The next thing that needs to be talked about is that of language and hermeneutics. It is my contention that all theologies start here, although most do it unknowingly. In my opinion, the best place to start is in the early 20th century with structuralism.
The fun definitely began around Saussure, a Swiss linguist, who saw language as a definitive structure (hence the name) of “signs” (these consisted of a relationship between “signifier” and “signified”). His classic example is that of a tree:
Saussure’s example has four distinct features:
- The image of the tree represents the mental manifestation of the “real” object and is thusly labelled “signified.”
- The word “arbor” (French for “tree”) there represents the linguistic phenomenon of the sound-image of the word and is thus called the “signifier.”
- The line between the two represents an arbitrary equation between them that includes the transfer of “meaning” from the signified to the signifier.
- The circle around this “equation” designates that it is a complete “sign” in which signification occurs.
According to this theory, when one is given a particular word-symbol, it is passed through a matrix of these signs until it finds its meaning. Of course, this must happen at very high speed as people do not generally read/listen to one word for more than a split second. For Saussure, all of these signs were memorized and were arbitrary. Every single sign must be agreed upon by a community before communication can occur. Of course, this found difficulties later on when the discussion led to how these signs were agreed upon. After all, if there must be an agreed upon system before communication occured, how did any two people communicate with each other to agree upon a system?
As mentioned in #2, language was considered purely in terms of sound patterns. The written words were merely arbitrary representations of the actual language. This will come to haunt the structuralists later on. Furthermore, ideas/concepts (i.e. the signified) could not exist without the language. This also becomes problematic later on.
Lastly, structuralism did not accout for metaphorical language and idioms, another problem that surfaces later. This problem may be the “final straw” that ended structuralism, even though its legacy has been far-reaching. Structuralism itself may not have survived, but many of its ideas have survived in various re-formulations.