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preceded by Modernism

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 v  d  e 

Post-postmodernism is a term applied to a wide-ranging set of developments in critical theory, philosophy, architecture, art, literature, and culture which are emerging from and reacting to postmodernism.




Most scholars would agree that modernism began in the late 19th century and continued on as the dominant cultural force in the intellectual circles of Western Culture well into the mid-twentieth century.[1] Like all epochs, modernism encompasses many competing individual directions and is impossible to define as a discrete unity or totality. However, its chief general characteristics are often thought to include an emphasis on "radical aesthetics, technical experimentation, spatial or rhythmic, rather than chronological form, [and] self-conscious reflexiveness"[2] as well as the search for authenticity in human relations, abstraction in art, and utopian striving. These characteristics are normally lacking in postmodernism or are treated as objects of irony.

Postmodernism arose after World War II as a reaction to the perceived failings of modernism, whose radical artistic projects had come to be associated with totalitarianism[3] or had been assimilated into mainstream culture. The basic features of what we now call postmodernism can be found as early as the 1940s, most notably in the work of Jorge Luis Borges.[4] However, most scholars today would agree that postmodernism began to compete with modernism in the late 1950s and gained ascendancy over it in the 1960s.[5] Since then, postmodernism has been a dominant, though not undisputed, force in art, literature, film, music, drama, architecture and philosophy. Salient features of postmodernism are normally thought to include the ironic play with styles, citations and narrative levels,[6] a metaphysical skepticism or nihilism towards a “grand narrative” of Western culture,[7] a preference for the virtual at the expense of the real, [8] and a “waning of affect”[9] on the part of the subject, who is caught up in the free interplay of virtual, endlessly reproducible signs inducing a state of consciousness similar to schizophrenia.[10]

Since the late 1990s there has been a widespread feeling both in popular culture and in academia that postmodernism "has gone out of fashion."[11] However, there have been few formal attempts to define and name the epoch succeeding postmodernism, and none of the proposed designations has yet become part of mainstream usage.


Consensus on what makes up an epoch can hardly be achieved while that epoch is still in its early stages. However, a common positive theme of current attempts to define post-postmodernism is that faith, trust, dialogue, performance or sincerity can work to transcend postmodern irony. The following definitions, which vary widely in depth, focus and scope, are listed in the chronological order of their appearance.

In 1995, the landscape architect and urban planner Tom Turner issued a book-length call for a post-postmodern turn in urban planning.[12] Turner criticizes the postmodern credo of “anything goes” and suggests that “the built environment professions are witnessing the gradual dawn of a post-Postmodernism that seeks to temper reason with faith.”[13] In particular, Turner argues for the use of timeless organic and geometrical patterns in urban planning. As sources of such patterns he cites, among others, the Taoist-influenced work of the American architect Christopher Alexander, gestalt psychology and the psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s concept of archetypes. Regarding terminology, Turner urges us to “embrace post-Postmodernism – and pray for a better name.”[14]

In his 1999 book on Russian postmodernism the Russian-American Slavist Mikhail Epstein suggested that postmodernism “is […] part of a much larger historical formation,” which he calls “postmodernity.”[15] Epstein believes that postmodernist aesthetics will eventually become entirely conventional and provide the foundation for a new, non-ironic kind of poetry, which he describes using the prefix "trans":

“In considering the names that might possibly be used to designate the new era following "postmodernism," one finds that the prefix "trans'" stands out in a special way. The last third of the 20th century developed under the sign of "post," which signalled the demise of such concepts of modernity as "truth" and "objectivity," "soul" and "subjectivity," "utopia" and "ideality," "primary origin" and "originality," "sincerity" and "sentimentality." All of these concepts are now being reborn in the form of "trans-subjectivity," "trans-idealism," "trans-utopianism," "trans-originality," "trans-lyricism," "trans-sentimentality" etc.[2]

As an example Epstein cites the work of the contemporary Russian poet Timur Kibirov.[16]

The term post-millennialism was introduced in 2000 by the American cultural theorist Eric Gans[3] to describe the epoch after postmodernism in ethical and socio-political terms. Gans associates postmodernism closely with “victimary thinking,” which he defines as being based on a non-negotiable ethical opposition between perpetrators and victims arising out of the experience of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. In Gans’s view, the ethics of postmodernism is derived from identifying with the peripheral victim and disdaining the utopian center occupied by the perpetrator. Postmodernism in this sense is marked by a victimary politics that is productive in its opposition to modernist utopianism and totalitarianism but unproductive in its resentment of capitalism and liberal democracy, which he sees as the long-term agents of global reconciliation. In contrast to postmodernism, post-millennialism is distinguished by the rejection of victimary thinking and a turn to “non-victimary dialogue”[4] that will “diminish […] the amount of resentment in the world.”[5] Gans has developed the notion of post-millennialism further in many of his internet Chronicles of Love and Resentment[6] and the term is allied closely with his theory of Generative Anthropology and his scenic concept of history.[17]

A systematic attempt to define post-postmodernism in aesthetic terms has been undertaken by the German-American Slavist Raoul Eshelman in his book Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism (Aurora, Colorado: Davies Group 2008, ISBN 978-1-888570-41-0).[18] Eshelman, who coined the term “performatism” in 2000,[7] attempts to show that works in the new epoch are constructed in such a way as to bring about a unified, aesthetically mediated experience of transcendence. Performatism does this by creating closed works of art that force viewers to identify with simple, opaque characters or situations and to experience beauty, love, belief and transcendence under particular, artificial conditions. Eshelman applies this model to literature, movies, architecture, philosophy and art. Examples of performatist works cited by Eshelman include Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, the movie American Beauty, Sir Norman Foster’s renovation of the Berlin Reichstag, the philosophy of Jean-Luc Marion and Vanessa Beecroft’s performances.

In popular culture, the movement that is loosely called “New Sincerity” displays salient features of post-postmodernism in its opposition to postmodern irony and in its attempt to promote good feeling. One of its most notable proponents is the radio talk-show host Jesse Thorn, who issued a brief “Manifesto for the New Sincerity” on his blog in 2006.[8] He states we should “think of [the New Sincerity] as irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power.” As an example Thorn goes on to cite the late motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, whose persona is “preposterous” but whose stunts “boggle the mind” and “can’t be taken ironically.” Thorn often promotes “The New Sincerity” on his radio program, The Sound of Young America, which is broadcast on American public radio and is available as podcasts on the show's homepage.[9]

In 2006 the British scholar Alan Kirby formulated an entirely pessimistic socio-cultural assessment of post-postmodernism that he calls “pseudo-modernism.”[19] Kirby associates pseudo-modernism with the triteness and shallowness resulting from the instantaneous, direct, and superficial participation in culture made possible by the internet, mobile phones, interactive television and similar means: “In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, moves, downloads.”[10]

Pseudo-modernism’s “typical intellectual states” are furthermore described as being “ignorance, fanaticism and anxiety” and it is said to produce a “trance-like state” in those participating in it. The net result of this media-induced shallowness and instantaneous participation in trivial events is a “silent autism” superseding “the neurosis of modernism and the narcissism of postmodernism.“ Kirby sees no aesthetically valuable works coming out of “pseudo-modernism.” As examples of its triteness he cites reality TV, interactive news programs, “the drivel found […] on some Wikipedia pages,” docu-soaps, and the essayistic cinema of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock.[11] In a book published in September 2009 titled Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture Kirby developed further and nuanced his views on culture and textuality in the aftermath of postmodernism. Examples of digimodernist culture that he examines include Big Brother, 300, and Web 2.0 platforms like Facebook.

See also


  1. ^ Compare, for example:
    Childs, Peter (2008). Modernism. New York: Routledge. p. 18. ISBN 0415415446. : "[modernism] is [...] primarily located in the years 1890-1930 [...]"
    Armstrong, Tim (2005). Modernism: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Polity Press. p. 24. ISBN 0745629830. : "[modernism] can be defined as a series of international artistic movements in the period 1900-40 [...]."
  2. ^ Childs, Peter (2008). Modernism. New York: Routledge. p. 18. ISBN 0415415446. 
  3. ^ Cf. Groys, Boris: The Total Art of Stalinism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  4. ^ See Barth, John: “The Literature of Exhaustion.” The Atlantic Monthly, August 1967, pp. 29-34.
  5. ^ Cf., for example, Huyssen, Andreas: After the Great Divide. Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986, p. 188.
  6. ^ See Hutcheon, Linda: A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988, pp. 3-21; McHale, Brian: Postmodern Fiction, London: Methuen, 1987.
  7. ^ See Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press 1984
  8. ^ See Baudrillard, Jean: “Simulacra and Simulations.” In: Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press 1988, pp. 166-184.
  9. ^ Jameson, Fredric: Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press 1991, p. 16
  10. ^ Jameson, Fredric: Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press 1991, pp. 26-27.
  11. ^ Potter, Garry and Lopez, Jose (eds.): After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism. London: The Athlone Press 2001, p. 4.
  12. ^ City as Landscape: A Post Post-modern View of Design and Planning, (Taylor & Francis: London 1995).
  13. ^ City as Landscape: A Post Post-modern View of Design and Planning, (Taylor & Francis: London 1995), p. 9.
  14. ^ City as Landscape: A Post Post-modern View of Design and Planning, (Taylor & Francis: London 1995), p. 10; see also a summary of the book at [1]
  15. ^ Epstein, Mikhail; Genis, Alexander; Vladiv-Glover, Slobodanka. Russian Postmodernism. New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture. Berghahn Books: New York, 1999, p. 467.
  16. ^ Epstein, Mikhail; Genis, Alexander; Vladiv-Glover, Slobodanka. Russian Postmodernism. New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture. Berghahn Books: New York, 1999, pp. 457-460
  17. ^ For more on both see Gans, Eric: Originary Thinking: Elements of Generative Anthropology. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press 1993.
  18. ^ Parts of the book are available in the internet journal Anthropoetics, see Anthropoetics Article List, UCLA
  19. ^ Kirby, Alan. "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond", Philosophy Now, November/December 2006.

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Jean-Luc Marion

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Jean-Luc Marion
Western Philosophy
Continental Philosophy
Full name Jean-Luc Marion
Born 1946
School/tradition Philosophical Theology, Phenomenology
Main interests Phenomenology, Descartes
Notable ideas saturated phenomenon
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Jean-Luc Marion (born 3 July 1946) is among the best-known living philosophers in France, former student of Jacques Derrida and one of the leading Catholic thinkers of modern times. Marion's take on the postmodern is richly enhanced by his expertise in patristic and mystical theology, phenomenology, and modern philosophy.[1] Although much of his academic work has dealt with Descartes and phenomenologists like Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, it is rather his explicitly religious works that have garnered much recent attention. God Without Being, for example, is concerned predominantly with an analysis of idolatry, a theme strongly linked in Marion's work with love and the gift, which is a concept also explored at length by Derrida. To a certain extent, Marion also takes up the mantle of Emmanuel Levinas in directing our thought beyond being. There is a widespread but possibly dubious designation of Jean-Luc Marion as a leading contributor to postmodern theology.




Early years

Marion was born in Meudon, Hauts-de-Seine. Marion studied at the University of Nanterre (now the University Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense) and the Sorbonne and then did graduate work in philosophy from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he studied with Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser. At the same time, Marion's deep interest in theology was privately cultivated under the personal influence of theologians such as Louis Bouyer, Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. After receiving his doctorate in 1980, he began teaching at the University of Poitiers.


From there he moved to become the Director of Philosophy at the University Paris X – Nanterre. In 1996 he became Director of Philosophy at the University of Paris IV (Sorbonne), where he still teaches actually. Marion is currently the John Nuveen Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School; also in the Department of Philosophy and the Committee on Social Thought at the same university.[1]

On 6 November 2008, Marion was elected as an immortel by the French Academy. The Academy traditionally has an ecclesiastical member and Marion now occupies seat 4, an office previously held by Cardinal Lustiger.[2][3]

His awards include:[2][4]

Notable ideas

According to John D. Caputo, Marion "is famous for the idea of what he calls the “saturated phenomenon,” which is inspired by his study of Christian Neoplatonic mystical theologians....[The idea that] there are phenomena of such overwhelming givenness or overflowing fulfillment that the intentional acts aimed at these phenomena are overrun, flooded—or saturated."[5]

The Intentionality of Love

The fourth section of Marion's work Prolegomena to Charity is entitled "The Intentionality of Love" and primarily concerns Intentionality and Phenomenology. Influenced by (and dedicated to) the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, Marion explores the human idea of love and its lack of definition: "We live with love as if we knew what it was about. But as soon as we try to define it, or at least approach it with concepts, it draws away from us."[6] He begins by explaining the essence of consciousness and its "lived experiences." Paradoxically, the consciousness concerns itself with objects transcendent and exterior to itself, objects irreducible to consciousness, but can only comprehend its 'interpretation' of the object; the reality of the object arises from consciousness alone. Thus the problem with love is that to love another is to love one's own idea of another, or the "lived experiences" that arise in the consciousness from the "chance cause" of another: "I must, then, name this love my love, since it would not fascinate me as my idol if, first, it did not render to me, like an unseen mirror, the image of myself. Love, loved for itself, inevitably ends as self-love, in the phenomenological figure of self-idolatry."[6] Marion believes intentionality is the solution to this problem, and explores the difference between the I who intentionally sees objects and the me who is intentionally seen by a counter-consciousness, another, whether the me likes it or not. Marion defines another by its invisibility; one can see objects through intentionality, but in the invisibility of the other, one is seen. Marion explains this invisibility using the pupil: "Even for a gaze aiming objectively, the pupil remains a living refutation of objectivity, an irremediable denial of the object; here for the first time, in the very midst of the visible, there is nothing to see, except an invisible and untargetable gaze, for the first time, sees an invisible gaze that sees it."[6] Love, then, when freed from intentionality, is the weight of this other's invisible gaze upon one's own, the cross of one's own gaze and the other's and the "unsubstitutability" of the other. Love is to "render oneself there in an unconditional other gaze must respond to the ecstasy of this particular other exposed in his gaze." Perhaps in allusion to a theological argument, Marion concludes that this type of surrender "requires faith."[6]

Personal life

Marion was married in 1970 to school-teacher Corinne Nicolas with whom he has two sons.



See also

Rational mysticism, which encompasses both rationalism and mysticism, is a term used by scholars, researchers, and other intellectuals, some of whom engage in studies of how altered states of consciousness or transcendence such as trance, visions, and prayer occur. Lines of investigation include historical and philosophical inquiry as well as scientific inquiry within such fields as neurophysiology and psychology.

The term "rational mysticism" was in use at least as early as 1911[1] when it was the subject of an article by Henry W. Clark in the Harvard Theological Review. In a 1924 book, Rational Mysticism,[2] theosophist William Kingsland[3] correlated rational mysticism with scientific idealism. South African philosopher J.N. Findlay frequently used the term,[4] developing the theme in Ascent to the Absolute and other works in the 1960s and 1970s.

Columbia University pragmatist John Herman Randall, Jr. characterized both Plotinus and Baruch Spinoza as “rationalists with overtones of rational mysticism”[5] in his 1970 book Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of Christian Synthesis. University of Chicago professor of religious studies Jeffrey J. Kripal,[6] in his 2001 book Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, defined rational mysticism as “not a contradiction in terms” but “a mysticism whose limits are set by reason.”

Author Sam Harris, who used the term rational mysticism[7][8] as the title of a defense of his 2005 bestseller The End of Faith, is currently (2007) a Stanford University doctoral candidate in neuroscience using functional magnetic resonance imaging to research the neural basis of belief, disbelief, and uncertainty.[9][10] University of Pennsylvania neurotheologist Andrew Newberg has been using nuclear medicine brain imaging in similar research[11][12] since the early 1990s.

Executive editor of Discover magazine Corey Powell, in his 2002 book, God in the Equation,[13] attributed it to Albert Einstein: “In creating his radical cosmology, Einstein stitched together a rational mysticism, drawing on—but distinct from—the views that came before.”

Science writer John Horgan interviewed and profiled James Austin, Terence McKenna, Michael Persinger, Christian Rätsch, Huston Smith, Ken Wilber and others for Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality,[14] his 2003 study of “the scientific quest to explain the transcendent.”[15]

Continental philosophy

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Continental philosophy, in contemporary usage, refers to a set of traditions of 19th and 20th century philosophy from mainland Europe.[1] This sense of the term originated among English-speaking philosophers in the second half of the 20th century, who found it useful for referring to a range of thinkers and traditions outside the analytic movement. Continental philosophy includes the following movements: German idealism, phenomenology, existentialism (and its antecedents, such as the thought of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche), hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, French feminism, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and some other branches of Western Marxism.[2]



General characteristics

It is difficult to identify non-trivial claims that would be common to all the preceding philosophical movements. The term "continental philosophy", like "analytic philosophy", lacks clear definition and may mark merely a family resemblance across disparate philosophical views. Scholar Simon Glendinning has suggested that the term may be more pejorative than descriptive, functioning as a label for types of western philosophy rejected or disliked by analytic philosophers.[3] Nonetheless, Michael E. Rosen has ventured to identify common themes that typically characterize continental philosophy.[4]

Ultimately, the foregoing distinctive traits derive from a broadly Kantian thesis that the nature of knowledge and experience is bound by conditions that are not directly accessible to empirical inquiry.[9]

The term

The term "continental philosophy," in the above sense, was first widely used by English-speaking philosophers to describe university courses in the 1970s, emerging as a collective name for the philosophies then widespread in France and Germany, such as phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism.[10]

However, the term (and its approximate sense) can be found at least as early as 1840, in John Stuart Mill's 1840 essay on Coleridge, where Mill contrasts the Kantian-influenced thought of "Continental philosophy" and "Continental philosophers" with the English empiricism of Bentham and the 18th century generally.[11] This notion gained prominence in the early 1900s as figures such as Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore advanced a vision of philosophy closely allied with natural science, progressing through logical analysis. This tradition, which has come to be known broadly as "analytic philosophy", became dominant in Britain and America from roughly 1930 onward.[12] Russell and Moore made a dismissal of Hegelianism and its philosophical relatives a distinctive part of their new movement.[13]

Meanwhile in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, Brentano, Husserl, and Reinach were developing a new philosophical method of their own, phenomenology. Heidegger took this phenomenological approach in new directions, and, after WWII, Jean Paul Sartre developed Heidegger's ideas into a movement known as existentialism. In the 1960s, structuralism became the new vogue in France, followed by poststructuralism.

In general, during the 20th century, there was relatively limited contact between philosophers working in the Anglophone tradition and philosophers from the European continent working in the traditions of phenomenology, existentialism, and structuralism. Commenting on the history of the distinction in 1945, Russell distinguished "two schools of philosophy, which may be broadly distinguished as the Continental and the British respectively", a division he saw as operative "from the time of Locke".[14]

Since the 1970s, however, many philosophers in America and Britain have taken interest in continental philosophers since Kant, and the philosophical traditions in many European countries have similarly incorporated many aspects of the legacy of the "analytic" movement. Self-described analytic philosophy flourishes in France, including philosophers such as Jules Vuillemin, Vincent Descombes, Gilles Gaston Granger, François Recanati, and Pascal Engel. Likewise, self-described "continental philosophers" can be found in philosophy departments in the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia.[15] "Continental philosophy" is thus defined in terms of a family of philosophical traditions and influences rather than a geographic distinction. It remains relevant that "continental philosophy" is a contested designation, with many analytic philosophers laying claim to offer better "continental philosophy" than traditional continental philosophy, particularly at the level of graduate education. [16]


The history of continental philosophy (taken in its narrower sense) is usually thought to begin with German idealism.[17] Led by figures like Fichte, Schelling, and later Hegel, German idealism developed out of the work of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s and was closely linked with both romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment. Besides the central figures listed above, important contributors to German idealism also included Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, and Friedrich Schleiermacher.

