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Lucien Lévy-Bruhl: The Course of French Philosophy and the Primitive Mind November 17, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Lucien Lévy-Bruhl was born in 1857 in Paris.  In 1876, he entered the Ecole Normale Superieure, specializing in philosophy.  Lévy-Bruhl taught at secondary schools until 1895.  Obtaining his doctorate in 1884, from 1886 onwards he lectured at Ecole Libre des Sciences, and from 1895 onwards, at Ecole Normale and the Sorbonne.  At the Sorbonne, in 1904, Lévy-Bruhl became professor of philosophy.  In 1917, Lévy-Bruhl became the editor of Revue Philosophique and in 1925 founded the Institut d’Ethnologie, together with Paul Rivet and Marcel Mauss.  In 1927, he retired from the Institute as well as the Sorbonne.  He was a visiting professor at Harvard from 1919 to 1920.  Levy-Bruhl died in Paris in 1939.

Lévy-Bruhl considered the history of French philosophy, from Descartes to the 1890s, to demonstrate specific features connected to the French national character and intellectual life.  For Lévy-Bruhl, it was of utmost significance that many French philosophers began their studies in either mathematics or the natural sciences.  Voltaire “became the herald of Newton” in France, while Condillac wrote on the language of the calculus.  “It seems allowable to infer,” Lévy-Bruhl concluded, “not that French philosophy was based upon mathematics, but that there has been in France a close affinity between the mathematical and the philosophical spirit” (History of modern philosophy in France, 470.)

Due to the legacy of Descartes as well as mathematics,  philosophers “took it for granted that among the various ways of representing reality, there is one which is adequate and recognizable on account of its clearness and sufficient evidence” (ibid.)  The connection of French philosophy to mathematics explained why French philosophers “have nearly always taken care to show that their doctrines were in perfect accord with common sense” and that method “was a mere application of the rules of common sense”  (474,475.)  

Consistent with Lévy-Bruhl’s coupling of French philosophy with the rational and the scientific was his privileging of the Cartesian tradition over that exemplified by de Maistre.  Lévy-Bruhl’s association of French philosophy with a particular kind of system and a particular kind of intellectual work forced him to gloss over some of the more extravagant features of the French socialists and Utopians, such as Saint-Simon and Fourier, as well as the more extreme ideologues of the French Revolution.  For Lévy-Bruhl, the history of “philosophy” was the steady growth of reason itself.  Any derivation from such a growth was explicable by either a falling away from tradition or to a concern for justice which obviated reason. 

According to Lévy-Bruhl, French philosophy strove towards totalizing explanations, and accordingly, considered practicality and utility objects of its inquiry, as well as developed  a belief of “mankind’s power over nature” (476.)  Referring to French socialists and Utopians, Lévy-Bruhl noted that in the first half of the nineteenth century, “French thinkers were not over-timid in their political and social conceptions,” wishing to find “in society, as well as in nature, a clear and logical order, justifiable in the eyes of reason.”  When philosophers did not find order in society, they attempted to establish it. For Lévy-Bruhl,  such an effort revealed a lapse of judgment that was all the more surprising given philosophers’ knowledge of the history of philosophy and the fate of utopian schemes.  The move towards “a priori social constructions,” despite of the lessons of the history of philosophy, was due to French philosophers desire for both justice and order.

French philosophy, from the seventeenth century until the closing decades of the nineteenth, was defined by the undulations of the Cartesian spirit. The Cartesian spirit was that of “criticism incumbent upon modern philosophy when out of the Middle Ages and past the Renaissance and the Reformation,” whose main object was the separation of “scientific or philosophical speculation from theology,” as well as to “overthrow the entire body of institutions based on historical tradition which was often indefensible….” (477.)  “This spirit,” Lévy-Bruhl continued, “which had become predominant by the end of the seventeenth century, was transmitted in the eighteenth through Fontenelle and Montesquieu, prevailed among ‘the philosophers’ (of the Enlightenment), and even in Condillac, and spent itself in the French Revolution.”  This Cartesian spirit was “revived” in the philosophy of Auguste Comte.

Lévy-Bruhl  contended, however, that recent philosophy was defined by the spirit of cosmopolitanism, whereby “national philosophies are on the decline.”  Both “positive science,”  sociology, logic, epistemology, and psychology were “cultivated at the same time and by similar methods, in Germany, the United States, England, and France.”  Lévy-Bruhl foresaw “only one philosophy common to civilized mankind” (480.)  Lévy-Bruhl also argued in his history of French philosophy that with the progress of civilization comes the universality of reason.  As noted below, this conception of universality becomes important as a background element in his conception of the primitive mind.  When speaking of “primitives,” Lévy-Bruhl underscored the provincial character of their rationality.

