Value of Knowledge Reference


Beginning in the early years of the twentieth century up to the beginning of the Great War, a new philosophical current emerged from the difficulties of Positivism in dealing with the “human sciences”. The individualistic and empiricistic hostility of positivism to what it deemed “metaphysics” made the conception of any kind of continuity or structure, any “meaning” within social and psychological phenomena untenable. The new current, Structuralism, continued the project of positivism to find an objective, rational and “scientific” methodology for analysing the data of perception, needing to account for the deep structural crises and transformative processes which were manifested in turn-of-the-century Europe, for which positivism was patently inadequate.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the development of the division of labour meant that fundamental questions could not be perceived except through theoretical activity in a multiplicity of separate professions. Structuralism arose out of new approaches in several separate domains of investigation, viz., linguistics, anthropology, psychology, sociology and political economy. Structural methods has long been well-established in mechanics and physics, and Positivism was having its own crisis in physics and mathematics which separately.

Structuralism also contains a wide range of quite distinct, mutually hostile tendencies, but I shall use the term “structuralism” in a sense which is very broad, covering the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson, the structural psychology of Titchener, the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the political economy of J M Keynes and Milton Friedman and others, Talcott Parson’s functionalist sociology, Louis Althusser’s “Marxist” structuralism, Roland Barthes’ structuralist literary criticism.

I see Emile Durkheim as a precursor of structuralism in sociology, Vilfredo Pareto as a precursor of structuralism in economics, though clearly a positivist himself, and Wilhelm Wundt’s experimental psychology as a precursor of structural psychology.

Although structuralism emerged around the beginning of World War One, as I see it, it was not firmly established as the dominant current till the end of World War Two. During this period of course, the current had undergone considerable transformation, and the inter-war years are years of huge crisis for European thought.

Broadly speaking, the rise of structuralism is an ideological reflection of the movement of the world from the days of expansion of laissez faire capitalism in Europe and America, into the imperialist epoch dominated by finance capital and a single world market.

I would like to now briefly sketch the central ideas of the main constituent currents.

In his studies of comparative linguistics at Geneva, Ferdinand de Saussure found, unsurprisingly, that the positivist approach to linguistics, analysing the use of individual phonemes, their various meanings and phonic form, was of little use for comparative linguistics. Saussure’s approach then was to treat the individual phonemes as “arbitrary”, and sought meaning instead in the structures of similarity and difference between phonemes in a given language. The study of these “structures” proved far more fruitful. The study of language structures has subsequently come to be seen as an important lens for the understanding of culture and social structure, and Saussure understood the linguistics structures he was revealing to be the product of social development.

Saussure wrote little, and is know mainly as a result of his lectures in Geneva. The other source of structural linguistics is N S Trubetzkoy, a Russian Nobleman who sought to unite transcendental philosophy and empiricist and rationalist science around a concept of a universal soul, with faith as a pre-condition of experience, not entirely dissimilar from Wundt’s psycho-physical parallelism. Trubetzkoy initiated the focus on language structure, but saw language structures as reflective of underlying unconscious mental infrastructure. While there can be no doubting of the existence of mental structures correlating with linguistic structures, the generative relationship between linguistic and mental structures is a difference of profound significance. There are no better words to describe this dichotomy than materialism and idealism: are social structures the source of structures exhibited in language and internalised in thinking, or are linguistic structures manifestations of underlying mental structures in turn manifested in social structures? Each implies an opposite line of investigation.

In the late 1920s, Trubetzkoy’s colleague and student, Roman Jakobson shifted the focus of structural analysis to study how languages change. He also applied his linguistic principles to a study of kinship relationships, and the “structural” idea is here extended to study kinship systems by viewing the “meaning” of a kinship relationship in any given society as being in the minds of the people, as opposed to reflecting objective relationships of consanguinity. Linguistic studies facilitated the discernment of elaborate systems with social formations and uncovered evidence of changes which had happened in the past. Rather than comparing relationships of consanguinity in themselves, the structures reflected in the linguistic expression of these relations is taken as essential.

Jakobson found himself in the US after the War and from Columbia and Harvard he became quite influential in the post-war period.

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who saw himself as a Marxist and was associated with Jean-Paul Sartre in his youth, extensively studied Indian societies in Brazil. Lévi-Strauss came in contact with Jakobson in New York in the 1940s and in 1949 published his first major work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism was an effort to reduce the information about cultural systems to essential formal relationships among their elements. Lévi-Strauss extensively developed the relationship between anthropological and linguistic studies. He viewed cultures as systems of communication, and constructed models based on structural linguistics and mathematical concepts of structure, drawing upon the developments of twentieth century mathematics (symbolic logic, set theory, group theory, cybernetics, information theory, games theory, topology) to establish and prove laws governing the structure of social relations. Lévi-Strauss learnt his Marxism from the French Communist Party, but struggled to break from the dogmatic and mechanical methods of Stalinism for which purpose the concepts of structural linguistics were useful. So far as I can see, Lévi-Strauss uses the word “dialectical” to indicate non-metric structural transformations and relations of reciprocity, in contradistinction to cause-effect relationships.

