By Frank James
French philosopher and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the leading intellectuals of his time, has died at age 100.
He was most associated with the anthropological school of thought of structuralism. Reuters has one of the clearest explanations I've seen of structuralism and its import on science in its story about Levi-Strauss' death.
In particular, he used tribal customs and myths to show that human behavior is based on logical systems which may vary from society to society, but possess a common sub-structure.
These findings, which challenged the notion that Western European culture was somehow unique or superior, resonated with the ideas of opponents of colonialism and Levi-Strauss gained a following beyond the circle of professional anthropologists.
He argued that linguistics, communications and mathematical logic could be used to reveal fundamental social systems.
On the occasion of Levi-Strauss' 100th birthday last November, NPR's Frank Browning also provided excellent background on the difference the philosopher's work made.
FRANK BROWNING: Go into a museum or a fashion house or even a lot of hip-hop concerts, and you'll see Claude Levi-Strauss lurking in the mist. Levi-Strauss, arguably more than any other writer or thinker, turned what had been regarded as quaint objects of Stone Age primitives into heritage pieces of art that are sought out by the world's finest curators. It began more or less 70 years ago when he hiked with horses into Brazil's jungle interior and got to know the Bororo people.
BROWNING: Levi-Strauss left his post with the French Cultural Ministry and spent three years with the Bororo learning to talk to them, photographing them, studying the intellectual intricacies of their complex cultural lives. What he wrote about that and later experiences transformed how our world came to understand the so-called savage mind, says Columbia University Anthropologist Mick Taussig.
Professor MICK TAUSSIG (Anthropology, Columbia University): Levi-Strauss was like a volcanic eruption with the translation of the savage mind. It sent everybody running for cover, and tremendous excitement, and it was an intellectual earthquake.
BROWNING: Until then, the dominant anthropological view held that these primitives were stunted at a pre-logical mental development. Levi-Strauss's work demonstrated that they live in unbelievably complex cultures, says French anthropologist Laurent Berger at Paris's Musee Branly.
Dr. LAURENT BERGER (Research Fellow, Musee du quai Branly, Paris): People were supposed to live in primitive societies because they don't know how to write, they don't know the existence of political state. So this kind of people, when they think about their own social relationships, when they try to establish taxonomies of plants, of animals, etcetera, they use a kind of reasoning which is common to ordinary American people, to ordinary French people in their everyday life. So Levi-Strauss succeeded in breaking this kind of stereotype about primitive people.
Britannica.com's explains structuralism thusly:
In cultural anthropology, the school of thought developed by the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, in which cultures, viewed as systems, are analyzed in terms of the structural relations among their elements. According to Levi-Strauss's theories, universal patterns in cultural systems are products of the invariant structure of the human mind. Structure, for Levi-Strauss, referred exclusively to mental structure, although he found evidence of such structure in his far-ranging analyses of kinship, patterns in mythology, art, religion, ritual, and culinary traditions.
And more from Reuters:
Exceptionally erudite, Levi-Strauss was not the most accessible of thinkers and many of his works are impenetrable to laymen, but he managed to transcend the esoteric bounds of science with "Tristes Tropiques."
A detailed account of social behavior among Brazilian tribes, "Tristes Tropiques" was set apart from the author's other writings by its autobiographical content.
While the work's opening sentence -- "I hate voyages and explorers" -- was hardly designed to win the approval of his scientific peers, lovers of literature considered it a triumph.