The Savage Mind

by Claude Lévi-Strauss

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss isn't what you think. Knowing he was an anthropologist, you might think this was a book about some forgotten tribe. Little-known people do put in an appearance, but a close reading of the text reveals its true audience: the Western—or Westernized—reader. You should read the book. It's fascinating, very important, and I highly recommend it. You should also check out the excellent study guide available on this website.

In the early 1960s, Western civilization was sliding into a crisis. Economies in Europe and America were booming, centuries-old cultural proscriptions were cracking, and public intellectual attitudes to difference were softening. The upheaval we now call "the Sixties" was still a few years away. The Savage Mind was published in 1962, and it was, if you like, a spark. Or it would have been, if more people had been able to read it in French. It was, at least, a harbinger.

Levi-Strauss's argument was a take-down of post-modernist, relativist thought, before those were even recognized. His studies of how non-Western, supposedly primitive societies use language to understand their worlds demonstrates the limitations of building a solely empiricist ontology. If you understand the world only by what you can see and hear, without any abstract intellectual framework, you become the prisoner of your surroundings. If all you can do to explain the world is cobble together ideas about this rock, that weather pattern, that animal or a remote all-powerful god, you'll never make the jump to things you can't see or can't connect to your system. That closes off a whole universe of inquiry, which in the West gave us math, music, medicine and the Moon landing.

It's no longer permissible to use "savage" or "primitive" to refer to cultures which are trapped in Levi-Strauss's prison of bricolage, but it is true that most of what we call modernity would have been impossible without breaking free of it.

The deconstruction of post-modernism and relativism comes only after you understand the implications of the book. Levi-Strauss didn't write it that way. It just turned out like that. Ways of looking at the world that emphasize difference for difference's sake or that elevate an observed difference to an inviolable ideal, what Levi-Strauss called totems, are caught in the same trap. The bricoleur is insular and narrow-minded. They can't imagine a world different from their own, which is why their system of thought is so exclusive. Today, this might describe an ardent practitioner of identity politics. It might describe a well-meaning person who overlooks egregious flaws in someone else's character because they have the totem, the magic trait we've decided is above reproach.

The main argument of the book is that we're all the same. There aren't primitives and sophisticates, just ways of interpreting our environment which we pass on to each other and to our children, what Levi-Strauss calls "replicating structures." An analysis of the book, though, reveals the tools to conclude that we are very different, indeed. Levi-Strauss doesn't impose value judgments on the people he studies, rightly. We can use his analytical tools to criticize them, and ourselves, for structures and practices resulting from totemism.

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