Thinking through Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1908-2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the true giants of anthropology, passed away this past week on 30 October, just shy of 101 years old.

As Maurice Bloch writes, Lévi-Strauss was ‘the last survivor of these great beasts such as Sartre, Foucault and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu,’ the theorists who have given contemporary anthropology, and social theory around the world, a French accent and Gallic cadence.

Excellent obituaries appeared in a number of places, two of my favourites being the one by Bloch in The Guardian, and another by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times (thanks, Jovan!).

I’m not going to retread the substance of these obituaries, nor will I repeat what was better (and more quickly) written by other commentators online such as Rex at Savage Minds, Marshall Sahlins at the AAA website (for the 100th birthday), Richard Price, a student of Lévi-Strauss, and Robert Mackey at the NYTimes website, The influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss (a piece that links to a number of video clips in English and French, including interviews with other scholars). Instead, I’m going to write briefly about the relation of Lévi-Strauss to the study of brain and culture from my perspective.

I’ve been wanting to write a post on Lévi-Strauss for a while, and even started it once, because I’ve been grappling with the question about how neuroanthropology aspires to produce theoretical and empirical projects that are distinct from what is typically called ‘cognitive anthropology.’ Lévi-Strauss’ work is crucial to the foundation of cognitive anthropology, as a range of authors have argued (see Sperber 2008, for example), so he’s a critical point of departure for neuroanthropology.

Although I admire Lévi-Strauss, and I’m perfectly content to be considered close classificatory kin to cognitive anthropology, there are some characteristics of Lévi-Strauss’s thought, structuralism (the theoretical school Lévi-Strauss dominated, but which did not encompass all of his work [see Doja 2008]), and contemporary cognitive anthropology with which I fundamentally disagree. So although this post is written in respect, it has elements of opposition, perhaps even the false binarism that arises whenever one is trying to highlight distinctiveness in the midst of significant overlap. Beware the theoretical belligerence of small difference!

Coming to Lévi-Strauss

Lévi-Strauss has been quite rightly feted for his contributions to anthropology and to broadening the influence of our discipline on non-anthropologists, into literature, philosophy, cultural studies, and other fields. He lived an extraordinary life (as the obituaries all suggest), even if other anthropologists sometimes criticized him for spending too little time among the Brazilian Indians he wrote about in Tristes Tropiques. I had the pleasure of doing a very short interview on ABC Radio’s Victorian affiliate Thursday morning (with Mary Patterson of Melbourne University), and it was one of those few interviews one can do without fear of hyperbole, so important was Lévi-Strauss for our field.

When I was a graduate student, I found Lévi-Strauss simultaneously inspiring and terrifying. In an early seminar as a first-year PhD student, a classmate accused me of being ‘structuralist’ when I attempted to re-interpret the raw data from a classic ethnography. This other student snickered when she labeled me a ‘structuralist,’ using a Venn diagram (almost always a sign that the target is deserving derision). I was too ignorant of the field to know how to react, swimming in a fast current of the history of anthropological thought that wouldn’t reach Lévi-Strauss for another few weeks, my first encounter with his work.

When I finally got my hands on the writings of the master structuralist, I was awed. For our readers who have never explored his work, Lévi-Strauss combined a kind of encyclopaedic knowledge of diverse cultures that one only finds in our most senior colleagues with a distinctly French style of thought that was subtle, sweeping, humanist, literary, and startling at times. He grappled with complexity and cross-cultural comparison more adeptly than any contemporary anthropological theorist, undertaking theoretical projects that were so audacious that they beggar the academic imagination these days, when we are so concerned about constant, incremental publications, cultural specificity, and demonstrating the ‘relevance’ of our research. Albert Doja (2008: 325-326) describes his ability as ‘a single, quasi demiurgic gift to flush out affinities of meaning from anywhere and anything,’ a fair-minded description, in my opinion.

Although I have hardly read his oeuvre comprehensively, in books like The Savage Mind, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, the four volumes of Mythologiques, Structural Anthropology, Tristes Tropiques, and The Structural Study of Myth, what I find most outstanding (and admirable) is Lévi-Strauss’s penetrating ability to perceive pattern across an immense range of material. If human brains excel at noticing patterns, Lévi-Strauss was a master in our species. Although others may have emulated his theoretical conclusions, I found the example of his analyses, the extraordinarily perceptive readings of myths and stories to be remarkable. I never claimed to be a ‘structuralist’—although I might have been accused of it—in part because I was intimidated by this talent for perceiving pattern, one so awesome that my own work could hardly lay claim to something similar.

In his obituary, Maurice Bloch points out that, in spite of his towering influence, Lévi-Strauss was also intellectually isolated to some degree:

It is striking how, in spite of the immense respect with which he is treated, especially in France, he has no direct followers or students. Many claim and have claimed to be structuralists but it usually turns out that only a limited aspect of his thought has an influence on them, and at worst the adoption of the label “structuralist” was merely a matter of passing fashion. He is a lonely, if imposing, figure in the history of thought.