Lévi-Strauss explains the notion of social structure as follows:

“The term social structure has nothing to do with empirical reality but with models which are built up after it ... while social structure can, by no means, be reduced to the ensemble of the social relations to be described in a given society. ... It is rather a method to be applied to any kind of social studies, similar to the structural analysis current in other disciplines. ...

A structure consists of a model meeting with several requirements:

First, the structure exhibits the characteristics of a system. It is made up of several elements, none of which can undergo a change without effecting changes in all the other elements.
Second, for any given model there should be a possibility of ordering a series of transformations resulting in a group of models of the same type.
Third, the above properties make it possible to predict how the model will react if one or more of its elements are submitted to certain modifications.
Finally, the model should be constituted so as to make immediately intelligible all the observed facts.” [Structural Anthropology, 1958]

The emphasis of Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology was on understanding the structure of a given society and its possible transformations, and consequently he found historical explanations of components of such a system as beside the point, and historical development is excluded from his anthropology. There is in fact an inherent tendency in the structuralist method which militates against a comprehension of historical dynamics, though it may reveal the existence of historical connections and cannot contradict the facts of historical succession.

Structuralism became a fashion in France in the 1960s, coinciding with a decline in popular support for the FCP, and a move of the French Communist Party away from support for the USSR and a split between the intelligentsia and the organised working class culminating in the betrayal of the French General strike and the failure of the 1968 uprisings. Lévi-Strauss’s student Louis Althusser was among those who sought to merge Marxism and Structuralism in this period. In an exaggeration of Marx’s criticism of empiricism, Althusser rejected the positive content of empirical knowledge entirely. Althusser claimed that “history features in [Marx’s] Capital as an object of theory, not as a real object, as an ‘abstract’ (conceptual) object and not as a real-concrete object” - ‘real’ history lies in a ‘beyond’, behind the ‘theory of history’, which is the only true object of knowledge. Althusser further rejected the concept of contradiction in Marx and Hegel, which he describes in structuralist terms as “over-determination”. Althusser saw the early chapters of Marx’s Capital not as a key, but a barrier to understanding Marx’s view of capitalist society, advising readers to begin Capital with Part II. Althusser thus arrives not at a revision, but at an explicit negation of Marx. Marx’s humanism he viewed as a temporary, Feuerbachian phase, surpassed by commitment to the “scientific observation” of the structure of bourgeois society.

In the 1930s, Talcott Parsons developed Functionalism, which became quite popular, especially in the US in the Post-War period. Functionalism is closely allied to Structuralism, in that it focuses on processes or forces which perform a given function within an organic whole. Functionalism emphasises the tendency of a system to maintain itself in a “dynamic equilibrium”, in which each of the various component forces or processes performing a specific function within the whole. Functionalism can be considered a more developed methodology in that its model is of an organism rather than a machine or structure. Like Structuralism it facilitates the application of mathematical methods to social theory and emphasises equilibrium over development, although both methods are capable of bringing to light the fact of development and existent conflicts within a social organism.

Parallel to the above-described development of structuralist social theory (anthropology and linguistics) there developed a mainstream theory of economics which must also be described as Structuralist, although its links to the former positivism are more clear. Although Vilfredo Pareto was clearly a positivist, his application of mathematics to economics, extending the opportunity opened up by Jevons and Walras, smoothed the way to a positivistic-structuralist approach to economics.

The essence of this method will be very familiar to everyone since it remains to this day the dominant trend in macro-economics. First, a number of metaphysical entities are created by means of an effective operational definition, for example, the average price of gold on the Hong Kong market at opening of trading, or the annual wheat yield of the US, and so on. These data are then correlated in one way or another with each other and appropriate relations of interdependence determined. For example, “an increase in wages is correlated with a proportional drop in employment”, or whatever. Then the data are transformed to play their role as independent entities in lieu of the original supposed independent economic agents. “If there is an increase in wages, then there will be a corresponding drop in employment”, and so on.

The same method is applicable across the whole range of sociology, with abstract universals (“blue collar workers over 50”, “the average number of children per family”, “Labor voters”, etc.) perfectly defined from the point of view of measurement, but lacking any conceptual value other than that based on prejudice.

