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The term post-structuralism denotes different approaches and methods in the humanities and social sciences, which first emerged in France at the end of the 1960s and which deal critically in different ways with the relationship between linguistic practice and social reality. The decisive factor here is the view that language not only depicts reality, but also creates it by means of its categories and distinctions. Typically, this perspective is also associated with a departure from an objectivistic view of society, the social facts considers necessary; instead, the different possibilities (contingency) of social developments are emphasized.

Positioning in the history of philosophy

The term “post-structuralism” is a description of the history of philosophy. It is difficult to formulate common theses for the theorists grouped under this collective term. One reason for this is that many post-structuralists emphasize that they are consciously not concerned with the establishment of an alternative, encompassing philosophical theory, but with a certain method or a thinking or analytical attitude.

Differences to the classical structuralism of a novel by Jakobsons, Ferdinand de Saussures and others are determined differently by the individual poststructuralists. An expansion of the term text is fundamental . The individual text is considered to be networked with others; it is considered a quotation from earlier texts and there is no privileged reading either. In addition, the term text is expanded to include history or entire cultures. Other differences are seen in the demarcation from certain theoretical or methodological prerequisites of structuralist classics, which are not adopted by the poststructuralists. This concerns cross-cultural, cross-historical, rigid and abstract laws that Claude Lévi-Strauss in particular believed he had discovered. In general, historical discontinuities are emphasized more strongly than with classical structuralists. Heterogeneity is emphasized more than homogeneity. A critical approach to structuring terms, normative ideas and theoretical principles are typical. Principles of order of classical metaphysical systems are analyzed for the conditions of their validity. Here are used methods from psychoanalytic, discourse analysis, semiotic and philosophy of language.

In connection with structuralist concepts, especially semiotics, the relationship between (linguistic) signs (signifiers) and meanings (signifieds) is often problematized, and attention is directed to the changeability of linguistic and discursive structures. Many post-structuralists postulate – especially in the wake of Derrida’s deconstruction and Foucault’s discourse analysis – that units of meaning can only ever be formed as an effect of previously drawn differences (cf. Derrida’s concept of différance ), whereby the construction conditions of sense and thus at the same time the precariousness and changeability of constructions of meaning come more into focus.

Social structures, orders of knowledge and cultural formations (discourse), as a prerequisite of most poststructuralists, are basically associated with forms of power, which establish its validity and hierarchical order. A central motive for many post-structuralists is therefore how such systems of rule can be changed through subversive (undermining) and interventionist (intervening) practices or at least used for creative repositioning. The analysis of media, popular culture and everyday practices also play a central role as they are analyzed in particular by the discipline of cultural studies. Important theorists in this context are Stuart Hall and John Fiske from the British Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. In the context of post-colonialism and queer theory, too, questions about the deconstruction of discursive power relations are of central importance.

Numerous post-structuralist approaches agree in their criticism of certain classical concepts of metaphysics, subject, or rationality. Traditional positions associated with these terms are often described as totalitarian, patriarchal, discriminatory, ethnocentric as well as “substantiating” or “naturalizing  (in the sense of “defining identity as a natural property”) or even criticized as an expression of a Western “Logocentrism”.

Frequently used terms in some post-structuralist texts are for example: ambiguity, différance , the (shared) self , “the great other”.

Socio-historical background

At the time of post-structuralism, the thoughts of humanism (in the sense of Jean-Paul Sartre ) and Marxism had formative authority. In the eyes of early post-structuralists, what connects with these theories became more and more questionable. Both theories appeared to be inadequate for the posed – questions that were raised in the face of totalitarian structures in Soviet socialism , against the background of Stalinism , the disappearance of the working class as a revolutionary subject, “social democratization”, the weakness of socialist in post-colonialism, the formulation of new urgencies in ecology, the self-destruction of young people in the metropolises, the emergence of new, self-confident movements that no longer wanted to accept a “secondary contradiction position”: women’s movement , black power movement, gay and lesbian movements, or the civil rights movements.

Different approaches of post-structuralism

Jacques Derrida’s writing theory

Jacques Derrida is a particularly influential writer. He calls his method (he himself prefers the term “practice”) deconstruction; it consists in revealing the aporias one encounters in analyzing attempts to tell the truth.

His early main work Of Grammatology deals primarily with classical language theories. Derrida tries to show that it is impossible to grasp the singular intuition of the other person in a direct conversation. In fact, this remains just as withdrawn as in the “dead letter” written form.

His also early and fundamental work Voice and the Phenomenon tries to show that the individual (singular intuition) and the general (meaning intention) are necessarily immediately communicable. One of the reasons given for this is the delay in the formulation and evaluation act.

In Writing and Difference (1967) Derrida distinguishes two different concepts of “structure”. The first “metaphysical” concept tries to find a deep “ground”, for the origin and the truth of the signs. The second, postmodern, wants to observe the play of signs, which in principle cannot be closed, and continue it in writing.

