Claude Levi-Strauss Philosophy and Works

Structuralist philosophy of Claude Levi-Strauss, leading proponent of structural anthropology, famous for book The Elementary Structures of Kinship.

Claude Levi-Strauss was a Belgian-born French anthropologist famous for structuralism and considered the father of modern anthropology. He is best known for his two books, The Elementary Structures of Kinship and The Raw and the Cooked.

Profile of Claude Levi-Strauss in a Nutshell

Belgian-born Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) was brought up in Paris. He had an early interest in philosophy, along with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, but in 1935 he went to Brazil to study sociology and anthropology. His many encounters with South American tribal cultures had a strong influence on his structuralist ideas of myths and the human mind.

Borrowing the philosophy of Ferdinand de Saussure in the latter’s distinction between “langue” and “parole” (the common structure of language and the actual use of language by a speaker, respectively), Claude Levi-Strauss analyzed the variety of myths he came across in different cultures.

Levi-Strauss and His Philosophy of Structural Anthropology

In his philosophy of structural anthropology, Levi-Strauss analyzes cultural systems in terms of their essential, formal structural relations. He explains the genealogy of myth as one of continual evolution and adaptation of a structure whose content is irrelevant.

Levi-Strauss rejects an earlier view that myths were timeless, meaningful stories whose significance could be traced back to some original story. Rather, Levi-Strauss maintains, the content of myths only have significance in their transformations from one myth into another. Consequently, he argues that the identity of a myth consists in the sum total of its variants through time.
Rationale of Levi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology

To prove his point, Levi-Strauss engages in a detailed analysis of the famous Oedipus myth in which Oedipus unknowingly slays his father and marries his mother to become king. Sigmund Freud made much use of the myth in his psychoanalytic theory. Levi-Strauss insists that Freud’s reworking of the myth is merely another transformation of the story into a modern myth, another way of expressing the dualism of nature and culture. Levi-Strauss believes that a person must suppress his natural desires and conform to rules in order to create a stable society.

Levi-Strauss comes to the conclusion that the Western dualisms of subject/object, and mind/matter, are another version of a myth, like the raw and the cooked, which do not name any essential metaphysical categories, but merely signify an anthropological curiosity, and that the dualism they represent is simply that of an individual in contrast with its environment.

For him, once down to the level of structure and relations, what remains is the action and words of a physical organism in a physical environment.

Books by Claude Levi-Strauss Structuralism

The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1949. Based on his anthropological studies, this book looks at how people organize their families. Levi-Strauss is able to demonstrate how relationship within families from very different cultures are based on the same basic kinship structures.

The Raw and the Cooked, 1964. This work of structuralist anthropology looks at a collection of almost 200 myths from tropical South America. Levi-Strauss uses the collection as basis of a new structural approach to the study of mythology. He argues that myths cannot be understood in isolation but only as part of what he calls a “myth system.” He undertakes a structural analysis of this particular myth system. Rather than looking at their content, he examines the underlying structure of relationships between the elements of the stories.

An Insight to Claude Levi-Strauss and His Structuralist Philosophy

Claude Levi-Strauss is regarded as one of the key figures in the structuralist school of thought, his ideas reaching out to areas of disciplines in humanities, sociology and philosophy. Structuralism is that search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity. As a leading proponent of structuralist anthropology, Levi-Strauss analyzed cultural systems in terms of their essential structural relations.

His honours include a professorial chair of Social Anthropology at the Collége de France (1959-1982) and membership in the prestigious Académie Française in 1973.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *