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Primer: Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Problem of Mind July 26, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Claude Lévi-Strauss (b.1908-), according to the well-known anthropologist, the “functionalist” and  student of Bronislaw Malinowski, Edmund Ronald Leach, is the most famous representative of the first of dual traditions of social anthropology.  The founder of the first tradition was the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1854-1941).  According to Leach, Frazer was a man “of monumental learning who had no first-hand acquaintance with the lives of primitive people about whom he wrote.”  (Claude-Levi Strauss, 1)  Rather than study a culture in minute detail, Frazer wished to understand the primitive consciousness on a world-historical scale.  The progenitor of the second tradition was Bronislaw Malinowski who “spent most of his academic life analyzing the results of research which he had himself had personally conducted over a period of four years in a single small village in far off Melanesia.”  Malinowski was far more interested in how an individual communities social systems “functioned” than in developing a grand narrative of the primitive consciousness.  Although not in the “style” of Frazer, Levi-Strauss is more concerned with the discovery of true “facts” about a general “human mind.”  He is less concerned, according to Leach, with the “organization of any particular society or class of societies.”  For Leach, this difference is “fundamental.”

Leach, while disagreeing with much of Levi-Strauss’ work, nonetheless had a sound understanding of Levi-Strauss’ argument.  According to Leach, structuralism begins with the biological faculties, quite similar to the philosophical anthropology of Hans Jonas and Arnold Gehlen in Germany, articulated around the same time.   The phenomenon perceived by the human mind, “have the characteristics which we attribute to them because of the way our senses operate and the way the human brain is designed to order and interpret the stimuli which are fed into it.”  As man is consistently bombarded with vast numbers of particulars, given our situatedness in space and time, he separates particulars into classes of objects and apprehends particulars in a sequence of events.  When man writes a history or preforms a ritual action “we imitate our apprehension of Nature: the products of our Culture are segmented in the same way as we suppose the products of Nature to be segmented and ordered.”  These principles of order or structures by which man orders his reality, reflect the fundamental sameness of the  human mind, a universal rationality that binds all acting, communicating agents (In Jerry D. Moore, Visions of Culture, 236-7.)

Levi-Strauss, according to another well-known anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, is unique in two respects: in his understanding of anthropology as a deeply personal quest and in his understanding of anthropology as a “positive science.”  Geertz notes that Levi-Strauss work uncovers the dual quality of anthropological epistemology and methodology- “as a way of going about the world and as a method for uncovering lawful relations among empirical facts”- (The Interpretation of Cultures, 346) and forces them in conflict with one another.  This conflict, for Geertz, explains Levi-Strauss’ widespread popularity among non-specialists but has also led to some discussions in professional circles that “what is presented as High Science may really be an ingenious and somewhat roundabout attempt to defend a metaphysical position” (347.) Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques (1955) furthermore exemplifies the melange of perspectives as it is simultaneously a “standard legend of a Heroic Quest” and a “combination autobiography, traveler’s tale, philosophical treatise, ethnographic report, colonial history, and prophetic myth”  (347.)

The end of Tristes Tropiques brings a riddle rather than a solution as “the anthropologist is condemned either to journey among men whom he can understand precisely because his own culture has already contaminated them” or is among those who, though not contaminated by the culture of the anthropologist, are “unintelligible” to the anthropologist for that very reason.  Is it possible then to know the savage at all? Levi-Strauss answers this question in the affirmative since it is possible to gain knowledge of the anthropological subject through a method other than the anthropologist’s “personal involvement” in the world of the savage.  Knowledge of the savage is possible in spite of the strangeness of savage culture due to the psychological similitude of all human beings.  Levi-Strauss believed that “the mind of man is, at bottom, everywhere the same .”  While it was formerly believed that anthropology was the study of customs or beliefs, in reality, it is the study of thought (350-52.)

Thus, in Le Pensee Sauvage (1962), Levi-Strauss argued that the primitive mind and the savage’s actions in the world was determined by “the science of the concrete”, by which Levi-Strauss understood the savage mind to be “closed” in the sense of approaching reality not in terms of an abstract formal system (as a modern scientist would) but in terms of particulars ordered into immediately recognizable and intelligible wholes.  Thus, what the savage is most concerned with are the immediately discernible differences between, say, animals or the phases of the moon.

Levi-Strauss’ assumption of the fundamental similitude of rationality, the existence of ‘a mind’ hearkens back, according to Geertz,  to the “universal rationalism of the French Enlightenment ” (356.)  In this narrow sense, Geertz argues, very little separates Levi-Strauss from Rousseau, one of Levi-Strauss’ favorite thinkers. As importantly, “structuralism” was an attempt on the part of Levi-Strauss to have anthropology approach the systematicity and theoretical rigor of the natural sciences.   In this sense, according to François Dosse, “structuralism followed on the positivistic tradition of Auguste Comte and his scientism.”  While Levi-Strauss did not subscribe to Comte’s theory of progress, he nonetheless borrowed Comte’s notion that “knowledge is only interesting if it borrows from a scientific model or manages to transform itself into a science…”  Levi-Strauss was as indebted to  Comte’s emphasis on “holism” (History of Structuralism: The Rising Sign, 13.)

According to Christopher Johnson, for Levi-Strauss, the first goal of anthropology is “objectivity”  or the “discovery of structural constants that would be independent of the contingent observer and his or her particular categories, values, and beliefs.”  However, as essential to the anthropologist’s task is his sense of “mission,” “how anthropology as a human science speaks to the moral consciousness of modern humanity” (Claude Levi-Strauss, 6.)  It was Levi-Strauss’ intention, finally, that the conceptual and methodological innovations which he discovered to become separated from his own person, thereby, much in the same manner as the natural sciences,  acquiring “a truth and self-evidence independent of its instance of enunciation” (7.)  The reality, however, is that the program of structuralism is inseparable from that of its founder.


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