Although this is no doubt true to some degree, I also suspect that Lévi-Strauss lived an unusual, compressed trajectory of intellectual fashion, no doubt exacerbated by his long life. That is, his ideas became so dominant in the field that they quickly cycled through stages of Provocation-Acceptance-Pervasiveness-Questioning-Reaction-Rejection-Dormancy-Canonization while he was still alive, still writing. Most theorists barely live to see the first stages of this cycle (if they ever achieve any level of acceptance); Lévi-Strauss witnessed them all. He lived to see even ‘Post-structuralism’ ascend and perhaps begin to lose its grip on the collective anthropological ‘imagination’ (a concept he arguably laid the groundwork for, along with theorists like Emile Durkheim).

Of course, as other anthropologists have pointed out, calling Lévi-Strauss’s successors ‘Post-structuralists’ exaggerates their differences, implying that his successors rejected Lévi-Strauss’s thought when they had, in fact, incorporated so much of his program. If anything, many post-structuralists simply tried to reintegrate the structuralist project back into politics, history, and sociology, creating a synthesis that eroded the signature distinctiveness of structuralism while retaining some of its crucial insights. Pierre Bourdieu, although typically labeled a post-structuralist, was obviously deeply indebted to Lévi-Strauss, a debt he willingly acknowledged.

This is one reason that, although it’s important to contrast neuroanthropology to structuralism, this post does so with a degree of hesitancy that I wouldn’t normally demonstrate (you’ll find much less than the usual snark here) because Lévi-Strauss put forward such a complex and comprehensive body of work. I could easily focus on the many, many, many strengths of his work, including his recognition that myth was a form of philosophical speculation, his highlighting of the degree to which contemporary thought shared certain traits thought to be characteristic of ‘savage’ reasoning, his recognition of the cumulative social nature of creativity and mythological production, his later activism and advocacy of ecological sensibilities (e.g., Lévi-Strauss 2007). But, with due respect, on with the critique.

Structuralism and cognitive anthropology

Structuralism, at its heart, is a model of human cognition. As Maurice Bloch writes:

The basis of the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss is the idea that the human brain systematically processes organised, that is to say structured, units of information that combine and recombine to create models that sometimes explain the world we live in, sometimes suggest imaginary alternatives, and sometimes give tools with which to operate in it. The task of the anthropologist, for Lévi-Strauss, is not to account for why a culture takes a particular form, but to understand and illustrate the principles of organisation that underlie the onward process of transformation that occurs as carriers of the culture solve problems that are either practical or purely intellectual.

In one of his most concise demonstrations of his method, Lévi-Strauss (1967) analyzes a Tsimshian myth from the Pacific Northwest in ‘The Story of Asdiwal,’ a story originally collected by Franz Boas through his informant, Henry Tate. Lévi-Strauss offered an analysis of this story in his inaugural lecture as chair of Social Anthropology at the College de France, and a French version was originally published around 1959.

In the analysis, Lévi-Strauss argues that, underlying the supernatural events, the twists and turns of adventure in the life of the hero, Asdiwal, a widow’s magical child, lie basic categorical oppositions that organize the myth in geographic, economic, sociological and cosmological frameworks. Fantastic voyages, encounters with bears, mice, and sea-lions, visits to heaven and trips under the sea, conflicts with other groups, multiple unsuccessful marriages, are all the superficial detail concealing deeper schemata, such as geographical oppositions between cardinal directions, social oppositions between basic economic and kinship forms (land- v. sea-hunting, matrilocal v. patrilocal), and cosmological realms (upper v. lower worlds).

The basic myths (and folktales), such as certain stories that occur throughout the Americas, are more similar than they are different. As Lévi-Strauss (1963b: 208) writes:

On the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen…. But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. Therefore the problem: If the content of myth is contingent, how are we to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar?

The ‘necessity’ in myth, the reason why the fantastical human imagination produces such similar products, is the working of the human mind itself. And, as Lévi-Strauss (1969b: 10) writes in The Raw and the Cooked, ‘if the human mind appears determined even in the realm of mythology, a fortiori it must also be determined in all its spheres of activity.’

The structural project assumed that the structure of the ‘thought machine’ would be simpler than thought itself. That is, the proliferation of variations on a myth was the product of multiple iterations of a simpler generative schema. In Structural Anthropology, Lévi-Strauss writes: ‘A really scientific analysis must be real, simplifying, and explanatory’ (see text online here). I would argue that this particular preference for simple generative machines is ideological, even aesthetic (the preference for binarism, for example, is frequently credited to Lévi-Strauss’s reading of Hegel, although it can often be found in the work of Jakobson and the Prague school of linguistics). Scientific analyses in fields dealing with complex phenomena—meteorology, ecology, anatomy—often have a hard time squaring the second demand (simplifying) with the first (real), and only partially and retroactively (that is, without predictive powers) fulfill the third (explanatory).

This is perhaps one of the first and simplest distinctions between structuralism, together with some forms of cognitive anthropology, and neuroanthropology. The belief that, underlying human expression is a simpler structure of thought, one that can be described as an oppositional framework of categories, is, in my opinion, not consistent with current neurosciences. Structuralist analysis assumes that, underlying surface complexity in myth, ritual, and even conscious thought, there must be a simpler generative matrix (this is also one of my issues with Pierre Bourdieu, and the reason that I think his thought is overly structuralist). Increasingly, neurosciences are leading us to the opposite conclusion, that conscious thought and overt expression are the thin surface of much more complex processes, a staggeringly Byzantine thinking organ embedded within a baroque organism upon which it depends for sensation, experience, subsistence, and even motivation to exist. Even the theorists of mental modularity, with which I disagree on many things, come into direct conflict with the stupendous simplification of mental processes required by structuralist analysis (for more, see Andy Clark & Michael Wheeler: Embodied cognition and cultural evolution).