As the institutional roots of "continental philosophy" in many cases directly descend from those of phenomenology,[18] Edmund Husserl has always been a canonical figure in continental philosophy. Nonetheless, Husserl is also a respected subject of study in the analytic tradition.[19] Husserl's notion of a noema (a non-psychological content of thought), his correspondence with Gottlob Frege, and his investigations into the nature of logic continue to generate interest among analytic philosophers.

A particularly polemical illustration of some differences between "analytic" and "continental" styles of philosophy can be found in Rudolf Carnap's "Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language", which argues that Heidegger's lecture "What Is Metaphysics?" violates logical syntax to create nonsensical pseudo-statements.[20] With the rise of Nazism, many of Germany's philosophers, especially those of Jewish descent or leftist or liberal political sympathies (such as many in the Vienna Circle and the Frankfurt School), fled to the English-speaking world. Those philosophers who remained—if they remained in academia at all—had to reconcile themselves to Nazi control of the universities. Others, such as Martin Heidegger, among the most prominent German philosophers to stay in Germany, embraced Nazism when it came to power.

Both before and after World War II there was a growth of interest in German philosophy in France. A new interest in communism translated into an interest in Marx and Hegel, who became for the first time studied extensively in the politically conservative French university system of the Third Republic. At the same time the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger became increasingly influential, perhaps owing to its resonances with those French philosophies which placed great stock in the first-person perspective (an idea found in divergent forms such as Cartesianism, spiritualism, and Bergsonism). Most important in this popularization of phenomenology was the author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who called his philosophy existentialism. (See Twentieth-Century French Philosophy)

Recent developments in Britain and the US

From the early 20th century until the 1960s, continental philosophers were only intermittently discussed in British and American universities. However, philosophy departments began offering courses in continental philosophy in the late 1960s and 1970s. With post-modernism in the 1970s and 1980s, British and American philosophers became more vocally opposed to the methods and conclusions of continental philosophers. John Searle criticized Derrida, for example, and, later, assorted signatories protested an honorary degree given to Derrida by Cambridge University. Meanwhile, university departments in literature, the fine arts, film, sociology, and political theory have increasingly incorporated ideas and arguments from continental philosophers into their curricula and research. Continental Philosophy is also the central specialization in a number of North American Philosophy departments, including Boston College, Stony Brook University, Vanderbilt University, Emory University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Oregon, Villanova University, Duquesne University, New School University, and the University of Guelph. The most prominent organization for continental philosophy in the United States is the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (known as [SPEP][21]).


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Structuralism is an approach to the human sciences that attempts to analyze a specific field (for instance, mythology) as a complex system of interrelated parts. It began in linguistics with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). But many French intellectuals perceived it to have a wider application, and the model was soon modified and applied to other fields, such as anthropology, psychology, psychoanalysis, literary theory and architecture. This ushered in the dawn of structuralism as not just a method, but also an intellectual movement that came to take existentialism's pedestal in 1960s France.[1]

In the 1970s, it came under internal fire from critics who accused it of being too rigid and ahistorical. However, many of structuralism's theorists, from Michel Foucault to Jacques Lacan, continue to assert an influence on continental philosophy, and many of the fundamental assumptions of its critics, that is, of adherents of poststructuralism, are but a continuation of structuralism.[1]

According to Alison Assiter, there are four common ideas regarding structuralism that form an 'intellectual trend'. Firstly, the structure is what determines the position of each element of a whole. Secondly, structuralists believe that every system has a structure. Thirdly, structuralists are interested in 'structural' laws that deal with coexistence rather than changes. And finally structures are the 'real things' that lie beneath the surface or the appearance of meaning.[2]




Structuralism appeared in academia in the second half of the 20th century, and grew to become one of the most popular approaches in academic fields concerned with the analysis of language, culture, and society. The work of Ferdinand de Saussure concerning linguistics is generally considered to be a starting point of structuralism. The term "structuralism" itself appeared in the works of French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and gave rise, in France, to the "structuralist movement," which spurred the work of such thinkers as Louis Althusser, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, as well as the structural Marxism of Nicos Poulantzas. Most members of this movement did not self-describe as being a part of any such movement. Structuralism is closely related to semiotics. Post-structuralism attempted to distinguish itself from the simple use of the structural method. Deconstruction was an attempt to break with structuralistic thought. Some intellectuals like Julia Kristeva, for example, took structuralism (and Russian formalism) for a starting point to later become prominent post-structuralists. Structuralism has had varying degrees of influence in the social sciences: a great deal in the field of sociology.

Structuralism in linguistics

Structuralism states that human culture is to be understood as a system of signs. Robert Scholes defined structuralism as a reaction to modernist alienation and despair. Structuralists attempted to develop a semiology (system of signs). Ferdinand de Saussure was the originator of the 20th century structuralism, and evidence of this can be found in Course in General Linguistics, written by Saussure's colleagues after his death and based on student notes, where he focused not on the use of language (parole, or speech), but rather on the underlying system of language (langue) and called his theory semiology. However, the discovery of the underlying system had to be done via examination of the parole (speech). As such, Structural Linguistics are actually an early form of corpus linguistics (quantification). This approach focused on examining how the elements of language related to each other in the present, that is, 'synchronically' rather than 'diachronically'. Finally, he argued that linguistic signs were composed of two parts, a signifier (the sound pattern of a word, either in mental projection — as when we silently recite lines from a poem to ourselves — or in actual, physical realization as part of a speech act) and a signified (the concept or meaning of the word). This was quite different from previous approaches which focused on the relationship between words and things in the world that they designate (Roy Harris and Talbot Taylor, Landmarks in Linguistic Thought, 1st ed. [1989], pp. 178-179).

Key notions in structural linguistics are the notions of paradigm, syntagm and value, though these notions were not yet fully developed in Saussure's thought. A structural paradigm is actually a class of linguistic units (lexemes, morphemes or even constructions) which are possible in a certain position in a given linguistic environment (like a given sentence), which is the syntagm. The different functional role of each of these members of the paradigm is called value (valeur in French). Structuralist criticism relates the literary text to a larger overarching structure which may be a particular genre, a range of intertextual connections, a model of a universal narrative structure or a notion of the narrative being a system of recurrent patterns or motifs. [3]

Saussure's Course influenced many linguists between World War I and WWII. In the United States, for instance, Leonard Bloomfield developed his own version of structural linguistics, as did Louis Hjelmslev in Denmark and Alf Sommerfelt in Norway. In France Antoine Meillet and Émile Benveniste would continue Saussure's program. Most importantly, however, members of the Prague School of linguistics such as Roman Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy conducted research that would be greatly influential.

The clearest and most important example of Prague School structuralism lies in phonemics. Rather than simply compiling a list of which sounds occur in a language, the Prague School sought to examine how they were related. They determined that the inventory of sounds in a language could be analyzed in terms of a series of contrasts. Thus in English the sounds /p/ and /b/ represent distinct phonemes because there are cases (minimal pairs) where the contrast between the two is the only difference between two distinct words (e.g. 'pat' and 'bat'). Analyzing sounds in terms of contrastive features also opens up comparative scope — it makes clear, for instance, that the difficulty Japanese speakers have differentiating /r/ and /l/ in English is because these sounds are not contrastive in Japanese. While this approach is now standard in linguistics, it was revolutionary at the time. Phonology would become the paradigmatic basis for structuralism in a number of different fields.

Structuralism in anthropology and sociology

According to structural theory in anthropology and social anthropology, meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities which serve as systems of signification. A structuralist studies activities as diverse as food preparation and serving rituals, religious rites, games, literary and non-literary texts, and other forms of entertainment to discover the deep structures by which meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture. For example, an early and prominent practitioner of structuralism, anthropologist and ethnographer Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1950s, analyzed cultural phenomena including mythology, kinship (the Alliance theory and the incest taboo), and food preparation (see also structural anthropology). In addition to these studies, he produced more linguistically-focused writings where he applied Saussure's distinction between langue and parole in his search for the fundamental mental structures of the human mind, arguing that the structures that form the "deep grammar" of society originate in the mind and operate in us unconsciously. Levi-Strauss was inspired by information theory[citation needed] and mathematics[citation needed].

Another concept was borrowed from the Prague school of linguistics, where Roman Jakobson and others analysed sounds based on the presence or absence of certain features (such as voiceless vs. voiced). Levi-Strauss included this in his conceptualization of the universal structures of the mind, which he held to operate based on pairs of binary oppositions such as hot-cold, male-female, culture-nature, cooked-raw, or marriageable vs. tabooed women. A third influence came from Marcel Mauss, who had written on gift exchange systems. Based on Mauss, for instance, Lévi-Strauss argued that kinship systems are based on the exchange of women between groups (a position known as 'alliance theory') as opposed to the 'descent' based theory described by Edward Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes.

While replacing Marcel Mauss at his Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes chair, Lévi-Strauss' writing became widely popular in the 1960s and 1970s and gave rise to the term "structuralism" itself. In Britain authors such as Rodney Needham and Edmund Leach were highly influenced by structuralism. Authors such as Maurice Godelier and Emmanuel Terray combined Marxism with structural anthropology in France. In the United States, authors such as Marshall Sahlins and James Boon built on structuralism to provide their own analysis of human society. Structural anthropology fell out of favour in the early 1980s for a number of reasons. D'Andrade (1995) suggests that structuralism in anthropology was eventually abandoned because it made unverifiable assumptions about the universal structures of the human mind. Authors such as Eric Wolf argued that political economy and colonialism should be more at the forefront of anthropology. More generally, criticisms of structuralism by Pierre Bourdieu led to a concern with how cultural and social structures were changed by human agency and practice, a trend which Sherry Ortner has referred to as 'practice theory'.

Some anthropological theorists, however, while finding considerable fault with Lévi-Strauss's version of structuralism, did not turn away from a fundamental structural basis for human culture. The Biogenetic Structuralism group for instance argued that some kind of structural foundation for culture must exist because all humans inherit the same system of brain structures. They proposed a kind of Neuroanthropology which would lay the foundations for a more complete scientific account of cultural similarity and variation by requiring an integration of cultural anthropology and neuroscience--a program also embraced by such theorists as Victor Turner.

