Claude Lévi-Strauss: the first 100 years

Claude Lévi-Strauss – who is 100 years old today! – may well be the most famous anthropologist in the history of the discipline (or is it Margaret Mead?). Among French intellectuals, he cut a singular and imposing figure, second to none and close to none. By making their hearts beat faster with the promise of intellectual adventures, he attracted to anthropology generations of students – I one of them – who otherwise would have become philosophers, historians or sociologists. Unlike their master, many of these students became thorough fieldworkers and spent little time with theory. In his seminar, they would typically present ethnographic data and he would make theoretical comments. He did, and I remain grateful, encourage my own untypical theoretical musings in spite of their critical tenor, but I remember well that many of his followers saw them as presumptuous, as if, to his theorizing, one could at most hope to add exegeses and footnotes.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the field.

Say “Claude Lévi-Strauss,” people answer “structuralism.” Right, but he has been also, and quite consistently, a lone defender of a naturalistic and mentalistic perspective in anthropology. While his structuralism has been met with enthusiasm, his naturalistic perspective has been generally treated as an impropriety, an intellectual faux-pas one had better ignore. Lévi-Strauss undeterred insisted throughout his work on a naturalistic perspective…

In The Savage Mind (1966), he evokes the reintegration of “culture in nature and finally . . . life within the whole of its physico-chemical conditions”(p.247). In The View from Afar (1985), while distancing himself from the « naïve and simplistic » (p.32) naturalism of sociobiology, he evokes a possible coming together of the sciences of nature and the sciences of culture that would go from the most elementary mechanisms of life to the most complex human phenomena. Lévi-Strauss uses as quasi synonyms ‘human nature’ and ‘human mind’. Already in 1952 (at a landmark Bloomington conference), he had argued that an “anthropology conceived in a broader way” would one day reveal how the mind works.

Beginning in the late Nineteen-Fifties, linguistics and psychology underwent major transformations and, as a result, their relationships with one another and with anthropology would have to be rethought much more radically than Lévi-Strauss had envisaged. In linguistics, structuralism has now been relegated to the history of a discipline the conceptual framework, methods, and agenda of which have been radically redefined under the influence of Noam Chomsky (and this is true also of anti-Chomskyan linguistics). In the social sciences also, structuralism belongs to the past, not because it has been superseded by a compelling alternative approach, but because the mismatch between its promises and its achievements became all too blatant.

With hindsight, the most important development in the human sciences in the second half of the Twentieth Century has been not structuralism (nor-need I say it?-post-modernism), but, by far, the ‘cognitive revolution.’ This movement has, among other achievements, returned psychology to the study of mental mechanisms, a development Lévi-Strauss should have welcomed. In the past twenty years or so moreover, more and more cognitive psychologists have become aware that mental structures could be studied not only through laboratory experiments but also through their cultural manifestations. In that, they converge with Lévi-Strauss who, in The Raw and the Cooked (1969), maintained that “the final aim of anthropology is to contribute to a better knowledge of objectified thought and its mechanisms” (p. 13).

In many ways, Lévi-Strauss has been a pioneer of a true ‘cognitive anthropology.’ Of course, the label evokes the American anthropological school, also known as ‘ethnoscience’ that was quite influential in the 60s and 70s. Roy D’Andrade, in his Development of Cognitive Anthropology (1995), treats this American school as more or less the whole of cognitive anthropology and hardly mentions Lévi-Strauss. The psychologist Howard Gardner, on the other hand, in an early ‘history of the cognitive revolution’ (The Mind’s New Science, 1985) gave, I believe more insightfully, equal space to Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism and to American ethnoscience. What is at stake here is not turf or precedence. American ‘cognitive anthropology’ produced a body of work (that was often discussed in Lévi-Strauss’ seminar) that greatly contributed to bridging the gap between cognitive psychology and anthropology. Still, it focused on categorization and cultural models and only marginally addressed wider issues in anthropology of, say, social organization, kinship or religion. Even though it started with great ambitions, it ended up carving itself a limited domain at the margins of anthropology and psychology. Lévi-Strauss on the other hand saw the study of mental mechanisms as central to the main concerns of anthropology and thought of ethnographic research as a source of fundamental insights on the structure of the human mind.

