Claude Lévi-Strauss was a giant of the French intellectual scene for a better part of the 20th century. Making him one of the most important Western thinkers of the era. His passing has been noted variously — in particular this obituary in the New York Times. There’s also an exhaustive one in the Telegraph with a particularly continental flavor. Another article at Open Democracy recently reflected on his impact at age 100. Lévi-Strauss has been central in my thought, too. I’d like to share a few personal experiences to give this some context…
I did graduate work in the Social Studies of Medicine department at McGill University (hereafter SSoM) in Montreal, an interdisciplinary program importantly impacted by Lévi-Straussian visions. And those of his critics.
Immersing myself in a historiographic tradition that included challengers to Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism (a term he essentially abhorred) like Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault, I was simultaneously struck by how important he was to French intellectual life. His thinking about epistemological claims; careful appreciation for the complexities of supposedly unsophisticated knowledge forms; realization of how mortality and death were foundational to a society’s understanding of nature, and struggle to situate anthropology between “science” and “culture”, were all becoming oddly familiar to me.
The Savage Mind (1966 ) is Lévi-Strauss’ work I’m most familiar with, a brilliant contribution to debates about the nature of scientific inquiry, epistemology and cultural relativism. He sees, in countless so-called “primitive” indigenous cultures, a propensity towards what Enlightenment thinkers argued were distinctly European modes of thought — reason, classification, etc…In fact, he finds putatively rational views of the world to be widespread. Talking of bricolage, and comparing its inventive nature to the modern day engineer, he shows us the arbitrary distinctions our civilization makes, and how they lack objectivity.
The Times obit above concludes by saying that Lévi-Strauss believed that “myths speak through the medium of humanity and become, in turn, the tools with which humanity comes to terms with the world’s greatest mystery: the possibility of not being, the burden of mortality.” This resonates powerfully with my graduate school milieu. A star of our department, medical anthropologist Margaret Lock, did pioneering world on attitudes to menopause, organ transplants and death in modern Japan. Representing a synthesis of thinkers from historical, sociological and anthropological traditions that were unified by their focus on medicine, SSoM was consciously interdisciplinary. But the whole nexus around birth, life and death made the Lévi-Straussian connection deep.
Lévi-Strauss’ arguments with the French existentialists about the nature of human freedom (and humanity itself) shaped academic discourse in post-war France, also laying part of the foundation for a Bordieusian sociological tradition. Pierre Bordieu was quite influential on a couple of the professors at SSoM — Alberto Cambrosio, a medical sociologist who has worked extensively on epistemology, and George Weisz, a French medical historian.
Dr Weisz was my thesis supervisor, and before I even knew what I wanted to write about, he’d introduced me to a rich intellectual tradition he’d become familiar with as a graduate student in Paris in the early 70s.
I encountered a host of ideas — the distinctly French school of the “science de l’homme“, traced from 18th century Montpellier vitalists like Paul Joseph Barthez to the present (near the end of my MA I read Alexis Carrel’s L’Homme, cet inconnu (1935), and despite his dark political leanings, saw interesting aspects I wanted to research further). To me, Canguilhem was the lynch pin between 19th century vitalism and post-structuralist critiques like those by Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. I remain mesmerized by their masterful arguments about the importance of ideology in the sciences, particularly biology.
At base, the whole science de l’homme problematique is essential to French thought, and it was essential to Lévi-Strauss. One could see him as a proponent of a humanist inspired philosophical anthropology that accepted biology as an essential structural factor in human life. Hence the term.
Lévi-Strauss’ genius and influence on 20th century thought was recognized early on, as witnessed by this interesting review of his work by Susan Sontag from the 1960s. This comes to me by way of 3Quarks Daily. Certainly the great anthropologist’s widening oeuvre was being recognized in American academic circles by that point.
In fact, as witnessed in this personal account, Lévi-Strauss’ thought provided the foundations of whole university departments. Sadly, some graduates of these departments are only tangentially aware of his work…
No matter, his genius remains, widely known or not. His warnings about the mono-cultural influences on indigenous societies has turned out to be horrifying prescient. Cultural diversity (in its traditional sense) continues to diminish, while anthropologists, many under the sway of Lévi-Strauss’ philosophical inclinations, help define the boundaries of new, often unexpected, cultural forms. Lévi-Strauss was an academic from another time and place — deeply involved in the wider public sphere, influential across many disciplines; a man of letters who engaged with the philosophers and literary lights of his era. An era whose end comes with his passing.
And yet, in institutions far-flung from the streets of Paris, he continues to resonate…