Claude Lévi-Strauss 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...

(The entire section is 1983 words.)