The impact of  Lévi-Strauss’s work on anthropology itself is not commensurate with its universal fame. The study of kinship has lost its traditional centrality to the discipline, and has focused on issues of power or gender quite remote from Lévi-Straussian concerns. The study of mythology has gained neither much momentum nor much inspiration from Lévi-Strauss’s monumental contribution. It is not clear whether this is a reflection on Lévi-Strauss or on the state of anthropology, which remains largely a-theoretical and non-naturalistic. New readers, however impressed and inspired they may be by the striking intelligence and elegance of Lévi-Strauss’s writings, are unlikely to experience this sense of intellectual elation and urgency that moved many of us forty years ago. Still, while some of his pronouncements are now of historical interest, others were well ahead of their time. If, as I believe has begun happening, the study of the mind and that of culture become unified in a naturalistic framework, then Lévi-Strauss will stand out as a precursor of this new adventure.


D’Andrade, R. (1995) The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gardner, H. (1985) The Mind’s New Science: A history of the cognitive revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1966) The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1969) The Raw and the Cooked. New York: Harper and Row.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1985) The View from Afar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


  • comment-avatar
    Nicola Knight 28 November 2008 (10:49)

    Many thanks, Dan, for this insightful piece. It is impressive to see the roots of our field growing through your academic links with Lévi-Strauss. One wonders how Lévi-Strauss’ ideas would have developed if his initial ’three mistresses’ had not been Marx, Freud, and geology. Freud’s influence, in particular, can, in my opinion, be seen to have had a pernicious influence on the development of Lévi-Strauss’ thought. Both Freudian psychoanalysis and structuralism are very impressive at postdiction, but very limited in what they can predict — and thus neither can be called truly scientific. Of course, one could legitimately argue that when Lévi-Strauss was developing as a young scholar, Freud would have been the best psychological tool available to him. But Lévi-Strauss was not even forty years old at the time of the Hixon Symposium (1948), believed by many to represent the first serious challenge to behaviourism and to mark the beginning of what became known as cognitive science. Why did these developments not interest him, or if they did, why did they not have a significant impact on his subsequent work? I wonder if Dan or others could speculate about possible reasons.

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    Mads Solberg 29 November 2008 (10:51)

    Nicola Knights questions has puzzled me as well. If I remember correctly Scott Atran once interviewed Levi-Strauss for the Abbaye de Royamount Conference he arranged on ”human universals” in 1974, attended to by luminaries such as Chomsky, Piaget, Fodor, Monod etc. On the question of why he thought the mind was operating out from binary oppositions he replied: ”when I started there was no science of the mind”. He had only Saussure, Marx, Mauss and music as his guides. ”Psychology now has something to say”. I was under the impression that Levi-Strauss also was suppose to attend this milestone conference in cognitive science? Perhaps Dan Sperber (who was there) can tell us something more and interesting about this?

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    Jap Dhesi 29 November 2008 (12:22)

    In a paper entitled ’Cognition and Power’ McIntosh (1997) noted how Marx did entertain the role cognition may play in helping to sustain social systems by suggesting that human minds are better at representing some things more than others. So, perhaps perhaps Marx wasn’t such a bad ’mistress’ for Levi-Strauss after all. Just a thought.

