What is meant by the term Structuralism? What is Saussure's Structuralist Theory of the Sign?

Essay by shmallCollege, Undergraduate August 2004

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What is meant by the term 'structuralism'?

What is Saussure's Structuralist theory of the sign?

It must at first be stated that the term 'structuralism' is not only applicable to literature, but also philosophy and psychology, and many of the social sciences. It is important to acknowledge this since thorough out the essay references will be made to as many of these disciplines as possible where appropriate. 'Structuralists' will look at 'surface phenomena' and the rules that put units together. These are basic words, which will certainly be explained as the essay develops, but initially it would be best as stated if the theory is explained in as much detail as possible, and relevant. The content of what is to be analysed is least important if not at all. What are important to structuralist analyses are the units of the system and the mechanisms of the system. Structuralism is based on the important recognition of some kind of fundamental system, which allows us to organise things into ways provoking an explanation or meaning.

Saussure explains that 'Language... is the social side of speech' and that the individual cannot modify it since '...it exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community'. Thus a child gradually learns language and a person is able to retain it whether or not they are able to express through speech themselves . Language is important to Saussure because as he states it is a 'system of signs that express ideas'. Therefore in language Saussure and many others like him, focus on words (the 'units' or perhaps instead of words, 31 phonemes which make all the sounds in English) and grammar which is the 'rule' which organises language and words. It may be important to add also...