Lévi-Strauss, Claude Gustave (1908– )

views updated

Lévi-Strauss, Claude Gustave (1908– )

Lévi-Strauss, Claude Gustave (1908– ), French social anthropologist. Claude Lévi-Strauss became a leading scholar in the structural approach to social anthropology.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was born on November 28, 1908, in Brussels, Belgium, of a cultured Jewish family. He grew up in France, attended a lycée in Paris, and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, University of Paris. After holding several provincial teaching posts, he became interested in anthropology and accepted an appointment as professor of sociology at São Paulo University, Brazil (1935–1939), which enabled him to do field research among Brazil's Indian tribes.

Lévi-Strauss returned to wartime France and served in the army (1939–1941). He taught in New York City at the New School for Social Research and at the École Libre des Hautes Études (1942–1945). He was also cultural attaché in the French embassy (1946–1947).

Back in France, Lévi-Strauss was associate director of the Musée de I'Homme, director of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, and editor of Man: Review of French Anthropology. From 1960 he was professor of social anthropology, professor of comparative religions of nonliterate people, and director of the Laboratory of Social Anthropology at the College of France.

Lévi-Strauss's fame began with his book Tristes Tropiques (A World on the Wane, 1961). It is partly biographical, partly a philosophical reflection on travel, and mainly a systematic account of four primitive South American Indian tribes. In this and his next influential book, The Savage Mind (1966), he expressed his belief that in their potential all men are intellectually equal. Instead of primitive man's being frozen in his culture, he wrote, "A primitive people is not a backward or retarded people; indeed it may possess a genius for invention or action that leaves the achievements of civilized peoples far behind."

Citing examples, Lévi-Strauss argued that primitive man's conceptual mental structures, though of a different order from those of advanced man, are just as rich, utilitarian, theoretical, complex, and scientific. There is no primitive mind or modern mind but "mind-as-such," in which is locked a structural way of thinking that brings order out of chaos and enables man to develop social systems to suit his needs. Man's mental structures and ways of achieving order are derived as much from primitive magic as from Western science, as much from primitive myth as from Western literature, and as much from primitive totemism as from Western morality and religion.

Lévi-Strauss's thesis, which excited world attention, is that if social scientists can understand man's mental structures, they can then build a study of man which is as scientific as the laws of gravity. If order exists anywhere, says Lévi-Strauss as a structuralist, then order exists everywhere, even in the brain.

Lévi-Strauss's search for the common denominator of human thought derives from structural linguistics, a 20th-century science which set out to uncover the possible relationships between the origins of human speech and the origins of culture. He goes beyond language in adding as concepts for social order such activities as music, art, ritual, myth, religion, literature, cooking, tatooing, intermarriage, the kinship system, and the barter of goods and services. He sees each as another related way by which a society maintains itself. Man's mental structures in bringing order out of chaos, no matter how divergent his patterns may seem in old and new cultures, may derive from a common mental code.

The work of Lévi-Strauss seeks to stimulate thinking and research on breaking the mystery of this code. His popularity rests on his belief that there are no superior cultures, that man acts according to a logical structure in his brain, and that once the code of this logical structure can be discovered, the human sciences can be as scientific as the natural sciences.

Lévi-Strauss was awarded the Wenner-Gren Foundation's Viking Fund Medal for 1966 and the Erasmus Prize in 1975. He has been awarded several honorary doctorate degrees from prestigious institutions such as Oxford, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia. He has also held several academic memberships including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.