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    Dan Sperber 29 November 2008 (14:48)

    Marx (I agree with Jap), Freud and geology were not bad as far as sources of inspiration go (I often marvel at Lévi-Strauss genius for unexpected and insightful metaphors, but ’three mistresses’ was not his best). But why stop at three? Nicola is right to wonder why Lévi-Strauss failed to connect, in the late forties and the fifties, with what would become the cognitive sciences. After all he was working in New York at the time and showed some interest for cybernetics, information theory, and even game theory. He was not too old: Herbert Simon or Jerome Bruner, to mention two of the founding fathers of the cognitive revolution were just seven or eight years younger than him; Allen Newell and Noam Chomsky, two other founding fathers, were twenty years younger, but were quite precocious and produced seminal work in the fifties. So, why did Lévi-Strauss show no interest the cognitive revolution? My hunch is this: Influenced in particular by Roman Jakobson, possibly also by the typical French intellectual contempt for experimental psychology seen, in the light of Marxism and psychoanalysis, as superficial and too easily put in the service of the social and moral status quo, Lévi-Strauss was attracted by the methodological aspect of new formal theories, saw them as possible tools for a structuralist approach, and missed their relevance to developing for the first time a truly naturalistic account of the mental. One can always muse about what would have happened if he had better understood what was happening under his eyes. Surely, cognitive anthropology would have developed in more interesting ways. If I may reminisce: In 1973 or so, I was invited by David Maybury-Lewis to give a talk in anthropology at Harvard. My title was ”Butter on their heads [readers of Rethinking Symbolism will know what this is about], meaning in their heads?” and, in a way, the message was that Lévi-Stauss shouldn’t have let himself be so much influenced by Jakobson. Only twelve people or so attended the talk, but one of them was Roman Jakobson himself (for whom, I hasten to say, I had and have an immense admiration). Well, we had a friendly and lively discussion. To answer Mads Solberg, first minor historical rectifications. There had been a conference on ”L’Unité de l’Homme” at Royaumont in 1972. Neither Chomsky nor Piaget attended. The proceedings, edited by Edgar Morin and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, were published (in French) in 1974. Around that time, Scott Atran, then still a student, had had the great idea of a Piaget-Chomsky confrontation, and had taken the initative and got a nod from both of them. He convinced people at the Royaumont Foundation in Paris to organise the meeting and was hired by the Foundation to help Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, who later splendidly edited the proceedings (Language and Learning: the debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1980), do so. The conference took place in October 1975. Lévi-Strauss (who was then 66 years old) showed up. I still see him seated at the table, close to Greg Bateson and to Barbel Inhelder, Piaget’s collaborator, but, if my memory serves me well, he did not intervene. I didn’t know of, or don’t remember the interesting exchange between Scott and Lévi-Strauss that Mads evokes. It is relevant, to appreciate it properly, that Lévi-Strauss always spoke approvingly of Piaget’s psychology, and of Piaget’s book Le Structuralisme (Paris, PUF, 1968). So, while it is true that the psychology of his time was quite different from what it became and is still becoming in a cognitive perspective, and whatever he may have answered Scott, he didn’t see psychology as non-existent, nor was he agnostic about it. He was in sympathy with Piaget’s pre-cognitive, ’stucturalist’ approach.

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    Denis Regnier 29 November 2008 (19:47)

    Thanks a lot to Dan for this enlightening account on Lévi-Strauss’ role in the development of a cognitive anthropology addressing larger issues than the subfield usually known under this label. We are now celebrating Lévi-Strauss’ centenary and I have heard (or read) somewhere that he was, at least until a recent date, still intellectually active and kept reading academic writings. So I imagine that he has been aware of the new developments we are talking about., and this probably for quite a long time – I mean, at least one decade or two. Does someone here know whether he has ever privately or publicly expressed his views on these new developments? I would be very interested to read more about that.

