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Lévy–Bruhl, Lucien

Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien



Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939), French anthropologist, was born in Paris. He received a doctoratès lettres from the École Normale Supérieure, and entered upon a brilliant university career, which was crowned by his nomination to the chair of history of modern philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1904. His lectures there were the basis of several of his books, notably those on Jacobi (1894) and Auguste Comte (1900). His lasting contributions, however, are his book Ethics and Moral Science (1903) and especially the six volumes he devoted to the study of what he called the primitive mentality.

Lévy-Bruhl’s work is highly original, and it is hard to define precisely the influences on his thinking. His stress on the role of the emotions in psychic life may have derived from his studies of Jacobi. In the sociological aspects of his thought he was influenced by the ideas of Émile Durkheim. Yet Lévy-Bruhl also rejected some of Durkheim’s ideas and carried on spirited controversies with Durkheim, who then dominated the French sociological school. Lévy-Bruhl could not accept all the implications of Durkheimian rationalism, but he did learn much from Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method. In general, one might say that Lévy-Bruhl was influenced more in a negative than in a positive sense. He was nobody’s disciple; indeed, he often denned his thinking by contrasting it to that of others, for instance, to that of the theorists of animism (Frazer, Tylor, and Spencer). But he was not indifferent to criticisms made of his theories, especially the objections of such sociologists as Durkheim and Mauss or of an anthropologist like Evans-Pritchard. His responsiveness to these criticisms caused changes in the orientation of his thought. Three major stages may be distinguished in his intellectual development: the first was marked by his work on morality; the second by his theories on the primitive mentality; and the third by the revisions and changes that he himself made in these latter theories.

Moral philosophy . In Ethics and Moral Science Lévy-Bruhl began by showing that all theoretical moralities (whether of metaphysical or scientific origin) are doomed to failure, because theory can be applied only to what is, not to what ought to be. They suffer also from the fact that they fail to take into account the variation of human nature in various civilizations. Morals do vary with time and place, and Lévy-Bruhl advocated that they be studied objectively and that their laws be discovered. On the basis of such scientific knowledge, a rational art and rules of conduct may be set up that will be valid solely in a specified sociological situation rather than claiming the universal validity of the theoretical moralities. Thus, already in this book Lévy-Bruhl was making a direct attack on the postulate of the unity of human nature and laying the foundations of a relativistic and pluralistic sociology.

The theory of the primitive mentality . Lévy-Bruhl’s pluralism led him to suppose that several types of mentality can exist among men, that is, that their methods of thinking may vary basically from one society to another. The surest way to prove this, he believed, was to begin by comparing the mentality of civilized man with the mentality furthest removed from it.

He therefore studied the mental functions in so-called primitives, collecting and classifying a large number of documents on this subject. His first conclusion was that the mentality of primitives and that of people living in modern Occidental civilization differ not in nuance or degree but rather in kind. The anthropologists of the English animist school had believed that primitive peoples think or reason in the same way as civilized ones, although they may reason from mistaken premises. For Lévy-Bruhl the primitive man’s very reasoning processes differ from ours; the primitive mentality is not simply a rudimentary or pathological form of the civilized. What makes for these differences is not the thought of the individual but collective representations. Ideally, the social scientist would establish the particular collective psychology of each society. Instead, in order to describe the primitive mentality Lévy-Bruhl took his documentation from all preliterate societies.

To the objections of those, like Marcel Mauss, who argued that these societies are not all alike, Lévy-Bruhl answered that for his purpose it was enough that they all share a characteristic that distinguishes them from us. When Evans-Pritchard reproached him with taking his examples from the books of travelers or missionaries, whose observations had not been made in conformity with the best ethnographical methods, he replied that it sufficed for him if the mentality of the peoples studied had been well understood. Evans-Pritchard did get Lévy-Bruhl to admit that he sometimes made savages appear more irrational than they actually are; he maintained, however, that it was not his intention to give a complete description of the life of primitive peoples but to highlight the differences between their mentality and ours.

