Lévi-Strauss, Claude (b. 1908)

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French anthropologist.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was the key founder of the mid-twentieth-century movement called structuralism, which applied the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) to anthropology and other fields. Born in Brussels, Lévi-Strauss moved with his family to France at age five. He studied philosophy and law at the University of Paris. In 1934 he became professor of sociology at the University of São Paolo. His interest shifted to ethnology, and he did fieldwork among Brazilian tribes. He resigned from his post in 1937 and returned briefly to France. Fleeing the Vichy government, he went to the New School for Social Research in New York, where he attended the lectures of the linguist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982). He then served as French Cultural Attaché in Washington, D.C. In 1947 he returned permanently to France, received his doctorate, and in 1948 became adjunct director of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. In 1952 he became Director of Studies of the Ècole Pratique des Hautes ètudes. In 1959 he became Professor of Anthropology at the Collège de France. In 1973 he was elected a member of the French Academy. He retired in 1982.

As important as Lévi-Strauss's analysis of kinship has been, his analysis of myth has been far more influential. At first glance his work seems to be a revival of the long-discredited intellectualist view of myth epitomized by the Victorian anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917). Yet Lévi-Strauss is severely critical of Tylor, for whom nonliterate peoples concoct myth rather than science because they think less critically than moderns. For Lévi-Strauss, nonliterate peoples create myth because they think differently from moderns, but no less rigorously.

In Lévi-Strauss's view, myth expresses nonliterate, or "primitive," thinking. Primitive thinking deals with phenomena qualitatively rather than, like modern thinking, quantitatively. It focuses on the observable, sensory, concrete aspects of phenomena rather than, like modern thinking, on the unobservable, non-sensory, abstract ones. Yet antithetically to Tylor, Lévi-Strauss considers myth no less scientific than modern science. Myth is science, not the mere forerunner to science. Myth is primitive science, but not thereby inferior science.

If myth is an instance of primitive thinking because it deals with concrete phenomena, it is an instance of thinking itself because it classifies phenomena. Lévi-Strauss maintains that all humans think in the form of classifications, specifically pairs of oppositions, and project them onto the world. Among the many cultural phenomena that express these oppositions, myth is distinctive in resolving or, more accurately, tempering the oppositions it expresses. Those contradictions are to be found not at the level of the plot but at the deeper level that Lévi-Strauss famously calls the "structure."

All the contradictions expressed are apparently reducible to instances of the fundamental contradiction between "nature" and "culture." That contradiction stems from the conflict that humans experience between themselves as animals, and therefore a part of nature, and themselves as human beings, and therefore a part of culture. This conflict had long been noted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and many others, but for Lévi-Strauss it originates in the mind, rather than in experience. The mind thinks "oppositionally" and projects oppositions onto the world, where they are experienced as if they were in the world itself.

Lévi-Strauss's clearest examples of the conflict between nature and culture are the oppositions in myths between raw and cooked food, wild and tame animals, and incest and exogamy. It is much less clear how other recurrent oppositions of his, such as those between sun and moon, hot and cold, high and low, male and female, and life and death, symbolize the split between nature and culture rather than a split within nature. Similarly, it is far from clear how oppositions such as those of sister versus wife and of matrilocal versus patrilocal kinship symbolize other than a split within culture.

Lévi-Strauss distinguishes his "structuralist" approach to myth from the "narrative" approaches of all other theories, which adhere to the plot of myth. The plot, or "diachronic dimension," of a myth is that, say, event A leads to event B, which leads to event C, which leads to event D. The structure, or "synchronic dimension," is either that events A and B constitute an opposition mediated by event C or, as in the Oedipus myth, that events A and B, which constitute the same opposition, are to each other as events C and D, an analogous opposition, are to each other. The structure is exactly the expression and tempering of contradictions.

Overall, Lévi-Strauss strives to decipher the unconscious grammar of myth. To demonstrate that myths, seemingly the most random of artifacts, actually adhere to a tight logic is for Lévi-Strauss to demonstrate that their creators do as well. While Lévi-Strauss writes about nonliterate peoples almost exclusively—his analysis of Oedipus is an exception—he really writes to show that all human beings are akin. "Savage" and modern thought are variant expressions of a common human mind.

Lévi-Strauss claims to have been much influenced by Karl Marx (1818–1883), whose concept of a dialectic purportedly underlies the structure of a myth. But Lévi-Strauss's focus on the unchanging nature of the mind, on the consummate rationality of the mind, on the mind as independent of society, and on myths as similar worldwide led to the association of structuralism with a reactionary ideology. Consequently structuralism was taken by some observers as typifying the modernity against which postmodernism positioned itself.

See alsoFrance; Jakobson, Roman; Saussure, Ferdinand de .


Primary Sources

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. "The Structural Study of Myth." Journal of American Folklore 68 (1955): 428–444.

——. Structural Anthropology, vol. 1. Translated by. by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York, 1961.

———. The Savage Mind. Chicago, 1966.

———. Introduction to a Science of Mythology. 4 vols. Translated by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. New York, 1969–1981.

——. Tristes Tropiques. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. London, 1973.

——. Myth and Meaning. Toronto, 1978.

——. Structural Anthropology, vol. 2. Translated by Monique Layton. New York, 1976.

Secondary Sources

Hayes, E. Nelson, and Tanya Hayes, eds. Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Anthropologst as Hero. Cambridge, Mass., 1970

Hénoff, Marcel. Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology. Translated by Mary Baker. Minneapolis, Minn., 1998.

Segal, Robert A. Theorizing about Myth. Amherst, Mass., 1999.

Robert A. Segal