Claude Lévi-Strauss, arguably the most prestigious cultural anthropologist of the second half of the twentieth century, continues to attract a large readership in both Europe and the United States. His prolific writings assert bold hypotheses and provocative explanations for the diverse ways in which human societies adapt to chaotic and challenging environments. In the tradition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he called our master and our brother, he typically praises premodern ways of life and denounces Western civilization as oppressive and destructive.
Influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistics, Lévi-Strauss considers every human culture as a structured universe composed of rules and logical organization, often operating at an unconscious level. Frequently he has been classified as belonging to the contemporary school of French structuralism, although he denies that he has much in common with most of the other writers and thinkers classified as structuralists.
The Savage Mind is often considered Lévi-Strauss’s most influential and difficult work. The French title, La Pensée sauvage, is a pun not translatable in English. The word pensée can mean either “thought,” “thinking,” or the “pansy flower,” whereas the word sauvage means either “savage,” “primitive,” or “wild.” Thus, the French title could refer to the “wild pansy flower.” In choosing the adjective sauvage, Lévi-Strauss was not denoting people with a special propensity for violence; his intention was to refer to the so-called primitive or savage societies, those societies that later anthropologists prefer to characterize in nonpejorative terms such as “premodern,” “preliterate,” or “precivilization.” Rather than The Savage Mind, a more descriptive English title would have been “The Ways of Thinking of Premodern Peoples.”
The major thesis of The Savage Mind is that no fundamental differences exist in the ways that modern humans and “primitive” peoples think and perceive reality, and that all mature humans with normally functioning brains are capable of complex thought, including critical analysis and inference about cause-and-effect relationships. Lévi-Strauss declares, therefore, that it is fallacious to assume a “dichotomy between logical and prelogical mentality,” and that the “the savage mind is logical in the same sense and the same fashion as ours” (of “nonprimitive” peoples). All cultures, moreover, contain common components, including myths and systems of classification, and the differences in the content of myths and classifications are primarily a result of variations in knowledge and technology.
In chapter 1, “The Science of the Concrete,” Lévi-Strauss argues that primitive peoples utilize intellectual methods that are similar to those of modern peoples, including scientists. “This thirst for objective knowledge,” he argues, “is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call primitive.” Even Neolithic societies (which had invented agriculture) already had been heirs to a “long scientific tradition.” More controversial is Lévi-Strauss’s assertion that both modern science and tribal magic “require the same sort of mental operations,” and that the only difference between the modern and the tribal operations of the mind are the kinds of problems each addresses. Rather than contrasting magic and science, therefore, he writes that it is better to “compare” the two as “parallel modes of acquiring knowledge.” While conceding that modern...
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