Structuralism in literary theory and literary criticism

In literary theory, structuralism is an approach to analyzing the narrative material by examining the underlying unchanging structure, which is based on the linguistic sign system of Ferdinand de Saussure. The structuralists claim that there must be a structure in every text, which explains why it is easier for experienced readers than for non-experienced readers to interpret a text. Hence, they say that everything that is written seems to be governed by specific rules, a "grammar of literature"[4], that one learns in educational institutions and that are to be unmasked. A potential problem of structuralist interpretation is that it can be highly reductive, as scholar Catherine Belsey puts it, "the structuralist danger of collapsing all difference"[5]. An example of such a reading might be if a student concludes the authors of West Side Story did not write anything "really" new, because their work has the same structure as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In both texts a girl and a boy fall in love (a "formula" with a symbolic operator between them would be "Boy + Girl") despite the fact that they belong to two groups that hate each other ("Boy's Group - Girl's Group" or "Opposing forces") and conflict is resolved by their death. Structuralist readings best focus on how the structures of the single text resolve inherent narrative tensions. If a structuralist reading focuses on multiple texts, there must be some way in which those texts unify themselves into a coherent system. The versatility of structuralism is such that a literary critic could make the same claim about a story of two friendly families ("Boy's Family + Girl's Family") that arrange a marriage between their children despite the fact that the children hate each other ("Boy - Girl") and then the children commit suicide to escape the arranged marriage; the justification is that the second story's structure is an 'inversion' of the first story's structure: the relationship between the values of love and the two pairs of parties involved have been reversed.

Structuralistic literary criticism argues that the "novelty value of a literary text" can lie only in new structure, rather than in the specifics of character development and voice in which that structure is expressed. One branch of literary structuralism, like Freudianism, Marxism, and transformational grammar, posits both a deep and a surface structure. In Freudianism and Marxism the deep structure is a story, in Freud's case the battle, ultimately, between the life and death instincts, and in Marx, the conflicts between classes that are rooted in the economic "base."

Literary structuralism often follows the lead of Vladimir Propp and Claude Levi-Strauss in seeking out basic deep elements in stories, myths, and more recently, anecdotes, which are combined in various ways to produce the many versions of the ur-story or ur-myth. As in Freud and Marx, but in contrast to transformational grammar, these basic elements are meaning-bearing.

There is considerable similarity between structural literary theory and Northrop Frye's archetypal criticism, which is also indebted to the anthropological study of myths. Some critics have also tried to apply the theory to individual works, but the effort to find unique structures in individual literary works runs counter to the structuralist program and has an affinity with New Criticism.

The other branch of literary structuralism is semiotics, and it is based on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure.

Structuralism after World War II

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, existentialism like that propounded by Jean-Paul Sartre was the dominant mood. Structuralism surged to prominence in France after WWII and particularly in the 1960s. The initial popularity of structuralism in France led it to spread across the globe. The social sciences were particularly influenced.

Structuralism rejected the concept of human freedom and choice and focused instead on the way that human behavior is determined by various structures. The most important initial work on this score was Claude Lévi-Strauss's 1949 volume Elementary Structures of Kinship. Lévi-Strauss had known Jakobson during their time together in New York during WWII and was influenced by both Jakobson's structuralism as well as the American anthropological tradition. In Elementary Structures he examined kinship systems from a structural point of view and demonstrated how apparently different social organizations were in fact different permutations of a few basic kinship structures. In the late 1950s he published Structural Anthropology, a collection of essays outlining his program for structuralism.

By the early 1960s structuralism as a movement was coming into its own and some believed that it offered a single unified approach to human life that would embrace all disciplines. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida focused on how structuralism could be applied to literature.

Blending Freud and De Saussure, the French (post)structuralist Jacques Lacan applied structuralism to psychoanalysis and, in a different way, Jean Piaget applied structuralism to the study of psychology. But Jean Piaget, who would better define himself as constructivist, considers structuralism as "a method and not a doctrine" because for him "there exists no structure without a construction, abstract or genetic"[6]

Michel Foucault's book The Order of Things examined the history of science to study how structures of epistemology, or episteme, shaped the way in which people imagined knowledge and knowing (though Foucault would later explicitly deny affiliation with the structuralist movement).

In much the same way, American historian of science Thomas Kuhn addressed the structural formations of science in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - its title alone evincing a stringent structuralist approach. Though less concerned with "episteme," Kuhn nonetheless remarked at how coteries of scientists operated under and applied a standard praxis of 'normal science,' deviating from a standard 'paradigm' only in instances of irreconcilable anomalies that question a significant body of their work.

Blending Marx and structuralism another French theorist Louis Althusser introduced his own brand of structural social analysis, giving rise to "structural Marxism". Other authors in France and abroad have since extended structural analysis to practically every discipline.

The definition of 'structuralism' also shifted as a result of its popularity. As its popularity as a movement waxed and waned, some authors considered themselves 'structuralists' only to later eschew the label.

The term has slightly different meanings in French and English. In the US, for instance, Derrida is considered the paradigm of post-structuralism while in France he is labeled a structuralist.[citation needed] Finally, some authors wrote in several different styles. Barthes, for instance, wrote some books which are clearly structuralist and others which clearly are not.

Reactions to structuralism

Today structuralism is less popular than approaches such as post-structuralism and deconstruction. There are many reasons for this. Structuralism has often been criticized for being ahistorical and for favoring deterministic structural forces over the ability of individual people to act. As the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s (and particularly the student uprisings of May 1968) began affecting academia, issues of power and political struggle moved to the center of people's attention. The ethnologist Robert Jaulin defined another ethnological method which clearly pitted itself against structuralism.

In the 1980s, deconstruction and its emphasis on the fundamental ambiguity of language--rather than its crystalline logical structure--became popular. By the end of the century structuralism was seen as a historically important school of thought, but it was the movements it spawned, rather than structuralism itself, which commanded attention.


  1. ^ a b John Sturrock, Structuralism and Since, Introduction.
  2. ^ Assiter, A 1984, 'Althusser and structuralism', The British journal of sociology, vol. 35, no. 2, Blackwell Publishing, pp.272-296.
  3. ^ Barry, P 2002, 'Structuralism', Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory, Manchester University Press, Manchester, pp. 39-60.
  4. ^ Selden, Raman / Widdowson, Peter / Brooker, Peter: A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory Fifth Edition. Harlow: 2005. Page 76
  5. ^ Belsey, Catherine. "Literature, History, Politics." Literature and History 9 (1983): 17-27.
  6. ^ Jean Piaget, Le structuralisme, ed. PUF, 1968

See also


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Post-structuralism encompasses the intellectual developments of certain continental philosophers and sociologists who wrote within the tendencies of twentieth-century French philosophy. The movement is difficult to define or summarize, but may be broadly understood as a body of distinct responses to structuralism (hence the prefix "post"). Many contributors, most notably Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva, either inverted structuralist principles or set out to reject them outright. In direct contrast to the structuralist claim of an independent signifier superior to the signified, post-structuralism generally views the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united; meaning itself inheres to the play of difference.[1] Theorists such as Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard merged traditional Marxian ideas relating to capitalist exchange value (e.g. commodity fetishism) with such novel principles, bringing into attention the relationship between consumerism and the realm of the sign. The movement is closely related to postmodernism. Anti-humanism, as a rejection of the enlightenment subject, is often a central tenet. Similarly, existential-phenomenology is of considerable influence. One could argue that the post-structuralists might just as accurately be called the "post-phenomenologists".[2]

Many so-called 'post-structuralist' theorists actively refused the label. Indeed, the term came into being pejoratively through Anglo-American academe as a means to distinguish those continental philosophers who rejected traditional analytic standards. Further controversy owes to the way in which these loosely-connected thinkers tended to dispel with theories claiming to have discovered absolute truths about the world.[3] Although such ideas generally relate only to the metaphysical; for instance, metanarratives of assumed historical progress (e.g. dialecticism), many commentators discredited the movement as relativist, nihilist, or simply indulgent, to the extreme. One must reiterate that as few have willingly accepted the post-structuralist label, there is no single, unified manifesto.[4] Certain contemporary movements, such as critical realism, may be viewed as attempts to reconcile the overarching skeptical conclusions of post-structuralism with scientific frames of enquiry.



Poststructuralism's origin in France

Post-structuralism emerged in France during the 1960s as an antinomian movement critiquing structuralism. The period was marked by political anxiety, as students and workers alike rebelled against the state in May 1968, nearly causing the downfall of the French government. At the same time, however, the support of the French Communist Party (PCF) for the oppressive policies of the USSR contributed to popular disillusionment with orthodox Marxism. As a result, there was increased interest in alternative radical philosophies, including feminism, western Marxism, phenomenology, and nihilism. These disparate perspectives, which Foucault later labeled "subjugated knowledges," were all linked by being critical of dominant Western philosophy and culture. Post-structuralism offered a means of justifying these criticisms, by exposing the underlying assumptions of many Western norms.

Two key figures in the early post-structuralist movement were Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. In a 1966 lecture "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science", Jacques Derrida presented a thesis on an apparent rupture in intellectual life. Derrida interpreted this event as a "decentering" of the former intellectual cosmos. Instead of progress or divergence from an identified centre, Derrida described this "event" as a kind of "play."

Although Barthes was originally a structuralist, during the 1960s he increasingly favored post-structuralist views. In 1968, Barthes published “The Death of the Author” in which he announced a metaphorical event: the "death" of the author as an authentic source of meaning for a given text. Barthes argued that any literary text has multiple meanings, and that the author was not the prime source of the work's semantic content. The "Death of the Author," Barthes maintained, was the "Birth of the Reader," as the source of the proliferation of meanings of the text.

In his 1976 lecture series, Michel Foucault briefly summarized the general impetus of the post-structuralist movement:

...For the last ten or fifteen years, the immense and proliferating criticizability of things, institutions, practices, and discourses; a sort of general feeling that the ground was crumbling beneath our feet, especially in places where it seemed most familiar, most solid, and closest to us, to our bodies, to our everyday gestures. But alongside this crumbling and the astonishing efficacy of discontinuous, particular, and local critiques, the facts were also revealing something... beneath this whole thematic, through it and even within it, we have seen what might be called the insurrection of subjugated knowledges.