The collective representations of primitives, he asserted, are essentially mystical, since they imply belief in forces or influences that are imperceptible to the senses. Mysticism pervades all their perceptions. Further, the primitive mentality is not governed exclusively by our laws of logic. Although it is not generally opposed to these laws, it does not shrink from violating especially the law against contradiction. This is why Lévy-Bruhl designated it as prelogical. The connections made by the primitive mind that fall outside of our principles of logic are governed by a principle that Lévy-Bruhl called the law of participation. According to this principle, a being or object can be both itself and at the same time something else. Participation cannot be explained by animism.

The conception of this mystical mentality based on participation led Lévy-Bruhl to more detailed analyses supported by a large number of concrete examples. He showed the effects of this mentality on the language of primitive peoples and on their way of conceiving the world. He described their occasionalist notion of causality and their way of looking at the human personality, distinguishing neither the human being (I’être même) from its “appurtenances,” nor the body from the spirit or soul.

Between the primitive mind, which directly exhibits participation, and the civilized mind Lévy-Bruhl found intermediate stages in which participation can no longer be perceived directly but is represented or symbolized. He thus seems to have placed his dualism in an evolutionist perspective. But he took care to state that the mystical and prelogical mentality is never completely supplanted by the undisputed reign of logic. He held that in every human mind there is always some rational thought and some mystical thought. Reason alone cannot completely satisfy man. Lévy-Bruhl did not accept the charge that his was a doctrine of prelogicism. For him there are not two mentalities that exclude one another; prelogical thought is not a stage antedating logical thought. Thus, such philosophers as Émile Bréhier maintained that Lévy-Bruhl’s theory is actually more structuralist than evolutionist. And the phenomenologist Van der Leeuw interpreted it as postulating the mystical mentality and the logical mentality as two permanent structures of the human mind. In primitive man, the first dominates the second; in civilized man, it is the contrary.

Revisions in the theory . Lévy-Bruhl’s first books on mental functions in primitive societies provoked a vigorous reply from Durkheim in his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life of 1912. Many further criticisms appeared in 1926–1927, in particular those of Larguier des Bancels, Raoul Allier, and Olivier Leroy. Lévy-Bruhl examined these objections seriously and was led to sharpen and revise his thought. As a result between 1931 and 1938 he published three further books on the same subject He now became more demanding as to the sources of his documentation, relying more frequently on the work of the best ethnographers. Also, without completely abandoning any of the basic concepts of his first analysis (mysticism, prelogical character, participation, occasionalism), he inverted their order of importance, putting mysticism ahead of the prelogical character. And, above all, he introduced a new principle of explanation that tended to dominate all the others, which he called “the affective category of the supernatural.” He still maintained, to be sure, that primitive peoples are sometimes insensitive to contradiction, but he strongly affirmed that “the fundamental structure of the human mind is the same everywhere.” Primitive men have concepts, but their knowledge is not rationally classified and organized, which leaves the field clear for “mystical preconnections” when the emotional, affective element supplements logical generalization. This colors their entire thinking, since for them ordinary experience is pervaded by mystical experience; similarly, for them the supernatural world, although different from the natural world, is not separate from it, and they pass unaware from one to the other. The prelogical is therefore explained by the mystical and this in turn by the predominance of affectivity over reason. Indeed, affectivity gives a special tonality to primitive representations, and it thus has that element of generality that makes it a category of thought.

In his last works Lévy-Bruhl reduced the study of primitive mentality entirely to an analysis of the mystic experience and the affective category of the supernatural that characterizes and explains it. He showed how this experience of the supernatural emerges mainly in the face of the unusual. He devoted other chapters to the various representations and beliefs marked by this affective category, for example, occult influences, beings and objects that bring bad or good luck, various rituals, magic, revelations as to the secret nature of things and animals, dreams, visions, the presence of the dead, and all of mythology and the techniques for participating in the mythical world.

In these books Lévy-Bruhl was also concerned with transitions between the primitive and the modern mentalities. He found such transitions especially in the development of prereligion into elaborated religion, or of myth into tale and folklore; but at the same time he emphasized more and more that both mentalities persist.

