Claude Lévi-Strauss is a name I was vaguely aware of, but I couldn’t bring to mind why. And as we listened to this In Our Time programme about him I realised I’d also heard of some of his ideas, at least in passing, but never attached them to the name. The three experts who were discussing him were Adam Kuper (Boston University), Christina Howells (Oxford University) and Vincent Debaene (Columbia University).
Lévi-Strauss was born in France in 1908 to secular Jewish parents. Kuper described him as being part of the French “bohemian bourgeois” intellectual elite of the time. Lévi-Strauss went on to study philosophy at university in Paris, where he had such notable figures as Satre as classmates (Satre was specifically mentioned because of later debates between the two men). After graduating Lévi-Strauss initially became a teacher but hated it, and so took an opportunity that opened up in Brazil as a Professor of Sociology. This is despite not liking travel and not liking fieldwork – clearly it was better than being a schoolteacher. In 1939 he returned to France, but not long after had to flee to the US.
At this point in the programme they also talked a bit about Lévi-Strauss’s politics – he was very active in the socialist movement as a student. He later said something about discovering politics was not for him, and the experts on the programme were suggesting this was due to disappointment over not being called back to France to take part in government during the 1930s. His political opinions became more conservative over the years, and by the 1968 Student Revolution in France it wasn’t something he was interested in participating in.
It was during his time in New York that Lévi-Strauss began to write the first of the books that would make his name. He did a survey of what was known about the kinship rules of every society in the world. What he was interested in was applying the ideas of structuralism to this sort of anthropological data. Structuralism originated in linguistics, looking at the grammatical rules that underlie language and Lévi-Strauss was looking for the underlying structures that determine kinship. His premise was that the big difference between animals and humans is the incest taboo (which is now shown not to be the case – other primates also appear to have the equivalent of the incest taboos when not in captivity). So he saw the whole of the development of human society as growing out of the need to exchange wives with other tribes, and by comparing all the different societies he distilled out of the data a set of three possible models for kinship rules and for how this exchange was achieved. The impact of this book was huge within anthropology, although not so much outside the field. And it’s one of the works that has lead to him being considered one of the fathers of modern anthropology, and the father of structural anthropology.
The book that brought him to public attention outside the field of anthropology was Tristes Tropiques – a memoir of his time in Brazil. But the most famous of his books was La Pensée Sauvage (the title is often translated as “The Savage Mind”, but Debeane was pretty scathing about the accuracy of that translation, preferring (if I remember right) “The Primitive Thought”). In that his thesis was that there is no fundamental difference between the thoughts and thinking processes of “civilised” and “primitive” people; it’s their culture that shapes how their thoughts are expressed rather than underlying differences. He also set out the idea that given modern Western scientific thought is such a small part of the spectrum of human thinking we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to only examining it. Instead we should try to understand the whole range. It was this book that lead to fierce debates between Lévi-Strauss and Satre about the nature of freedom. I think it was Satre on the side of people being completely free to act as they chose, and Lévi-Strauss who felt they were constrained by the underlying rules of society. Which the discussion in this programme tied into the increasing conservativeness of Lévi-Strauss’s politics.
The last of Lévi-Strauss’s works that they discussed on the programme was his four volume book on mythology. This compared the myths of all the indigenous peoples across the Americas and looked at the underlying links and structures. There wasn’t time for them to go into much details, but I think the gist of it was that Lévi-Strauss came to the conclusion that the whole continent shared a common structure of myth and that many of these myths were in conversation with each other.
In some ways I felt like this was a bit of an odd programme – in that it felt like it was made a few decades too soon. Lévi-Strauss only died in 2009 (even if most of his important work was published by the 1980s) and I’m not sure there’s been enough time to get the necessary distance to look back on his contributions. J disagrees with me here, he thinks that would be a different programme and this one was fine as it was.