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Claude Lévi-Strauss: a Career spanning a century

Symposium organized by the Collège de France, the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, and the École pratique des hautes études, 25 November 2008
Philippe DESCOLA
p. 36-38
Cet article est une traduction de :
Claude Lévi-Strauss : un parcours dans le siècle

Texte intégral

1In this last week of November 2008, Claude Lévi-Strauss is celebrating his hundredth birthday. This is a private event, of no concern actually to anyone beyond the circle of his close admirers, friends and family. But this date is more than a sign of the man’s great age, it is also a symbol of the longevity of his work which marked the greater part of the lengthy twentieth century. Claude Lévi-Strauss’ first publication dates back to 1926. It was a thin booklet on Gracchus Babeuf, published in Brussels by the Belgian labour party’s publisher and written by an eighteen-year-old socialist student who criticized ownership, praised the eighteenth century communist utopias, and exuded an admiration for Rousseau apparent in all his subsequent work as well. Lévi-Strauss’ most recent book was published barely a few months ago: it is a volume in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade collection, consisting of a selection of his work which he chose himself and which afforded him the opportunity to revise Chapter 8 of La Pensée sauvage,concerning Auguste Comte. He attributes Comte with the merit of having sought, like him, to reduce the gap between logical reasoning and the expression of sensibility. In the last pages of Le Système de politique positive he even identifies the idea that “la pensée sauvage” (fetichism, in Comte’s terms) is – as he himself affirms – a dimension of any thought, even that which science has domesticated. These two dates of publication – of the reflection on Babeuf and that on Comte – spanned a period of eighty years, that is, nearly a century punctuated by thirty books and over four hundred articles which reshaped anthropology in France and oriented it in different directions. It was a long period of reflection on the nature of social life, on the destiny of peoples, on the process of knowledge, and on aesthetic emotion. The value of this reflection is only starting to be exploited. Some philosophers have taken it up to examine its consequences on the order of a reshuffling of concepts that we use to understand the world and its glittering diversity. In short, this week in honour of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ hundredth birthday is an opportunity to re-examine the intellectual career of an author who became a classic long before ‘entering into the Pléiade’, and whose writings, albeit attached to an uncompromising scientific austerity, have nevertheless appealed to a far broader readership than the scholars for whom they were intended.

2There are many ways of seeing this career but none of them would truly have paid justice to it. The approach chosen for this symposium has been to propose a sort of geological cross-section of the different types of material that Claude Lévi-Strauss has contributed to intellectual thought over the decades. He drew this material primarily from ethnography, especially the ethnography of a part of the world where his vocation was fortified by experience in the field, and whose indigenous peoples he knew admirably well for having read just about everything on them that had ever been written. We therefore naturally opted for the effects of Lévistraussian anthropology on knowledge of Indian peoples from the two Americas, as well as the major role played by these people’s cultural peculiarities in the definition of the problems that this anthropology has endeavoured to solve.

3But it was throughout the entire world that Claude Lévi-Strauss gave free rein to this appetite for facts, this meticulous attention to the complexity of the real, this taste for sometimes strange singularities that imbue institutions, techniques and narratives with incomparable flavour; for it was throughout the world that he wanted ethnography to be meaningful by putting seemingly unrelated data back into subtle and sometimes grandiose analytical constructions. These constructions not only made it possible to account for sometimes enigmatic ethnographic features, through the relations that they maintain within a model; in doing so they often also contributed to shedding new light on an aspect of the human condition neglected in the West. The questions that structural anthropology has wanted to solve are therefore not specifically American; from the status of bonds of affinity in Melanesia to the logic of marital systems in the uplands of Burma, through the symbolism of head-hunters in Indonesia or the effects of cognatic filiation in Africa, there are few classical problems in ethnology that Lévi-Strauss has not addressed – problems that the scientific community is constantly discussing and which give it a feeling of shared identity. This is also what we wanted to talk about at this symposium.

Professor Pierre Corvol

Professor Pierre Corvol

4Claude Lévi-Strauss is recognized above all by anthropologists for his contributions in two key domains of the discipline in which he caused a total upheaval. Whether one is in agreement with him or not – moreover, in most cases it is never more than partial agreement or disagreement – it has become impossible not to situate oneself in relation to him when it comes to studying myths or lineage systems. He revolutionized the approach to the latter by developing a theory of marriage systems, ordering them systematically, and examining their structuring effects on other aspects of parentage. This was in contrast with former perspectives, at the time hardly known in France, which emphasized the socially structuring functions of the various types of filiation and the organization of the social sphere through parentage nomenclatures. As for myths, the way of studying them that he developed was so original, so unlike the habits of specialists of folklore and oral literature in studying documents of this nature that, until today, very few have dared to follow in his footsteps. The structural analysis of myths requires a set of qualities rarely found in one person: a penetrating intuition of the contrastive properties of the characters, events and materials in the narratives; an immense knowledge concerning not only myths from diverse countries but also characteristics peculiar to the culture and environment of the peoples who produced the myths; and, finally, an ability to switch from one myth to another, following the flimsy thread of a pattern that is not substantive, as in traditional mythology, but logical, operational and undergoing perpetual transformation due to the changes that the analyst’s thinking reveals within him- or herself as he or she moves about in this space. Thus, it is no longer the theme of the changeling or the origin of fire that is in the foreground, but a particular way of shifting from the continuous to the discontinuous, or of effecting an inversion between substance and form.

