Claude Lévi-Strauss

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[Below is a guest post by Dan Everett]


On the 22nd of December, 1942, Franz Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss were having lunch at the Faculty Club of Columbia University when Boas fell from his chair. Lévi-Strauss tried to revive him, but to no avail. The founder of American anthropology died of a heart attack, in the arms of the founder of French anthropology.  Boas was 92. Lévi-Strauss was 34. At that moment, Lévi-Strauss assumed from his fallen colleague the symbolic mantle of leadership, becoming the most important living anthropologist of the twentieth century, a distinction he maintained for another 67 years.

On October 30, 2009, nearly seven decades after he bade farewell to the soul of Boas, Lévi-Strauss himself died at the age of 100. In the intervening years, anthropology has grown and diversified intellectually and as a profession, and there is no single figure to take on the leadership of the discipline as Lévi-Strauss took it from Boas. Today, the idea of a single figure setting the research agenda for other anthropologists makes little sense.

What did Lévi-Strauss do to merit the importance and honors that were bestowed upon him for the last decades of his life? As in the case of any major intellectual, the primitive answer is simply that he wrote and said very interesting things.

Franz Boas brought anthropology into linguistics, pointing students like Edward Sapir at the interaction of culture and language. Lévi-Strauss brought linguistics into anthropology, using the concepts of universal mental commonalities and binary oppositions that he learned during World War II in exile in New York from Roman Jakobson, one of the founders of modern linguistics (and who exercised a direct and profound influence, for example, on Noam Chomsky and the generative school of linguistics).

Lévi-Strauss’s contributions are so varied that a succinct summary of them is impossible. But by consensus the principal areas are kinship, myth, and a formal systematicization of anthropological theory along broadly linguistic lines.

The intellectual evolution of Lévi-Strauss began in earnest in 1935 when he joined a French cultural mission to Brazil to teach Sociology at the University of São Paulo. During the next four years Lévi-Strauss began and completed his ethnographic field research, with brief trips to the Bororo, Kadiweu, Kawahiv, and Nambiquara peoples (all speaking different languages from different linguistic families). But when the dates are pieced together, the time spent was almost negligible. Like Boas before him, Lévi-Strauss did surprisingly little fieldwork for one so influential among field researchers. He never learned to speak a single language of the groups he studied and never spent more than a few weeks in any community of non-European heritage. But the book recounting his Brazilian travels, published almost twenty years after his expeditions, Tristes Tropiques, established him as a writer and intellectual of the first rank, bringing him world fame. In this book philosophy, penetrating observation, and fascinating experiences were interwoven to create one of the best travel books ever written – even though he denigrates travel writing at the outset of the book.

I have a personal connection Tristes Tropiques – when I was writing my own book about adventures and discoveries in the Amazon, always in places near where Lévi-Strauss had worked, his shadow hovered over my shoulder. His seemingly effortless eloquence was a constant rebuke to the awkwardness of my own drafts.

But Lévi-Strauss was more important as a thinker than as a prose stylist, and his anthropological ideas were beautiful and influential. In his work on kinship, for example, he proposed that the key to understanding the role and structure of perceived relations among members of a society were basic terms, especially the ‘mother’s brother’. His kinship system provided new perspectives on social cohesion and constraints, built around alliances to what he termed the ‘social atom’ – the nuclear family plus the mother/wife’s brother. This ‘alliance theory’ shaped debate on kinship for decades.

His work on myth, arguably the most important of his many contributions, also focused on oppositions, as though myths involved some sort of Hegelian dialectic of thesis/antithesis → resolution. He traced the movements of myths across the world, especially throughout the Americas. His four-volume Mythologiques is an awe-inspiring tour-de-force of intelligence and learning.

Structural Anthropology, the school that Lévi-Strauss founded, tried to bring together the competing strands of formalism (cultures are defined in terms of the forms of their relationship, rituals, etc.) and functionalism (cultures are defined by what their forms do, not what their forms per se are like). He asked three questions of each item he interrogated: (i) what is its function; (ii) what is its form; and (iii) how do the form and function come together? The debt to Saussure’s concept of the linguistic sign – a composite of meaning and form that is the building block of language – is clear. Perhaps the clearest exposition of his ideas in a single volume is his classic La Pensée Sauvage (“The Savage Mind”, or via a pun in French “The Wild Pansy”) brought him into conflict with his greatest rival for the leadership of the French intelligentsia, Jean-Paul Sartre.

All of Lévi-Strauss’s work was united by the idea that there is a fundamental psychic unity among humans based on universal constraints on categorization – the building block of human knowledge, culture, and life. His influences were many, but in his focus on universal, likely innate constraints on human thought, he shares many points in common with the Universal Grammar oriented linguistics of Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, and others.

Are myths really constructed around the dialectic Lévi-Strauss proposed? Is kinship based on the maternal uncle? Are any of his theories correct?

Ultimately the work of Lévi-Strauss was as seminal as the work of Freud and Chomsky. It matters little whether any of these three is correct. In fact they are probably all wrong about their views on what is universal in the human psyche. But progress in the mind is not so much finding the truth as learning to ask useful questions that bring new rigor and satisfaction to research and researchers.

Lévi-Strauss will be missed because perhaps no anthropologist who has ever lived has brought such energy, challenge, and promise to the study of Homo sapiens. He will also be missed because we are unlikely to see in our lifetimes any humanist who better unites continental intellectual traditions with Anglo-American theories and a focus on scientific rigor.


[Above is a guest post by Dan Everett]



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