Foucault, Society Must be Defended, 7th January 1976, tr. David Macey[5]


General practices

Post-structural practices generally operate on some basic assumptions:

Destabilized meaning

In the post-structuralist approach to textual analysis, the reader replaces the author as the primary subject of inquiry. This displacement is often referred to as the "destabilizing" or "decentering" of the author, though it has its greatest effect on the text itself. Without a central fixation on the author, post-structuralists examine other sources for meaning (e.g., readers, cultural norms, other literature, etc.). These alternative sources are never authoritative, and promise no consistency.

In his essay "Signification and Sense," Emmanuel Lévinas remarked on this new field of semantic inquiry:

...language refers to the position of the listener and the speaker, that is, to the contingency of their story. To seize by inventory all the contexts of language and all possible positions of interlocutors is a senseless task. Every verbal signification lies at the confluence of countless semantic rivers. Experience, like language, no longer seems to be made of isolated elements lodged somehow in a Euclidean space... [Words] signify from the "world" and from the position of one who is looking.

Lévinas, Signification and Sense, Humanism of the Other, tr. Nidra Poller[6]


A major theory associated with Structuralism was binary opposition. This theory proposed that there are certain theoretical and conceptual opposites, often arranged in a hierarchy, which human logic has given to text. Such binary pairs could include Enlightenment/Romantic, male/female, speech/writing, rational/emotional, signifier/signified, symbolic/imaginary.

Post-structuralism rejects the notion of the essential quality of the dominant relation in the hierarchy, choosing rather to expose these relations and the dependency of the dominant term on its apparently subservient counterpart. The only way to properly understand these meanings is to deconstruct the assumptions and knowledge systems which produce the illusion of singular meaning. This act of deconstruction illuminates how male can become female, how speech can become writing, and how rational can become emotional.

Structuralism vs. Post-structuralism

Structuralism was a fashionable movement in France in the 1950s and 1960s, that studied the underlying structures inherent in cultural products (such as texts), and used analytical concepts from linguistics, psychology, anthropology and other fields to understand and interpret those structures. Although the structuralist movement fostered critical inquiry into these structures, it emphasized logical and scientific results. Many structuralists sought to integrate their work into pre-existing bodies of knowledge. This was observed in the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in linguistics, Claude Lévi-Strauss in anthropology, and many early 20th-century psychologists.

The general assumptions of post-structuralism derive from critique of structuralist premises. Specifically, post-structuralism holds that the study of underlying structures is itself culturally conditioned and therefore subject to myriad biases and misinterpretations. To understand an object (e.g. one of the many meanings of a text), it is necessary to study both the object itself, and the systems of knowledge which were coordinated to produce the object. In this way, post-structuralism positions itself as a study of how knowledge is produced.

Historical vs. descriptive view

Post-structuralists generally assert that post-structuralism is historical, and classify structuralism as descriptive. This terminology relates to Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between the views of historical (diachronic) and descriptive (synchronic) reading. From this basic distinction, post-structuralist studies often emphasize history to analyze descriptive concepts. By studying how cultural concepts have changed over time, post-structuralists seek to understand how those same concepts are understood by readers in the present. For example, Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization is both a history and an inspection of cultural attitudes about madness. The theme of history in modern Continental thought can be linked to such influences as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals and Martin Heidegger's Being and Time.

Structuralists also seek to understand the historical interpretation of cultural concepts, but focus their efforts on understanding how those concepts were understood by the author in his or her own time, rather than how they may be understood by the reader in the present.

Scholars between both movements

The uncertain distance between structuralism and post-structuralism is further blurred by the fact that scholars generally do not label themselves as post-structuralists. In some cases (e.g. Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes), scholars associated with structuralism became noteworthy in post-structuralism as well. Along with Lévi-Strauss, three of the most prominent post-structuralists were first counted among the so-called "Gang of Four" of structuralism par excellence: Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault. The works of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva are also counted as prominent examples of post-structuralism.

Basically, many who began by stating that texts could be interpreted based solely on the cultural and social circumstances of the author came to believe that the reader's culture and society shared an equal part in the interpretation of a piece. If the reader sees it in one way, how do we know that that is the way the author intended? We don't. Therefore, critical reading seeks to find the contradictions that an author inevitably includes in any given work. Those inconsistencies are used to show that the interpretation and criticism of any literature is in the hands of the individual reader and will necessarily include that reader's own cultural biases and assumptions. While many structuralists first thought that they could tease out an author's intention by close scrutiny, they soon found so many disconnections, that it was obvious that their own experiences lent a view that was unique to them.

Major works and concepts

Eco and the open text

When The Open Work was written by Umberto Eco (1962) it was in many (or all) senses post-structuralist. The influence of this work is, however, complex: Eco worked closely with Barthes, and in the second Preface to the book (1967), Eco explicitly states his post-structuralist position and the assonance with his friend's position. The entire book is a critique of a certain concept of "structure" and "form," giving to the reader a strong power in understanding the text.[citation needed]

Barthes and the need for metalanguage

Although many may have felt the necessity to move beyond structuralism, there was clearly no consensus on how this ought to occur. Much of the study of post-structuralism is based on the common critiques of structuralism. Roland Barthes is of great significance with respect to post-structuralist theory. In his work, Elements of Semiology (1967), he advanced the concept of the "metalanguage". A metalanguage is a systematized way of talking about concepts like meaning and grammar beyond the constraints of a traditional (first-order) language; in a metalanguage, symbols replace words and phrases. Insofar as one metalanguage is required for one explanation of first-order language, another may be required, so metalanguages may actually replace first-order languages. Barthes exposes how this structuralist system is regressive; orders of language rely upon a metalanguage by which it is explained, and therefore deconstruction itself is in danger of becoming a metalanguage, thus exposing all languages and discourse to scrutiny. Barthes' other works contributed deconstructive theories about texts.

Derrida's lecture at Johns Hopkins

The occasional designation of post-structuralism as a movement can be tied to the fact that mounting criticism of structuralism became evident at approximately the same time that structuralism became a topic of interest in universities in the United States. This interest led to a 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins University that invited scholars who were thought to be prominent post-structuralists, including Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan. Derrida's lecture at that conference, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences," often appears in collections as a manifesto against structuralism. Derrida's essay was one of the earliest to propose some theoretical limitations to structuralism, and to attempt to theorize on terms that were clearly no longer structuralist.

The element of "play" in the title of Derrida's essay is often erroneously taken to be "play" in a linguistic sense, based on a general tendency towards puns and humour, while social constructionism as developed in the later work of Michel Foucault is said to create a sense of strategic agency by laying bare the levers of historical change. The importance of Foucault's work is seen by many to be in its synthesis of this social/historical account of the operations of power (see governmentality).

Post-structuralism as Post-modernism

Academics often incorrectly assume that post-structuralists are also more or less post-modernists, but of the philosophers associated with post-structuralism, none have ever identified with post-modernism. Unlike post-modernism, there does not appear to be a core of knowledge which can be labeled as "post-structuralist." Authors who study post-modernism, such as Jean-François Lyotard, describe post-modernism as a condition of the present state of culture, social structure, and self (the Marxist subject or Lacanian I). Thus, where post-modernism exists as a distinct subject of study (describing, for instance, a period or a style), post-structuralism remains unidentifiable.

Other authors

In addition to those discussed above, the following are often said to be post-structuralists, or to have had a post-structuralist period:

See also

Normative ethics

Traditionally, normative ethics (also known as moral theory) was the study of what makes actions right and wrong. These theories offered an overarching moral principle to which one could appeal in resolving difficult moral decisions.

At the turn of the 20th century, moral theories became more complex and are no longer concerned solely with rightness and wrongness, but are interested in many different kinds of moral status. During the middle of the century, the study of normative ethics declined as meta-ethics grew in prominence. This focus on meta-ethics was in part caused by an intense linguistic focus in analytic philosophy and by the popularity of logical positivism.

In 1971, John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, noteworthy in its pursuit of moral arguments and eschewing of meta-ethics. This publication set the trend for renewed interest in normative ethics.

Greek philosophy


Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC) was one of the first Greek philosophers to encourage both scholars and the common citizen to turn their attention from the outside world to the condition of man. In this view, Knowledge having a bearing on human life was placed highest, all other knowledge being secondary. Self-knowledge was considered necessary for success and inherently an essential good. A self-aware person will act completely within their capabilities to their pinnacle, while an ignorant person will flounder and encounter difficulty. To Socrates, a person must become aware of every fact (and its context) relevant to his existence, if he wishes to attain self-knowledge. He posited that people will naturally do what is good, if they know what is right. Evil or bad actions, are the result of ignorance. If a criminal were truly aware of the mental and spiritual consequences of his actions, he would neither commit nor even consider committing those actions. Any person who knows what is truly right will automatically do it, according to Socrates. While he correlated knowledge with virtue, he similarly equated virtue with happiness. The truly wise man will know what is right, do what is good, and therefore be happy.[1]


Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) posited an ethical system that may be termed "self-realizationism." In Aristotle's view, when a person acts in accordance with his nature and realizes his full potential, he will do good and be content. At birth, a baby is not a person, but a potential person. In order to become a "real" person, the child's inherent potential must be realized. Unhappiness and frustration are caused by the unrealized potential of a person, leading to failed goals and a poor life. Aristotle said, "Nature does nothing in vain." Therefore, it is imperative for persons to act in accordance with their nature and develop their latent talents, in order to be content and complete. Happiness was held to be the ultimate goal. All other things, such as civic life or wealth, are merely means to the end. Self-realization, the awareness of one's nature and the development of one's talents, is the surest path to happiness.[2]

Aristotle asserted that man had three natures: vegetable (physical), animal (emotional) and rational (mental ). Physical nature can be assuaged through exercise and care, emotional nature through indulgence of instinct and urges, and mental through human reason and developed potential. Rational development was considered the most important, as essential to philosophical self-awareness and as uniquely human. Moderation was encouraged, with the extremes seen as degraded and immoral. For example, courage is the moderate virtue between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Man should not simply live, but live well with conduct governed by moderate virtue. This is regarded as difficult, as virtue denotes doing the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, to the proper extent, in the correct fashion, for the right reason.[3]


