Claude Lévi-Strauss, R.I.P.

3 November 2009



Claude Lévi-Strauss was perhaps the most famous of the French structuralists, using structuralism in studies of anthropology, mythology, and sociology.

Claude Lévi-Strauss has passed away a few days ago on 30 October 2009 at the age of 100, and not far short of his 101st birthday. It would be difficult to over-estimate the impact of Lévi-Strauss on twentieth century European continental thought. While Lévi-Strauss is identified as an anthropologist, he was much more than an anthropologist simpliciter. Lévi-Strauss was a European intellectual in the grand manner, even while eschewing the trappings of being an intellectual in the grand manner. In a word, he was the genuine article, more interested in his work and his ideas than in his reputation.

CLS Scope

Lévi-Strauss was, among other things, a prolific writer, and his writings went on to exercise an influence throughout the intellectual life of the twentieth century. He was known both for his special contributions to anthropology but as much for the wider-ranging implications of his thought. His writing has a great style, beginning with the wonderfully cranky first line of his memoir, Tristes Tropiques: “Travel and travellers are two things I loathe — and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions.”

CLS Tristes Tropiques

Lévi-Strauss was a structuralist, and as a structuralist he was ground zero, so to speak, of the European reaction to the Cartesian tradition that reached its culmination in Husserl. The generation of French scholars contemporaneous with Lévi-Strauss all cut their teeth on Husserl, and all reacted against Husserl in their own ways; the reaction of Lévi-Strauss was one of the more fruitful reactions against the subjectivism and idealism of Husserl and the tradition he represents. Structuralism had legs; it was a theoretical orientation that went on from small beginnings to influence every aspect of the life of the mind.

CLS Totemism

Freud and Marx, those twin fascinations of twentieth century European thought, are often credited with being structuralists, or, at least, following a structuralist method, and this is, in my estimation, a fair way to put it, despite the distaste most people have for using a label that ends with an “ism”. But if “isms” tend to over-simplification and schematism, and are often rejected for these reasons, the rejection of an “ism”, i.e., the rejection of a school of thought, can become as much of an intellectual fetish as the naming and labeling of a school of thought. Lévi-Strauss made structuralism explicit, he identified his work as structuralist, and he did not shy away from using the term not only in his writing but even in the titles of his books. Lévi-Strauss was not afraid of the label, and for that reason he rose above it.

CLS Structural Anthropology

I have several of Lévi-Strauss’ books in mass market paperback editions of English translations — this gives you an idea of the reach of Lévi-Strauss’ thought. As always, I prefer the shorter works, like The Scope of Anthropology, his inaugural lecture as a professor at the Collège de France, and the informal and conversational works, such as the interviews with Georges Charbonnier, in which he discusses openly not only his work but also the theoretical motivations that have been the underpinning of his work. I offer a salute to Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the permanent contribution he has made to Western civilization.

CLS Conversations

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