Structuralism: A challenge to the Liberal humanistic idea of timeless literature

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The first principle of liberal humanism asserts that excellent literature has enduring value because it transcends the particulars of the epoch in which it was produced and resonated with what is constant about human nature. Thus, liberal humanism endorses the concept of timeless literature. On the other hand, structuralism opposes the very first postulate of liberal humanism on the grounds that a text cannot be comprehended when removed from its context. Structuralists think that a book must be studied in its proper context since, in their view, objects cannot be understood in isolation.

Liberal humanism was particularly popular towards the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s due to its emphasis on timeless literature that illuminates fundamental human nature that has remained unchanged throughout history. For liberal humanists, all forms of literature contain universal truths applicable wherever and at any time. They tend to remove literary works from their cultural or historical contexts and interpret them as universal truths. An excellent literary work, in their view, transcends time and speaks to what is constant about human nature. They emphasized that meaning resides inside the text and not outside of it.

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For liberal humanists, literature is a means for communicating moral truths and lessons. They think that literature contributes to the moral elevation of all humankind by elevating human ideals.

In the 1950s in France, structuralism evolved as an academic movement, first appearing in the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. It is a broad movement with many facets, but if boiled down to a single notion that encapsulates its core, it would be the belief that objects cannot be comprehended in isolation; they must be examined within the context of the broader structures in which they are a part. Later, France exported structuralism to other nations, including Britain, where it acquired prominence as a literary philosophy.

We are discussing structures we have imposed via our way of perceiving things and acquiring experience, as opposed to entities that already exist in the real world. In other words, meanings are external rather than internal. Meanings are not intrinsic to objects but are ascribed by the human mind.

To have a structuralist interpretation of John Donne’s poem “Good Marrow,” we first need to understand the poem’s genre. After determining that the poem’s genre is alba, a lyrical tradition in which lovers grieve the approach of dawn, the next step would be to investigate courtly love to comprehend alba. These are the greater cultural structures to which the poem belongs. Instead of bringing us closer to the text, this structuralist interpretation of the poem leads us away from it into bigger problems of genre, history, and philosophy. For liberal humanists, a careful investigation of the poem itself is essential, but for structuralists, the analysis of other structures, such as genre, courtly love, and poetry, is of more importance. Thus, in a structuralist’s interpretation of a literary work, the reader has gradually led away from the text and toward the greater abstract structures of which the work is a part.

The introduction of French structuralism into the United Kingdom and the United States sparked much debate, as literary studies in these nations had previously focused on the text itself rather than attempting to comprehend the environment in which it was produced. In these nations, literary studies adhered to liberal humanism traditions that separated the text from its setting.

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Although structuralism emerged as an academic movement in the 1950s and 1960s, its origins may be traced to the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. According to him, language creates our world rather than merely labels it. The human mind always assigns meanings to things and concepts communicated through language. There are no inherent meanings in objects or concepts. Therefore, language and its concepts can only be comprehended when situated within their proper context. A particular Urdu statement, for instance, cannot be understood without knowledge of the rules and conventions controlling linguistic behavior. The abstract cultural frameworks give this background. It is evident from the preceding explanation that structuralism considers the text’s context to determine its meaning. Because objects cannot be comprehended in isolation, structuralism does not support the fundamental principle of liberal humanism. They must be considered in relation to the bigger structures of which they are a part. No one can comprehend the famed and historic American Declaration of Independence unless the political, social, economic, and historical environment preceding it is comprehended.

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