Structuralism and Semiotics
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Structuralism and Semiotics

Terence Hawkes

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eBook - ePub

Structuralism and Semiotics

Terence Hawkes

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Published in 1977 as the first volume in the New Accents series, Structuralism and Semiotics made crucial debates in critical theory accessible to those with no prior knowledge of the field. Since then a generation of readers has used the book as an entry not only into structuralism and semiotics, but into the wide range of cultural and critical theories underpinned by these approaches.
It remains the clearest introduction to some of the most important topics in modern critical theory. A new afterword and fresh suggestions for further reading complete this new edition.

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To the average speaker of English, terms such as ‘structure’, ‘structural-ist’ and ‘structuralism’ seem to have an abstract, complex, new-fangled and possibly French air about them: a condition traditionally offering uncontestable grounds for the profoundest mistrust.
But whatever the attractions of such anglo-saxon prejudices, they do not, on inspection, turn out to be particularly well-founded. The concept of ‘structure’, the notion of various ‘structuralist’ stances towards the world which might collectively be called ‘structuralism’, are not entirely alien to our trusted ways of thinking, nor did they spring, fully formed with horns and tail, out of the sulphurous Parisian atmosphere of the last decade.


In 1725 the distinguished Italian jurist Giambattista Vico published a book called The New Science. It was a momentous occasion, although it passed virtually unnoticed at the time. For the ‘science’ Vico proposed was nothing less than a science of human society. Its model was the ‘natural’ science of such men as Galileo, Bacon and Newton, and its aim was to perform for ‘the world of nations’ what these renaissance scientists had achieved for ‘the world of nature’. Its goal, in short, was the construction of a ‘physics of man’.
The master key of the new science lay in Vico’s decisive perception that so-called ‘primitive’ man, when properly assessed, reveals himself not as childishly ignorant and barbaric, but as instinctively and characteristically ‘poetic’ in his response to the world, in that he possesses an inherent ‘poetic wisdom’ (sapienza poetica) which informs his responses to his environment and casts them in the form of a ‘metaphysics’ of metaphor, symbol and myth.
This ‘discovery’ – achieved only with the greatest difficulty because ‘with our civilized natures we (moderns) cannot at all imagine and can understand only by great toil the poetic nature of these first men’ (34)1 – reveals that the apparently ludicrous and fanciful accounts of creation and the foundation of social institutions that occur in early societies, were not intended to be taken literally. They represent, not child-like ‘primitive’ responses to reality, but responses of quite a different order whose function was ultimately, and seriously, cognitive. That is, they embody, not ‘lies’ about the facts, but mature and sophisticated ways of knowing, of encoding, of presenting them. They constitute not mere embroidery of reality, but a way of coping with it: ‘It follows that the first science to be learned should be mythology or the interpretation of fables; for, as we shall see, all the histories of the gentiles have their beginnings in fables’ (51).
Myths, properly interpreted, can thus be seen to be ‘civil histories of the first peoples who were everywhere naturally poets’ (352). For example,
The civil institutions in use under such kingdoms are narrated for us by poetic history in the numerous fables that deal with contests of song . . . and consequently refer to heroic contests over the auspices . . . Thus the satyr Marsyas . . . when overcome by Apollo in a contest of song, is flayed alive by the god . . . The sirens, who lull sailors to sleep with their song and then cut their throats; the Sphinx who puts riddles to travellers and slays them on their failure to find the solution; Circe, who by her enchantments turns into swine the comrades of Ulysses . . . all these portray the politics of the heroic cities. The sailors, travellers, and wanderers of these fables are the aliens, that is, the plebeians who, contending with the heroes for a share in the auspices, are vanquished in the attempt and cruelly punished.