This barren method deserves the name of structural because, like the more sophisticated structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, it abstracts from the empirical data a model which facilitates the application of mathematical techniques relevant to the model, which have their analogues in natural or artificial finite structures. In the case of structuralist economics, the same mathematical techniques are used to analyse the response of mechanical systems to external forces or displacements, or simple linear processes in physical chemistry, for example.

Structural psychology has been less influential, and a number of schools which have historical connections with structural psychology and some common points, I feel cannot be included within the concept. Structural psychology begins from Wilhelm Wundt’s “experimental psychology”: the mind was defined in terms of the simplest definable components and then to find the way in which these components fit together in complex forms using the tool of controlled introspection. In common with the other structuralist studies, experience was evaluated as a fact, as it exists without analysing the significance or value of that experience. Likewise, the “anatomy of the mind” had little to do with how or why the mind functions, the starting point was to enquire into the structures of reported experience, and then simply work upon that ideal material. In Titchener’s Textbook of Psychology (1909-10), he stated that the only elements necessary to describe the conscious experience are sensation and affection (feeling). The thought process essentially was deemed an occurrence of sensations of the current experience and feelings representing a prior experience. Behaviour and personality were beyond the scope considered by structuralism. In separating meaning from the facts of experience, and objectively evaluated social conditions from subjective responses, structuralism opposed what was central to the concerns of most other schools of psychology, including Gestalt psychology, Functionalism and Behaviourism, for example.

A number of tendencies which broke from structuralism or otherwise developed in opposition to structuralism carry forward certain aspects of the structuralist method, but should not be considered within the scope of the same concept. I have in mind most cognitive theories, the genetic (or constructive) psychology of Vygotsky and Piaget, Chomsky’s linguistic analysis as well as Foucault’s “post-structuralism”.

The Principle Features of Structuralism


Lévi-Strauss makes it quite clear that the “objective”, “non-judgmental”, non-interventionist attitude of the anthropologist cannot and must not be carried over by the anthropologist to her own society. The customs of a Bushman must be evaluated “objectively”, in just such a way as makes the Bushman’s actions and his view of the world intelligible - it is neither good nor bad, correct or mistaken. This is not necessarily to accept as fact the Bushman’s own view of the structures of her society, but whatever those views are, they are a fact.

Back home, quite different rules apply. Thesis XI is alive and well.

Likewise, to the structural psychologist, it is no matter whether the light reported by a subject is red or green, if it is reported as green, then that is a fact, that is all. To the structuralist economist it is of no concern whether an economic model corresponds to “reality”, only whether the predictive capacity of the model in relation to the entities of which it is formed, is adequate.

Deletion of Meaning

It is one thing to recognise that a one-to-one correspondence between signifier and signified cannot be rationally established in a way which will make sense in a cross-cultural context. Each given culture will form the world according to different structures of meaning. But since the entire world is grasped through such a system of linguistic terms, it is very easy by this route to arrive at a situation where the relation of the given society to the world has been reduced to one of the society to itself, to a closed system of terms. This certainly makes the world-view of the given society intelligible, but not necessarily comprehensible.


Lévi-Strauss refutes the charge that structuralism is solely for the purpose of applying mathematics, but he does so solely on the basis of limiting the definition of mathematics to the “metric”, to number and magnitude. Mathematics has long since surpassed this limitation, and structuralism comes close to being identical with “mathematisation” of a given object. Understanding mathematics in Hegel’s definition as the “science of quantity”, we could say with some accuracy that structuralism is the study of quantity: “... the character external to being, [which] does not affect the being at all.”

Just so long things remain as they are, then structuralism is a fine method of making things intelligible, and a great step forward from the dogmatic, normative, judgmental methods of European sciences when they have been required to objectively understand cultures other than their own. And certain types of dysfunction also become intelligible of course.

However, any living culture will be constantly confronted with that which it does not recognise; that which was formerly unknown and “beyond” may become known, and there is no reason to suppose that the structural transformations which may follow from a change of conditions will be “homologous”. Life is a material thing. Human beings are not abstractions.

Thought must abstract. In order to take a step forward in a separate branch of science, it is necessary to have an approach which makes it possible to put to the side inessential material and work for a time at least, with what may be deemed to be essential.

I remarked above that Lévi-Strauss appeared to have devised a meaning for the word “dialectical” which corresponded to his own conception of change. This is a pity, because it seems to me that it is precisely the notions of change and development first worked out by Hegel (see the Doctrine of Essence in the Logic, and in particular Hegel’s remarks about the Essential and Inessential) which is being missed out in the structural method. Despite his disclaimers, directed at a mode of reasoning long gone, Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism is as “mechanical” as that of the macro-economists.

The structuralists have worked out in detail the vision of the world as a giant machine or structure, a view “traditionally” imputed to Isaac Newton. The values of this view are not the normative values of the classical view, but those abstracted by their “value-free” methodology from the data of perception.