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    Paulo Sousa 30 November 2008 (13:42)

    Many thanks for this fascinating discussion! I’m curious why Dan is using ’Cognitive Anthropology’ (scare quotes?). My point here is about mutually manifest perceptions of intellectual affiliation (be it real or not) and goes in the direction of an interesting discussion that Nicola raised the other day, but is still connected to Levi-Strauss. When I was doing my undergraduate and master studies of anthropology in Brazil (87-95), everyone identified Dan Sperber as a French cognitive anthropologist who was a student of Levi-Strauss. I always thought that this was more than a third world perception. I remember reading the introduction of the important collection of essays ”Mutual Knowledge” by Neil Smith (1982), where Neil described Dan Sperber as the most important cognitive anthropologist in Europe. One of the main complaints in Maurice Bloch’s review of D’Andrade’s book on the development of cognitive anthropology is that it does not mention Dan’s role in cognitive anthropology. One recent (and great) history of ideas of anthropology (Eriksen and Nielsen, 2001) finishes saying that cognitive anthropology (or the anthropology tied to the cognitive sciences) is one tradition of anthropology that will be growing in the coming years (And, if I remember correctly, it mentions Sperber as a cognitive anthropologist who was a student of Levi-Strauss). I’m now hired, officially, as lecturer in cognitive anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast — department of anthropology & institute of cognition and culture (some anthropologists have told me that this is first position for a cognitive anthropologist ever opened in the UK, but I don’t know whether this is true). Although I don’t really care whether people call me a cognitive anthropologist, I’ve always had the impression that Dan was perceived as the ”father” of a specific lineage of cognitive anthropologists (Scott Atran, Larry Hirschfeld, Pascal Boyer etc.) that had important connections with the work of Levi-Strauss.

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    Hugo Mercier 30 November 2008 (15:07)

    For those who read French, an interesting comparison of the wikipedia take on Levi-Strauss in different languages: (the thrust is that the French page, despite being longer, is less informative of his work and totally devoid of criticism)

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    Dan Sperber 30 November 2008 (17:10)

    The issue has come up in the discussion of two posts ( this one and Nicola Knight’s ”You work in WHAT field?”): Are we cognitive anthropologists ? Yes. I agree with Denis Regnier, Nicola Knight, and Paulo Sousa: what we do IS cognitive anthropology. I certainly often get described or introduced as a cognitive anthropologist and find this quite appropriate, and I too use the label, in many situations, to describe what I do. The publication of Roy d’Andrade’s The Development of Cognitive Anthropology (Cambridge University Press, 1995), introduced a complication. It is a good and useful book and an excellent history of an important American anthropological school, but the incredibly parochial title made my heart sink: So, they are cognitive anthropology, cognitive anthropology is them, and we are off the map? Well, we should keep using the label and keep adding to its substance, and claim Lévi-Strauss as a precursor, and so on. In some context, some of us may find it useful to be more specific and use ”evolutionary cognitive anthropology,” but this is a mouthful.

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    Christophe Heintz 1 December 2008 (21:43)

    The impression I have is that there was, before Levi Strauss, a thriving debate in anthropology about the psychic unity of man. Anthropologists were truly concerned with the mind and they were constantly questioning the relations between cultural and psychic phenomena. In France, in particular, the names of Levy-Bruhl, Durkheim and Mauss clearly stand out. For them, the relations between mind and culture constituted a central research programme (see, e.g. Mauss’s ’Rapports réels et pratiques de la psychologie et de la sociologie’, and his introduction of the notion of the ’habitus’). It seems that it is under the influence of Levi Strauss’s work that the the interest on the relation between mind and culture has decreased. Among the many social anthropologists influenced by Levi Strauss, isn’t Dan Sperber an exception in pursuing a culture and cognition agenda? Although Dan emphasised as early as 1974 the cognitive/psychological agenda of Levi Strauss, the work of Levi Strauss is not so heavily quoted in the papers in cognitive anthropology I’ve read, and Dan’s success in boosting cognitive anthropology does not seem to be due to his appeal to Levi Strauss. Can’t we say that Levi Strauss is partly (and inadvertently) responsible for the relative disinterest in cognitive anthropology in the second half of the 20th century? If no, what other factors account for the disinterest in relations between mind and culture which seems to occur with structuralism in anthropology? And if yes, why?

