Levi-Strauss, Claude

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LEVI-STRAUSS, CLAUDE (1908– ), French anthropologist. Born in Brussels, Belgium, and educated at the Sorbonne, he was chosen as a member of the French University mission to Brazil in 1934 where he became professor of sociology at the University of São Paulo from 1935 to 1939. During this period he conducted ethnographic field work among the tribes of the Mato Grosso area of central Brazil. On the outbreak of World War ii Levi-Strauss served with the French army from 1939 to 1940 and after the fall of Paris went to New York as visiting professor at the New School of Social Research from 1941 to 1945. He returned to France as professor of primitive religion at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne, which position he held until 1974, and in 1959 he was appointed professor of social anthropology at the College de France. He was elected a member of the Academie française in May 1973.

Levi-Strauss' works began appearing in 1948 with the publication of "La Vie Familiale et sociale des Indiens Nambikwara" (Journal de la Société des Americanistes, 37 (1948), 1–130). Tristes Tropiques (1955, 19682; A World on the Wane, 1961) was a distinguished literary work containing elements of autobiography, ethnography, and social anthropology based on his experience in Brazil. His most significant theoretical work Les Structures Elémentaires de la Parenté (1949, 19672; Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969) was a treatise on structural anthropology of the 20th century. His Anthropologie Structurale (1958; Structural Anthropology, 1963, 19683) is a collection of essays on language, kinship, and social organization which elucidates his theory of structural anthropology. His later works were La Pensée Sauvage (1962, 19642; The Savage Mind, 1966) and the monumental four-volume series, "Mythologiques," consisting of Le Cru et le Cuit (1964; Eng. translation, The Raw and the Cooked, 1969) which dealt with the nature of primitive thought and native mythology; Du miel aux cendres ("From Honey to Ashes," 1966); L'Origine des mainieres de table (1968; The Origin of Table Manners, 1978); and L'Homme nu (1971; The Naked Man, 1982). His Totémisme (1962, 19652; Eng. tr. 1963, paperback 1969) is a critical survey of the literature on totemism and advances new interpretations. His lectures were collected in Paroles donées (1984; Anthropology and Myth: Lectures, 19511982, 1987). Other books include La Voie des masques (1972; The Way of the Masks, 1982); Le Regard eloigné (1983; The View from Afar, 1985); Le Poitière jalouse (1985; The Jealous Potter, 1988); and Regarder, écouter, lire (1993; Look, Listen, Read, 1997).

Levi-Strauss' most original and significant contribution is his theory of structural anthropology. Taking linguistics as his model of a social science, he conceives of social anthropology as a general science concerned with relations involving logical structure of social phenomena. Ultimately, he maintains, all social phenomena are symbolic expressions of the human mind and it is the function of the social anthropologist to make explicit the implicit, unconscious structural relations inherent in different systems of symbolic forms. All social phenomena are regarded as systems of communication manifested especially in the forms of kinship, economics, and language.

Levi-Strauss also attempted to establish a new science of myth. He maintained it was the function of the structural analysis of myth to make conscious and explicit the logical structure which underlies the concrete images and plots of a given series of myths. Myths, like science, are motivated by an intellectual impulse, a problem to be solved, and differ from science, not in their logic, but only in the kind of objects to which this logic is applied. Myth reveals not the unconscious instinctual nature of man as Freud maintained but rather man's unconscious, rational thought in his attempt to resolve the logical problems which confront him. Myth is really man's first attempt to construct a philosophy and science of nature and culture; it is the wisdom of savages and of the folk expressed in a mode of sensible images.

In agreement with E.B. Tylor, Levi-Strauss is prepared to maintain that if law is anywhere, it is everywhere. The science of social anthropology is based on the assumption that the human spirit is subject to rational law and that freedom of creativity is an illusion. Levi-Strauss' theory of a structural science of social anthropology is highly controversial, but it isalso one of the most thought-provoking and influential theories of modern times.


Current Anthropology, 7 (1966), 110–11, bibliography of his writings; R.L. Zimmerman, in: Commentary, 45 (May 1968), 54–61; C. Levi-Strauss, Totemism (1969), introd. by R.C. Poole; E. Leach, Claude Levi-Strauss (1971). add. bibliography: M. Hanaef, Claude Levi-Strauss and the Making of Structural Anthropology, tr. M. Baker (1998); C. Johnson, Claude Levi-Strauss: The Formative Years (2003); D. Eribon, Conversations with Claude Levi-Strauss, tr. P. Wissing (1991).

[Ephraim Fischoff and

David Baumgardt]