All myths, that is, have their grounding in the actual generalized experience of ancient peoples, and represent their attempts to impose a satisfactory, graspable, humanizing shape on it. That shape, argues Vico, springs from the human mind itself, and it becomes the shape of the world that that mind perceives as ‘natural’, ‘given’ or ‘true’.
This establishes the principle of verum factum: that which man recognizes as true (verum) and that which he has himself made (factum) are one and the same. When man perceives the world, he perceives without knowing it the superimposed shape of his own mind, and entities can only be meaningful (or ‘true’) in so far as they find a place within that shape. So ‘. . . if we consider the matter well, poetic truth is metaphysical truth, and physical truth which is not in conformity with it should be considered false’ (205).
In short, the ‘physics of man’ reveals that men have ‘created themselves’ (367), that ‘the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind’ (331). Man seen thus is characteristically and pre-eminently a ‘maker’ (the Greek word for that being ‘poet’), and the New Science will thus concentrate on a close study of the making or ‘poeticizing’ process.
This turns out to be a two-way affair of some complexity. For not only does man create societies and institutions in his own mind’s image, but these in the end create him:
What Vico wanted to assert was that the first steps in the building of the ‘world of nations’ were taken by creatures who were still (or who had degenerated into) beasts, and that humanity itself was created by the very same processes by which institutions were created. Humanity is not a presupposition, but a consequence, an effect, a product of institution building.
(Bergin and Fisch, Introduction, op. cit. p. xliv)
That is, man constructs the myths, the social institutions, virtually the whole world as he perceives it, and in so doing he constructs himself. This making process involves the continual creation of recognizable and repeated forms which we can now term a process of structuring. Vico sees this process as an inherent, permanent and definitive human characteristic whose operation, particularly in respect of the creation of social institutions, is incessant and, because of its repetitive nature, predictable in its outcome.
The nature of institutions is nothing but their coming into being at certain times and in certain guises. Whenever the time and guise are thus and so, such and not otherwise are the institutions that come into being (147).
Once ‘structured’ by man, the ‘world of nations’ proves itself to be a potent agency for continuous structuring: its customs and rites act as a forceful brainwashing mechanism whereby human beings are habituated to and made to acquiesce in a man-made world which they nevertheless perceive as artless and ‘natural’.
Vico’s work ranks as one of the first modern attempts to break the anaesthetic grip that such a permanent structuring process has on the human mind. It thus represents one of the first modern recognitions of that process as a definitive characteristic of that mind. The New Science links directly with those modern schools of thought whose first premise may be said to be that human beings and human societies are not fashioned after some model or plan which exists before they do. Like the existentialists, Vico seems to argue that there is no pre-existent, ‘given’ human essence, no predetermined ‘human nature’. Like the Marxists, he seems to say that particular forms of humanity are determined by particular social relations and systems of human institutions.
The one genuinely distinctive and permanent human characteristic is discernible in the faculty of ‘poetic wisdom’, which manifests itself as the capacity and the necessity to generate myths, and to use language metaphorically: to deal with the world, that is, not directly but at one remove, by means of other agencies: not literally, but ‘poetically’.
‘There must’, Vico insists, ‘in the nature of human institutions be a mental language common to all nations which uniformly grasps the substance of things feasible in human social life and expresses it with as many diverse modifications as these same things may have diverse aspects’ (161). This ‘mental language’ manifests itself as man’s universal capacity not only to formulate structures, but also to submit his own nature to the demands of their structuring. The gift of sapienza poetica could thus be said to be the gift of structuralism. It is a principle which informs the way all human beings always live. To be human, it claims, is to be a structuralist.


