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.
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.