5Hence, we are far from the formal typology of patterns – an undertaking that probably has its uses, but that produces little meaning. We are even further from the vain quest for archetypes in which so many mythologies have gone astray. All those who have read the four volumes of Mythologies have unquestionably been amazed by the skill with which Lévi-Strauss constructed his tools and selected his objects as he went along, like a craftsman adapts his instruments and project to the nature of the material on which he is working. When executed with such mastery and brio, the analysis of myths is an art – but one that is so difficult that it is virtually impossible to emulate. It was thus inevitable that we should also discuss myths and lineage.

6Reflection on art is a fundamental dimension of Lévi-Strauss’ project, illustrated not only by his analyses of Amerindian art in Brazil and North America but also by his essays on some of the great works in painting, music and literature that Western civilization can legitimately be proud of. But such reflection on art is relevant only because each of the works studied, irrespective of how modest or transient it may be, is treated with the rigour of the scholar trying to define the properties which he or she isolates, by means of the ethnologist’s tools and erudition when extra-European images are concerned, and those of the historian of art when Clouet, Poussin or Delvaux are concerned. It is only at this price that a science becomes possible and that the properties of an object, image or piece of music can illuminate other features of a culture with which they form a system. Their networking and the contrasts that they offer with similar networks in related cultures contribute to a better understanding of how societies differ from one another in a systematic and reasoned way. Even though it may not be self-evident for a superficial reader of Lévi-Strauss, this is the same method that he uses to illuminate technical and economic choices, possible combinations in an ideal repertoire on which every society draws according to the resources that it can actualize and the other choices that it has made elsewhere in the treatment of humans and non-humans. And if this dimension is less visible in the work of Lévi-Strauss, it is so because he chose to use the same vocabulary as that of Marx, thus distinguishing between the study of infrastructures and that of superstructures – a distinction that facts throughout his entire work nevertheless belie. It was therefore also art and economics that had to be discussed at this symposium.

7Finally, and although Lévi-Strauss always refused the title of philosopher, his work has had a philosophical impact that was rapidly recognized and with which the great names of twentieth century philosophy – Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Ricoeur, Levinas, Foucault, Deleuze, Althusser or Derrida, to mention only his immediate contemporaries – engaged in an often impassioned dialogue, sometimes abrupt and almost always tainted with misunderstandings. His conception of social life as a symbolic exchange, his original way of accounting for the shift from the sensible to the intelligible, his opinions on history and contingency, his original way of renewing Kantism by injecting the experience of phenomenology into it: all this could not possibly leave the philosophers indifferent. It was therefore also about philosophy that we had to talk.

8Many scholars could have made a relevant contribution to discussion on one or another of the subjects mentioned here. In my choice of personalities invited to talk at this symposium I therefore have to admit to random privilege, nevertheless tempered by old complicities and especially by the high esteem in which Claude Lévi-Strauss holds each of them.

Professors Philippe Descola and Françoise Héritier

Professors Philippe Descola and Françoise Héritier

9I mentioned above that Lévi-Strauss became a classic long before his present consecration. Now, a classic work is one that is sufficiently disengaged from the historical circumstances of its creation for it to seem timeless, so that it can carry on influencing thinking without any risk of anachronism. By paying homage to a great mind we are not fossilizing it or putting it in a museum of accepted ideas. On the contrary, we are identifying the upheavals that the person’s work has already caused and, perhaps above all, will continue to cause. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro recently highlighted one of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ favourite expressions: “that’s not all”. We find it repeatedly in Les Mythologiques, at the apparent end of a generally brilliant argument in which Lévi-Strauss brings in a host of disparate facts, treasures of erudition and unequalled ingeniousness, to explain why a particular plant species or constellation was related to the origin of musical instruments or the flooding of rivers. “Congratulations to the artist!”, we would think. And there’s how the expression “that’s not all” enabled the analysis to carry on in unexpected directions; and then the magician would pull out his handkerchief of new relationships between phenomena, new correspondences between secondary qualities, conjuring up before our dumbfounded eyes a rainbow, bells, storms, and who knows what else. I would like the dominant theme of this symposium to be “that’s not all”, like a series of switches on the tracks that Lévi-Strauss opened up, the continuation of which we could explore thanks to him and with him; an exploration of the paths of understanding that he pointed out to us.

The Collège de France has devoted a special issue of La Lettre du Collège de France to the hundredth birthday of Claude Lévi-Strauss (Paris, November 2008, 80 p., 8€).

The Collège de France has devoted a special issue of La Lettre du Collège de France to the hundredth birthday of Claude Lévi-Strauss (Paris, November 2008, 80 p., 8€).

On sale at the Collège de France reception desk or by correspondence from:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Professor Pierre Corvol
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Professors Philippe Descola and Françoise Héritier
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k
Titre The Collège de France has devoted a special issue of La Lettre du Collège de France to the hundredth birthday of Claude Lévi-Strauss (Paris, November 2008, 80 p., 8€).
Légende On sale at the Collège de France reception desk or by correspondence from:
Fichier image/jpeg, 7,7k
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The Letter of the Collège de France, Collège de France, Paris, juin 2009, p. 36-38. ISSN 1958-1408

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Philippe DESCOLA, « Claude Lévi-Strauss: a Career spanning a century », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 4 | 2008-2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2010, consulté le 22 février 2018. URL :

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