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    guest guest 2 December 2008 (02:54)

    In confirmation of what Dan Sperber states regarding Levi-Strauss’ naturalistic perspective, Stanley Tambiah in his intellectual-biography of Edmund Leach (Tambiah, Stanley J. Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2002) refers to letters exchanged between Leach and Levi-Strauss. In 1963, Leach had reviewed La pensee sauvage and Le totemism aujourd’hui in Man and enthusiastically endorsed some of the innovative aspects of structuralism for use within anthropology. Shortly thereafter, Leach adopted some conceptual notions from Levi-Strauss and information theory regarding binary oppositions and universally recurring thought processes to produce essays such as ”Genesis as Myth.” Though expressing doubts about particular aspects of the structuralist interpretations, Leach had defended the general outline of the French anthropologist against critics such as Mary Douglas and others. In a nuanced discussion of the correspondence between Levi-Strauss and Leach regarding the translation of the French term espirit, Tambiah illustrates the major conceptual chasm between the two thinkers. In one letter Levi-Strauss suggests to Leach that his translation of espirit as ”spirit” is too literal and instead it ought to be read ”mind/brain.” Furthermore, in this same letter, Levi-Strauss argues that ”Raw nature is orderly and else there would be no physical science” and goes on to suggest that he is closer to XVIIIth century materialism than to Hegel. Leach remained skeptical of this aspect of the structuralist approach and had difficulties accepting the brain as a hard-wired, computer-like device that directly mediated a natural order. But certainly, as Dan states, Levi-Strauss can certainly be considered one of the pioneers of cognitive anthropology as it exists today.

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    Afzal Upal 2 December 2008 (14:04)

    Not being an anthropologist, but a social cognitive psychologist who has published in multiple disciplines requiring the negotiating of my way through and around journal reviewers with fixed beliefs, ideologies and revisionist histories about their discipline, not to mention resistence to articles by an outsider, I am always fascinated by ”insider” information and perspectives like those presented here by Dan Sperber and others. Since early in my career-during the throes of behaviorism—upon discovering Levi-Strauss’s work I was immediately taken with thought processes. Though I never met Levi-Strauss, I always considered him a ”mentor in absentia.” Recently, I felt compelled to write two articles honoring his 100th birthday, one invited and one not invited (both of which should be appearing anytime now). As can be seen below neither article was published in a ”mainstream” anthropology journal. This is because my articles were met with such resistance, that a couple of the editors came as close as they could to apologizing for their having to reject my submission. One reviewer, said that writing on Levi-Strauss was ”outdated.” Other reviewer critiques strongly objected to me saying that Levi-Strauss was largely ignored by North American anthropology in general and cognitive anthropology in specific. There were other ideological resistances as well (Upon inquiring of a graduate student who had written a piece on the history of anthropology why Levi-Strauss was not mentioned, she said it would not be wise for her to do so). Finally, one journal-that will not be named here—had originally planned a special issue honoring Levi-Strauss’s 100th birthday. The editor informed that he received so many objections from his reviewers and senior editors that the issue was cancelled. The editor then advertized a special issue on Post-Structuralism. He received no submissions for this special issue, so it too was cancelled. I find such (seemingly increasing) bias in science discouraging. But I find the posts here encouraging. Robert E Haskell University of New England (USA) Haskell, R.E. (2008). Claude Lévi-Strauss, cognitive scientist. Portuguese Review of the History of the Book,11 (22) November-December ), 1-46 [Invited paper for special issue honoring Levi-Strauss’ 100th birthday]. Haskell. R.E. (2008). Claude Lévi-Strauss reconsidered: Cognitive science, epistemology, and the (not so Savage) algebraic mind. Cognitive Semiotics, 3, 65-90.

