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2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 241–48


Editors’ preface
An introduction to “Anthropology and the
‘truth sciences’” by Claude Lévi-Strauss
Andrew O. BRANDEL, Johns Hopkins University
Sidney W. MINTZ, Johns Hopkins University

Claude Lévi-Strauss won international attention from his colleagues in anthropology when he published his Structures élémentaires de la parenté [Elementary
structures of kinship] (1947). He had been appointed to the chair of Anthropology
in the Collège de France in 1959. There he had created the Laboratory of Social
Anthropology, within which he would train his students, and the journal L’Homme,
soon the premier anthropological journal in France. In 1963, he published La
pensée sauvage [The savage mind] (1962; English translation, 1966). This work
made clear that its author’s original perspective was not limited to the analysis of
kinship, vital though that is, but aimed at the larger issue of universal, uniquely
human symbolic meaning. It was the tetralogy Mythologiques (1964, 1966, 1968,
1971) that revealed the breadth of Lévi-Strauss’ structural approach. In his sixtyfifth year, he was elected to the Académie Française. His brilliant Tristes
tropiques—widely regarded as the most remarkable traveler’s account of the
twentieth century—appeared in English that same year. It was said that if there ever
were a Nobel Prize in Anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss would be its first laureate.
When he came to Johns Hopkins University in February 1978 to accept an
honorary degree, he was at the pinnacle of his career. He was fond of the United
States, where he had sought refuge in 1941, upon losing his citizenship in Vichy
France. It was in New York that he met Franz Boas, and the structural linguist
Roman Jakobson, with whom he would become a founding member of the École
Libre des Hautes Études. He taught at the New School for Social Research in New
York City, then, served as the French cultural attaché in Washington. But it was a
little surprising—and an honor to the fledgling anthropology department—that he
chose to come to Baltimore to receive yet another honor and to give a public
lecture. If there was any irony in his visit, it was modest. A decade earlier, Johns
Hopkins had been the site of a rather intense conference on structuralism, in
which the French philosopher Jacques Derrida set forth a lengthy and aggressive
critique of Lévi-Straussian thought that led to brief and windy controversy.
The lecture Professor Lévi-Strauss delivered on the occasion of his visit to
Johns Hopkins was not read, so much as spoken, because of his entirely justified
belief that he could speak English far better than he could read it aloud. The
original typescript has been modified here and there in his own hand, and all (or
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Andrew Brandel and Sidney
Mintz. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online)

Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté.” It expresses his deep conviction that the nature of mind can only be apprehended by searching among the earth’s peoples for underlying and recurrent patterns of thought. in the University’s magazine in July of that year. References Lévi-Strauss. but rather some modicum of wisdom. Paris: Plon. the name “structuralism” has been given. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.” and cites his role in “decipher[ing] the messages that embody both our relationships to nature. 1964. ———. Paris: Plon. The text leaves us with a tantalizing suggestion— that the science of anthropology might pursue not truth. Paris: Plon. Lévi-Strauss chose a fundamental subject. 1968. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. The conferral for the degree in honoris causa describes Lévi-Strauss as “master of language and master of languages. ———. namely. doubtless one upon which he had spoken before in many contexts. We do not know (or recall) whether those emendations preceded or followed the presentation. and to each other. L’Homme nu. ———. 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 241–48 .” For his theme. Paris: Plon. 1962. the Ferdinand Hamburger Archives. Le Cru et le cuit. the relation of anthropological research to those modes enquiry adopted by the so-called “true sciences. which is hopelessly out of reach. Paris: Plon. Claude. L’Origine des manières de table. La Pensée sauvage. The Savage Mind. Many suppose that it will remain his signature achievement.242 | Andrew BRANDEL and Sidney MINTZ nearly all) of the emendations are readily understood. The original texts and auxiliary documents are located at the Sheridan Libraries Special Collections at Johns Hopkins University. Our guess is that they were added when the text was prepared for its first publication. Acknowledgm ents The editors gratefully acknowledge The Johns Hopkins University Magazine. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. 1947. Du miel aux cendres. 1966. and the Winston Tabb Center at Johns Hopkins for their assistance and permissions. ———. ———. To the kinds of analysis that Lévi-Strauss would become famous for. 1966. His distinctive means of doing so was through the study of the forms of mythological logic. ———.1971.