Hedonism posits that the principle ethic is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. There are several schools of Hedonist thought ranging from those advocating the indulgence of even momentary desires to those teaching a pursuit of spiritual bliss. In their consideration of consequences, they range from those advocating self-gratification regardless of the pain and expense to others, to those stating that the most ethical pursuit maximizes pleasure and happiness for the most people.[4]

Cyrenaic hedonism

Founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, Cyrenaics supported immediate gratification. "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Even fleeting desires should be indulged, for fear the opportunity should be forever lost. There was little to no concern with the future, the present dominating in the pursuit for immediate pleasure. Cyrenaic hedonism encouraged the pursuit of enjoyment and indulgence without hesitation, believing pleasure to be the only good.[4]


Epicurus rejected the extremism of the Cyrenaics, believing some pleasures and indulgences to be detrimental to human beings. Epicureans observed that indiscriminate indulgence sometimes resulted in negative consequences. Some experiences were therefore rejected out of hand, and some unpleasant experiences endured in the present to ensure a better life in the future. The summum bonum, or greatest good, to Epicurus was prudence, exercised through moderation and caution. Excessive indulgence can be destructive to pleasure and can even lead to pain. For example, eating one food too often will cause a person to lose taste for it. Eating too much food at once will lead to discomfort and ill-health. Pain and fear were to be avoided. Living was essentially good, barring pain and illness. Death was not to be feared. Fear was considered the source of most unhappiness. Conquering the fear of death would naturally lead to a happier life. Epicurus reasoned if there was an afterlife and immortality, the fear of death was irrational. If there was no life after death, then the person would not be alive to suffer, fear or worry; he would be non-existent in death. It is irrational to fret over circumstances that do not exist, such as one's state in death in the absence of an afterlife.[5]


The Stoic philosopher Epictetus posited that the greatest good was contentment and serenity. Peace of mind, or Apatheia, was of the highest value; self-mastery over one's desires and emotions leads to spiritual peace. The "unconquerable will" is central to this philosophy. The individual will should be independent and inviolate. Allowing a person to disturb the mental equilibrium is in essence offering yourself in slavery. If a person is free to anger you at will, you have no control over your internal world, and therefore no freedom. Freedom from material attachments is also necessary. If a thing breaks, the person should not be upset, but realize it was a thing that could break. Similarly, if someone should die, those close to them should hold to their serenity because the loved one was made of flesh and blood destined to death. Stoic philosophy says to accept things that cannot be changed, resigning oneself to existence and enduring in a rational fashion. Death is not feared. People do not "lose" their life, but instead "return", for they are returning to God (who initially gave what the person is as a person). Epictetus said difficult problems in life should not be avoided, but rather embraced. They are spiritual exercises needed for the health of the spirit, just as physical exercise is required for the health of the body. He also stated that sex and sexual desire are to be avoided as the greatest threat to the integrity and equilibrium of a man's mind. Abstinence is highly desirable. Epictetus said remaining abstinent in the face of temptation was a victory for which a man could be proud.[6]

Modern ethics

In the modern era, ethical theories were generally divided between consequentialist theories of philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and deontological ethics as epitomized by the work of Immanuel Kant.

Postmodern ethics

The 20th century saw a remarkable expansion of critical theory and its evolution. The earlier Marxist Theory created a paradigm for understanding the individual, society and their interaction. The Renaissance Enlightened Man had persisted up until the Industrial Revolution when the romantic vision of noble action began to fade.

Modernism, exemplified in the literary works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, wrote out God, then antihumanists such as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault and structuralists such as Roland Barthes presided over the death of the author and man himself. As critical theory developed in the later 20th century, post-structuralism queried the existence of reality. Jacques Derrida argued reality was in the linguistic realm, stating ‘There is nothing outside the text’, while Jean Baudrillard theorised that signs and symbols or simulacra had usurped reality, particularly in the consumer world.

Post-structuralism and postmodernism are both heavily theoretical and follow a fragmented, anti-authoritarian course which is absorbed in narcissistic and near nihilistic activities. Normative issues are generally ignored. This has led to some opponents of these later movements echoing the critic Jurgen Habermas who fears ‘that the postmodern mood represents a turning away from both political responsibilities and a concern for suffering’(cited in Lyon, 1999, p. 103).

David Couzens Hoy says that Emmanuel Levinas’ writings on the face of the Other and Derrida’s mediations on the relevance of death to ethics are signs of the ‘ethical turn’ in Continental philosophy that occurs in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Hoy clarifies post-critique ethics as the ‘obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable’ (2004, p. 103).

This aligns with Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s thoughts on what ethics is not. He firstly claims it is not a moral code particular to a sectional group. For example it has nothing to do with a set of prohibitions concerned with sex laid down by a religious order. Neither is ethics a ‘system that is noble in theory but no good in practice’ (2000, p. 7). For him, a theory is good only if it is practical. He agrees that ethics is in some sense universal but in a utilitarian way it affords the ‘best consequences’ and furthers the interests of those affected (2000, p. 15).

Hoy in his post-critique model uses the term ethical resistance. Examples of this would be an individual’s resistance to consumerism in a retreat to a simpler but perhaps harder lifestyle, or an individual’s resistance to a terminal illness. Hoy describes these examples in his book Critical Resistance as an individual’s engagement in social or political resistance. He provides Levinas’s account as ‘not the attempt to use power against itself, or to mobilize sectors of the population to exert their political power; the ethical resistance is instead the resistance of the powerless’(2004, p. 8).

Hoy concludes that

"The ethical resistance of the powerless others to our capacity to exert power over them is therefore what imposes unenforceable obligations on us. The obligations are unenforceable precisely because of the other’s lack of power. That actions are at once obligatory and at the same time unenforceable is what put them in the category of the ethical. Obligations that were enforced would, by the virtue of the force behind them, not be freely undertaken and would not be in the realm of the ethical" (2004, p.184).

In present day terms the powerless may include the unborn, the terminally sick, the aged, the insane, and animals. It is in these areas that ethical action will be evident. Until legislation or state apparatus enforces a moral order that addresses the causes of resistance these issues will remain in the ethical realm. For example, should animal experimentation become illegal in a society, it will no longer be an ethical issue. Likewise one hundred and fifty years ago, not having a black slave in America may have been an ethical choice. This later issue has been absorbed into the fabric of a more utilitarian social order and is no longer an ethical issue but does of course constitute a moral concern. Ethics are exercised by those who possess no power and those who support them, through personal resistance.

Applied ethics

Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations. The discipline has many specialized fields, such as bioethics and business ethics.

Specific questions

Applied ethics is used in some aspects of determining public policy. The sort of questions addressed by applied ethics include: "Is getting an abortion immoral?" "Is euthanasia immoral?" "Is affirmative action right or wrong?" "What are human rights, and how do we determine them?" and "Do animals have rights as well?"

A more specific question could be: "If someone else can make better out of his/her life than I can, is it then moral to sacrifice myself for them if needed?" Without these questions there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics, and the practice of arbitration — in fact, no common assumptions of all participants—so the ability to formulate the questions are prior to rights balancing. But not all questions studied in applied ethics concern public policy. For example, making ethical judgments regarding questions such as, "Is lying always wrong?" and, "If not, when is it permissible?" is prior to any etiquette.

People in-general are more comfortable with dichotomies (two choices). However, in ethics the issues are most often multifaceted and the best proposed actions address many different areas concurrently. In ethical decisions the answer is almost never a "yes or no", "right or wrong" statement. Many buttons are pushed so that the overall condition is improved and not to the benefit of any particular faction.

Particular fields of application

Relational ethics

Relational ethics are related to an ethics of care.[7] They are used in qualitative research, especially ethnography and authoethnography. Researchers who employ relational ethics value and respect the connection between themselves and the people they study, and "between researchers and the communities in which they live and work" (Ellis, 2007, p. 4).[8] Relational ethics also help researchers understand difficult issues such as conducting research on intimate others that have died and developing friendships with their participants.[9][10]

Military ethics

Military ethics is a set of practices and philosophy to guide members of the armed forces to act in a manner consistent with the values and standards as established by military tradition, and to actively clarify and enforce these conditions rigorously in its administrative structure. Military ethics is evolutionary and the administrative structure is modified as new ethical perspectives consistent with national interests evolve.

Some ethical issues involving a country's military establishment, such as:

  1. justification for using force
  2. race (loss of capability due to race bias or abuse)
  3. gender equality (loss of capability due to gender bias or abuse)
  4. age discrimination (authority based upon age instead of accomplishment or productivity)
  5. nepotism (unfair control by family members; also known as "empire building")
  6. political influence (military members having a political position or political influence)

And others.

Moral psychology

Moral psychology is a field of study in both philosophy and psychology. Some use the term "moral psychology" relatively narrowly to refer to the study of moral development.[11] However, others tend to use the term more broadly to include any topics at the intersection of ethics and psychology (and philosophy of mind).[12] Such topics are ones that involve the mind and are relevant to moral issues. Some of the main topics of the field are moral responsibility, moral development, moral character (especially as related to virtue ethics), altruism, psychological egoism, moral luck, and moral disagreement.[13]

Evolutionary ethics

Evolutionary ethics concerns approaches to ethics (morality) based on the role of evolution in shaping human psychology and behavior. Such approaches may be based in scientific fields such as evolutionary psychology or sociobiology, with a focus on understanding and explaining observed ethical preferences and choices.[14]

Descriptive ethics

Descriptive ethics is a value-free approach to ethics which examines ethics not from a top-down a priori perspective but rather observations of actual choices made by moral agents in practice. Some philosophers rely on descriptive ethics and choices made and unchallenged by a society or culture to derive categories, which typically vary by context. This can lead to situational ethics and situated ethics. These philosophers often view aesthetics, etiquette, and arbitration as more fundamental, percolating "bottom up" to imply the existence of, rather than explicitly prescribe, theories of value or of conduct. The study of descriptive ethics may include examinations of the following:

Political philosophy

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Political philosophy is the study of city, government, politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why (or even if) they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it should take and why, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown—if ever. In a vernacular sense, the term "political philosophy" often refers to a general view, or specific ethic, political belief or attitude, about politics that does not necessarily belong to the technical discipline of philosophy.[1]

Political philosophy can also be understood by analysing it through the perspectives of metaphysics, epistemology and axiology thereby unearthing the ultimate reality side, the knowledge or methodical side and the value aspects of politics. Three central concerns of political philosophy have been the political economy by which property rights are defined and access to capital is regulated, the demands of justice in distribution and punishment, and the rules of truth and evidence that determine judgments in the law.



