Claude Lévi-Strauss (28 November 1908 – 30 October 2009) was a French Jewish anthropologist and ethnologist. He held the chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France (1959–1982), and was elected a member of the Académie française in 1973. During his long life, he received numerous honours from universities and institutions throughout the world. In 2008 he became the first member of the Académie française to reach the age of 100.
Practically all Lévi-Strauss's anthropological work was achieved through painstaking study - perspiration and not inspiration. He was a humane, open minded scientist who argued that the so called "primitive" mind had the same structures as the "civilized" mind and that human characteristics are the same everywhere.
These observations culminated in his famous book Tristes Tropiques that established his position as one of the central figures in the 'structuralist' school of thought - "the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity".
Note that this is not intended to be a biography covering all his work. His work covered a whole host of areas and he is greatly respected in France and the rest of the world, for his contribution to sociology, the humanities, and philosophy. In the following description I have only included relevant information pertaining to the site.
The hypotheses he produced were the results of two expeditions he conducted in the Americas. The first expedition was in Brazil from 1935 to 1939, where he and his wife Dina conducted research forays into the Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest. They first studied the Guaycuru and Bororo Indian tribes, staying among them for a couple of days. In 1938 they returned for a second, more than half-year-long, expedition to study the Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib societies. His wife is actually the one to whom we owe the research. The visits were brief and he obtained no deep insight into the cultures of the people he visited, but what emerged was recognition of patterns of activity and myth.
The second expedition was made in the 1960s and culminated in a four-volume study called Mythologiques.
During his studies, he followed a single myth from the tip of South America and all of its variations from group to group up through Central America and eventually into the Arctic Circle, thus tracing the myth's cultural evolution from one end of the Western hemisphere to the other.
He accomplished this by examining the underlying structure of relationships among the elements of the story rather than by focusing on the content of the story itself. Lévi-Strauss completed the final volume of Mythologiques in 1971.
But what he discovered is interesting.
He discovered that seemingly 'fantastic and arbitrary' tales can be similar across cultures. He found that there was not one "authentic" version of a myth, rather that they were all manifestations of a set of common myths, long lost, in a common language, in effect at one time there appears to have been one common communication mechanism and perhaps when language evolved, the myths and stories diverged because of the limitations of language, - the Babel effect.
On the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. […] But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. Therefore the problem: If the content of myth is contingent [i.e., arbitrary], how are we to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar?
He also discovered that most myths were based on knowledge of contrast, what he called 'juxtaposed binary oppositions'.
Influenced by Hegel, Lévi-Strauss concluded that the human mind thinks fundamentally in these binary opposites and that these are what make meaning possible.
The principle of contrasts is frequently found in myths, with the added interest of the shaman figure as the mediator. For example, Lévi-Strauss considered the trickster of many Native American mythologies acts as a "mediator". In effect the trickster is the intermediary between creation and destruction and is only able to be this because he or she embodies both aspects in his/her character.
Many shamans used to 'become' animals in their out of body experiences and Lévi-Strauss noticed that the animals most often chosen to represent the trickster were themselves ambiguous in their 'personality' - the raven and coyote [see also suspension].
The trickster is a mediator. Since his mediating function occupies a position halfway between two polar terms, he must retain something of that duality—namely an ambiguous and equivocal character.
It is worth adding that I have excluded some of Lévi-Strauss's theories here, as some of them were based on a very western materialistic view of the world. He explained the concept of contrasts in terms of life and death, but the societies whose myths he was describing believe generally in reincarnation and have no such hang-ups about death or birth. The myths are about creation and destruction. There is also a strong link to Black and White symbolism.
The human being as a 'package'
In 1962, Lévi-Strauss published what is for many people his most important work, La Pensée Sauvage, translated into English as The Savage Mind [although the translation is not accurate as sauvage has a range of meanings different from English "savage"].
The Savage Mind discusses not just "primitive" thought, a category defined by previous anthropologists, but forms of thought common to all human beings. He came to the conclusion that, to use my analogy, we are all copies of the same human being package. Human functions are the same everywhere, it is environment that then governs what we learn. And in a fascinating extension to this he also understood that the mind is no different, it too is part of the package
If it were possible to prove in this instance, too, that the apparent arbitrariness of the mind, its supposedly spontaneous flow of inspiration, and its seemingly uncontrolled inventiveness [are ruled by] laws operating at a deeper level ..... a fortiori it must also be determined in all its spheres of activity.
For those of us who are spiritually minded this commonality of function, including the mind, is a somewhat obvious statement, but one has to remember that the very fact that the title of his book became 'savage mind' indicates that large swathes of western society at the time [perhaps even now] regarded all other societies as somehow inferior. He helped a great deal to convert people's opinion. Interestingly there is little mention in his books of how so called primitive societies view us. From what I can gather most so called primitive people view western society as the savage one – with some justification.
It is noteworthy that Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, said in 2008 that Lévi-Strauss "broke with an ethnocentric vision of history and humanity [...] At a time when we are trying to give meaning to globalisation, to build a fairer and more humane world, I would like Claude Lévi-Strauss's universal echo to resonate more strongly"
So he thinks we aren't there yet.