In contrast to structuralism, neuroanthropologists argue that the ‘underlying structure’ that generates myth, ritual and conscious thought, is not a set of categories or schemata, but rather the human nervous system and brain, embedded in a body, interacting with other individuals, and suspended in an environment. I think neurological research strikes a severe blow to the structuralist assumption that the mechanism underlying thought is abstract and radically simpler than the expressions of thought. On the contrary, the organic ‘structure’ that produces conscious thought is a hell of a lot more complicated than even the meandering plot line of a tale like ‘The Story of Asdiwal.’

Keeping up with cognitive science

Structuralism was envisioned by Lévi-Strauss as part of the cognitive sciences, as Bloch explains, ‘compatible with recent discoveries concerning the working of the brain.’ Psychologist Howard Gardner, the theorist responsible for the model of multiple intelligences, felt that ‘one hundred years from now Lévi-Strauss’s research program will be seen as more right-headed than that of his strongest critics – the true mark of an important thinker’ (cited in Doja 2008: 325). I have no doubt Gardner was right, but feel that Lévi-Strauss’s research program did not keep pace with its potential.

The danger is that, as Bloch also describes, ‘as time went on [Lévi-Strauss] seems to have given up keeping up with developments in this field [brain sciences].’ This disengagement from contemporary brain research is one of the potential dangers for any social theory or philosophy that engages temporarily with neurosciences, whether its cognitive anthropology, philosophy of mind, or neuroanthropology. We cannot get our snapshot of the brain at a particular point in time and then ignore subsequent developments if they are theoretically inconvenient.

Arguably, one reason structuralism rose and fell so quickly outside of anthropology was that it extrapolated brilliantly from a particular moment of linguistics and cognitive science (especially cybernetics and information theory), demonstrating the wider implications of their findings for thinking about human culture. Albert Doja (2008: 324) suggests influences beyond linguistic structuralism from new mathematics, information science, cybernetics, game theory, biology and catastrophe theory in the structural analysis of Mythologiques.

But then the structuralist school of thought did not successfully integrate later discoveries in cognate fields, calcifying the broad-reaching borrowings of a single historical frame, in part because the successors Bloch wrote about departed for greater contextualization rather than seeking to refine the analytical tools themselves. For example, the insistence that human thought is constructed of binary oppositions (with mediating third terms in some cases), although consistent with some now-anachronistic approaches to language, logic, computer programming, and early cognitive science, is no longer tenable. But, after reading Lévi-Strauss’s analyses, who would be so bold as to argue that structural analysis itself needed to be further elaborated, rather than just point to what was absent, to criticize him for what’s not there? If I have sympathy for creationists, I can certainly spare some for my colleagues who are as intimated by Lévi-Strauss as I am.

The brain does not always, or even often, function in binary, although categorization might (more on that in a moment). Or perhaps more accurately, even if at microscopic levels neurons some neuros behave in binary (arguably), the accumulation of parallel processing, masses of neurons devoted to single tasks, recursion, modularization, and neural heterogeneity quickly make a mockery of attempts to model complex organic processes, let alone thought, as binary systems.

The possibility that language or basic classificatory categories might work in binary systems—I’m no specialist in this subject, so I hesitate to take a stand—would indicate a property, not of the mind, but of the way that brain and language interact on a particular scale (conscious, explicit, linguistic). Even if categorization appears binary in conscious thought, or is implicit in cultural expression, it does not mean that the brain itself is functioning in binary is what I’m trying to say. Similarly, our visual field may appear to us to be uniform, consistent and ever-present, but plenty of research shows that the completeness, uniformity and presence of visual representation is an achieved illusion of sorts, maintained by the interpolating brain, active sensory system and present sensed world, all working together. Phenomenology or outward expression is not necessarily an accurate indication of the qualities of the underlying brain or mental mechanisms.

The role of language as metaphor for thought

In structuralism, linguistics was the model for a science of human thought, and its methods were the way into cognition. Lévi-Strauss, of course, was an admirer of Ferdinand de Saussure, Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy, and Roman Jakobson, and the influence of structural linguistics extends deeply and explicitly into his broader structuralist agenda.

In fact, I share Lévi-Strauss’s admiration for the systematic analyses found in linguistics, and would love to copy them, or even approach their systematicity, in my own research on movement, sports, dance, and bodily interaction. But language is a peculiar phenomenon, hardly a good model for every sort of thought. The simple fact that people without language (rare), and animals who don’t have language, can think in certain kinds of ways, including ways that have abstraction-like qualities (such as categorization in animal call systems), suggests that all thought is not language-based.

Increasingly, language appears not to be so much the stuff of thought, but one form of thought, absolutely crucial for understanding human distinctiveness, but hardly the extent of cognition. Both cognitive anthropologists and neuroanthropologists would no doubt agree that language was crucial for understanding the brain, but I suspect that neuroanthropologists are less comfortable with treating functions like categorization as the illustrative cases for discussing all of human thinking.

