Lévi-Strauss, Claude

views updated May 18 2018

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1908-


Anthropologist and philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the leading figures in structuralism, was born in France in 1908. He studied philosophy in Paris and taught sociology at the University of São Paolo, Brazil, from 1934 to 1938. During these years, Lévi-Strauss traveled in Brazil and lived intermittently with the Amazonian tribes, especially the Nambikwara. The result of this early contact of Lévi-Strauss with precapitalist societies formed the basis of his first book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). He returned to Paris in 1939 to fulfill his military service requirement but had to flee France and the advancing Nazi threat, a flight that brought him to New York. In New York, he lectured at the New School for Social Research and came into contact with the linguist Roman Jakobson (18961982), with the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University and the anthropologist Franz Boas (18581942), and with the fieldwork-and practice-oriented American anthropology.

The encounter with Jakobson proved decisive for the development of Lévi-Strausss structuralism. Taking from Émile Durkheim (18581917) the notion that religion is part of a symbolic system of human understanding of humanity, Lévi-Strauss developed the theory of human culture as a logical, coherent, but unconscious system of interlocking symbolic subsystems (such as religion, kinship, mythology, and economics). Elaborating further on Marcel Mausss (18721950) theory of gift exchange as a local theory of reciprocity, Lévi-Strauss was able to expand his analysis of symbolic exchange to include marriage and kinship patterns. Jakobsons theory of structural linguistics brought all these theorizations of Lévi-Strauss into a neat package that claims to explain human behavior and culture as an intricate system of analogies between the tactile and the symbolic universe of humanity. His whole scheme of explanation rests on the fundamental notion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) of savage nobility, where the true nature of the human is only to be found in the state of nature, prior to the corruption of the human by civilization and the development of private property. Lévi-Strausss indebtedness to Rousseau is evident both in his autobiographical work Tristes tropiques (1955), one of the most eloquent and beautifully written books in anthropology, and in The Savage Mind (1962, the English title an inadequate translation of the original French La Pensée sauvage, with its double meaning of thinking savage or wild pansy).

Lévi-Strausss structuralism owes its foundational premise to Jakobson and Russian linguist Nikolai Trubetzkoys (18901938) elaboration on the significance of phonemes for linguistic structure. Jakobson and Trubetzkoy had shown that phonemes provided linguistic structures with a specific economy of terms of meaning, and that the relationship between those terms is more significant than the terms themselves. Therefore the relationship between the terms that signify death, for instance, is a universal constant, despite the fact that the specific terms are universally different. One way of detecting the significance of the relationship of terms, Lévi-Strauss claims, originally in his three-volume Mythologiques (19641968) and later in The View from Afar (1983), is by looking at myths that are universally constituted by mythemes (analogous to the linguistic phonemes). These mythemes, despite the fact that they appear in different terms in the myths encountered throughout in the world, underline the fact that all societies have engaged in the deciphering of the foundational question, which for Lévi-Strauss is always the same, namely, the riddle of the transition from nature to culture, from animality to humanity. Thus myths are the results of unconscious explanations about the origins of humans. The insularity of structuralism as a theory of explanation prompted anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his The Interpretation of Cultures to proclaim that Lévi-Strauss has made for himself an infernal culture machine (1973, p. 355).

Lévi-Strauss lives in Paris. He has taught for many years at the Collège de France and in 1973 was elected to the Académie française.

SEE ALSO Anthropology, U.S.; Boas, Franz; Structuralism



Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1962. La Pensée sauvage. Paris: Plon.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Rev. ed. Trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard Stermer, and Rodney Needham. London: Eyere & Spottiswoode.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1970. The Raw and the Cooked. Vol. 1 of Mythologiques. Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. London: Jonathan Cape.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1973. From Honey to Ashes. Vol. 2 of Mythologiques. Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. London: Jonathan Cape.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1973. Tristes tropiques. Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. London: Jonathan Cape (Orig. Pub. 1955).

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1978. The Origin of Table Manners. Vol. 3 of Mythologiques. Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. London: Jonathan Cape.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1985. The View from Afar. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel and Phoebe Hoss. New York: Basic Books.


Boon, James A. 1972. From Symbolism to Structuralism: Lévi-Strauss in a Literary Tradition. New York: Harper.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

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Claude Gustave Lévi-Strauss

views updated May 09 2018

Claude Gustave Lévi-Strauss

The French social anthropologist Claude Gustave Lévi-Strauss (born 1908) 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 deśtudes (1942-1945). He was also cultural attachéin 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, utilitar-Hautes E ian, 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.

Further Reading

Lévi-Strauss's life and influence are recounted in E. Nelson and Tanya Hayes, eds., Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Anthropologist as Hero (1970). Octavio Paz, Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction (trans. 1970), is an admiring exploration of his ideas. Edmund Leach, Claude Lévi-Strauss (1970), is a critical study. Also useful is Georges Charbonnier, ed., Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss (1961; trans. 1969). The general background is discussed in Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (1968). □

Lévi-Strauss, Claude

views updated May 29 2018

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (b. 1908). French anthropologist associated particularly with structuralism. Seeing himself as ‘neolithic’, Lévi-Strauss drew upon traditional societies, including their myths and classificatory systems (taboos, etc.), to put the human imagination in its place. Collective representations are the product of the human mind. They are ‘thought out’ in a way which reflects their virtual identity with fundamental mental structures of the mind, rather than their being autonomous creations. Although some have seen Lévi-Strauss as a ‘culture hero’, his emphasis on cognition to the virtual exclusion of emotion, his pessimistic view of imagination and progress, the excesses of his structuralism, and the apparently self-verifying nature of his approach, are drawbacks increasingly attended to by critics.

See also MYTH.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude

views updated May 14 2018

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1908–90) French anthropologist. In The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) and Structural Anthropology (1958), Lévi-Strauss outlined the science of structuralism. In 1959, he became professor of anthropology at the College of France. In 1973, he was elected to the Académie Française.