An Answer to the Question: 'What is Poststructuralism?'

33 Pages Posted: 21 Mar 2007

Date Written: March 2007


What is poststructuralism? It has always struck me as odd that so many critical theorists are reluctant to offer an answer to this question. In this essay, I unpack the term and provide a synoptic answer. Poststructuralism, I suggest, is a style of critical reasoning that focuses on the moment of ambiguity in our systems of meaning, as a way to identify the ethical choices that we make when we overcome the ambiguity and move from indeterminacy to certainty of belief in our efforts to understand, interpret, and shape our environment. Post-structuralism concentrates on the moment when we impose meaning in a space that is no longer characterized by shared social agreement over the structure of meaning. It attempts to explain how it comes about that we fill those gaps in our knowledge and come to hold as true what we do believe - and at what distributive cost to society and the contemporary subject. By so clearly identifying points of slippage, poststructuralism clears the table and makes plain the significant role of ethical choice - by which I mean decision making that is guided by beliefs about virtue and the self, not by moral or political principle. Poststructuralism is, in this sense, a penultimate stage in the emancipation from that self-incurred immaturity that Kant famously identified as the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. I use the term penultimate carefully, though, because, I would argue that, in contrast to Judith Butler who locates poststructuralism in the work of Jacques Derrida, poststructuralism traces to the work of Michel Foucault and precedes deconstruction.

Keywords: poststructuralism, structuralism, critical theory, discourse of modernity, enlightenment, Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, randomization, postmodern

Suggested Citation

Harcourt, Bernard E., An Answer to the Question: 'What is Poststructuralism?' (March 2007). University of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 156, Available at SSRN: or

Bernard E. Harcourt (Contact Author)

Columbia University ( email )

Jerome Green Hall, Room 515
435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States


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