In particular, neuroscience research suggests that most of brain activity does not emerge into consciousness, some because it is simply not the object of attention (nonconscious but potentially conscious), and some because it is fundamentally unconscious or unavoidably unconscious under normal circumstances. The assumption that all mental structures are basically of the same nature leads Lévi-Strauss to insist:

A structural model may be conscious or unconscious without this difference affecting its nature. It can only be said that when the structure of a certain type of phenomena does not lie at a great depth, it is more likely that some kind of model, standing as a screen to hide it, will exist in the collective consciousness. For conscious models, which are usually known as “norms,” are by definition very poor ones, since they are not intended to explain the phenomena but to perpetuate them. Therefore, structural analysis is confronted with a strange paradox well known to the linguist, that is: the more obvious structural organisation is, the more difficult it becomes to reach it because of the inaccurate conscious models lying across the path which leads to it. (from Structural Anthropology)

With this part of structuralism, I fundamentally disagree: ‘structural models,’ in my opinion, are radically different if they are conscious or if they are unconscious, and there are likely different, heterogeneous types of both sorts of cognitive structures. The non-conscious forms are quite likely different from categorization, the mental activity so crucial to Lévi-Strauss’ approach to human cognition, so erasing this distinction means generalizing a model of conscious thought’s structure to other forms of neural activity.

Where does the structure come from?

chickenmindreaderFor some cognitive anthropologists, like Lévi-Strauss, the crucial mental dynamic is the imposition by the mind on the world of structures of categorizing; like Adam in the Garden of Eden, humans allegedly affect the world by naming it, thereby imposing on reality a structure that exists in their minds. I think most neuroanthropologists, even if they acknowledge that categories were imposed on perceptions, would also want to make sure to remind us that just as the brain brings an emerging architecture into the experienced world, the experiential world also helps to provoke the brain’s (and thus the mind’s) structuring.

This is a tendency, not an absolute difference between cognitive anthropology and neuroanthropology, and it partially relates to the focus on enculturation and developmental dynamics in neuroanthropology, whereas cognitive research tends to focus on subjects who have achieved proficiency with their cultural systems of classification or, like Lévi-Strauss, with the finished cultural products to work backwards toward the minds responsible.

In Lévi-Strauss’s work, the understanding of categorization as the mind’s imposition of structure on the world leads to universalism, although only at the level of ‘deep structure’:

If, as we believe to be the case, the unconscious activity of the mind consists in imposing forms upon content and if these forms are fundamentally the same for all minds, ancient and modern, primitive and civilized, it is necessary and sufficient to grasp the unconscious structure underlying each institution and each custom, in order to obtain a principle of interpretation valid for other institutions and other customs. (1963b)

As Albert Doja (2006: 99) describes, ‘the aim of structural anthropology is to arrive at structures so general as to be common to all societies, absolute to the extent they are universal categories of the human mind, that is, structural invariants organized in systems of significances.’ The assumption is that, underlying all the diversity of human culture, some of the most basic structures will be shared because they are features of the human mind (see also Kuper’s [1988] criticism that simple, powerful, universal structure are incompatible with wide cultural diversity; see also D’Andrade 1995 on Lévi-Strauss’s universalism).

Like Lévi-Strauss (and Dan Sperber and others Sperber [2008:312] cites), neuroanthropologyists argue that ethnography can help to illuminate ‘mental mechanisms,’ but we’re more impressed by the ability of culture to inflect and generate these mechanisms and more concerned about getting at ‘neural mechanisms,’ not being content to talk about the ‘mental’ (and some days, not even sure how to tell them apart). The developmental dynamics are crucial, and the level at which we assert ‘universalism’ affects profoundly our ability even to understand traits that are widely shared.

Neuroanthropologists, due to research on genetics, neuroplasticity and related discoveries, are less sanguine that Lévi-Strauss may have been about declaring that something is part of ‘human nature’ without asking how a trait, even a universal one, arises, in neural developmental time. It’s become harder and harder in the face of accumulating research to be blassé about attributing qualities of any person’s mind to inherent structures of the brain, or even assuming that shared mental mechanisms are the sign of underlying structural homogeneity in the nervous system.

Whereas cognitive anthropologists ambitiously tackle cultural phenomena that make me shudder when I think of engaging them (religion, especially), I suspect that they would be very reluctant to tackle the organic-cultural, brain-mind synthesis that we are exploring. For Lévi-Strauss, since he did not substantially deal with psychology beyond Jean Piaget, tackling the organic-mental divide might have seemed impossible. Certainly, with behaviourism dominant in psychology during most of the years when Lévi-Strauss was theoretically so productive, the field had little to offer him at the time.

Myth thinking itself through minds

Perhaps the most critical, if subtle, difference between cognitive anthropology and neuroanthorpology, however, is a reversed object-field or figure-ground relation. As Dan Sperber cites in his discussion of Lévi-Strauss as a precursor for cognitive science, the structuralists, like Roman Jakobson and Ferdinand de Saussure (both often treated as a kind of pre-structuralists), envisioned ‘a science that studies the life of signs in society’ (cited in Sperber 2008: 309). Taking the study of language as a model, structuralism sought to extend the method to myth, poetry, literature, and other forms of human creativity.

In this effort, the signs (or myths or poems) were the figure, and the mind and human cognitive abilities were a kind of ground, studied indirectly through their output or products. In the first volume of Mythologiques, for example, Lévi-Strauss writes: ‘I therefore claim to show not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact’ (1969b: 12). The brain was a background or medium, not examined directly, but rather treated at twice remove, with the ‘mind’ as the sort of environment for thoughts, symbols, rituals, and the like to act; myth was the cause or catalyst shaping mind.

