The fragility of forms

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Systems and layers

Marking but not dominating the field

The fragility of formal systems (sculpture Nimis by Lars Vilks, Sweden)

There are some enticing parallels between French structuralism and what was the dominant Anglo-American tendency to analyze language and behavioral meaning in terms of relations expressible in formal systems (from Frege and Russell and logical positivism on).

The poststructuralist reaction to structuralism might then seem an appropriate tool for attacking analytic philosophy and related theories in psychology and neuroscience.

However, the parallel between analytic philosophy and structuralism turns out to be defective.

Structuralism sets up contrasts concepts along axes involving relations of substitution and replacement. Whereas analytic philosophy sets up inferential relations among assertions.

We can ask: do inferential relations presuppose structuralist relations in the way sentences presuppose words?

The answer is: no, because the question is flawed, because -- this is the key point -- sentences do not presuppose words.

From Frege, Russell, and on through Quine and Sellars and Davidson -- this isn't understood in most deconstructive attacks on analytic philosophy -- words presuppose sentences. The identity of signifiers comes from their role in games of inference and assertion. Missing this, poststructuralists often beg the question against Anglo-American thinkers, because the poststructuralists are working with a combinatorial rather than a syntactic-inferential model for meaning.

This is too bad, because there is still room for deconstruction in terms of the fragility of formal systems, their origins and their spread out crossings, and their penumbrae of possibilities and difference that are not set up within the formal system. That is, there is room to dispute the closure and the dominance of formal system over meaning and behavior.

This kind of critique has already been begun within analytic philosophy, starting from Wittgenstein or Quine. Rorty turns to the pragmatic construction of formal systems, but this puts too much power with the subject, and loses the insight of both structuralism and poststructuralism that subject is not so powerful over meaning. Paul Ricoeur can be helpful on these issues because he tries to keep the polarities open.