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Last Updated 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 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 science is more effective in producing knowledge that can be systematically assessed by empirical and quantitative methods, he insists that magic sometimes brings about good results.

Furthermore, in contrast to many anthropologists, Lévi-Strauss does not recognize a clear distinction between magic and religion. He describes religion as the “anthropomorphism of nature,” or the idea that nature is in part controlled by a consciousness that resembles human consciousness, whereas magic is usually based on the assumption that humans can exercise some control over nature by means of rituals or physical objects. Viewing the two concepts as overlapping, Lévi-Strauss writes that there can be “no religion without magic any more” than there can be “magic without a trace of religion.” The very notion of supernatural power, moreover, “exists only for a humanity which attributes supernatural powers to itself and in return ascribes the powers of its super-humanity to nature.”

Lévi-Strauss emphasizes the importance of mythology within premodern cultures, and he also argues that myths reflect unconscious structures of the human mind. Rather than being fantasies or prelogical forms of thought, myths encompass “the totality of phenomena” and explain symbolically how things have become the way they are. Surprisingly, he avoids discussions of myths about gods and spirit beings, preferring instead to focus on those that deal with nature and wild animals. He points to, for example, Native American myths describing a distant time when humans and animals had become estranged from one another. He writes that these stories are “profound” because they account for one of the “tragic” conditions of the human condition: the inability to communicate with other species living on the same planet.

In chapter 4, “Totem and Myth,” Lévi-Strauss presents a secular interpretation of totemism, which is the practice of kinship groups identifying with particular animals or other objects of nature. Rather than describing totemism as an early form of religion, as Émile Durkheim had, Lévi-Strauss conceptualizes totemism as essentially a system of classification by which preliterate peoples organize their relationships to the natural environment. He asserts that theorists such as Durkheim and Sir James George Frazer arbitrarily combined several “heterogeneous beliefs and customs” under the headings of totemism, then incorrectly interpreted these beliefs and customs through the lens of Judeo-Christian religions. He further argues that the castes of aristocratic societies, which are based on myths of a common ancestry, are equivalent to the myths of kinship clans in egalitarian tribal societies.

Lévi-Strauss recognizes that knowledge found in premodern societies is of a different order than that found in modern industrial societies. He writes that the latter utilize an engineering approach, thereby constructing knowledge that is specialized, empirical, and measurable. In contrast, premoderns used relatively simple tools and limited specialization of labor. Their approach was a form of bricolage, that is, putting things together using whatever comes to hand. Characterizing premodern societies as “cold,” he observes that they have had almost no discernable experience with historical change, and because of this, they generally interpreted the universe from the timeless categories within nature. Unlike persons living in “hot” industrial societies, premoderns tended to have little interest in cultural changes, except perhaps in the area of practical technology. Lévi-Strauss insists that these cold cultures, rather than being only childlike stages of historical development, had endured for centuries as intelligent entities adapting to the environment.

It has often been observed by scholars that the social theories that focus on structure, by their nature, tend to describe human cultures as static, thereby downplaying historical change. Lévi-Strauss’s focus on “prehistoric” societies further exacerbates this tendency. His structural approach is based on the premise that humans in all societies make sense of the universe by formulating structures of classifications that are based on dominant images observed within their experiences. He further argues that the human mind naturally classifies reality according to binary opposites, such as friend-enemy, edible-poisonous, goodness-evil, and strength-weakness. Once such dichotomies have been established, societies are then able to formulate more nuanced gradations, although binary opposites continue to provide the fundamental structures of human thought.

The final chapter of The Savage Mind, “History and Dialectic,” is primarily an attack on Jean-Paul Sartre’s difficult book Critique de la raison dialectique, I: Théorie des ensembles pratiques (1960; Critique of Dialectical Reason, I: Theory of Practical Ensembles, 1976), in which Sartre attempts to reconcile his earlier existentialism with a quasi-Marxist perspective of historical evolution. Lévi-Strauss is particularly critical of Sartre’s downplaying of analytical reason in favor of dialectical reason, the conviction by Sartre that human societies progress dialectically (that is, through opposing forces) toward a communist utopia, just as Karl Marx had predicted. Lévi-Strauss accuses Sartre of building a “mystical conception” of history, and he argues that there exists only one valid kind of reason, the kind that is logical and rational.

In attacking Sartre’s theories of history, Lévi-Strauss is actually expressing his disagreements with Marx as well as other Western thinkers who have conceptualized the past as a series of progressive stages from primitive cultures to modernity. Despite his commitment to Marx’s vision of socialism, Lévi-Strauss accepts little of the Marxist paradigm of historical development, particularly the notion of a linear pattern toward an inevitable goal. Lévi-Strauss, moreover, writes that it is impossible to write a “total” history of humanity. Rather, historians and anthropologists can deal only with partial and incomplete aspects of the past; they are “doomed” to concentrate on singular and unique places, periods, events, or cultures. Disagreeing with theorists who have attempted to discover a common pattern for the evolution of all societies, Lévi-Strauss celebrates the diversity of historical experiences with a special fondness for the so-called primitive societies that have not pursued the path toward modernization.

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