Claude Lévi-Strauss at 100: echo of the future

Dan Sperber
28 November 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss, who is 100 years old on 28 November 2008, is perhaps the most famous anthropologist in the history of the discipline (with the possible exception of Margaret Mead). Among French intellectuals, he cut a singular and imposing figure, second to none and close to none. By making their hearts beat faster with the promise of intellectual adventures, he attracted to anthropology generations of students - I was one - who otherwise would have become philosophers, historians or sociologists.

Dan Sperber is a French anthropologist, linguist and cognitive scientist. He is research professor at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris

This article is also published in the journal of the international cognition and culture institute

Many of these students, unlike their master, became thorough fieldworkers and spent little time with theory. In his seminar, they would typically present ethnographic data and he would make theoretical comments. He was critically encouraging of my own rare theoretical musings. I remain grateful for this, while recalling that others influenced by him regarded such feedback as presumptuous - as if they could at most add exegeses and footnotes to his theorising.

The naturalist at heart

Say "Claude Lévi-Strauss" and people answer "structuralism". This is right as far as it goes, but at the height of his career Lévi-Strauss was also, and quite consistently, a lone defender of a naturalistic and mentalistic perspective in anthropology. While his structuralism was met with enthusiasm, his naturalistic approach was generally treated as an impropriety, an intellectual faux-pas that was better ignored. Lévi-Strauss, undeterred, insisted throughout his work on the validity of this perspective.

In The Savage Mind (1966), for example, he evokes the reintegration of "culture in nature and finally...life within the whole of its physico-chemical conditions". In The View from Afar (1985), he evokes - even while distancing himself from the "naïve and simplistic" naturalism of sociobiology - a possible coming together of the sciences of nature and the sciences of culture that would go from the most elementary mechanisms of life to the most complex human phenomena. Lévi-Strauss uses the categories "human nature" and "human mind" as quasi-synonyms. As early as 1952 (at a landmark Bloomington conference), he had argued that an "anthropology conceived in a broader way" would one day reveal how the mind works.

Also in openDemocracy:
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From the late 1950s, linguistics and psychology underwent major transformations, with the result that their relationships with one another and with anthropology would have to be rethought much more radically than Lévi-Strauss had envisaged. In linguistics, structuralism has now been relegated to the history of a discipline whose conceptual framework, methods, and agenda have been radically redefined under the influence of Noam Chomsky (and this is true also of anti-Chomskyan linguistics). In the social sciences too, structuralism belongs to the past, not because it has been superseded by a compelling alternative approach, but because the mismatch between its promises and its achievements became all too blatant.

The structure of mind

With hindsight, by far the most important development in the human sciences in the second half of the 20th century was not structuralism (nor, it's needless to say, postmodernism), but the "cognitive revolution". This movement has, among other achievements, returned psychology to the study of mental mechanisms, a development Lévi-Strauss should have welcomed. Moreover, in the last generation more and more cognitive psychologists have become aware that mental structures could be studied through their cultural manifestation as well as through laboratory experiments. This insight converge with the Lévi-Strauss who maintained (in The Raw and the Cooked [1969]), that "the final aim of anthropology is to contribute to a better knowledge of objectified thought and its mechanisms".

In many ways, Lévi-Strauss was the pioneer of a true "cognitive anthropology". True, the label evokes the American anthropological school - also known as "ethnoscience" - that was quite influential in the 1960s and 1970s. Roy G D'Andrade, in his The Development of Cognitive Anthropology (1995), treats this school as more or less the whole of cognitive anthropology and hardly mentions Lévi-Strauss. The psychologist Howard Gardner, in his earlier The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution (1985), was more perceptive in giving equal space to Lévi-Strauss's structuralism and to American ethnoscience.

But what is at stake here is not precedence or intellectual "turf". American "cognitive anthropology" produced a body of work (often discussed in Lévi-Strauss's seminar) that contributed greatly to bridging the gap between cognitive psychology and anthropology. Its focus, however, was on categorisation and cultural models, and it only marginally addressed wider issues in anthropology (such as social organisation, kinship or religion). It may have started with great ambitions, but ended up carving itself a limited domain at the margins of anthropology and psychology. By contrast, Lévi-Strauss saw the study of mental mechanisms as central to the main concerns of anthropology, and thought of ethnographic research as a source of fundamental insights into the structure of the human mind.

The past as prelude

The impact of Lévi-Strauss's work on anthropology itself is not commensurate with its universal fame. The study of kinship has lost its traditional centrality to the discipline, and has come to concentrate on issues of power or gender quite remote from Lévi-Straussian concerns. The study of mythology has gained neither much momentum nor much inspiration from Lévi-Strauss's monumental contribution. It is not clear whether this is a reflection of Lévi-Strauss or the state of anthropology, which remains largely a-theoretical and non-naturalistic. Thus it is that new readers, however impressed and inspired they may be by the striking intelligence and elegance of Lévi-Strauss's writings, are unlikely to experience the sense of intellectual elation and urgency that moved many of us forty years ago.

Still, while some of his pronouncements are now of historical interest, others were well ahead of their time. If, as I believe has begun happening, the study of the mind and that of culture become unified within a naturalistic framework, then Claude Lévi-Strauss will stand out as a precursor of this new adventure.


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