Structuralism may originate from Saussurian linguistics. In the Course of General Linguistics, Saussure defines one essential methodological principle: in response to previous methodologies, which defined historical evolution as the main object of linguistics, Saussure assumes that language must be studied as a system, not a history. To him, one cannot understand the inherent logic of a language by studying its origins, for language is a self-sufficient organized whole. This apparent distinction between history and structure substantially modified linguistics; especially, it introduces a very strong division between synchrony and diachrony. Synchrony, as a time of a relative immobility of language, would permit to explain the system, while diachrony, would describe its modifications. Historical and structural problems, therefore, appeared to be mutually exclusive.
Thus, if we define broadly structuralism as the theoretical perspective that tries to describe its objects as the combination of elements combined in overall structures, structuralism seems to have difficult relations with history. This exclusion appeared to be problematic, from the moment the structuralist approach has been extended to other social sciences. I will try here to explicit these relations. I chose to focus on three main authors related to that issue: Levi-Strauss, Althusser and Foucault. Levi-Strauss, by trying to integrate Saussurian methods to the domain of anthropology, opened a debate that goes largely beyond linguistics. He clearly adopts the label of structuralist, and can be considered a “classical” structuralist. The cases of Althusser and Foucault are more ambiguous, for both of them explicitly rejected this. There are undoubtedly significant differences between those authors; and Foucault and Althusser are not structuralists as Levi-Strauss is; however we can integrate them to the question, for they often have been –willingly or not – described as structuralists, and are clearly linked to the debate of structuralism.
[...] What is the interest of such a remark in our investigation of the relations between structuralism and history? This division seems for the moment to be only methodological and do not apparently deal with the consideration of historical evolutions by structuralism. This becomes clear, as soon as we try to explicit the theoretical frame that underlies these methodological propositions. But to do so, we first have to see how Levi-Strauss completes its distinction between history and anthropology. He describes as following the goal of the two disciplines: the historian, transition from the explicit to the implicit; to the anthropologist, transition from the particular to the universal”. [...]
[...] The synchronic in Levi-Strauss, for Althusser, is the present inasmuch as it contains a structure that inherently integrates the past and the future. To understand that, we have to focus on the notion of ‘essential section'. Hegel is responsible for having proposed the idea that “nothing can run ahead of its which means that everything is contained in the present, since the present is a necessary stage of future developments. With Hegelianism, if one can provide an ‘essential section' of the present, i.e. [...]
[...] Second characteristic of history: history is not a global history vowed to identify the unifying principle of a civilization or a period, but a general history that will describe and analyze the internal correspondences and discontinuities of a period i.e. and their articulations “series of series”. For discontinuity is an essential component of history or change, for there is no more unifying principle, we are very far now from the structure of structuralism. A contrario, Foucault implicitely provides us an interesting characterisation of the structure of structuralism: structure is continuity and unification. [...]
[...] Marxist whole [ ] is constituted by a certain type of complexity, the unity of a structured whole containing what can be called levels or instances which are distinct and ‘relatively autonomous', and co- exist within this complex structural unity, articulated with one another according to specific determinations, fixed in the last instance by the level or instance of the economy.” According to Althusser, economy is the structure that determines the whole organization of society the last instance”. But this is not necessarily a direct over determination. [...]
[...] For Levi-Strauss, there are two reasons for diachrony: changes in structure can be the result of its own contradiction and of external intrusion. The first possibility is quite simple. An external factor can intervene, which will modify the structures of a society, i.e. change the combination of its elements in a different manner. But if we consider only external factors, then: no external factor were affecting this mechanism, it would work indefinitely, and the social structure would remain static. This is not the case, however; hence the need to introduce into the theoretical model new elements to account for the diachronic changes of the structure” Hence, Levi-Strauss finally introduces potential contradictions into his model, which are the real cause of change. [...]
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