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Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009)

Hailed as ‘the father of modern anthropology’ at the time of his death at age 100 in 2009, Claude Lévi-Strauss was a pivotal figure in the development of twentieth-century French structuralism. After pursuing initial studies at the Sorbonne in law and philosophy, Lévi-Strauss took a teaching post at the University of Sao Paulo in 1935, which also afforded him the experience of ethnographic fieldwork in Brazil. He returned to France in 1939 at the outbreak of hostilities, but escaped to North America soon after the French capitulation in 1940. While in New York, he became close to the anthropologist Franz Boas and the linguist Roman Jakobson, the latter of whom would leave an indelible mark on Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual development. Following upon the success of his memoir and travelogue Tristes Tropiques (1955), Lévi-Strauss returned to the themes first sketched in his Elementary Forms of Kinship (1949) with an even more rigorous application of Saussurean structural linguistics to the field of anthropology. In Structural Anthropology (1958) and The Savage Mind (1962), Lévi-Strauss showed how cultural forms could be scientifically studied in terms of universal laws of binary relation and differentiation. The latter work concluded with a polemical critique of Jean-Paul Sartre’s dialectical account of history that, in the eyes of many, signalled the eclipse of an existentialism of historical praxis by a new structuralism of universal symbolic forms.

Lévi-Strauss was elected to the Collège de France in 1959 and from there exercised a wide influence on French intellectual life throughout the 1960s. Jacques Lacan expressed his debts to Lévi-Strauss, and Louis Althusser too developed his own ‘structuralist Marxism’ in a manner at once indebted to, and ultimately critical of the Lévi-Straussian model that was its own condition. Volume five of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is devoted to the resurgence of the Rousseauist paradigm in Lévi-Strauss’s project and contains Jacques Derrida’s influential critique of Lévi-Strauss, a piece which that would find wider dissemination due to its inclusion in Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967). Lévi-Strauss responded to Derrida’s critique in a letter to the Cercle d’Épistémologie, wherein he noted Derrida’s handling of the logical law of the excluded middle with ‘the delicacy of a bear’. The letter is printed in volume eight of the Cahiers, devoted to the ‘unthought’ of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Jacques Derrida, ‘Avertissement’, CpA 4.Introduction [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Jacques Derrida, ‘Nature, Culture, Ecriture (de Lévi-Strauss à Rousseau)’, CpA 4.1 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Jean Mosconi, ‘Sur la théorie du devenir de l’entendement’, CpA 4.2 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘Une lettre à propos de “Lévi-Strauss dans le dix-huitième siècle”’, CpA 8.5 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté. Paris: PUF, 1949. The Elementary Forms of Kinship, trans. J.H. Bell, J.R. von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.
  • Tristes Tropiques. Paris: Plon, 1955. A World on the Wane, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. London: Hutchinson 1961.
  • Anthropologie structurale. Paris: Plon, 1958. Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Basic Books,1963.
  • La Pensée sauvage. Paris: Plon, 1962. The Savage Mind, trans. Rodney Needham. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1966.
  • Mythologiques I-IV:
  • Le Cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon, 1964, The Raw and the Cooked, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969
  • Du miel aux cendres. Paris: Plon, 1966, From Honey to Ashes, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973
  • L’Origine des manières de table. Paris: Plon, 1968, The Origin of Table Manners, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978
  • L’Homme nu. Paris: Plon, 1971, The Naked Man, trans. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Myth and Meaning. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.