The Savage Mind

by Claude Lévi-Strauss

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In every language [. . .] discourse and syntax supply indispensable means of supplementing deficiencies of vocabulary.

Here, Lévi-Strauss summarizes the thesis he obtained from his study of numerous world languages that evolved, more or less, independently. He suggests that vocabulary is not the only metric for evaluating a language's sophistication or semantic content (i.e., its meaning). Rather, languages are whole systems of multimodal behavior including the symbolic, aural, gestural, and syntactical.

The use of more or less abstract terms is a function not of greater or lesser intellectual capacity, but of differences in the interests—in their intensity and attention to detail— of particular social groups within the national society.

In this segment, Lévi-Strauss critiques contemporary theorists's negative bias towards non-Westernized human traditions, to which they often impute an aspect of primitivity. He suggests that abstract terminology is not synonymous with sophisticated terminology; rather, studies show that language emerges on a continuum between concrete and abstract, depending on the needs of a given language ecosystem.

Every civilization tends to overestimate the objective orientation of its thought and this tendency is never absent.

This statement encapsulates Lévi-Strauss' critique of Western thought, which pathologically affirms that its most recent metaphors are the "right" ones. In retrospect, most concepts and metaphors of a given moment are considered imprecise, or outright wrong, when looking back. The statement implicitly elevates non-Westernized cultures and languages to the same esteem as other traditions, such as Anglophone language and culture.

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