As Alan Dundes (1997: 44) discusses, Lévi-Strauss recognized that this treatment of the mind as the milieu for the workings of myth was widely criticized. Lévi-Strauss (1979) wrote in a book that resulted from a series of Canadian broadcast lectures (thanks to John MacAloon for introducing me to this book!):

You may remember that I have written that myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him. This has been much discussed and even criticized by my English-speaking colleagues, because their feeling is that, from an empirical point of view, it is an utterly meaningless sentence. But for me it describes a lived experience, because it says exactly how I perceive my own relationship to my work. That is, my work gets thought in me unbeknown to me. (1979:3; cited in Dundes 1997: 44)

Claude2Although evocative of the phenomenology of theoretical creativity, this shift of the agency is hardly grounded in any sort of demonstrable empirical reality, and it suggests a kind of idealist anthropomorphism or even animism—treating ideas as thinking through us—that is reminiscent of theories like memetics or some of the more mystifying forms of cultural evolutionism.

Thinking about thought without the brain?

Lévi-Strauss and structuralism were fundamentally concerned with the mechanisms of thought, but one key difference from neuroanthropology is what sorts of mechanisms are sought in the exploration, where those structures are imagined to lie. For Lévi-Strauss, ‘structure of thought’ are categories and their relations, manifest implicitly in their expressions. Of course, taken to the extreme, this is idealism, a kind of ‘ghost in the machine’ approach to cognition.

For neuroanthropologists, however, the structure that produces thought is the brain-body-world nexus. One would make the same idealist error made by structuralists if assuming that grammar produced speech, rather than the brain-mouth-lungs-tongue-parental influence-social interaction-etc. nexus. Grammar is descriptive, not explanatory in any materialist sense (this is also Steinmetz’s [1984] criticism of Lévi-Strauss; see Doja 2006: 82).

Sperber (2008: 313) quite insightfully and productively peels apart two lines of thinking in Lévi-Strauss’s work on Amerindian mythology: on the one hand, Lévi-Strauss seems to talk about the many mythologies in the Americas as products of the Mind, a shared underlying semiotic grammar or machine. As Sperber (ibid.) describes: ‘as if they [the myths] constituted a language the grammar of which was closely mapped onto the structures of the human mind.’

On the other hand, Sperber identifies another current in Lévi-Strauss’s thought to consider myth as the product of larger-scale social processes between minds:

At other times, Lévi-Strauss sees the properties of myths as resulting not from the structure of ‘‘the Mind’’, but from the interaction of many minds, with similar memory limitations, interests and biases, and with a drive both to share and to stand apart. Myths then are seen as resulting from a population scale phenomenon of propagation where accretions, transformations, inversions and recombinations are no less important from an explanatory point of view than the chains of relatively faithful copyings assumed in traditional anthropology or in recent ‘‘memetics’’.

Sperber points out that the first approach—treating diverse cultural expressions as the product of and doorway into a shared human Mind—is considered ‘structuralist’ moreso than the latter approach.

In contrast to both approaches, neuroanthropology begins with a very different relation to the ‘natural sciences.’ Rather than aspiring to turn the study of culture, signs or thought into a science alongside others, neuroanthropology derives equally from biology, especially neurosciences, and from cultural studies by making individuals—organic, idiosyncratic, living, changing throughout its lifespan—its object. That is, because neuroanthropologists deal first and foremost with people, not signs or myths, as their object, this approach reverses the figure-ground relation found in structuralism.

If cognitive anthropologists can talk about the brain being a kind of selective environment for concepts or signs, neuroanthropologists talk about culture and signs as part of the environment in which organic individuals and their nervous systems develop. This is why cultural evolution as a model is less important to us than niche creation. That is, instead of treating the brain as an environment, we focus on how thought, ideology, cultural beliefs, behaviours, and technology inflect the environment for growing individuals (and their brains).

Complementarity rather than confrontation

I have no doubt that the approaches found in cognitive anthropology and cultural evolution can be powerful ways of thinking; that is, focusing on the product of human thought to understand human mental abilities is a productive strategy, even if I’m criticizing parts of it. In fact, cultural evolution and cognitive anthropology are proven approaches to thinking about culture, with many more excellent works to demonstrate their appropriateness and flexibility than the neuroanthropological approach that I am advocating. The ball is in our court to demonstrate that we have an equally (or even more?) powerful approach. I think we do. I think that the dangers of the cognitive anthropology approach are significant, especially when we explore the types of topics I wish to explore. But this does not diminish my respect for the work of Lévi-Strauss or the cognitive anthropologists, like Sperber, Pascal Boyer, or Harvey Whitehouse, that I see as carrying on this strong tradition.

When I talked with Whitehouse at the Neuroanthropology conference, it was obvious that we did not see eye-to-eye. But I do not think the disagreement is insoluble; it is a disagreement of object, rather than substance. Since we study very different objects, at different scales, we cannot and should not use the same approach. If he were to ask me, do I think he should become a neuroanthropologist (he didn’t), I would say, ‘no,’ not if you wish to continue to study religion and ritual at the scale you’re studying it. Can we learn from each other? Absolutely. And were I to change the object I was studying, I quite likely would come around to looking at things in a similar way.

