… at one hundred years of age. I’ll have more commentary in a moment. Gathering my thoughts about him. I’ve just returned from the beach.


Here’s the best piece on him so far, full of wonderful British skepticism and humor.

… While Lévi-Strauss’s capacity for creating complex intellectual jigsaws was never in question, it was not always obvious what relation his hypotheses bore to reality. The English anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach drew attention to the Frenchman’s propensity for discovering exactly what he was searching for.

“Any evidence, however dubious,” Leach complained, “is acceptable so long as it fits with logically calculated expectations; but wherever the data runs counter to the theory, Lévi-Strauss will either bypass the evidence or marshal the full resources of his powerful invective to have the heresy thrown out of court.”

… The son of a painter, Claude Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels on November 28 1908. When the First World War broke out he was sent to Paris to live with his grandfather, a rabbi, in whose household he soon lost his faith.

… After completing his studies, Lévi-Strauss taught in secondary schools. Among his colleagues was Simone de Beauvoir, who remembered him warning his students “in a deadpan voice, and with a deadpan expression, against the folly of the passions”. [And this is coming from de Beauvoir, queen of the ice queens.]

… After the fall of France he escaped to the United States, where he took up a visiting professorship at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In this post he was greatly influenced by Roman Jakobson, who had developed a mathematical view of language which stressed not so much the meaning of individual words as the overall configuration of the grammatical relationships between them.  [Three degrees of separation:  Jerzy Soltan, UD‘s father-in-law, was a close friend, and a close neighbor in Cambridge, of Roman Jakobson.]

… A work of enormous erudition if, at times, almost ludicrous complexity, [Les Structures Elémentaires de la parenté (1949)] established Lévi-Strauss as one of the foremost anthropologists of his generation.

… [His masterpiece, Tristes Tropiques (1955)]… was an intellectual autobiography concentrated on his pre-war travels in Brazil. Lévi-Strauss described how the book sprang out of depression: “So I said, ‘I had enough, I shall never come to anything, so I can write very freely about whatever passes through my head.’ I wrote without scientific scruples, without worrying whether the result was scientifically sound. The result was a sort of wild fantasy.”

In the book, Lévi-Strauss formulated his distinction between “Nature” and “Culture” based on language and man’s unique ability to see an object not merely as itself, but also as a symbol. It was in this ability to symbolise, a characteristic shared by all humans, no matter how primitive, that he sought the unconscious similarities of the human mind.

These “universal attributes” were the inspiration for Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual quest. But in detecting them, he was also accused of reductionism. Even his severest critics would not deny his importance, however, his immense influence beyond his chosen field, or the sense of intellectual excitement he was able to generate. This lay in his highly original interpretation of data, in the poetic scope of his associations and in his methodology, which was always capable of shedding new light on established facts even if his conclusions were sometimes subject to doubt…

From The Telegraph.


A good definition of structuralism, from Edward Rothstein:

… Levi-Strauss rejected Rousseau’s idea that humankind’s problems derive from society’s distortions of nature. In Levi-Strauss’ view, there is no alternative to such distortions. Each society must shape itself out of nature’s raw material, he believed, with law and reason as the essential tools.

This application of reason, he argued, created universals that could be found across all cultures and times. He became known as a structuralist because of his conviction that a structural unity underlies all of humanity’s mythmaking, and he showed how those universal motifs played out in societies, even in the ways a village was laid out.

For Levi-Strauss, for example, every culture’s mythology was built around oppositions: hot and cold, raw and cooked, animal and human. And it is through these opposing “binary” concepts, he said, that humanity makes sense of the world.

This was quite different from what most anthropologists had been concerned with. Anthropology had traditionally sought to disclose differences among cultures rather than discovering universals. It had been preoccupied not with abstract ideas but with the particularities of rituals and customs, collecting and cataloguing them.

Levi-Strauss’ “structural” approach, seeking universals about the human mind, cut against that notion of anthropology. He did not try to determine the various purposes served by a society’s practices and rituals. He was never interested in the kind of fieldwork that anthropologists of a later generation, like Clifford Geertz, took on, closely observing and analyzing a society as if from the inside…

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2 Responses to “Claude Levi-Strauss has died…”

  1. Brad Says:

    Thank you very much for this posting on Levi-Strauss.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    You’re welcome, Brad.

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