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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 180

In The Savage Mind, Claude Lévi-Strauss explores the structures of human consciousness to make the point that all human beings are capable of the same mental processes. He explores different ways that people organize concepts, such as myth, to help them make sense of the natural world (of direct sensory apprehension) and the supernatural (of beliefs, ideas,and the unknown).

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Rejecting the distinction that was then common in anthropology between "primitive" logic and the reasoning of "modern" peoples, Lévi-Strauss insists that the brain is not different. The preferences for different belief systems, contrasted as magic and religion, are cultural and can be learned and communicated the same way as language—through signs.

Some people have a preference for understanding cultural phenomena in terms of cyclical patterning; these are "cold" societies. Others view events as unique, linear sequences; he terms those "hot" societies. Regardless of worldview in those terms, each type is intellectually capable of understanding the other. It would be erroneous, therefore, to posit any scientific basis for believing people in any culture are intellectually superior to others.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1488

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...

(The entire section contains 1668 words.)

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