Study-Unit Description

Study-Unit Description


TITLE Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Critical Theory

LEVEL 03 - Years 2, 3, 4 in Modular Undergraduate Course



DESCRIPTION This study-unit presents an overview of structuralism, post-structuralism, and critical theory, all being crucial strands of 20th century contemporary philosophical thought. The study-unit considers the roots of these philosophical strands of thought, the key thinkers in each strand, as well as contemporary thinkers greatly influenced by these philosophical movements. Themes that this study-unit will engage with include structure and agency; ethics and politics; discourse and power; action and meaning; reason and critique; reification and alienation.

The study-unit explores the thought of the major representatives of the four generations of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School: Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse (first generation), Jürgen Habermas (second generation), Axel Honneth (third generation) and Rahel Jaeggi (fourth generation). The study-unit will look at how first generation thinkers responded to Orthodox Marxism, the substantive theoretical positions they developed to diagnose the social pathologies of the times, Habermas’s attempt to overcome what he considers to be the theoretical aporias of his predecessors through a communicatively rooted critical theory, and post-Habermasian attempts to rework the Marxian concepts of reification and alienation.

The study-unit also explores the roots of structuralist thought through the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes, particularly on how they sought to replace the conception of subjectivity with a de-centred impersonal structure. The study-unit will then consider how post-structuralism differs from structuralism in denying that there are fixed, deep lying structures and that the reflective subject itself is a product of language, discourse, and history. In this regard, this study-unit will explore the thought of Jacques Derrida on deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s genealogical approach to discourse and power relations, Judith Butler’s account of performativity and ethics, as well as applications of poststructuralist thought in political theory in the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.

Study-unit Aims:

● To equip students with the basic principles of critical theory while encouraging a critical engagement with the Frankfurt school theories and their problematics.
● To lead to an appreciation of why language matters to philosophy especially in considering its emancipatory potential and its entanglement with power relations.
● To engage with the philosophical ideas of key theorists in the traditions of the Frankfurt School, structuralism and poststructuralism.
● To compare and contrast some of the most important strengths and weaknesses of critical theory, structuralism and poststructuralism with regard to key philosophical notions such as agency, language, power and ethics.

Learning Outcomes:

1. Knowledge & Understanding
By the end of the study-unit the student will be able to:

- Comprehend the importance of questioning assumptions which one commonly takes for granted, especially as they relate to our everyday lives within socio-political and cultural contexts;
- Critically assess the major theories and theorists in the tradition of critical theory and poststructuralism, with regard to questions on agency, power and critique;
- Appreciate the historical, traditional, philosophical lineage of the meaning of subjectivity.

2. Skills
By the end of the study-unit the student will be able to:

- Apply acquired skills to careful reading and comprehension of textural material, apply clear thinking, sound argumentation and the clear and conceptually well-organised expression of ideas to all matters requiring judgement and discretion;
- Relate philosophical thought to other disciplines and matters of public interest, social, practical and economic and cultural forms of life;
- Apply analytical and critical thought to the everyday production of knowledge.


Main Texts:

- Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec 1988): 519-531.
- Butler, Judith. “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004, 19-49.
- Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978 [1967], 278-293.
- Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge, trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin Books, 1998 [1976], 77-131.
- Habermas, Jürgen. “Actions, Speech Acts, Linguistically Mediated Interactions, and the Lifeworld.” In On the Pragmatics of Communication, edited by Maeve Cooke, 215-255. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT, 1998.
- Heath, Joseph. “System and Lifeworld.” In Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts, edited by Barbara Fultner, 74-90. Durham: Acumen, 2011.
- Horkheimer, Max. “Traditional and Critical Theory” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell and others, 188-243. New York: Continuum, 2002.
- Jaeggi, Rahel. Alienation. Translated by Frederick Neuhouser and Alan E. Smith. New York: Columbia, 2014. Chapter 9: pp. 155-198.
- Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Chapter 4.
- Mouffe, Chantal. “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?” Social Research, Vol. 66, No. 3 (1999): 745-758.

Supplementary readings

- Belsey, Catherine. Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Bernstein, Richard. “Serious Play: The Ethical-Political Horizon of Jacques Derrida,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy Vol. 1 No. 2 (1987): 93-117.
- Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Edgar, Andrew. The Philosophy of Habermas. Chesham: Acumen, 2005. Chapter 5.
- Fultner, Barbara. “Communicative action and formal pragmatics.” In Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts, edited by Barbara Fultner, 54-73. Durham: Acumen, 2011.
- Glendinning, Simon. The Edinburgh Encyclopedia of Continental Philosophy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
- Gutting, Gary (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Honneth, Axel, Butler Judith, Geuss Raymond, and Lear Jonathan. Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea. Edited by Martin Jay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Horkheimer, Max. “The Present Situation of Social Philosophy and the Tasks of an Institute for Social Research” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, translated by G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey, 1-14. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT, 1993.
- Horkheimer, Max. “The Social Function of Philosophy” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, translated by Matthew J. O’Connell and others, 253-272. New York: Continuum, 2002.
- Howarth, David. Discourse. Buckingham: Open University Press, 2000.
- Ingram, David, ed. The History of Continental Philosophy Volume 5: Critical Theory to Structuralism: Philosophy, Politics, and the Human Sciences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
- Moya Lloyd, Judith Butler: From Norms to Politics Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.
- Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon, 1966.
- McNay, Lois. Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender and the Self. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.
- McNay, Lois. Foucault: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.
- Salih, Sara. Judith Butler. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
- Sarup, Madan. An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism 2nd ed. Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
- Schrift, Alan D. Twentieth-Century French Philosophy: Key Themes and Thinkers. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
- Schrift, Alan D. The History of Continental Philosophy Volume 6: Poststructuralism and Critical Theory’s Second Generation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
- Sturrock, John. Structuralism 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.


Assessment Component/s Assessment Due Resit Availability Weighting
Assignment SEM1 Yes 50%
Assignment SEM1 Yes 50%

Keith Pisani

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It should be noted that all the information in the description above applies to study-units available during the academic year 2020/1. It may be subject to change in subsequent years.