as me being sarcastic.

If we change the other person to someone who doesn’t know me, nor people like me, so that the person has to ballpark it, based on what those words tend to mean. I don’t think the person would think that I’m talking about physical or mental ailments, nor about someone being hurt by flames. I think that person would rather be simply puzzled by that, not sure what to think of it. The person could probably connect some dots, like how that’s in response to something, to what someone else said, but they might still not get it, being stuck with why this word and why that word.

To be clear, you don’t have to know a person super well to understand them. It’s often enough that you know enough about them, or someone like them. Being alike certainly helps, but it’s not necessary. For example, if you are roughly the same age or if you share the same socio-economic status, you probably have little trouble understanding the other person, no matter what they say. That’s, of course, not a given, but that’s often the case. Having a similar background, built on similar experiences, helps you tremendously. It’s like they get it, almost instantly, whereas others who are very unlike you in terms of their background, of their experiences, will likely struggle to understand you.

Vološinov (106) summarizes how the interface between semantics and pragmatics works:

“There is nothing in this that could be said to be absolutely fixed. And that is how it happens that meaning–an abstract, self-identical element–is subsumed under theme and torn apart by theme’s living contradictions so as to return in the shape of a new meaning with a fixity and self-identity only for the while, just as it had before.”

So, in a sense, everything is fixed, having this and/or that meaning, like how it is typically understood in semantics, as otherwise we couldn’t understand each other, but, in another sense, nothing is ever fixed, because it is subject to change. In other words, we may that something is like this and/or that, for now, as I like to point out to people. It is like this and/or that, until it isn’t. People don’t like when I say that, because they want things to stay the same, because they are deeply troubled by that ‘for now’ that undermines that permanence that they want, but it is what it is, until it isn’t, so that then it’s something else, which then also just is what it is, until it isn’t, and so on and so forth.

Right, back to Cassirer (113) who uses a passage from Trubetzkoy’s ‘La phonologie actuelle’ as example of how structuralists reject the idea that meaning comes from meaningless sounds. He (113) reckons that the answer to his question, whether linguistics belongs to the sciences or to the arts and humanities (or social sciences, if you will), is that it belongs to the latter and not the former, because meaning cannot be explained in material terms. While I agree that it cannot be reduced to the sounds themselves, as they are, indeed, meaningless vibrations of air, as noted by Trubetzkoy (231), I wouldn’t say that meaning is then to be found in language itself. As Vološinov would point out, as already discussed, you can’t have semantics without pragmatics. You do still need those vibrations of air, as nonsensical as they are on their own.

Cassirer (113-114) reckons that there is something miraculous about language, or semiotics in general, because it appears to be capable of transubstantiation, which means the transformation of bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ in Christian theology. To be clear, he (114) refers to as “a sort of”, not actual transubstantiation. He isn’t actually saying that the physical composition of matter is changed once a priest says the words. What he (113-114) is saying is that there is an incorporeal transformation of corporeal bodies, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (81) put it in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. It is miraculous in the sense that the transformation is instant, as indicated by Deleuze and Guattari (81).

I want to highlight how Cassirer (114) defines language because it so aptly and concisely put:

“Speech is meaning — an incorporeal thing — expressed in sounds, which are material things.”

So simple, so good. I also like how he (114) emphasizes that language is functional, about how those incorporeals, what he also refers to as ‘Geist’, are used to transform the world, over and over again:

“We should use it in a functional sense as a comprehensive name for all those functions which constitute and build up the world of human culture.”

And sold! I couldn’t agree more! Now, following this summary, of how he views language, he (114-115) goes on to lament that how linguists end up treating it as either one or the other, as either materialist or as idealists. He (114) gives credit to the former for their “resolute empiricism or positivism”, you know, for taking data seriously, only to point out that this is also their greatest weakness, because if you confine yourself only to material phenomena, you also confine yourself to examining speech as mere vibrations of air and, we might add, writing as mere imprints of material on other materials. It is a pointless endeavor because, as he (115) puts it, “[l]inguistics is a part of semiotics, not of physics.” He (115) also gives credit to the latter for understanding this, that linguistics is indeed about semiotics and not of physics, while, I would add, acknowledging that language is, of course, in a sense also material, as we cannot say anything, nor write anything, or, more broadly speaking, express anything, without it being expressed, materially. The problem for him (115-117) with the idealists, more specifically with the structuralists, is that they seek to uncover the laws of language, just like the natural scientists try to uncover the laws of nature.

I’ll skip his examples, to move on to his summary of what he thinks of structuralism. He (120) doesn’t think it is something that cropped up in the 1900s, following Saussure, although I’d say that his work was highly influential in that regard, but rather something that has become more and more prominent in contemporary thought.

I intended to move on to Deleuze’s take on structuralism, as covered by him in ‘How Do We Recognize Structuralism?’, but that short text ended up being far from short and I ended up on so many tangents that I opted to leave it out and cover in the next essay. Cassirer’s take turned out to be fascinating enough to warrant its own essay. I certainly didn’t think it would be as good as it is. I mean chose to take a look at it because it was mentioned in a dictionary. Then again, that teaches you not to look down on dictionaries. So, my thanks go to whoever was responsible for including that example under structuralism.

Cassirer’s speech turned into an article is dated, but I nonetheless totally digged it. Again, that teaches you not to judge something by its date of publication. You’ll find a lot of good stuff, if you just bother to take a closer look at what’s out there. It also amusing how he casually just changes language, like without any warning, assuming that, like, come on, everyone knows French and German.

So, yeah, check it out! It’s totally worth it!


  • Brøndal, V. (1935). Structure et variabilité des systems morphologiques. Scientia, 109-119. (Communication given at the Third International Congres of Linguists, Rome, September 22, 1933)
  • Cassirer, E. (1945). Structuralism in Modern Linguistics. WORD, 1 (2), 99–120.
  • Cuvier, G. ([1822] 1830). Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe, et sur les changemens qu’elles ont produits dans le régne animal (6th ed.). Paris, France: Edmond d’Ocagne.
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  • Vološinov, V. N. ([1930] 1973). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik, Trans.). New York, NY: Seminar Press.