Claude Lévi-Strauss

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1983

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.

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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 resolved by reason and logic. Myths reveal the collective unconscious of the human mind and can be scientifically analyzed, for Lévi-Strauss.

In studying cultures regarded as primitive, Lévi-Strauss broke sharply with Malinowski and the functionalists, who believed that each element of a culture had an understandable and rational function. Lévi-Strauss turned to linguistics for his anthropological insights. Just as speech is composed of arbitrary sign systems that are symbolic of a deeper language structure, so social customs reflected a deeper cultural pattern. The first necessity for a society is to bind itself together by rules, and these rules, kinship customs, for example, can be quite arbitrary and nonfunctional in an immediate sense. Their crucial role is to hold societies together in a system of rules that will appear so natural to those within that they will disappear from consciousness. Taboos against incest, for example, can take many arbitrary forms, but the underlying purpose everywhere is to require an exchange of people, binding the social group together.

From the 1960’s into the 1980’s Lévi-Strauss continued to write his anthropological works: Le Totémisme aujourd’hui (1962; Totemism, 1963), La Pensée sauvage (1962; The Savage Mind, 1966), Mythologiques (1964-1971; Introduction to the Science of Mythology, 1969-1981), Paroles données (1984; Anthropology and Myth, 1987), and others. His work won for him the highest honors in academia, and a survey of literature in the 1970’s revealed that he was the most cited anthropologist in the world.

Yet most of these books are abstract and difficult, even for well-educated laypersons. Lévi-Strauss’ impact on the general intellectual community came first with Tristes tropiques, a book of spiritual and philosophical meditation, and in his later attempts to reach out of his laboratory to the general public. He spoke to the crisis of twentieth century Western civilization, a crisis reflected in war, ecological disaster, and general malaise.

Lévi-Strauss had a deep sympathy for non-Western people. Anthropology had been dominated by cultural evolutionists, who ranked societies from primitive ones at the bottom to Western civilization at the top. Lévi-Strauss rejected such ethnocentrism. Ranking societies was meaningless, since they specialized in different activities. If Eskimos devised the scale of measurement, the West might rank at the bottom and appear as a society unchanged since prehistoric times. The West excelled in industrial technology but lagged far behind India in developing philosophical and religious systems, behind the Polynesians in evolving a freer and more generous way of life, behind the aborigines in Australia in elaborating models of kinship, behind the Melanesians in creating art. Human culture was rich in achievement and 99 percent of it had occurred outside the West, Lévi-Strauss believed.

This worldview gave Lévi-Strauss a perspective from which to analyze modern Western society. Western civilization was sick at its very center. The West, unleashing rapid technological change, had unbalanced the harmony between nature and culture. Order and beauty disappeared in a cluttered world that thrust together things that should be separate. Western humanism justified using technology in a destructive way by making humans the center of creation and by legitimating their domination of all other life. The so-called primitives understood true humanism, Lévi-Strauss argued, one that “puts the world before life, life before man, and the respect of others before the love of self.”

Lévi-Strauss angered some Westerners by refusing to place their prized achievements on a higher plane than the achievements of Bushmen or Eskimos and by attacking Western conceptions of humanism. He shocked such intellectuals as Sartre by attacking Western conceptions of history. Western intellectual traditions were based on historical reasoning, on the assumption that institutions and ideas could best be understood by studying them over time. Lévi-Strauss argued that history did not evolve along a linear path. History should be regarded as a matrix, not as a linear record of events. For example, the Industrial Revolution did not start in the West because of that region’s unique evolutionary development but because the global cultural division of labor captured all the human possibilities through different specialties in different societies. The Western Industrial Revolution incorporated the inventions of all societies: agriculture, pottery, weaving, and the like. Ancient societies made these achievements using the same processes of reasoning and logic as a scientist in the modern Western world. The Industrial Revolution did not result from the genius of Western Europeans but from the operations of the human mind. The Industrial Revolution occurred in the West by chance of historical accident; it would have occurred elsewhere at another time.

Western ethnocentrism, including its culture-bound view of history, combined with its wealth and power to destroy global balance and to threaten all other cultures with destruction. Lévi-Strauss compared Western civilization with a virus, which entered into living cells (cultures) and caused them to reproduce according to its model, the Western model.

This virus threatened the West as well as the non-West. Lévi-Strauss believed that knowledge, including self-knowledge, came through confronting “the other,” not through inward examination. Modern Western civilization started when the Renaissance confronted its own classical tradition and continued in the age of exploration, when it encountered other cultures. Today those cultures, infected by the Western virus, are dying. Their death will end the possibility of Westerners’ gaining perspective on their own civilization, ending forever the possibility of self-knowledge.


Claude Lévi-Strauss’ daring anthropological work has earned for him the respect of his colleagues. Even those who reject his approach acknowledge the many insights his work has generated. He is also regarded as a major thinker of the twentieth century, although his thought makes many of his fellow Western intellectuals uneasy. Lévi-Strauss dissolved old political concerns, categories, and labels. His work was explosive in its implications for Western civilization’s role in the world. He described his own political position as one of “serene pessimism.” Western reform, even of the most humane and enlightened sort, was part of the Western virus. He refused to join organizations working to protect human rights, because such bodies engaged in a form of imperialism, with one culture imposing its conception of such rights on others. He rejected the concept of progress, challenged the ethnocentrism of the West, and brought the growing concerns with ecology to a level deeper than mere attention to a clean environment; sanity itself required balance, distance, and self-limitation. Westerners had to preserve the cultures of primitive people and the existence of other species, he believed, not because they had the right to exist but because they possessed a wisdom on which survival of the West depended.


Badcock, C. R. Lévi-Strauss: Structuralism and Sociological Theory. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1975. This is a study of Lévi-Strauss’ structural thought that tries to avoid jargon and to bring his ideas before the lay public in a clear and concise exposition.

Champagne, Roland A. Claude Lévi-Strauss. Boston: Twayne, 1987. An excellent work on Lévi-Strauss’ contributions to semiotics. It is a clearly written study of a difficult and critical area of his thought.

Leach, Edmund. Lévi-Strauss. London: Fontana/Collins, 1970. A critical but fair book on Lévi-Strauss’ anthropological work, written by a student of Bronisław Malinowski.

Pace, David. Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Bearer of Ashes. New York: Methuen, 1983. An excellent and provocative study that evaluates the whole body of Lévi-Strauss’ work, showing the personal and scholarly sources of his critical evaluation of Western civilization.

Shalvey, Thomas. Claude Lévi-Strauss: Social Psychotherapy and the Collective Unconscious. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979. Considers the philosophical implications of Lévi-Strauss’ thought and relates it to Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Sartre, and others.

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