Monday, November 17, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss One Hundredth Birthday - Post 1

[All the Lévi-Strauss Birthday posts are here.]

I first read a book by Levi-Strauss as a doctoral student. It wasn't something assigned; I'm not sure how or why I picked it up. It was about going to Brazil. I was enchanted. I haven't gotten around to reading more about him, but he's always had a favored spot in my mind. So I was more than a little excited when I did the Famous People Born in 1908 post last January discovered that he was still alive. I wanted to do some posts in honor of his birthday - which will be a week from Friday on November 28. But I don't know all that much. So, finally, today, I stopped at the library and checked out seven books on or by Levi-Strauss. I'm hoping to do some cramming in the next ten days and to share some quotes here each day. Note, since I'm working from books and not the web, I'll put in citations for people who want to find the original. (I'll try to see if I can also find some of this online.)

What I'm discovering though, is that Levi-Strauss does not do sound-bites. What he's writing about is very complex, and he doesn't simplify it. So I felt a little better when I read, from Edmund Leach

The outstanding characteristic of his writing, whether in French or in English, is that it is difficult to understand; his sociological theories combine baffling complexity with overwhelming erudition. (Leach, 1977, p. 3)
Actually, I think that exaggerates it somewhat, but I try to put up quotes here that are reasonably easy to understand. Levi-Strauss, it seems to me, is complex, and has lots of caveats, simply because it is extremely easy to take things he says out of context. So he's constantly making sure that the reader isn't doing that. For example:

The way of thinking among people we call, usually and wrongly, 'primitive' - let's describe them rather as 'without writing,' because I think this is really the discriminatory factor between them and us - has been interpreted in two different fashions, both of which in my opinion were equally wrong. (Levi-Strauss, 1979, p. 15)
I have to admit to being guilty to doing much the same thing in this blog - lots of asides to expalin how what I'm writing might be taken wrong and how I really intend it. And also lots of qualifications, such as 'in my opinion'. Some would say, 'well of course it is just your opinion,' but if I don't write it, others will jump to conclusions that I'm stating a 'truth.' So, I take comfort in Levi-Strauss' writing.

So for the next week I'll try to write a little bit about what I'm discovering in the books. Today I really want to start with Levi-Strauss' own words. One book, Myth and Meaning, is from a series of radio talks Levi-Strauss gave in December 1977 on CBS. (As I'm writing this I'm going to Google this and see if the audio is available. Answer: Not found easily.) The table of contents is a series of questions that are addressed in each chapter. From Chapter 2:

There are those who say that the thinking of so-called primitive people is inferior to scientific thinking. They say that it is inferior, not because of a matter of style, but because, scientifically speaking, it is wrong. How would you compare 'primitive' thought with 'scientific' thought?
Claude Levi-Strauss responds (somewhat abridged):

He starts this section with the quote immediately above. He then goes on to describe the two fashions. Malinowski felt that:

The thought of all the populations without writing which are the subject matter of anthropology was entirely, or is, determined by the basic needs of life. If you know that a people, whoever they are, is determined by the bare necessities of living - finding subsistence, satisfying the sexual drives, and so on - then you can explain their social institutions, their beliefs, their mythology, and the like. This very widespread conception in anthropology generally goes under the name of functionalism.
The other fashion is not so much that theirs is an inferior kind of thought, but a fundamentally different kind of thought. This approach is exemplified by the work of Lévy-Bruhl, who considered that the basic difference between 'primitive' thought - I always put the word 'primitive' within quotes - and modern thought is that the first is entirely determined by emotion and mystic representations. Whereas Malinowski's is a utilitarian conception, the other is an emotional or affective concpetion; and what I have tried to emphasize is that actually the thought of people without writing, is or can be in many instances, on the one hand, disinterested - and this is a difference in relation to Malinowski - and, on the other hand, intellectual - a difference in relation to Lévy-Bruhl.
He's going to explain what he means by disinterested and intellectual soon.

