Building under construction
Claude_Lévi-Strauss participating in social structures

Structuralism is a movement and method that focuses on social constructs, language games and forms of life, much like late Wittgenstein.  Hegel argues that our thinking is composed in terms of self and other.  Structuralism sought to understand the life of cultures as a construction of language and system of relationships, influenced by Phenomenology and reacting against Existentialism.  Like the Phenomenologists, Structuralists tried to give a scientific account of the human experience.  While Existentialism emphasizes the free individual creation of meaning, Structuralism emphasizes the social determination of meaning, such that the individual is largely, if not entirely, determined by the structures in which they participate.  In France, Sartre and Levi-Strauss’ disagreement over human freedom became symbolic of the fight between Existentialism and Structuralism.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) had a profound impact on Structuralism.  Marxism and Psychoanalysis, which still consider themselves to be sciences, argue that individual life is largely determined by underlying systems, for Marx the economy and modes of production, for Freud the unconscious mind and core drives.  Both Marx and Freud argue, like Structuralists, that individuals are largely unaware of the systems by which their actions are determined, similar to Spinoza who argued that free will is an illusion that arises when we are ignorant of the causes that determine our behavior.

Marx Portrait beard

We will not extensively cover Marxism or Psychoanalysis in this class, but we will consider Marxist and Psychoanalytic concepts that are relevant to Structuralism.  Marx, who took Hegel’s system and turned it upside-down, argued that history is the process of class conflict, of the dialectic between the rich owners and the poor laborers.  Society is largely concerned with protecting the property of the owners and maintaining it through control of the laborers by the middle class.


Freud, who marveled at the similarities between his own work and the work of Schopenhauer, argued that behavior is the process of subconscious conflict, of the dialectic between satisfaction and repression.  The ego, or self, is the result of the conflict between the id, which seeks gratification, and the superego, which seeks to put the id in check and delay gratification.  Both Marx and Freud see a basic opposition painfully and tentatively resolved by a mediating central component, for Marx the middle class who go to college and then work in various careers, for Freud the Ego that forms individual identity by various tactics of compromise.  Like Fichte’s Ich (the I), Freud’s Ego is a negotiation of self-assertion and self-denial, much like Schelling and Hegel’s syntheses as compromise of affirmation and negation.

Ferdinand de Saussure

The third theorist who served as the basis of Structuralism is Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913), the Swiss linguist whose work on Semiology, the study of meaning, became very important for later European thought.  His lectures between 1907 and 1911 were later published as A Course in General Linguistics.   Saussure argued that words are sets of sounds that are defined in terms of difference.  ‘Cat’ and ‘hat’ are very similar words, only one of three sounds being different, but cats and hats are very different.

Romance languages distribution in Europe

Saussure’s major principle is the arbitrariness of the signwords have no resemblance to the things they represent.  The word ‘cat’ is nothing like a cat in shape or sound.  Because words, language, and the things that they signify can change, there is no fully fixed signification.  There are exceptions of signs that are not arbitrary, which Saussure calls ‘motivated’.  Onomatopoeia, words that imitate sounds, are motivated, such as ‘meow’, ‘zip’, and thus ‘zipper’.  In English, letters and words are not presumed to look like what they represent.  English and other Romance languages use an alphabet derived via Roman Latin from the Phoenician alphabet.

phonecian alphabet

While scholars accept that the letters of the Phoenician alphabet are derived from picturing individual things, they are in debate over what things inspired which letters, as the alphabet evolved to the point that many of the original correspondences are long lost.  Some scholars agree that ‘A’ likely came from the head of a cow or ox, and ‘B’ likely came from a house, both significant to early civilization.  Similarly, in Chinese entire words can resemble the things they represent, but like the Phoenician based alphabet ancient Chinese has evolved such that there is often little resemblance that can be recognized easily.  All of this seems to confirm Saussure’s principle of arbitrariness.  Another type of exception of signs that are not arbitrary are portmanteau, words that are composed of multiple words.  While ‘cat’ and ‘nap’ don’t look or sound like cats or naps, a ‘catnap’ does resemble the short naps taken by cats.

Claude Levi-Strauss on the Amazon

The father of Structuralism, however, was not Saussure but the French Anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 – 2009), not to be confused with the inventor of blue jeans who shares the same hyphenated last name.  Levi-Strauss said that his three loves were Geology, Marx and Freud.  All three seek the hidden layers below that determine the formations above.  In 1934 Levi-Strauss and his wife became professors in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and he would often venture into the jungle to meet Amazonian tribespeople, finding their cultures to be more elaborate and complex than he had expected.  After the end of WWII, he returned to Paris where he merged the work of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud and Saussure into a new philosophy of Anthropology he called Structuralism, the search for the universal underlying patterns of human cultural behavior.


Like William James, Levi-Strauss was very much a functionalist, who argued that primitive and modern people share the same mind and behaviors, and that all human behavior is rooted in some utilitarian value.  James is considered one of the founders of Psychology just as Levi-Strauss is considered one of the founders of Anthropology.  However, unlike James, Levi-Strauss argued that there are behaviors which have a symbolic value, the benefits being immaterial and mental rather than material and physical.

tribal family

Levi-Strauss argued that human beings do not establish absolutes, but form relationships.  For example, while a parent might not be perfect or always right, they are in a relationship with a child such that they are in the position of authority.  Levi-Strauss’ work was focused on examining the relationships of relationships.  A family or culture is a relationship of relationships.  While earlier anthropologists argued that identity is a matter of linear descent from a single patriarch, Levi-Strauss argued that identity is a matter of the relationship between families that intermarry, a relationship between two sets of relationships.

levi_strauss-la pensee sauvage

The title of Levi-Strauss’ most famous book, La Pensee Sauvage (1962), is often translated as “The Savage Mind”, but in French means “Thinking in the Raw”, or “Raw Thought”.  While many think of primitive people as children who have undeveloped minds, Levi-Strauss argues that primitive tribespeople are capable of sophisticated systematization, and that modern people are quite capable of foolish fetishes and totemism.  Levi-Strauss borrowed Saussure’s conception of the sign, Freud’s conception of the symbolic, and Marcel Mauss’ theory that primitive culture, like modern culture, is founded on gift giving, which is not only practical but symbolic.  Consider the traditional act of a husband giving a diamond ring to his wife, practical as she carries wealth with her on her hand and symbolic as it shows that she is trusted with this wealth.  The symbolic is not impractical, but an extension of the immediately practical into additional cultural significance.


Reacting against Existentialism, Sartre and his circle, Levi-Strauss was joined by Lacan, Foucault and Barthes as Structuralism rose to prominence in French thought.  This was immortalized in a 1967 cartoon, The Structuralists’ Lunch Party, which showed the four philosophers sitting on the ground wearing grass skirts.  The Structuralists, like the Existentialists, were pessimistic about modern society, but rather than escape culture via free individuality, they chose to understand culture and control by studying pre-modern people.  As we turn to Barthes and then Foucault, we will be passing from Structuralism to Poststructuralism, which gave up on discovering universal patterns underlying all cultures but still considers the individual to be a construct of culture.