0226474844Thinking, wild and other

Although Lévi-Strauss’s thought is typically viewed as about ‘structures’ and categorical oppositions, his work in The Savage Mind is arguably much more compatible with current neuroscientific research. In the book, Lévi-Strauss elaborates on a basic contrast between the engineer and the bricoleur, a kind of French handyman whom Lévi-Strauss describes as coming up with solutions through improvisation, drawing upon a pre-existing pool of resources. According to Lévi-Strauss, scientific thought is like the activity of the engineer, and ‘savage thought’ is the sort of improvisation engaged in by the bricoleur, a type of activity that dominates much of human thinking.

Whereas the engineer designs without an openness and innovativeness, the possibility of devising new structures or concepts for novel problems, the bricoleur must work with what is at hand. If I may quote Lévi-Strauss (1966) at length:

His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the ‘bricoleur’s’ means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or ‘instrumental sets’, as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use or, putting this another way and in the language of the ‘bricoleur’ himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’.

Doja (2008: 331) argues that human thought is bricoleur-like because it is analogic, but I am struck, instead, by the relation between the use of ‘whatever is at hand’ and the phylogenetic origins of the brain.

One cannot help but notice the resemblance between the bricoleur and the evolutionary construction of the brain itself, with a range of kluges, solutions to problems that hardly resemble ‘designed’ outcomes. Commentators (such as Haskell 2008) tend to focus on the ‘structure of thought,’ but one can more also say that it’s the structure of the brain, the organ itself, that resembles the work of the bricoleur, and that conscious thought is just one of those tools, ready at hand, with which to solve neural problems.

Final thoughts and respects

Albert Doja (2006: 102) has warned that, in social theory, although we are acutely aware of our historical predecessors, we too often fail to acknowledge that we stand on their shoulders. Focusing instead upon the incremental advances we wish to make, we neglect to recognize the Herculean efforts that brought us to the point where we can make those advances. This recognition is one of the difficulties for writing about Lévi-Strauss for me, as an anthropologist who wishes to continue many of the trends found in his work, even some of those disparaged by my contemporaries, but believes that a substantial course correction is necessary in light of recent research.

For example, I very much like the use of a widely comparative approach to consider what the human brain and body are capable of doing, and considering what they might be unable to attempt. In this sense, Lévi-Strauss’s approach is like recent theoretical considerations of ‘impossible languages’ or ‘impossible cultures’ (see Hauser 2009), using the range of human variation to understand the foundation of our malleability. Likewise, I think his embrace of ethnology, of philosophical anthropology, of cognitive theory, and a host of other rare movements make it likely that, at my best, I can hope that my work might resemble his, if much less clever, insightful, and ambitious.

Lévi-Strauss was a giant in our field; thank God we get to stand on his shoulders and must not simply labour in his shadow.

For more reading

From the master himself, Rex (Savage Minds) recommends ‘Father Christmas executed’ (will download as a pdf), and I heartily agree. God, the man’s mind was frightening, even when you couldn’t put down what he wrote!

Dan Sperber has an excellent piece on the Open Democracy website for Lévi-Strauss’s 100th birthday: ‘Claude Lévi-Strauss at 100: echo of the future.

Update: Erkan’s Field Diary has a very comprehensive set of links to postings about the passing of Claude Lévi-Strauss.


D’Andrade, Roy. 1995. The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Doja, Albert. 2006. The shoulders of our giants: Claude Lévi-Strauss and his legacy in current anthropology. Social Science Information 45(1): 79–107. doi: 10.1177/0539018406061104
_____. 2008. Claude Lévi-Strauss at His Centennial: Toward a Future Anthropology. Theory, Culture and Society 25(7–8): 321–340. doi: 10.1177/0263276408097810

Dundes, Alan. 1997. Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect. Western Folklore 56(1): 39-50.

Haskell, Robert E. 2008. Claude Lévi-Strauss Reconsidered: Cognitive science, epistemology, and the (not so Savage) algebraic mind. Cognitive Semiotics 3: 65-90. (abstract)

Hauser, Marc D. 2009. The possibility of impossible cultures. Nature 460: 190-196. doi:10.1038/460190a

Kuper, Adam. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London: Routledge.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963a. Tristes Tropiques. New York: Atheneum. (Google books)
_____. 1963b. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. (Google books)
_____. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Google books, excerpts available here)
_____. 1967. The Story of Asdiwal. In Edmund Leach, ed. The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism. Pp. 1-48. London: Tavistock. (Google books)
_____. 1969a. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Boston: Beacon Press.
_____. 1969b. The Raw and the Cooked, Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Vol.1. New York: Harper & Row.
_____. 1978. Myth and Meaning. New York: Schocken Books.
_____. 2007. Unesco at 60. Diogenes 54(3): 5–10.

Sperber, Dan. 2008. Claude Lévi-Strauss, a precursor? European Journal of Sociology 49 (2): 309–314. doi: 10.1017/S0003975608000118

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

16 thoughts on “Thinking through Claude Lévi-Strauss

  1. In contrast to structuralism, neuroanthropologists argue that the ‘underlying structure’ that generates myth, ritual and conscious thought, is not a set of categories or schemata, but rather the human nervous system and brain, embedded in a body, interacting with other individuals, and suspended in an environment.

