Structuralism and Post-Modernism

A couple of recent articles caught my attention.  One was an evaluation of Donald Trump’s campaign as a successful understanding of post-modernism, the other was a review of Derrida’s development of deconstructionalism (continental philosophy or post-modernism) and its conflict with structuralism (analytic philosophy or rationalism).  This is poignant to me, as much of Indiana University and the local politics (I live in Bloomington Indiana) are based around analytic philosophy; with many students and the community following post-modernism.

Besides helping to shine a light on modern philosophy for me (I have been out of touch with technical philosophy for a while), the articles have left me with a range of mixed feelings, from appreciation of various aspects of both sides, horror at the spiraling suicide of philosophy, and humor that both sides are fighting each other so hard: ie. in post-Kantian philosophy there is not suppose to be thesis and anti-thesis,but opposites resolve through systhesis.  So how can both sides be fighting each other with such thesis/anti-thesis perspectives?

Structuralism developed out of Wittgenstein, a mathematician who was involved with process/analytical philosophy – he proposed that clarity of thought (definition and process) would help articulate basic philosophical issues, which would hopefully provide a solution to the problem of existence.  This line of thinking has been very productive, and has influenced a lot of science; computer languages being a key example.  Computer codes are a language of structures and relationships that give precision and clarity to logic.  Thus:

“Philosophy, in most if not all of its forms, must rely on the possibility of truth. It is a search for meaning, which assumes meaning can be found, and that ideas and concepts have meanings in themselves in some sense, not simply as they relate to the concepts. Science and logic become the final arbiters in a search for meaning which holds that all can (and eventually will) be explained by a rational and scientific approach.”

If this sounds like much of the “New Atheism”, you are hearing correctly, most of their thinking (when they acknowledge philosophy) comes out of this school.  Structuralism holds to the idea that meaning is found in fundamental ‘structures’ that can be discovered through the analysis of structural relations (almost the ghost of Plato’s ideals, behind the shadows of particulars).  But if there are no fundamental structure, then there is only discourse: words pointing to words and no real meaning.  It is like if the “C” computer language had structures (if/then, procedures, …) and pointers but no fundamental data types (integers, strings, …).  You are left with only pointers pointing to pointers pointing to pointers.  Structuralism and science can put people on the moon and create quantum computers; but can give you no reason why you should.

Derrida held the pin that threatened to pop (deconstruct) the Structuralist balloon; and much of its pride needed deflating.  Post-modernism says that language has no intrinsic meaning, it is only meaningful in the context in which it is used – change the context and you change the meaning: hence all meaning is relative to the context (there is only discourse), and there is no final structure (meaning).  Such deconstruction is useful, it is the basis of pointing out prejudices and biases behind many statements (who is paying for this?  who benefits from this action?).  The problem is that it is basically a skeptical philosophy, it can tear anything down but has no ability to build anything.

Few people have the courage and integrity to wield deconstruction as carefully as Derrida.  Saturday Night Live can wonderfully parody Donald Trump, but fail to let the sword cut in both directions with their own values and ideals.  Black Lives Matter will deconstruct police prejudices, but don’t want the body cameras pointing to their own culture and practices.  We demand ‘justice’, but nobody can rationally define what that would look like.  Anyone who attempts a claim to ‘goodness’ is attached; for in a relative culture any claim to ‘better’ or ‘superior’ is rooted in inequality which inevitably will cause prejudice, conflict, and oppression.

It is disturbing that most-modernism puts an end to discussion, as any discourse is defined as only an attempt to gain power over another.  Yet, I find some optimism in the idealistic utopianism that many of these people still hold – there is still an element of humanity left in them that has not been deconstructed.  It may not be the western approach of rational logic that gets through to them, but an older approach that first seeks beauty, then goodness and truth.