Hence the theory that at the outset seemed to postulate a principle of radical difference between the thinking of primitive and civilized peoples became more flexible. This evolution continued in the notes that Lévy-Bruhl was writing toward the end of his life and that probably would have become a book had he lived longer. These notes were collected and published after his death in a small book entitled Les carnets de Lévy-Bruhl (1949). In it he stated that he was prepared to give up the term “prelogical,” and he even questioned the specificity of the characteristics he had attributed to the primitive mentality.

Influence of Lévy-Bruhl . In addition to the phenomenological and structuralist extensions of Lévy-Bruhl’s theory, mentioned above, the important influence it has had on the Jungian psychoanalysts should be pointed out: Aldrich (1931) has related the primitive mind to the archetypes of the unconscious. As for the fundamentals of the doctrine, however, few contemporary authors seem to accept a difference in kind between the primitive and the civilized mind. Lévy-Bruhl himself was on the point of giving it up, as may be seen in his posthumously published notebooks. But his analyses of participation play an important part in the thought of many philosophers and sociologists, for example, Przyluski (1940) and Roger Bastide (1953). Again, the advocates of a pluralist sociology, like Georges Gurvich, applaud Lévy-Bruhl’s undermining of the classical unitary conception of the universality of modes of thinking. Lévy-Bruhl’s doctrine may have few faithful disciples, but at least it compelled anthropologists to reflect on certain problems and in that sense gave a new direction to the study of primitive peoples.

Jean Cazeneuve

[For the historical context of Lévy-Bruhl’s work, see the biographies ofDurkheim; Frazer; Mauss; Spencer; Tylor. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seePollution; Religion, article onAnthropological Study.]


1884 L’idée de responsabilite. Paris: Hachette.

1890 L’Allemagne depuis Leibniz. Paris: Hachette.

1894 La philosophie de Jacobi. Paris: Alcan.

(1900) 1903 The Philosophy of Auguste Comte. New York: Putnam; London: Sonnenschein. → First published in French.

(1903) 1905 Ethics and Moral Science. London: Constable. → First published as La morale et la science des moeurs.

(1910) 1926 How Natives Think. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés primitives.

(1922) 1923 Primitive Mentality. New York: Macmillan. → First published as La mentalite primitive.

(1927) 1928 The “Soul” of the Primitive. New York: Macmillan. → First published as L’âme primitive.

(1931) 1935 Primitives and the Supernatural New York: Dutton. → First published as Le surnaturel et la nature dans la mentalité primitive.

1935 La mythologie primitive. Paris: Alcan.

1938 L’expérience mystique et les symboles chez les primitifs. Paris: Alcan.

1949 Les carnets de Lévy-Bruhl. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. → Published posthumously.


Aldrich, Charles R. 1931 The Primitive Mind and Modern Civilization. New York: Harcourt.

Allier, Raoul 1927 Le non-civilisé et nous. Paris: Payot.

Bastide, Roger 1953 Contribution à I’étude de la participation. Cahiers internationaux de sociologie 14: 30–40.

Blondel, Charles 1926 La mentalité primitive. Paris: Stock.

BrÉhier, Émile 1949 Originalite de Lévy-Bruhl. Revue philosophique 139:385-388.

Cazeneuve, Jean 1961 La mentalité archaïque. Paris: Colin.

Cazeneuve, Jean 1963 Lucien Lévy-Bruhl: Sa vie, son oeuvre, avec un exposé de sa philosophic. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Davy, Georges (1931) 1950 Sociologues d’hier et d’aujourd’hui. 2d ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Essertier, Daniel 1927 Les formes inferieures de I’explication. Paris: Alcan.

Leroy, Olivier 1927 La raison primitive. Paris: Geuthner.

Przyluski, Jean 1940 La participation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Sharevskaia, B. 1958 O metodologicheskoi i terminologicheskoi putanitse v voprosakh pervobytnogo myshleniia (Methodological and Terminological Confusions in the Question of the Mentality of Primitive Peoples). Sovietskaia etnografiia 6:61-75.

Van Der Leeuw, G. G. 1940 L’homme primitif et la religion. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

The French philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) concerned himself primarily with the nonrational belief systems of primitive man.

