Commenting on the work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in a 1963 lecture “Structure and Hermeneutics”, Paul Ricoeur averred that “Structuralism is a part of science, and I do not at present see any more rigorous or fruitful approach than the structuralist method at the level of comprehension which is its own” (The Conflict of Interpretations, p. 30). It can help lead the “philosophical discipline” and “meditating thought” of hermeneutics “through the discipline of objectivity, from a naive to a mature comprehension” (ibid). He nonetheless argued that in The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss generalized too far and set up false oppositions.
The structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, on which Lévi-Strauss based his methodology, investigated systems of “mutual determination, [in which] what counts are not the terms, considered individually, but the differential variations” (ibid). Saussure is quoted as saying that “in language there are only differences” (p. 32). (As a teenager in the 1970s, I was enthralled with this sort of thing, and it still influences my thought. Lévi-Strauss was my actual entry point, but fairly soon I moved on to Foucault and others, who applied a much more broadly based, less formal “difference first” outlook in historiography and philosophy. See also Difference.)
Ricoeur points out that emphasis on a purely differential concept of meaning ends up privileging what Saussure called the synchronic (“contemporaneous in time”) over what he called the diachronic (change “through time”). I would point out that if there is such a privileging, it is at the level of the determination of meaning in context, not that of the forward-moving determination of change. Saussure’s model says nothing about how change to the system of determination of differential meaning actually occurs, only that it occurs.
Ricoeur then asks how far such a model “leads us to a clear understanding of the historicity of symbols” (ibid). To me, any such understanding is rooted in the notion of context. Each historical context is tied to a time, so there is nothing at all wrong with approaching it synchronically. Such a synchronic context has many more layers than just a formal Saussurean combinatoric, but that is a different issue. Also, any singular time synchronically contains sedimentation from many different past times, as well as potential for diverse futures.
He points out that differential determination of linguistic meaning operates on an unconscious level, “more a Kantian than a Freudian unconscious, a categorial, combinative unconscious” (p. 33). So far, so good. But this “establishes between the observer and the system a relationship which is itself nonhistorical. Understanding is not seen here as the recovery of meaning” (p. 34).
I think unconscious cultural formations are as historical as anything else, and have no idea why meaning would not be involved at this level. That is by no means to claim that synchronic analysis that is also purely formal in the modern sense gives the whole story of meaning — though if well applied, it can tell us a lot.
In my current view, meaning has to do fundamentally with (embodied) form in the Aristotelian sense and all its nuances and ramifications, not with a mental state. (See also Intentionality.) I think Aristotelian form is also differentially constituted, but in a much more complex way than in the examples studied by Lévi-Strauss. I also find a difference-first perspective to be entirely compatible with Brandom’s inferentialism, which allows for far richer constructs, and explicitly focuses on meaningful content rather than purely formal combinatorics. If there is a limitation to structural analysis, it is due mainly to the purely formal character of that method, not to the fact that it looks at one historical context at a time, since any purely formal analysis can be expressed in synchronic terms.
Ricoeur correctly notes that the relation between synchronic and diachronic may be different for different kinds of discourse, but again, for better or worse, no particular relation between the synchronic and the diachronic was ever specified. Saussure simply presented them as a pair. This seems like good, principled Aristotelian minimalism or underspecification to me. Again, it is true that structural linguistics has little to say about the diachronic — about change — except that it occurs. Change is what is not explained by synchronic structure. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Structure, Potentiality; The Importance of Potentiality.)
He correctly notes that there is a large difference between interpreting something like a totemic system, and interpreting something like the Old Testament, which has many more layers of meaning. Since I associate meaning with differentiation, I also think he is right to question the value of undifferentiated talk about “the” savage mind. Lévi-Strauss’ point, though, in contrast to, e.g., Lévy-Bruhl’s theory of “primitive mentality”, was that people in tribal societies have the same basic capability for logic as modern people. The differences are in the cultural contents they have to think with, not mental capacity. This also seems right.
I eventually became disappointed myself with the rather minimal amount of meaning exhibited in Lévi-Strauss’ analyses. I agree that structural analysis is a technical tool, and not philosophy; but then, according to Aristotle, the same is true of logic, and that does not mean logic has no philosophical interest. Structural “ism” is highly polymorphous, and this label’s use has been highly disputed. The kind addressed here, closely based on structural linguistics, is probably the least philosophical. But even at that, the basic idea of a “differential” outlook is important, and the preconscious layers of Kantian synthesis are important.