Levi-Strauss also tried to explain better the theory of aggregation [note that he didn't call it this].
The English anthropologist Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown had already observed that 'collectives', groups based around institutions, religions, marriage and family units – any group that operates as some form of cohesive unit - has rules [functions] which incur penalties if not obeyed. In this way any society – group of people or animals - can easily be thought of as an organism, the parts functioning together as do the parts of a body. This is the principle of creation in operation.
In contrast, people like Bronisław Malinowski described the satisfaction of individual needs, as being a destructive force. In other words once the person abandons the aggregate, whatever the aggregate may be, the aggregate collapses and destruction takes place.
Thus Levi-Strauss's binary opposites are acting here, creation by the creation of rules and functions of aggregates that can achieve more than the individual and thus are forces for creation and in opposition we have the 'selfish' needs of individuals in the aggregate who if they disobey rules cause the destruction of the aggregate. Note that, even with rules and punishments, the aggregate exists only by agreement with its members. Ultimately an aggregate will collapse once the people in it no longer believe in its objectives. And the belief may go when there is a recognition that the objectives and rules/functions may no longer guarantee the survival of the aggregate.
Music and symbolism
Another area of study undertaken by Lévi-Strauss, of great interest for this site, is that of language. Language, he noted, is a divider of people, but a uniter within cultures and he studied a whole host of alternative mechanisms of communication that serve to unite – including – and this is key – music and symbols.
Swedenbourg believed after years of study that the Bible was based on an underlying symbolism. Levi-Strauss extended this and said that possibly all myth and legend is a mixture of historic fact with symbolism. Furthermore, over the years the symbolism becomes lost and every myth, every story, every act becomes a literal interpretation. He gives some wonderful examples in his books where the symbol system is lost and the literal is believed, often with catastrophic results – the symbolism of castration, for example, becomes a literal translation and men castrate themselves in the belief they will becomes gods! The symbol of the pearl as meaning spiritual wisdom is lost and people start to put pearls in their drink believing that by this bizarre method they will be wise.
Levi-Strauss was criticised later in his life for wandering [as his fellow academics saw it] into realms he shouldn't – the realm of philosophy - but as he saw it, you need philosophical insight to be an anthropologist, otherwise everything you discover will be interpreted literally and not symbolically.
Problems with his books
Levi-Strauss loves words – lots of words. He uses twenty pages when one would be enough. And this is not just my criticism -
"The outstanding characteristic of his writing, whether in French or English, is that it is difficult to understand; his sociological theories combine baffling complexity with overwhelming erudition. Some readers even suspect that they are being treated to a confidence trick".
He was accused by Stanislav Andreski of “often sloppy scholarship” and that his reputation stemmed from his "threatening people with mathematics," a reference to Lévi-Strauss's use of quasi-algebraic equations to explain his ideas.
And this is true.
His works are very very hard going, it reflects the effort he put in to gather all the data, but it is all perspiration and perspiration does not always produce easy reading. It is like mining for gold, and perhaps this is what he intended. A sort of treasure hunt for the serious minded researcher. The problem is that the seriously minded reader has a host of other books and sources that also demand attention and they only have so long on earth! But where he sticks to the information he [and his wife] obtained then what he has concluded in a sort of 'bottom up analysis' is very interesting and it is worth persevering.
He died on 30 October 2009, a few weeks before his 101st birthday.
“There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animals. And it's clear that the density of human beings has become so great, if I can say so, that they have begun to poison themselves. And the world in which I am finishing my existence is no longer a world that I like”.
- Anthropologie structurale (1958, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, 1963)
- Le Totemisme aujourd'hui (1962, Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham, 1963)
- La Pensée sauvage (1962, translated as the The Savage Mind, but actually meaning 'thoughts from the wild' 1966)
- Mythologiques I–IV (trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman)
- Le Cru et le cuit (1964, The Raw and the Cooked, 1969)
- Du miel aux cendres (1966, From Honey to Ashes, 1973)
- L'Origine des manières de table (1968, The Origin of Table Manners, 1978)
- L'Homme nu (1971, The Naked Man, 1981)
- Anthropologie structurale deux (1973, Structural Anthropology, Vol. II, trans. Monique Layton, 1976)
- La Voie des masques (1972, The Way of the Masks, trans. Sylvia Modelski, 1982)
- Myth and Meaning, First published 1978
Note how his later works have a far more philosophical and symbolic meaning, especially
- Le Regard éloigné - 1983, The View from Afar, trans. Joachim Neugroschel and Phoebe Hoss, 1985
- La Potière jalouse - 1985, The Jealous Potter, trans. Bénédicte Chorier, 1988
- L’Autre face de la lune, Paris: Seuil, 2011 – the dark side of the moon
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Levi-Strauss, Claude - Describes annihilation
- Levi-Strauss, Claude - Masks
- Levi-Strauss, Claude - Misc. quote
- Levi-Strauss, Claude - On music and language
- Levi-Strauss, Claude - Order in the universe
- Levi-Strauss, Claude - Plan du village de Kejara
- Levi-Strauss, Claude - The Other Face of the Moon
- Levi-Strauss, Claude - The Other Side of the Moon
- Levi-Strauss, Claude - Twins