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    Dan Sperber 4 December 2008 (16:31)

    In his provocative comment, Christophe Heintz suggests that , if anything, Lévi-Strauss has a negative influence on anthropological interest in the relationship between mind and culture. He is right that, for instance, Durkheim and Mauss were keen to discuss the issue, but basically they did so in order to divide the turf between anthropology/sociology on the one side and psychology on the other. Mauss’ idea of habitus (as Bourdieu’s) is again a way to highlight the limited relevance of psychology to the study of culture. Similarly, the idea of the psychic unity of mankind was used as an argument to show the irrelevance of psychology to the study of cultural variations. Christophe is also right in pointing that ”the work of Lévi-Strauss is not so heavily quoted in the papers in cognitive anthropology.” Sure, but this I see as the parochialism of most cognitive anthropology. Surely, even on issues of classifications on which self-styled ’cognitive anthropology’ has focused, Lévi-Strauss’ The Savage Mind (what a bad translation of the French La Pensée Sauvage, it should have been Untamed Thinking!) is full or interesting ideas and suggestions. If I see Lévi-Strauss as a precursor of a new cognitive anthropology that is currently emerging it is for other reasons, which may deserve spelling out. There are I believe, two approaches to the articulation of mind and culture that are merged in the work of Lévi-Strauss and that end up, if one pries them apart, providing quite different views on the matter, a first one implausible and a second one much more interesting. The contrast is particularly apparent in Lévi-Strauss’s work on myth. At times, he talks of the Native American myths to which he has devoted the four volumes of his Mythologiques as if they constituted a language the grammar of which closely mapped onto the structures of the human mind. How are we to make sense of a language existing not within a community, but with fragments scattered across two continents, a language spoken by no one and first understood by Lévi-Strauss himself? Some maybe attracted by the idea of Platonic structures playing a causal role, but I remain nonplussed. At other times, Lévi-Strauss sees the properties of myths as resulting not from the structure of ’the Mind’, but from the interaction of many minds, with similar memory limitations, interests and biases, and with a drive both to share and to stand apart. Myths then are seen as resulting from a population-scale phenomenon of propagation where accretions, transformations, inversions and recombinations are no less important from an explanatory point of view than the chains of relatively faithful copyings assumed in traditional anthropology or in recent ’memetics’. This second approach to myths is not prototypically structuralist, but it is prototypically Lévi-Straussian. It anticipates-and even corrects in some interesting respects-current populationist approaches to cultural evolution. That is, I believe, the kind of deep and elaborate insight that allows us to claim Lévi-Strauss as a precursor.

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    Dan Sperber 4 December 2008 (16:33)

    Thank you for all these interesting comments, criticisms and testimonies on this post on Lévi-Strauss.

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    Maurice Bloch 23 December 2008 (11:32)

    I am in total agreement with Dan (for once). Two pieces I recently published in Sciences Humaines (Special Number on Levi-Strauss) and in the Lettre du College de France (Special Number on Levi-Strauss) follows the same line but deal more specifically with La Pensee Sauvage. The two most interesting theories he touched on was 1 “the science of the concrete” and 2 “transformation”. It is so sad that because of his wish to remain an intelectual island they remained left to dissapear slowly over the scientific horizon.

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    Bill Benzon 8 April 2009 (11:32)

    I found this post and discussion most interesting. As a student of literature I have often felt American literary critics read the [i]wrong[/i] Levi-Strauss. That is to say, they were interested in his puzzling remarks about how his accounts of myths were themselves but retellings of those myths; but – beyond copious gestures toward binary opposition – were not much interested in his actual analyses. And I think those actual analyses have paradigmatic value. You might be interested in this [url=]informal and rather sparse chronology[/url] I’ve assembled that places developments in literary theory in parallel with those in the cognitive sciences from the 1950s through the 1990s; Levi-Strauss appears in the chronology in 1958 ([i]Anthropologie Structurale[/i]) in parallel with John von Neuman’s [i]The Computer and the Brain[/i].