Semantics and Post-Structuralism

With lectures and classes starting to become more available online, it’s become much easier for me to find learning opportunities without leaving the comfort of my home. Last weekend, I had the privilege of listening to a fascinating lecture on Post-Structuralism at MIT Splash, a weekend of classes taught by MIT students.

Post-Structuralism is a philosophical movement that contradicts the ideas of Structuralism, an older movement that maintains that the true meaning of a text is whatever the author intended it to be, regardless of how it is perceived by the reader. When we look at a text, we make a double of it in our brains, and its meanings change based on our past experiences and current known context. This idea relates quite strongly to Steven Pinker’s ideas on conceptual semantics, which I discussed in my last blog post, as he also discusses how each person will interpret a text slightly differently due to the information they have available to them and how that information changes their world view.

Structuralists believe that if a person’s “double” of the text differs from the authors’ double, then that person’s double is wrong. In other words, iteration is equivalent to intention. On the other hand, Post-Structuralists claim that meaning depends fully on a person’s interpretation of a text, and there are no entirely wrong interpretations. However, some interpretations can blatantly be dismissed as inaccurate. For example, Romeo and Juliet can be interpreted as the tale of two frogs falling in love, but that has little connection to the text in its terminology, so we can dismiss it as most likely incorrect.

Understanding what gives something meaning is vital to researching and understanding semantics, and Post-Structuralism provides a new take on the meanings of words relating to objects that I had never thought about before listening to the lecture. First, we must define what it means for an object to be “present”, as we are going to assume something must be present for it to have meaning: if something is not “present”, we will refer to it as “absent”. Post-Structuralists maintain that something is “absent” if it is not capable of fulfilling its function, and thus something is present if it is capable of fulfilling its function. Now the only thing we have to do to determine if an object is “present” and has meaning is describe the function of the object so we can determine if it is successfully fulfilling it or not. Let’s use this question as an example: what makes a chair a chair? In other words, when I say that something is a chair, why is it that everyone around me agrees that the thing is a chair? Take some time to think it over. 

There are many ways to try to classify a chair: perhaps your response was “something that one sits on”, or perhaps it was “a four-legged object with a surface that can be sat on and a back”. If you thought even more thoroughly, you may have realized that bean bag chairs are still chairs, and they defy the two definitions given above. Still, when I point to a bean bag chair, you know it’s a chair. Why? Post-Structuralism has a clever answer to this question: something can only be described by what it isn’t. There are far too many variations of objects in day-to-day life for us to give a definition that fits every variation for every object: though we do try, the definitions are usually not entirely accurate. Thus, when I tell you a chair is a chair, your mind knows it’s a chair because it isn’t anything else: it isn’t a table, it isn’t a couch, and it isn’t a floor mat.

Using this definition for meaning allows us to understand the idea of conceptual semantics a little bit more accurately, giving us some insight into what may be happening inside someone’s brain when they read the word “chair” in a story.

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