Franz Boaz viewed Lévy-Bruhl’s “Primitive Mentality” as part of a tradition of discussions on primitives in anthropology which had developed from Herder and a particular strand of the German Romantics who emphasized the causal action of the environment over inherent and heritable racial differences.  Anthropologists and ethnographers of this tradition, E.B. Tylor, Adolf Bastian, and James G. Frazer, as well as the sociologist Emile Durkheim, have “disregarded racial differences completely,” instead using the similitude of beliefs, mentalities, customs, rituals, and material culture as the basis for comparison.

In all of these  writings, Boaz concluded, “it is only the difference between culturally primitive man and civilized man that is relevant.” The central problematic in all of these works was the process of “the development of culture,”  narrated as the interaction between psychological and social factors, common to all mankind, as well as the “effects of historical happenings” (The Mind of Primitive Man, 33.)  Lévy-Bruhl, however, saw himself as inaugurating a new era in the study of anthropological man through his realization of the cognitive and cultural gulf separating primitive and civilized man.

Lévy-Bruhl’s investigations led him to conclude that “the primitive’s mentality was  essentially “‘mystic.'”  While both the primitive and the civilized mind began with sense impressions, Lévy-Bruhl noted, at the point of intellection and abstract thought, the primitive “makes an abrupt turn” (431.)

In opposition to the accounts of missionaries, Lévy-Bruhl argued that the principal distinction between primitives and civilized individuals was not the absence of abstract thinking among primitives, but the inappropriateness of the western conception of abstract thinking to the cognitive processes of primitives.  The accounts of missionaries and an earlier generation of ethnographers were characterized by “concepts…encompassed by the logical atmosphere proper to European mentality….” (434.) The lack of progress and understanding among western observers was due to a failure in the language used to describe the primitive mind, a mind distinct from that of civilized man.   Western concepts and taxonomies thus rendered primitive customs, beliefs, and manners incomprehensible.

Thus, the school of ethnology guided by the thesis of an overall psychic unity of all peoples was an exemplar of this failure of understanding.  For Lévy-Bruhl, no similar ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’ existed between Westerners and primitives.  As importantly, primitive social life contained no social organizations which could accurately be described according to the Western signifiers of “family,” “marriage,”  “property,” or “money.” Money, to Western minds, was “a question of a medium…which makes it possible to exchange something.”  It signified a “universal medium of exchange.”  The ideas of “natives” are more “concrete.”  “Natives,” such as the Melanesians, “use shells for their purchases, but always with a very definite specification” (485.)  These differences in signification revealed distinct worldviews.

Lévy-Bruhl also underscored that the primitive mind, though like the civilized mind in its search for causes,  did not seek the reasons for “what happens” in the same “direction” as the civilized mind.  The primitive “moves in a world where innumerable occult powers are everywhere present and always in action or ready to act” (487.)  To the primitive mind, there was the no circumstance which was “purely physical.”

In contrast, when the civilized mind sought the cause for something, “we look for the conditions which would be necessary to bring it about, in a series of similar phenomenon.”  If the conditions are determined “we ask no more; knowing the general law, we are satisfied.”  The attitude of the primitive is such that “he will always seek the true cause in the world of unseen powers, above and beyond what we call Nature, in the ‘metaphysical.'”  “In short,” Lévy-Bruhl concludes, “our problems are not his, and his are foreign to us” (438.)

Lévy-Bruhl demonstrated his indebtedness not only to the history of philosophy but also his commitment to the scientific rationalism and general progressive outlook of pre-war French Third Republic.  For Lévy-Bruhl, the civilized man occupied the highest, most scientific stage.  Lévy-Bruhl here appropriated Comte’s account of rational and scientific progress without paying any attention to the revolutionary or mystic elements of Comte’s system.  Lévy-Bruhl achieved such a construction by also linking Comte to Cartesian rationalism.  Lévy-Bruhl’s earlier conception of the growth of the civilized mind in his history of French philosophy then became the principle criteria by which he  judged the content and structure of the primitive mind.  Accordingly, Lévy-Bruhl’s conception of the primitive intellect corresponds roughly to the “Metaphysical Stage” of Comte’s account of the progress of the human mind from savagery to civilization.    In this second stage, which saw progress from the initial stage of animism and totemism, primitive gods were  abstracted into forces or vital principles.

The situation of primitives at the second stage and the emphasis on foreign quality of their reasoning points to a lack of certainty regarding savage rationality, a mixture of optimism and resignation that is characteristic of much of nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropology.  As “primitives” are at a particular stage in the evolution of peoples, they will eventually reach civilization and universal reason.   However, the immediate character of their existence reveals so distinct a form of civilization and psychic worldview that progress to the level of Western civility seems impossible.  Thus, primitives were both progressing and fixed in a specific stage.


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