    I don’t see the contrast. The two are at different levels of analysis. Categories, schemata, and the like are descriptions of cognitive functions supposed to be instantiated in the “human nervous system and brain, embedded in a body, interacting with other individuals, and suspended in an environment.”

    I must also point out that in this blog post you never outlined any actual alternative explanation for these universals. In fact, I saw very little or no actual neuroscience referenced. So, I remain interested, but rather skeptical. How can a genuine neuroanthropology be? Impracticable in complexity.

    1. Dear Occamserasure —
      Your first comment IS the point. They are very different levels of analysis. And what you call ‘descriptions of cognitive functions’ are seldom actually shown to be
      ‘instantiated’ in the nervous system or brain. This is one of the great challenges of contemporary neuroscience, and one reason that I think the older ‘level of analysis’ needs to be subjected to an organic layer of analysis. That is, for most of its history, in cognitive anthropology, the relationship between categories, schemata and the like and anything organic, has been tenuous at best, in part because the brain sciences have only recently been able to offer anything like a more precise account.

      And, mate, if you can’t find any other accounts on this website of alternative explanations for ‘universals’ (which, I’m not exactly sure you’re referring to), you ain’t lookin’ very hard. ‘Impracticable in complexity’? I’ll let the analyses, which are certainly often more complex than structural accounts, be the test of whether they’re impracticable. I certainly think that the neural systems we’re talking about on this site with some frequency — systems like stress, equilibrium, immune, addiction and reward, self-perception, etc. — are a bit more complex than dialectical oppositions, but this hardly means that we should give up on doing the analyses.

  2. In the same spirit of respectful critique as your critique…

    This is one of the great challenges of contemporary neuroscience, and one reason that I think the older ‘level of analysis’ needs to be subjected to an organic layer of analysis.

    A good retrospective/appraisal of Lévi-Strauss’ work needs to do some seriation—the guy lived to be 100, after all!—and identify his main areas of interest. I understand him as having been mainly interested in three inter-related but distinct things: how the mind worked, history, and culture (as conceived by the Boasians). Structural anthropology was the apparatus he used for the analysis of all three. I do not believe that it follows that because that apparatus fails in the analysis of the three that it necessarily fails in the analysis of one or both of the others. I am in complete agreement that neuroanthropology as you conceive it is a better apparatus for explaining how the human mind works that is Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism. But for history and culture? I do think that would indeed be impractical in complexity.

    While binary logic is an important item in the Lévi-Straussian tool kit structural analysis does not equal arrangement of your data into binary oppositions. Those that really know the difference between Jakobson’s phonology and Chomsky’s are able to grab this.

    For neuroanthropologists, however, the structure that produces thought is the brain-body-world nexus. One would make the same idealist error made by structuralists if assuming that grammar produced speech, rather than the brain-mouth-lungs-tongue-parental influence-social interaction-etc. nexus. Grammar is descriptive, not explanatory in any materialist sense (this is also Steinmetz’s [1984] criticism of Lévi-Strauss; see Doja 2006: 82).

    I don’t know if this is what you are getting at, but the above smells a lot like the logic of the Discourse Analysis/Universal Grammar or the culture history/processualist or any number of other professionally productive but intellectually spurious debates. Phonetics requires a materialist analysis, phonology does not; the analysis of social life requires a materialist analysis, the analysis of culture (again, as conceived by the Boasians) does not.

    1. I do not believe that it follows that because that apparatus fails in the analysis of the three that it necessarily fails in the analysis of one or both of the others.

      That’s supposed to read—“I do not believe that it follows that because that apparatus fails in the analysis of one of the three that it necessarily fails in the analysis of one or both of the others.”

    2. A couple of very good points, MT. I don’t really deal in the piece with Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of things like kinship or history (in fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything by LS that I’d really call ‘historical’ analysis, but I might very well be missing something). You’re very right that Lévi-Strauss uses structuralism for all three, but that they are fundamentally different. I was uncomfortable in my piece that I even went on to The Savage Mind, which I consider a very different sort of text than the structural analyses of myths that Lévi-Strauss does elsewhere. The piece would have had more integrity had I better highlighted the discontinuities, even in the texts I was talking about, not to insinuate any sort of inconsistency, but rather to recognize the diversity and variety of his output.

      That said, the article really does focus on the streams in Lévi-Strauss that feed into cognitive science, less so into many of the more traditional anthropological topics that he explored. One of the reasons that I want to think through Lévi-Strauss again is that, like a number of other anthropologists (Victor Turner, John Blacking, even Clifford Geertz), he made statements about being open to the brain sciences, neuropsychology and the like, but then also indicated that there was a gap between the sorts of things that anthropology needed from the brain sciences, and what those disciplines were able to provide at the time. In other words, I’m looking for intellectual predecessors who pointed out that the time wasn’t really yet auspicious for a neuroanthropological synthesis of any sorts; obviously, I think we’re getting there, although it’s still sometimes a dangerous stretch. We may be jumping the gun in some dimensions of this synthesis, but I’m willing to take a few risks and focus on those topics where the material is particularly promising, conveniently ignoring other areas where the analytical leaps are still overly daunting.

      It’s funny that you point out my own dialectical argument; Jovan Maud at Culture Matters pulled me up on the way to the vending machine the other day to do the same. I would say it’s not quite the logic of the debates you describe, but more of an idealist/materialist divide that’s specific to psychology. Intellectually spurious? Mate, I’m not sure that my whole career won’t go down under that banner. But I think for me at least, the real problem is pulling back together brain-mind, abstracted or lived body and organic body, mental and physical.

