Claude Lévi-Strauss Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Lévi-Strauss, one of the founders of structural anthropology, used his discipline to achieve insights into Western civilization by studying non-Western societies. He challenged basic Western assumptions about politics, history, and culture and became one of the major figures in the intellectual history of the twentieth century.

Early Life

Claude Lévi-Strauss was born on November 28, 1908, in Brussels, Belgium, where his French parents lived, while his father, an artist, painted. When World War I began, his parents took him home to France, where he joined his grandfather, the Rabbi of Versailles. Little is known about Lévi-Strauss’ youth, but his formal schooling obviously proved unsatisfactory. He studied law and philosophy at the University of Paris but found both fields sterile and intellectually confining, although he taught philosophy in the early 1930’s.

Outside the formal educational structure, Lévi-Strauss had taken what he described as his three intellectual mistresses: geology, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. He found an underlying similarity in these seemingly disparate modes of thought. Each found surface reality to reflect a truer reality beneath. Each turned the surface chaos of experience into an abstract model that made the deeper reality understandable.

These intellectual interests came together around 1934, when Lévi-Strauss read American anthropologist Robert H. Lowie’s Primitive Society (1920). It freed Lévi-Strauss from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the academic philosophy that he was teaching and thrust him into what seemed to him the clear air of anthropology. In 1934, he accepted a professorship in sociology at the University of São Paulo and in 1936 began to publish in anthropology.

David Pace, in Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Bearer of Ashes (1983), found a clear pattern in Lévi-Strauss’ life. He was an outsider, never embracing the artistic or Jewish worlds of his parents, disparaging his education in law and philosophy, distancing himself from Marxism and psychoanalysis by turning them into abstract methodologies, and first finding his true calling in American anthropology practiced in Brazil.

Lévi-Strauss left São Paulo and returned to Paris in 1939. He fought in World War II until France surrendered and then fled Vichy France to teach at the New School for Social Research in New York. The rise of Fascism made the political categories of Western society seem meaningless to him. Unlike Jean-Paul Sartre and other major French intellectuals of his generation, Lévi-Strauss rejected any active political role.

When he returned to France after the war, he built on his anthropological work to make himself a central figure in Western intellectual life. He also continued his outsider’s role. He had no social life or friends, he said, and spent half of his life in his laboratory and the other half in his office. His world was abstract: “There is nothing I dread more than a too-close relationship with my fellow men.”

Life’s Work

Lévi-Strauss published his first articles in anthropology in 1936. His first major book was Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949; The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969), and it was followed by Race et histoire (1952; Race and History, 1958), Tristes tropiques (1955; English translation, 1964), and Anthropologie structurale (1963; Structural Anthropology, 1963). Recognition came quickly, both within the academic world and in the broader intellectual community.

The anthropological world was divided into two broad approaches. One interpretive school was influenced by Marcel Mauss, who searched for crosscultural patterns that would reveal universal truths about the human mind. In the other was Bronisław Malinowski, who studied the totality of a particular culture to determine the functional role of its parts. Lévi-Strauss was concerned with the former, which explored universal truths about the human mind as revealed in the structures of culture that reflected a collective unconscious. Humans are categorizing animals whose brains order the phenomena perceived by the senses. The brains of African Bushmen and Parisian intellectuals order reality in the same logical and systemic way, although the phenomena perceived would differ. The surface patterns of human cultures may appear chaotic, but underneath are common structures. For example, although the thousands of Native American myths seem endless in their variety, all humans confront such contradictions as life and death or male and female, and all minds confronting these contradictions operate similarly. It is in mythology that humans attempt to resolve contradictions that cannot be...

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Claude Lévi-Strauss Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Claude Lévi-Strauss (lay-vee strohs) not only founded structuralism but also affected Western thought as few people have done since World War II. He is one of France’s treasured thinkers, but he is as much a figure belonging to the world as to one country. This universality is appropriate to an anthropologist, and because of the circumstances surrounding Lévi-Strauss’s youth and family, there would seem few people better suited to this occupation. Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels, Belgium, on November 28, 1908, to Raymond Lévi-Strauss and his wife, Emmy Lévy. In 1914 the family left Belgium and moved to Versailles, France, where they lived with Raymond’s father, a rabbi. The move put Claude into a doubly alien environment, French and Jewish, and he lived with this sense of otherness while he received his education. Lévi-Strauss studied philosophy and law at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1927 to 1932. In 1934, following two years of teaching in a lycée, Lévi-Strauss received an appointment to the University of São Paulo, Brazil, where he taught as a professor of sociology until 1937. Following the end of his appointment, Lévi-Strauss stayed in Brazil until 1939. During this time, Lévi-Strauss decided that he wanted to be an ethnologist and was able to make two trips into the Brazilian interior to do fieldwork. As a result of his studies, Lévi-Strauss not only published his first work but also developed the sense of the binary opposition of “inside-outside” that would lead him into much of his most important work.

Lévi-Strauss was forced to flee France during the German occupation and arrived in the United States in 1941 to begin work at the New School for Social Research in New York City. The time spent in New York was crucial to Lévi-Strauss’s founding of structural anthropology, because it was there that he began to work with linguist Roman Jakobson. Jakobson introduced Lévi-Strauss to structural linguistics, in which method Lévi-Strauss recognized a system of analysis that could be applied to the study of human culture at large. Out of this realization came not only the beginnings of a structural approach to anthropology but also the genesis of the entire structuralist movement. The human mind, Lévi-Strauss theorized, worked by regarding the world in terms of binary oppositions, the most famous being the opposition between “raw” and “cooked,” but also between female/male, animal/human, nature/culture, them/us, outside/inside, and so on. Mythology, he argued, works by attempting to propose a mediation between unmediable oppositions: monstrous creatures such as centaurs or werewolves mediate between human and animal by creating a creature that is part animal, part human, or that alternates between human and animal form. Most important for mythological studies, Lévi-Strauss believed that the quest for an “original” form of a mythological narrative that was...

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Claude Lévi-Strauss Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Boon, James A. From Symbolism to Structuralism: Lévi-Strauss in a Literary Tradition. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. Carries the stated approval of Lévi-Strauss himself.

Champagne, Roland. Claude Lévi-Strauss. New York: Twayne, 1987. A clear introduction to both Lévi-Strauss and structuralism.

Geertz, Clifford. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. Geertz assesses the life of Lévi-Strauss briefly but decisively in his chapter.

Henaff, Marcel. Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Making of Structural...

(The entire section is 194 words.)