There are many different ways of looking at the world, and philosophical ideas come and go in style just like many other things. Changes in larger philosophical ideas and ideals may happen due to cultural shifts or large incidents; humanity is largely reactionary, and philosophers are no exception to this rule. Today, many thinkers, artists, and writers can be grouped under a humanist classification or a poststructuralist classification when considering their work.
Humanism and poststructuralism are not two sides of the same coin, although they are sometimes presented as such; however, when it comes to the meaning of the world and the things in it, they do hold two conflicting philosophies. The meaning of “things”-- whether they are concrete, abstract, or somewhere in between-- is different to a poststructuralist thinker than it is to a humanist thinker. While neither perspective can be considered correct or incorrect, each brings with it elegant solutions to philosophical questions, while other aspects of each school of thought raises new lines of philosophical inquiry.
For the purposes of discussion here, when discussing the meaning of “things”-- a very ambiguous word in and of itself-- the discussion will be centered around the naming of concrete things unless otherwise specified. When discussing humanism and poststructuralism and the meaning of things, it is important to understand each philosophical ideal and the context in which it came about.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks the audience at large during the famous balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This quote truly encompasses the humanist idea of naming in a single line: Humanism in its current form was developed over a long period of time, humanism is a large concept, encompassing a vast number of different constituent philosophies; however, essentially, humanists believe that the meaning of things is not inherent in their name. as a response to the religious fervor of the Middle Ages. Essentially, humanism was a response to the idea of theism: it is a much more open, flowing philosophy than those that came before it, which is understandable, given that its inception was in a reactionary movement that rebelled against the rigidity of religiosity.
Poststructuralism, on the other hand, is a much newer school of philosophical thought. It is also a reactionary movement-- in this way, humanism and poststructuralism are excellent to compare-- but it believes that when discussing objects and things, the name of that object gives it meaning.
Poststructuralism is a complex philosophy. While it does contend that the name of an object gives it its meaning, its leading thinkers were much more concerned with the potential for language to lie than for the potential for language to tell the truth. In some ways, poststructuralism is a skeptical reaction to structuralism; poststructuralists often contend that the name of an object gives that object its meaning, but that the name itself is subjective and prone to dishonesty.
According to the Purdue Owl: “post-structuralists assert that if we cannot trust language systems to convey truth, the very bases of truth are unreliable and the universe - or at least the universe we have constructed - becomes unraveled or de-centered. Nietzsche uses language slip as a base to move into the slip and shift of truth as a whole: ‘What is truth? truths are an illusion about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions’” The poststructuralist argument, to this extent, is very persuasive. The image that people hold in their minds of an object or an abstract idea is certainly defined by the language that is used to describe the object. Language can be used to frame an idea in a positive or a negative light, and the language used can certainly affect people’s perspective of an object.
However, this does beg the question of whether or not meaning is inherent in an object-- just because language can be used to frame an object in a certain light does not mean that without that language, the object loses all meaning, as poststructuralists contend. As Juliet points out in her famous monologue, removing the name of the rose does not remove its scent, or its beauty. Calling a rose a “corpse” instead will not remove the meaning of the rose, but it will cause the person who is listening to conjure up a very different image in his or her head.
This comparison gets to the heart of the discussion between the poststructuralist and the humanist. What defines meaning? Is it the image that the words conjure in a person’s head, or is the tangible, physical object itself? For a humanist, each physical object has meaning and is defined outside the scope of language. However, for the poststructuralist, language and the way language is framed heavily affects the meaning of an object.
On the surface, this seems to be an almost esoteric argument to have; of course language affects the meaning of an object in a person’s head. However, upon closer examination, there are very real applications to the discussion. The idea of color is an excellent example; different cultures that define color differently perceive colors differently. This difference is not merely a verbal difference-- there is a measurable scientific difference between the way a person whose language only contains five different color words perceives color and a person whose language contains eleven different language words for color perceives color. This indicates that on some level, language and language acquisition rewires the human brain to understand and perceive the world in a different way.
There is no single answer to the debate between poststructuralists and humanists regarding the inherent meaning of objects or things. As philosophical schools of thought, they are both useful for examining and discussing the world, art, and literature; rigid adherence to either of the two schools of thought, however, seems to be a poor choice for a philosopher to make. Each perspective offers something unique to the discussion of the world, and should be considered in tandem for a deeper understanding.
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