Such differences are also intended to explain why a linguistic differentiation principles prior to the subject’s acquaintance with himself cannot be given and can serve for subsequent theoretical speculations (as in idealistic attempts at system formation). The authority of the author as a meaningful originator no longer has a function in post-structuralist thinking. The early Derrida tries to show this with Descartes ‘ Cogito scene. His early essays also deal with Sigmund Freud, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Ferdinand de Saussure and Emmanuel Levinas. Derrida’s criticism has the latter (especially in his text Violence and Metaphysics) have only just been made known.

Derrida’s later work is devoted to almost all areas of philosophy. After a more experimental phase, his later writings put practical and political questions more explicitly in the foreground.

Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who played a central role in the development of psychoanalysis in France, devoted himself to a renewed reading of Sigmund Freud’s writings in the light of the structuralist method, but also processed influences from fundamental ontology and, in the later work of mathematical topology, whose graph models he developed, used for the representation of unconscious processes.

Lacan emphasizes, also, against the background of Freud’s theory of failure and the joke, that the unconscious is structured “like a language”. The work of the unconscious takes place according to linguistic laws such as metaphor and metonymy, substitution and displacement. He calls the corresponding elements of the psychic events signifiers, but in addition to the linguistically structured field of the symbolic, the imaginary and the real also play a central role in the mental apparatus. The actual structuring work, and also the psychoanalytic cure, take place in the field of speaking. Lacan also locates phenomena of social norm, law, authority and ideology in the field of the linguistic or symbolic and in this context coined the term “great other” (cf. also name-of-the-father) as a symbolic figure of the Authority in contrast to the “small other”, which plays a decisive role in the context of the instinctual occurrence.

Lacan’s conception of the symbolic was made particularly fruitful for Marxist approaches by Louis Althusser in the context of the analysis of ideology and ideological “invocation”. His remarks on the gaze as an instinctual object as well as on the important role of the phantasmatic for psychological, but also social events, are of central importance for more recent theories in the field of cultural and visual studies. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek is considered to be the most important exponent of a way of thinking shaped by Lacan.

Michel Foucault’s discourse analysis

Partly in the wake of the structuralists, discourse analysis developed by Michel Foucault is fundamental to the post-structuralist instruments. In the style of Foucault, discourse analysis was further developed in the 1990s into a method that can be used in a relatively regulated manner.

It was first developed in Foucault’s main methodological work, The Archeology of Knowledge. This follows his concrete studies on the birth of a “human-scientific” order of knowledge in The Order of Things and the mechanisms of exclusion and the simultaneous definition of the sick and the insane – an act of exclusion, which at the same time only enables a society to reassure itself about its own identity, health and reasonableness stabilized. The method already implicitly used was, partly in response to critics, then by Foucault as a explicitly discourse analysis. It is about the analysis of the structure and establishment conditions of orders of knowledge, each of which is associated with its own conventions on the permissibility and value of knowledge elements, with certain “rules of discourse”. Their epoch-specific overall thinking is summarized in the term “epistéme”. Factors of the context such as rules and norms are understood as fundamental for the fact that meaning can be conveyed at all, i.e. communication can be generated. In particular, pre-discursive framework conditions are examined, such as the organization of power relationships with strategies of establishing power and tactics of positioning in power relationships, a level that Foucault describes as “micropolitics”.

In the second half of the 1970s this method was used, inter alia introduced to cultural, historical and literary studies. In doing so, it sets itself apart from the subject- and author-centered concept of knowledge of classic hermeneutic approaches. In the center is not an author’s subject and its intention. The use of an author instance only serves to mark medium-sized discursive units. The establishment of an author’s subject itself is a discourse linked to historical and cultural changes. In particular, the concept of the author is interlinked with the concept of property.

In Foucault’s place, the author is replaced by a structure of knowledge that provides him with the ability to express himself in the first place. The relevant term of discourse also integrates the aforementioned pre-discursive constitutional conditions of cultural knowledge, in particular systems of control and regulation. “Discourse” is an entire field of cultural knowledge, which, as it is in the form of statements and texts as tips of an iceberg manifested . Thinking and perception are, according to Foucault’s assumption, already shaped by the order of discourse. Truth and reality are constituted by means of culture statements and about practices of establishing truth and a struggle to “make audible” “voices” (opinions). In principle, knowledge is only accessible in documents, but these must be analyzed in the context of an entire discourse formation (episteme) that enables them. The self-image and the regulatory mechanisms of a society can therefore be grasped at least indirectly. Society is also formed through texts and cultural artefacts.

The methodical bracketing of the author authority can be explained as a special case of Foucault’s criticism of the subject. According to Foucault, a subject basically designs itself in the field of available discursivation strategies of the self, in which it can make use of creative, tactical features of self-positioning to varying degrees. Foucault is concerned with this mobility, which is rather restricted by a classic, substantialist concept of subject. Foucault’s late works focus particularly on the subject of self-design, which he calls “self-care” based on stoic theories.


Post-structuralism was criticized both as a whole and in some of its representatives. For example, the objections of Jürgen Habermas and Manfred Frank, and an experiment undertaken by Alan Sokal are known : In a journal devoted to poststructuralist theories, he published a text based on the stylistic forms of some poststructuralists, but it contained only nonsense, which, according to Sokal, proves the inadequate intellectual honesty of the entire movement.

Translated and adapted from Wikipedia

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