Claude Lévi-Strauss

28 Nov 1908
30 Oct 2009
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Claude Lévi-StraussClaude Lévi-Strauss ( 28 November 1908 – 30 October 2009) was a French anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theory of structuralism and structural anthropology.

He held the chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France between 1959 and 1982 and was elected a member of the Académie française in 1973. He received numerous honors from universities and institutions throughout the world and has been called, alongside James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the “father of modern anthropology”.

Lévi-Strauss argued that the “savage” mind had the same structures as the “civilized” mind and that human characteristics are the same everywhere.

These observations culminated in his famous book Tristes Tropiques that established his position as one of the central figures in the structuralist school of thought. As well as sociology, his ideas reached into many fields in the humanities, including philosophy. Structuralism has been defined as “the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss was born to French Jewish parents who were living in Brussels at the time, where his father was working as a portrait painter. He grew up in Paris, living on a street of the upscale 16th arrondissement named after the artist Claude Lorrain, whose work he admired and later wrote about.

During the First World War, he lived with his maternal grandfather, who was the rabbi of the synagogue of Versailles. He attended the Lycée Janson de Sailly and the Lycée Condorcet.

At the Sorbonne in Paris, Lévi-Strauss studied law and philosophy. He did not pursue his study of law, but agrégated in philosophy in 1931. In 1935, after a few years of secondary-school teaching, he took up a last-minute offer to be part of a French cultural mission to Brazil in which he would serve as a visiting professor of sociology at the University of São Paulo while his then wife, Dina, served as a visiting professor of ethnology.

The couple lived and did their anthropological work in Brazil from 1935 to 1939. During this time, while he was a visiting professor of sociology, Claude undertook his only ethnographic fieldwork. He accompanied Dina, a trained ethnographer in her own right who was also a visiting professor at the University of São Paulo, where they conducted research forays into the Mato Grosso and the Amazon Rainforest.

They first studied the Guaycuru and Bororo Indian tribes, staying among them for a couple of days. In 1938 they returned for a second, more than half-year-long expedition to study the Nambikwara and Tupi-Kawahib societies. At this time his wife suffered an eye infection that prevented her from completing the study, which he concluded.

This experience cemented Lévi-Strauss’s professional identity as an anthropologist. Edmund Leach suggests, from Lévi-Strauss’s own accounts in Tristes Tropiques, that he could not have spent more than a few weeks in any one place and was never able to converse easily with any of his native informants in their native language, which is uncharacteristic of anthropological research methods of participatory interaction with subjects to gain a full understanding of a culture.

In the 1980s he suggested why he became vegetarian in pieces published in Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica and other publications anthologized in the posthumous book Nous sommes tous des cannibales (2013): “A day will come when the thought that to feed themselves, men of the past raised and massacred living beings and complacently exposed their shredded flesh in displays shall no doubt inspire the same repulsion as that of the travellers of the 16th and 17th century facing cannibal meals of savage American primitives in America, Oceania or Africa.”

In 2008 he became the first member of the Académie française to reach the age of 100 and one of the few living authors to have his works published in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. On the death of Maurice Druon on 14 April 2009, he became the Dean of the Académie, its longest-serving member.

He died on 30 October 2009, a few weeks before his 101st birthday. The death was announced four days later. French President Nicolas Sarkozy described him as “one of the greatest ethnologists of all time”.

Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, said Lévi-Strauss “broke with an ethnocentric vision of history and humanity […] At a time when we are trying to give meaning to globalisation, to build a fairer and more humane world, I would like Claude Lévi-Strauss’s universal echo to resonate more strongly”.

In a similar vein, a statement by Lévi-Strauss was broadcast on National Public Radio in the remembrance produced by All Things Considered on November 3, 2009: “There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animals. And it’s clear that the density of human beings has become so great, if I can say so, that they have begun to poison themselves.

And the world in which I am finishing my existence is no longer a world that I like.” The Daily Telegraph said in its obituary that Lévi-Strauss was “one of the dominating postwar influences in French intellectual life and the leading exponent of Structuralism in the social sciences”.

Permanent secretary of the Académie française Hélène Carrère d’Encausse said: “He was a thinker, a philosopher […] We will not find another like him”.

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