What I tried to show in Totemism and in The Savage Mind, for instance, is that these people whom we usually consider as completely subservient to the need of not starving, of continuing able just to subsist in very harsh material conditions, are perfectly capable of disinterested thinking; that is, they are moved by a need or a desire to understand the world around them, its nature and their society. On the other hand, to achieve that end, they proceed by intellectual means, exactly as a philosopher, or even to some extent a scientist, can and would do.
Hey, I found this online - I don't have to keep typing this. SMILING.

This is my basic hypothesis. I would like to dispel a misunderstanding right away. To say that a way of thinking is disinterested and that it is an intellectual way of thinking does not mean at all that it is equal to scientific thinking. Of course, it remains different in one a way, and inferior in another way. It remains different because its aim is to reach by the shortest possible means a general understanding of the universe —and not only a general but a total understanding. That is, it is a way of thinking which must imply that if you don’t understand everything, you don’t explain anything. This is entirely in contradiction to what scientific thinking does, which is to proceed step by step, trying to give explanations for very limited phenomena, and then going on to other kinds of phenomena, and so on. As Descartes had already said, scientific thinking aimed to divide the difficulty into as many parts as were necessary in order to solve it So this totalitarian [I think holistic would be a better word since totalitarian has another connotation] ambition of the savage mind is quite different from the procedures of scientific thinking. Of course, the great difference is that this ambition does not succeed. We are able, through scientific thinking, to achieve mastery over nature—I don’t need to elaborate that point, it is obvious enough—while, of course, myth is unsuccessful in giving man more material power over the environment. However, it gives man, very importantly, the illusion that he can understand the universe and that he does understand the universe. It is, of course, only an illusion.

So, what I understand this to mean is that people without writing think the same way as people with writing. But rather than attempting to understanding the world by breaking it up into smaller and smaller parts which they can study, the people without writing develop holistic myths that explain and help them understand the universe. It's the same type of thinking, but focused on a macro explanation rather than micro explanations. I'm not sure I buy this completely that it is the same type of thinking, but I agree that it is certainly as sophisticated.

He goes on to talk about using different parts of the brain. This is easier to understand.
We should note, however, that as scientific thinkers we use a very limited amount of our mental power. We use what is needed by our profession, our trade, or the particular situation in which we are involved at the moment...
Today we use less and we use more of our mental capacity than we did in the past; And it is not exactly the same kind of mental capacity as it was either. For example, we use considerablyless of our sensory perceptions. It seems that there was a particular tribe which was able to see the planet Venus in full daylight, something which to me would be utterly impossible and incredible. I put the question to professional astronomers; they told me, of course, that we don't but, nevertheless, when we know the amount of light emitted by the planet Venus in full daylight, it was not absolutely inconceivable that some people could. Later on I looked into old treatises on navigation belonging to our own civilization and it seems that sailors of old were perfectly able to see the planet in full daylight. Probably we could still do so if we had a trained eye.
It is exactly the same with our knowledge about plants or animals. People who are without writing have a fantastically precise knoweldge of their environment and all their resources. All these things we have lost, but we did not lose them for nothing; we are now able to drive an automobile without being crushed at each moment, for example, or in the evening to turn our our television or radio. This implies a training of mental capacities which 'primitive' peoples don't have because they don't need them. I feel that, with the potential they have, they could have changed the quality of their mind, but it would not be needed for the kind of life and relationship to nature that they have. You cannot develop all the mental capacities belonging to mankind all at once. You can only use a small sector, and this sector is not the same according to the culture. That is all.
Actually, he keeps going. You can read more at this link to Myth and Meaning.

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1979) Myth and Meaning, New York: Schocken Books (also the link above)
Leach, Edmund (1970) Claude Levi-Strauss, New York: The Viking Press


  1. At the top, you should correct September 28th to November 28th.

    Good essay.

  2. Whoops! Thanks Phil. I also forgot to add the book references at the end. This also raises the question for me of when and when not to make your corrections visible. This was a typo (September) but it was one that changes the meaning - though if you are actually reading the post you should see it was a typo as you did. Generally I just fix typos without marking the old and new. And I did say I was going to add the references at the bottom, but forgot. Do I need an update indicator? Probably wouldn't hurt, but I do have this comment here as well. Again, thanks for the heads up.


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