Lucien Lévy-Bruhl was born in Paris on April 10, 1857. He attended the Lycée Charlemagne, pursuing studies in music, philosophy, and natural science, and graduated from the école Normale Supérieure in philosophy in 1879. He taught philosophy at Poitiers and Amiens before he attended the University of Paris to pursue his doctorate in 1884. He taught in Paris until his appointment to the Sorbonne in 1896 as titular professor of the history of modern philosophy. Lévy-Bruhl's scholarly work began with a history of modern French philosophy in 1889; a book on German philosophy (since Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz) appeared in 1890, one on Jacobean philosophy in 1894, and one on Comtean philosophy in 1900. Ethics and Moral Science (1902) marked the beginning of Lévy-Bruhl's anthropological interests. He recognized the impossibility of an absolute ethic because of the incommensurability of thought systems in different cultures, and he called for scientific study of the known range of moral systems, including the primitive. This book was probably influential in the appointment of Lévy-Bruhl to a chair in the history of modern philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1904.

Although Lévy-Bruhl remained more interested in primitive thought than in social institutions, his work moved from philosophy toward sociology under the influence of the Durkheimian sociologists. In 1925 he, along with Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet, founded the Institute of Ethnology at the Sorbonne, dedicated to the memory of Émile Durkheim, who had died in 1917. Lévy-Bruhl, however, disagreed with some tenets of Durkheim's methodology, particularly the rationality of primitive man. He thus resigned from the institute and the Sorbonne in 1927 to devote himself to writing and travel.

Lévy-Bruhl wrote six books elaborating his concept of the nature of the primitive mind: Mental Functions in Primitive Societies (1910), Primitive Mentality (1922), The Soul of the Primitive (1928), The Supernatural and the Nature of the Primitive Mind (1931), Primitive Mythology (1935), and The Mystic Experience and Primitive Symbolism (1938). Never a fieldworker, he had access to more adequate descriptions of primitive cultures at the end of his life. He rejected some evolutionary implications of his earlier formulation of civilized and "primitive," or "prelogical," mentalities as polar and irreconcilable types. Later books dealt more fully with intermediate types. Posthumously published notebooks (1949) indicated his willingness to compromise even on the term "prelogical."

Lévy-Bruhl was aware of similarities between primitive and civilized thought but, in response to previous attributions of extreme rationality to primitive man, preferred to stress differences. Although postulation of a "primitive mentality" at first glance relegates primitive man to an inferior cultural status, Lévy-Bruhl was more concerned to demonstrate that primitive cultures must be studied in terms of their own categories. Though this view should encourage extensive fieldwork, his equation of all primitive thought patterns in practice minimized descriptive efforts.

After his retirement Lévy-Bruhl lectured at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California. He died in Paris on March 13, 1939.

Further Reading

There is a short study of Lévy-Bruhl's anthropological work in Hoffman R. Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology (1958). Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (1965), provides a British critique of Lévy-Bruhl. Lévy-Bruhl's importance is analyzed in Thomas Kenneth Penniman, A Hundred Years of Anthropology (1935; 3d ed. 1965).

Additional Sources

Marrow, Alfred Jay, The practical theorist: the life and work of Kurt Lewin, New York: Teachers College Press, 1977, 1969. □

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Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien

Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (lāvē´-brül), 1857–1939, French philosopher, psychologist, and ethnologist. He was professor at the Sorbonne from 1899 and editor of the Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger. Particularly known for his research on the mentality of preliterate peoples, he wrote numerous studies, including How Natives Think (1910, tr. 1926), Primitive Mentality (1922, tr. 1923), and Primitives and the Supernatural (1931, tr. 1935).

See biography by J. Cazeneuve (1972).

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Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien

Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien (1857–1939) A French philosopher, influential for his theories about ‘primitive’ peoples, who, he argued, held collective representations which were ‘pre-logical’ and mystical (see How Natives Think, 1910, and Primitive Mentality, 1922
). Criticized as ethnocentric, he has been reinterpreted as having an early relativist concern for non-scientized ways of thinking.

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