      I certainly wouldn’t argue that these approaches are not productive, but I would say that something like an argument for universal grammar does have a creeping tendency (among some proponents) to make biological/neurological/genetic claims that I really don’t think it can support. We could probably get into an abstract argument about culture v. social life analysis, but the argument would probably be less heated if we actually started discussing the particular examples we work on. For example, when I was talking with Harvey Whitehouse, I think for his project, his approach is entirely appropriate, even though — in abstraction — I would probably argue vehemently against it. This is simply because I subterraneanly think with my own research as the example, and subjecting my material to some forms of analysis, though they work on other topics, would be ludicrous in my particular case (sports, skill acquisition, perceptual training…).

      I try to just keep reminding myself that other researchers, let alone a pioneer like Lévi-Strauss, are often hell of smart, so if they’re saying something that sounds completely off base to me, there must be something else in operation (like a different unspoken case study being used to generate theoretical insights).

      1. I certainly wouldn’t argue that these approaches are not productive, but I would say that something like an argument for universal grammar does have a creeping tendency (among some proponents) to make biological/neurological/genetic claims that I really don’t think it can support.

        One thing your comment brings to mind is something a linguistics instructor once said to our class—“Anyway, Chomsky’s not the problem. It’s the sycophants.”

        I would argue that this particular preference for simple generative machines is ideological, even aesthetic (the preference for binarism, for example, is frequently credited to Lévi-Strauss’s reading of Hegel, although it can often be found in the work of Jakobson and the Prague school of linguistics).

        French Symbolist poets were also an important influence. I think you would enjoy Jim Boone’s From symbolism to structuralism: Lévi-Strauss in a literary tradition.

        For neuroanthropologists, however, the structure that produces thought is the brain-body-world nexus. One would make the same idealist error made by structuralists if assuming that grammar produced speech, rather than the brain-mouth-lungs-tongue-parental influence-social interaction-etc. nexus. Grammar is descriptive, not explanatory in any materialist sense (this is also Steinmetz’s [1984] criticism of Lévi-Strauss; see Doja 2006: 82).

        One thing that I get out of this comment is that the analyst shouldn’t loose sight of what it is he is analyzing. I don’t feel that the operations of a phonological analysis by themselves are evidence for the workings of the human mind and am incredulous when a Baroque solution to a phonology problem is presented as “what the mind does.” I don’t doubt that it may be but a little evidence beyond the application of formal logic would be nice.

        Another thing I get from the comment is the suggestion that grammars are a genre of reference writing rather than a real-world phenomenon. I have to disagree with that just as I do with the suggestion that culture is a reification. Grammar and culture are differentially distributed across populations and no one individual has perfect control of every aspect of either but that’s by definition as both are supra-individual models. The study of language requires tools beyond those required by someone trying to write a grammar; speech of part of language, too, so phonetics and discourse analysis have their place, as well. By the same token I think there’s a place for both structuralist analysis of the semantics of incest and marriage prohibitions vis-à-vis the culture as a whole as well as a neuroanthropological analysis of individuals’ sexual behavior. I hope that makes some sense…

        (in fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything by LS that I’d really call ‘historical’ analysis, but I might very well be missing something)

        He did history via comparative ethnology (The way of the masks, for example). The concept of culture areas is one of his biggest debts to Boas. Chapters 1 & 8 of Regna Darnell’s Invisible genealogies are great intros.

  3. In a world haunted by thoughts of of East and West, North and South ,Claude Levi-Strauss addressed the World as a single unit.It is an appeal to the personality of every person that L-S made.He tried to deal with the alphebets of human cognition in all its tangible and intangible levels.It is at once an appeal to the mind and heart.He has his place in the chronicles of human thinking.Yet another contribution from the French connection ever enriching the human civilisational progress

    1. So why are there so many anthropologists and indigenous peoples who don´t agree with CLS´ thesis of the male making the Origin of Science by exchanging women, and especially not so in Africa and Southeast Asia / China and among modern matriarchal researches in Europe and USA, if its true that he had worked out a model that guaranteed his own universal objectivity and liberated him from a Western colonial concept?

  4. I’m sympathetic to much of what you say. In particular, I agree that we’re not going to get myths out of simple collections of binary opposition. As you indicate, we new the full complex and emergent instrumentality of the human brain and its mind to do that. Also, as you also indicate, Lévi-Strauss simply didn’t avail himself of the full power of modern cognitive models, though, to be fair, the most interesting ones didn’t emerge until the late 1960s and the 1970s, after he’d more or less finished his major romp through mythology. Did you know that, in the late 1960s, Sheldon Klein (at Wisconsin) attempted a computer simulation of L-S’s myth models? It seemed to me that Klein missed the point, that his model was more Proppian in its functioning. Though he drew sample text from L-S, his model completely missed the paradigmatic structure of binaries that served as the “substructure” of L-S’s quasi-model.

    You might want to take a look at an essay I just posted at The Valve where I suggest a comparative morphology of the (literary) text along Lévi-Straussian lines. And this longish essay on “Kubla Khan” is where I’ve gone with that old structuralism and the newer cognitive and neuroscience.

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