On the Anthropology of Levi-Strauss

Sahlins Marshall Sahlins over at the American Anthropological Association:

For ninety-nine percent of human history, Levi-Strauss once observed, a divided humanity did not know the other modes of life, the other beliefs and the other institutions that Anthropology since the end of the nineteenth century has been called upon to understand. More than any other science or discipline, Anthropology became the self-consciousness of the human species in all its varieties and all its similarities. There developed a line of global thinkers of human cultures—E.B. Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, Franz Boas, Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Bronislaw Malinowski—of whom, alas, it seems that Levi-Strauss is the last. Levi-Strauss is apparently the last with a pan-human vision, the last to embrace the study of all the cultural expressions of humanity as the only way of knowing what mankind is. More than once he has quoted Rousseau on that score: “When one proposes to study men, one only needs to look at those nearby; but in order to study man, one has to look afar; for it is necessary to observe the differences in order to discover the properties.” Hence the title of an influential collection of Levi-Strauss’s essays, The View from Afar (1988). Levi-Strauss’s grand ambition has been to discover the universal laws of human thought underlying the great diversity of cultures known to Anthropology. In the pursuit of that ambition, he developed an ethnographic knowledge of the planet unparalleled by any scholar before and unlikely to be duplicated by anyone again. A master of Native American cultures North and South, he also supported his famous structuralist theories with detailed descriptions of indigenous customs from every other continent, as well as from remote islands of the South Seas and the nearby practices and histories of European societies.

The main inspiration of Levi-Strauss’s structuralism was the linguistic theory of that name developed by his friend—and fellow World War II refugee in New York—Roman Jakobson. When adapted to social and cultural facts, however, the strictly linguistic notions were reformulated in the terms of a few general principles.