History of political philosophy


Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), from a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics secured the two Greek philosophers as two of the most influential political philosophers.

Western philosophy

As an academic discipline, Western political philosophy has its origins in ancient Greek society, when city-states were experimenting with various forms of political organization including monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. One of the first, extremely important classical works of political philosophy is Plato's The Republic,[2] which was followed by Aristotle's Politics and Nichomachean Ethics.[3] Roman political philosophy was influenced by the Stoics, and the Roman statesman Cicero wrote on political philosophy, expressing clearly and to the point the main Stoic thesis.[4]

Far East philosophy

Independently, Confucius, Mencius, Mozi and the Legalist school in China, and the Laws of Manu[5] and Chanakya in India, all sought to find means of restoring political unity and political stability; in the case of the former three through the cultivation of virtue, in the last by imposition of discipline. In India, Chanakya, in his Arthashastra, developed a viewpoint which recalls both the Legalists and Niccolò Machiavelli. Ancient Chinese civilization and Indian civilization resembled Greek civilization in that there was a unified culture divided into rival states. In the case of China, philosophers found themselves obliged to confront social and political breakdown, and seek solutions to the crisis that confronted their entire civilization. The Confucian School always deals with political problems on the basis of ethics while the other schools of political thought, of which there are about twelve in China, do not necessarily include ethics in their discussion of political philosophy. In spite of the existence of these different schools of political philosophy, there are still some Western scholars who refuse to admit there is such a thing as Chinese political philosophy. The Chinese people would eventually accept the Confucian philosophy as the guardian spirit of politics.[6]

Medieval Christianity

Saint Augustine

The early Christian philosophy of Augustine of Hippo was by and large a rewrite of Plato in a Christian context. The main change that Christian thought brought was to moderate the Stoicism and theory of justice of the Roman world, and emphasize the role of the state in applying mercy as a moral example. Augustine also preached that one was not a member of his or her city, but was either a citizen of the City of God (Civitas Dei) or the City of Man (Civitas Terrena). Augustine's City of God is an influential work of this period that refuted the thesis, after the First Sack of Rome, that the Christian view could be realized on Earth at all - a view many Christian Romans held.[7]

Saint Thomas Aquinas

In political philosophy, Aquinas is most meticulous when dealing with varieties of law. According to Aquinas, there are four different kinds of laws:

1) God's cosmic law

2) God's scriptural law

3) Natural law or rules of conduct universally applicable within reason

4) Human law or specific rules applicable to specific circumstances.

Medieval Islam

Mutazilite vs Asharite

The rise of Islam, based on both the Qur'an and Muhammad strongly altered the power balances and perceptions of origin of power in the Mediterranean region. Early Islamic philosophy emphasized an inexorable link between science and religion, and the process of ijtihad to find truth - in effect all philosophy was "political" as it had real implications for governance. This view was challenged by the "rationalist" Mutazilite philosophers, who held a more Hellenic view, reason above revelation, and as such are known to modern scholars as the first speculative theologians of Islam; they were supported by a secular aristocracy who sought freedom of action independent of the Caliphate. By the late ancient period, however, the "traditionalist" Asharite view of Islam had in general triumphed. According to the Asharites, reason must be subordinate to the Quran and the Sunna.[8]

Islamic political philosophy, was, indeed, rooted in the very sources of Islam, i.e. the Qur'an and the Sunnah, the words and practices of Muhammad. However, in the Western thought, it is generally supposed that it was a specific area peculiar merely to the great philosophers of Islam: al-Kindi (Alkindus), al-Farabi (Abunaser), İbn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Ibn Khaldun. The political conceptions of Islam such as kudrah (power), sultan, ummah, cemaa (obligation)-and even the "core" terms of the Qur'an, i.e. ibadah, din (religion), rab (master) and ilah- is taken as the basis of an analysis. Hence, not only the ideas of the Muslim political philosophers but also many other jurists and ulama posed political ideas and theories. For example, the ideas of the Khawarij in the very early years of Islamic history on Khilafa and Ummah, or that of Shia Islam on the concept of Imamah are considered proofs of political thought. The clashes between the Ehl-i Sunna and Shia in the 7th and 8th centuries had a genuine political character.

Ibn Khaldun

The 14th century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun is considered one of the greatest political theorists. The British philosopher-anthropologist Ernest Gellner considered Ibn Khaldun's definition of government, "an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself", the best in the history of political theory. For Ibn Khaldun, government should be restrained to a minimum for as a necessary evil, it is the constraint of men by other men.[9]

Islamic political philosophy did not cease in the classical period. Despite the fluctuations in its original character during the medieval period, it has lasted even in the modern era. Especially with the emergence of Islamic radicalism as a political movement, political thought has revived in the Muslim world. The political ideas of Abduh, Afgani, Kutub, Mawdudi, Shariati and Khomeini has caught on an ethusiasm especially in Muslim youth in the 20th century.

Medieval Europe

Medieval political philosophy in Europe was heavily influenced by Christian thinking. It had much in common with the Mutazalite Islamic thinking in that the Roman Catholics though subordinating philosophy to theology did not subject reason to revelation but in the case of contradictions, subordinated reason to faith as the Asharite of Islam. The Scholastics by combining the philosophy of Aristotle with the Christianity of St. Augustine emphasized the potential harmony inherent in reason and revelation.[10] Perhaps the most influential political philosopher of medieval Europe was St. Thomas Aquinas who helped reintroduce Aristotle's works, which had only been preserved by the Muslims, along with the commentaries of Averroes. Aquinas's use of them set the agenda, for scholastic political philosophy dominated European thought for centuries even unto the Renaissance.[11]

Medieval political philosophers, such as Aquinas in Summa Theologica, developed the idea that a king who is a tyrant is no king at all and could be overthrown.

Magna Carta, cornerstone of Anglo-American political liberty, explicitly proposes the right to revolt against the ruler for justice sake. Other documents similar to Magna Carta are found in other European countries such as Spain and Hungary.[12]

European Renaissance

During the Renaissance secular political philosophy began to emerge after about a century of theological political thought in Europe. While the Middle Ages did see secular politics in practice under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire, the academic field was wholly scholastic and therefore Christian in nature.

Niccolò Machiavelli

One of the most influential works during this burgeoning period was Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, written between 1511-12 and published in 1532, after Machiavelli's death. That work, as well as The Discourses, a rigorous analysis of the classical period, did much to influence modern political thought in the West. A minority (including Jean-Jacques Rousseau) could interpret The Prince as a satire meant to give the Medici after their recapture of Florence and their subsequent expulsion of Machiavelli from Florence.[13] Though the work was written for the di Medici family in order to perhaps influence them to free him from exile, Machiavelli supported the Republic of Florence rather than the oligarchy of the di Medici family. At any rate, Machiavelli presents a pragmatic and somewhat consequentialist view of politics, whereby good and evil are mere means used to bring about an end, i.e. the secure and powerful state. Thomas Hobbes, well known for his theory of the social contract, goes on to expand this view at the start of the 17th century during the English Renaissance. Although neither Machiavelli nor Hobbes believed in the divine right of kings, they both believed in the inherent selfishness of the individual. It was necessarily this belief that led them to adopt a strong central power as the only means of preventing the disintegration of the social order.[14]

John Locke

John Locke in particular exemplified this new age of political theory with his work Two Treatises of Government. In it Locke proposes a state of nature theory that directly complements his conception of how political development occurs and how it can be founded through contractual obligation. Locke stood to refute Sir Robert Filmer's paternally founded political theory in favor of a natural system based on nature in a particular given system. The theory of the divine right of kings became a passing fancy, exposed to the type of ridicule with which John Locke treated it. Unlike Machiavelli and Hobbes but like Aquinas, Locke would accept Aristotle's dictum that man seeks to be happy in a state of social harmony as a social animal. Unlike Aquinas preponderant view on the salvation of the soul from original sin, Locke believes man's mind comes into this world as tabula rasa. For Locke, knowledge is neither innate, revealed nor based on authority but subject to uncertainty tempered by reason, tolerance and moderation. According to Locke, an absolute ruler as proposed by Hobbes is unnecessary, for natural law is based on reason and equality, seeking peace and survival for man.

European Age of Enlightenment

Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830, Louvre), a painting created at a time where old and modern political philosophies came into violent conflict.

During the Enlightenment period, new theories about what the human was and is and about the definition of reality and the way it was perceived, along with the discovery of other societies in the Americas, and the changing needs of political societies (especially in the wake of the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the French Revolution) led to new questions and insights by such thinkers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu and John Locke.

These theorists were driven by two basic questions: one, by what right or need do people form states; and two, what the best form for a state could be. These fundamental questions involved a conceptual distinction between the concepts of "state" and "government." It was decided that "state" would refer to a set of enduring institutions through which power would be distributed and its use justified. The term "government" would refer to a specific group of people who occupied the institutions of the state, and create the laws and ordinances by which the people, themselves included, would be bound. This conceptual distinction continues to operate in political science, although some political scientists, philosophers, historians and cultural anthropologists have argued that most political action in any given society occurs outside of its state, and that there are societies that are not organized into states which nevertheless must be considered in political terms. As long as the concept of natural order is not introduced, the social sciences could not evolve independently of theistic thinking. Since the cultural revolution of the 17th century in England, which spread to France and the rest of Europe, society has been considered subject to natural laws akin to the physical world.[15]

Political and economic relations were drastically influenced by these theories as the concept of the guild was subordinated to the theory of free trade, and Roman Catholic dominance of theology was increasingly challenged by Protestant churches subordinate to each nation-state, which also (in a fashion the Roman Catholic Church often decried angrily) preached in the vulgar or native language of each region. However, the enlightenment was an outright attack on religion, particularly Christianity. The publication of Denis Diderot's and Jean d'Alembert's Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers marked the crowning intellectual achievement of the epoch. The most outspoken critic of the church in France was François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, a representative figure of the enlightenment. After Voltaire, religion would never be the same again in France.[16]

In the Ottoman Empire, these ideological reforms did not take place and these views did not integrate into common thought until much later. As well, there was no spread of this doctrine within the New World and the advanced civilizations of the Aztec, Maya, Inca, Mohican, Delaware, Huron and especially the Iroquois. The Iroquois philosophy in particular gave much to Christian thought of the time and in many cases actually inspired some of the institutions adopted in the United States: for example, Benjamin Franklin was a great admirer of some of the methods of the Iroquois Confederacy, and much of early American literature emphasized the political philosophy of the natives.[17]

Industrialization and the Modern Era

Karl Marx and his theory of Communism developed along with Friedrich Engels proved to be one of the most influential political ideologies of the 20th century through Leninism.