If we are all structuralists, then we ought to know what a structure is. Yet that key concept can be uncomfortably elusive, and we ought now to try to move rather closer to it.
One of the most fruitful attempts at a definition has been made by Jean Piaget.1 Structure, he argues, can be observed in an arrangement of entities which embodies the following fundamental ideas:
  1. the idea of wholeness
  2. the idea of transformation
  3. the idea of self-regulation
By wholeness is meant the sense of internal coherence. The arrangement of entities will be complete in itself and not something that is simply a composite formed of otherwise independent elements. Its constituent parts will conform to a set of intrinsic laws which determine its nature and theirs. These laws confer on the constituent parts within the structure overall properties larger than those each individually possesses outside it. Thus a structure is quite different from an aggregate: its constituent parts have no genuinely independent existence outside the structure in the same form that they have within it.
The structure is not static. The laws which govern it act so as to make it not only structured, but structuring. Thus, in order to avoid reduction to the level merely of passive form, the structure must be capable of transformational procedures, whereby new material is constantly processed by and through it. So language, a basic human structure, is capable of transforming various fundamental sentences into the widest variety of new utterances while retaining these within its own particular structure.
Finally, the structure is self-regulating in the sense that it makes no appeals beyond itself in order to validate its transformational procedures. The transformations act to maintain and underwrite the intrinsic laws which bring them about, and to ‘seal off’ the system from reference to other systems. A language, to take the previous example, does not construct its formations of words by reference to the patterns of ‘reality’, but on the basis of its own internal and self-sufficient rules. The word ‘dog’ exists, and functions within the structure of the English language, without reference to any four-legged barking creature’s real existence. The word’s behaviour derives from its inherent structural status as a noun rather than its referent’s actual status as an animal. Structures are characteristically ‘closed’ in this way.


It follows that structuralism is fundamentally a way of thinking about the world which is predominantly concerned with the perception and description of structures, as defined above. As a developing concern of modern thinkers since Vico, it is the result of a momentous historic shift in the nature of perception which finally crystallized in the early twentieth century, particularly in the field of the physical sciences, but with a momentum that has carried through to most other fields. The ‘new’ perception involved the realization that despite appearances to the contrary the world does not consist of independently existing objects, whose concrete features can be perceived clearly and individually, and whose nature can be classified accordingly. In fact, every perceiver’s method of perceiving can be shown to contain an inherent bias which affects what is perceived to a significant degree. A wholly objective perception of individual entities is therefore not possible: any observer is bound to create something of what he observes. Accordingly, the relationship between observer and observed achieves a kind of primacy. It becomes the only thing that can be observed. It becomes the stuff of reality itself. Moreover the principle involved must invest the whole of reality. In consequence, the true nature of things may be said to lie not in things themselves, but in the relationships which we construct, and then perceive, between them.
This new concept, that the world is made up of relationships rather than things, constitutes the first principle of that way of thinking which can properly be called ‘structuralist’. At its simplest, it claims that the nature of every element in any given situation has no significance by itself, and in fact is determined by its relationship to all the other elements involved in that situation. In short, the full significance of any entity or experience cannot be perceived unless and until it is integrated into the structure of which it forms a part.
It follows that the ultimate quarry of structuralist thinking will be the permanent structures into which individual human acts, perceptions, stances fit, and from which they derive their final nature. This will finally involve what Fredric Jameson has described as ‘an explicit search for the permanent structures of the mind itself, the organizational categories and forms through which the mind is able to experience the world, or to organize a meaning in what is essentially in itself meaningless’. 1 The ghost of Vico clearly remains unplacated.
Nevertheless, we must set our sights a little lower than the ‘permanent structures of the mind’ for the moment, and concentrate on the impact that the structuralist way of thinking has had on the study of literature. As we do so, we might remind ourselves that, of all the arts, that involving the use of words remains most closely related to that aspect of his nature which makes man distinctive: language. And it is not accidental that many of the concepts now central to structuralism were first fully developed in connection with the modern study of language: linguistics; and with the modern study of man: anthropology. Few spheres could be closer to the mind’s ‘permanent structures’ than those.
1 The numbers refer to the passages of Vico’s The New Science as given in the revised translation of the third edition, by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1968.
1 Jean Piaget, Structuralism, pp. 5–16.
1Fredric Ja...

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Citation styles for Structuralism and Semiotics
APA 6 Citation
Hawkes, T. (2003). Structuralism and Semiotics (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2003)
Chicago Citation
Hawkes, Terence. (2003) 2003. Structuralism and Semiotics. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Hawkes, T. (2003) Structuralism and Semiotics. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2003. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.