Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 – 2009) was an influential French anthropologist and philosopher who worked in the structuralist tradition. In The Raw and the Cooked (1962) and The Savage Mind (1964) he applied the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jacobson, and Nikolai Troubetzkoy to the study of myth in aboriginal societies of South America.
Following Roman Jacobson, who broke down all words into phonemes (the smallest possible units of signification), he broke down all myths into mythemes (the smallest possible units of meaning.) Just as phonemes were organized into diverse patterns to create the particularities of language, so also were mythemes. Following Ferdinand de Saussure, he defined mythemes not according to any positive content, but according to the negative space created by their differences, and explained these in terms of the material factors which condition the life of a society. Thus each myth, being composed of different structures of mythemes and arising from particular material conditions, expressed a unique set of meanings – an approach opposed by theorists working in the Jungian tradition of archetypes, which posited similarities rather than differences in cross-cultural studies of mythology.
Both his method and his conclusions were synchronic (i.e. timeless) rather than diachronic (i.e. historical.) That is to say, his method was to look for similarities across rather than over time, and he concluded that the mythological structures of the societies he studied militated against an awareness of change over time.
In order to understand Levi-Strauss’ influence one must recall the distinction between analytic (British and American) and continental (French and German) philosophy. The analytic tradition is empirical (it holds that observation does, or should, control concepts) and is principally concerned with the clarification of language and logical structures. The idea is not so much to generate new theories as it is to clear up muddle and establish formal rules of argument, so that scholars working in other fields can get practical guidance in constructing their own arguments. Put another way, analytic philosophy is corrective of other theories, not generative of new theories in its own right. Continental philosophy, by contrast, is rationalist (it holds that concepts do, or should, control observation), and is principally concerned with revealing the structures of thought and perception which organize all human experience. The idea is very much to generate new theories – big theories which, by explaining the mind, can in principle explain everything that people do and say and think.
Levi-Strauss worked in the continental tradition, and did not see his task as the empirical description of man and society. Rather, he was interested in studying South American tribes because he believed that this would reveal the categories of thought and perception which conditioned all human experience. Thus the purpose of studying these tribes was not so much to learn about the tribes, but about all people generally – the tribal community was simply a fortuitous opportunity to study people in relatively uncomplicated conditions, which made analysis a much more manageable task.
In consequence of the gulf between analytic and continental philosophy, Levi-Strauss was immensely influential in France (it is no accident that most postmodernists, who took his work as their point of departure, were also French), but much less influential in Britain and the United States, where big theories are usually suspect as insufficiently empirical.
In the conclusion of The Raw and the Cooked, Levi-Strauss wrote: "this book on myths is itself a kind of myth. If it has any unity, that unity will appear only behind or beyond the text and, in the best hypothesis, will become a reality in the mind of the reader." Jacques Derrida, the subject of our next article, would have much to say about this.
Biographical Information: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/nov/03/claude-levi-strauss-obituary
Part of a Series on Postmodernism (IV of XV)