The industrial revolution produced a parallel revolution in political thought. Urbanization and capitalism greatly reshaped society. During this same period, the socialist movement began to form. In the mid-19th century, Marxism was developed, and socialism in general gained increasing popular support, mostly from the urban working class. Without breaking entirely from the past, Marx established the principles which would be used by the future revolutionaries of the XXth century namely Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro. Although Hegel's philosophy of history is similar to Kant's, and Marx's theory of revolution towards the common good is partly based on Kant's view of history, Marx is said to have declared that on the whole, he was just trying to straighten out Hegel who was actually upside down. Unlike Marx who believed in historical materialism, Hegel believed in the Phenomenology of Spirit.[18] Be that as it may, by the late 19th century, socialism and trade unions were established members of the political landscape. In addition, the various branches of anarchism, with thinkers such as Bakunin, Proudhon or Kropotkin, and syndicalism also gained some prominence. In the Anglo-American world, anti-imperialism and pluralism began gaining currency at the turn of the century.

World War I was a watershed event in human history. The Russian Revolution of 1917 (and similar, albeit less successful, revolutions in many other European countries) brought communism - and in particular the political theory of Leninism, but also on a smaller level Luxemburgism (gradually) - on the world stage. At the same time, social democratic parties won elections and formed governments for the first time, often as a result of the introduction of universal suffrage.[19] However, a group of central European economists lead by Austrians Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek identified the collectivist underpinnings to the various new socialist and fascist doctrines of government power as being different brands of political totalitarianism.[20][21]

Contemporary political philosophy

After World War II political philosophy moved into a temporary eclipse in the Anglo-American academic world, as analytic philosophers expressed skepticism about the possibility that normative judgments had cognitive content, and political science turned toward statistical methods and behavioralism. The 1950s saw pronouncements of the 'death' of the discipline, followed by debates about that thesis. A handful of continental European émigrés to Britain and the United States—including Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss, Isaiah Berlin, Eric Voegelin and Judith Shklar—encouraged continued study in the field, but in the 1950s and 60s they and their students remained somewhat marginal in their disciplines.

Communism remained an important focus especially during the 1950s and 60s. Colonialism and racism were important issues that arose. In general, there was a marked trend towards a pragmatic approach to political issues, rather than a philosophical one. Much academic debate regarded one or both of two pragmatic topics: how (or whether) to apply utilitarianism to problems of political policy, or how (or whether) to apply economic models (such as rational choice theory) to political issues. The rise of feminism and the end of colonial rule and of the political exclusion of such minorities as African Americans in the developed world has led to feminist, postcolonial, and multicultural thought becoming significant.

In Anglo-American academic political philosophy the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971 is considered a milestone. Rawls used a thought experiment, the original position, in which representative parties choose principles of justice for the basic structure of society from behind a veil of ignorance. Rawls also offered a criticism of utilitarian approaches to questions of political justice. Robert Nozick's 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which won a National Book Award, responded to Rawls from a libertarian perspective and gained academic respectability for libertarian viewpoints.[22]

Contemporaneously with the rise of analytic ethics in Anglo-American thought, in Europe several new lines of philosophy directed at critique of existing societies arose between the 1950s and 1980s. Many of these took elements of Marxist economic analysis, but combined them with a more cultural or ideological emphasis. Out of the Frankfurt School, thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Jürgen Habermas combined Marxian and Freudian perspectives. Along somewhat different lines, a number of other continental thinkers—still largely influenced by Marxism—put new emphases on structuralism and on a "return to Hegel". Within the (post-) structuralist line (though mostly not taking that label) are thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Claude Lefort, and Jean Baudrillard. The Situationists were more influenced by Hegel; Guy Debord, in particular, moved a Marxist analysis of commodity fetishism to the realm of consumption, and looked at the relation between consumerism and dominant ideology formation.

Another debate developed around the (distinct) criticisms of liberal political theory made by Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor. The liberalism-communitarianism debate is often considered valuable for generating a new set of philosophical problems, rather than a profound and illuminating clash of perspectives.

Today some debates regarding punishment and law center on the question of natural law and the degree to which human constraints on action are determined by nature, as revealed by science in particular. Other debates focus on questions of cultural and gender identity as central to politics.

Influential political philosophers

A larger list of political philosophers is intended to be closer to exhaustive. Listed below are a few of the most canonical or important thinkers, and especially philosophers whose central focus was in political philosophy and/or who are good representatives of a particular school of thought.

Some notable contemporary political philosophers are Amy Gutmann, Seyla Benhabib, G.A. Cohen, George Kateb, Wendy Brown, Stephen Macedo, Martha Nussbaum, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Pogge, Will Kymlicka, Charles Taylor, Philippe Van Parijs and Michael Walzer.

Genealogy (philosophy)

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In philosophy, genealogy is a historical technique in which one questions the commonly-understood emergence of various philosophical and social beliefs by showing alternative and subversive histories of their development. It has been developed as a continuation of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, who criticized "the genealogists" in On the Genealogy of Morality and proposed the use of a historic philosophy in order to critique modern morality by supposing that it developed into its current form through power relations. Even though the philosophy of Nietzsche has wrongly been characterized as genealogy, a term he never uses of his own philosophy or at all except in On the Genealogy of Morality, the later philosophy that has been influenced by Nietzsche and which is commonly described as genealogy shares several fundamental aspects of the insights of Nietzsche. Nietzschean historic philosophy has been described as "a consideration of oppositional tactics" that embraces instead of forecloses the conflict between philosophical and historical accounts.[1]

In the late twentieth century, Michel Foucault expanded the concept of genealogy into a counter-history of the position of the subject which traces the development of people and societies through history. His genealogy of the subject accounts for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects, and so forth, without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of history.

As Foucault discussed in his essay "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History", Foucault's ideas of genealogy were greatly influenced by the work that Nietzsche had done on the development of morals through power. Foucault also describes genealogy as a particular investigation into those elements which "we tend to feel [are] without history"[citation needed]. This would include things such as sexuality, and other elements of everyday life. Genealogy is not the search for origins, and is not the construction of a linear development. Instead it seeks to show the plural and sometimes contradictory past that reveals traces of the influence that power has had on truth.

As one of the important theories of Michel Foucault, genealogy deconstructs truth, arguing that truth is, more often than not, discovered by chance, backed by the operation of power or the consideration of interest. Therefore, all truths are questionable. Pointing out the unreliability of truth, which is accused as "having tendency of relativity and nihilism"[citation needed], the theory flatly refuses the uniformity and regularity of history, emphasizing the irregularity and inconstancy of truth and toppling the notion that history progresses in a linear order.


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Biopower was a term originally coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault to refer to the practice of modern states and their regulation of their subjects through "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations." Foucault first used it in his courses at the Collège de France, but the term first appeared in The Will To Knowledge, Foucault's first volume of The History of Sexuality [1]. In both Foucault's work and the work of later theorists it has been used to refer to practices of public health, regulation of heredity, and risk regulation (François Ewald), among many other things often linked less directly with literal physical health. It is closely related to a term he uses much less frequently, but which subsequent thinkers have taken up independently, biopolitics.




For Foucault, biopower is a technology of power, which is a way of managing people as a group. For Foucault, the distinctive quality of this political technology is that it allows for the control of entire populations. It is thus essential to the emergence of the modern nation state, modern capitalism, etc. Biopower is literally having power over other bodies, "an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations" [2]. It relates to the government's concern with fostering the life of the population, and centers on the poles of discipline ("an anatomo-politics of the human body") and regulatory controls ("a biopolitics of the population").

Biopower for Foucault contrasts with traditional modes of power based on the threat of death from a sovereign. In an era where power must be justified rationally, biopower is utilized by an emphasis on the protection of life rather than the threat of death, on the regulation of the body, and the production of other technologies of power, such as the notion of sexuality. Regulation of customs, habits, health, reproductive practices, family, "blood", and "well-being" would be straightforward examples of biopower, as would any conception of the state as a "body" and the use of state power as essential to its "life". Hence the conceived relationship between biopower, eugenics and state racism.

With the concept of "biopower", which first appears in courses concerning the discourse of "race struggle", Foucault develops a holistic account of power, in opposition to the classic understanding of power as basically negative, limitative and akin to censorship. Sexuality, he argues, far from having been reduced to silence during the Victorian Era, was in fact subjected to a "sexuality dispositif" (or "mechanism"), which incites and even forced the subject to speak about their sex. Thus, "sexuality does not exist", it is a discursive creation, which makes us believe that sexuality contains our personal truth (in the same way that the discourse of "race struggle" sees the truth of politics and history in the everlasting subterranean war which takes place beneath the so-called peace).

Furthermore, the exercise of power in the service of maximizing life carries a dark underside. When the state is invested in protecting the life of the population, when the stakes are life itself, anything can be justified. Groups identified as the threat to the existence of the life of the nation or of humanity can be eradicated with impunity. "If genocide is indeed the dream of modern power, this is not because of the recent return to the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of the population." [3]


  1. ^ Foucault, Michel (1998) The History of Sexuality Vol.1: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin
  2. ^ Ibid. 140
  3. ^ Ibid. 137

See also

External links