Charles Street 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 241–48 .EDITORS’ PREFACE | 243 Andrew O. MD 21218 USA ABrandel@jhu. Charles Street Baltimore. BRANDEL is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology. Johns Hopkins University. MINTZ is Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology. MD 21218 USA Sidney W. Johns Hopkins University. Department of Anthropology 404 Macaulay Hall Johns Hopkins University 3400 N. Department of Anthropology 404 Macaulay Hall Johns Hopkins University 3400 N.

a creation in which. Brandel and Sidney W. as you may know. structuralism is trying at one and the same time to make the social sciences a little bit more scientific. It is not out of lack of respect for The Johns Hopkins University. the brilliance of which I could appreciate this morning. and the French rationalist tradition which is usually associated with the name of Descartes. Monsieur ambassador de France. the reason is simple: it is far more difficult for me to read a text in English than to try to speak it. a very strange offspring has appeared. to which I now have the honor of belonging. and aspire to levels that we will probably never be able to reach. some thirty-five years ago I spent several years of my life in the United States. I would like to offer a few reflections on this paradox. if I may say so. one first taught in history by Marx. In my view.2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 241–48 |Unedited| Anthropology and the “truth sciences” Claude LÉVI-STRAUSS Edited by Andrew O. in psychology by This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Claude Lévi-Strauss. Why. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3. even while its practitioners are quite aware that the social sciences are limited as sciences. then in linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure and. and how. out of this mixture. or for the Department of Anthropology. needless to say. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online) . Every time that I have an opportunity to return here. Indeed. If you will permit me. and I am sure I may do so as well on behalf of Dr. Out of this attempt. Next I wish to express my deep gratitude. It so happens that. Chester Kerr. we need to recall an old lesson. about at the same time. Mintz Mr.0 Unported. I fear neither America nor France would be willing to recognize themselves. But. First. that you have thought me worthy of this great distinction. Ladies and Gentlemen: My first words will be to apologize for delivering an extemporaneous address. can be summarized. it is as if I were recapturing a little bit of my youth—a complete illusion. It is as if—and this is only a hope that I entertain—I might have helped to build a bridge between an American intellectual tradition deeply embedded in the empiricist and positivist character of the AngloSaxon world stemming from Bacon through Locke and Hume. divided between your country and mine. I have said that we are trying to make the social sciences a little more scientific. perhaps it is on account of this life. I am all the more grateful because. during a meeting with its professors and graduate students. the recollection of the years of my youth and of this country are indissolubly linked. Colleagues. President. for the great honor that has been bestowed upon us today. for me. I believe. in terms of four principles. bearing the name Structuralism.

Yet if instead of looking at things themselves we look at the relations which prevail between things. that is. we take note that this is also what Kant told us. does not consist of the really important phenomena. of course. and it is only in a true science that it is possible to demonstrate the falsity of a hypothesis. It is a progression. or upon biology. or to numerous experiments. several critiques may be raised and have been raised. then these sciences would never have existed. even better explanations—and so on. To this assertion I will answer: if this is true for a science which has reached an advanced stage of development. within the modern. Third. I am referring. extension and movement in his philosophy. cannot be refuted. Second. hidden beneath the surface structures.ANTHROPOLOGY AND THE ‘TRUTH SCIENCES’ | 245 Freud. that what we perceive. That is. were to remain of the same nature as the surface structures. then we would be led towards a regression ad infinitum. sometimes even impossible to describe because of their complexity. which can serve to verify or to refute. If such a condition had been imposed upon physics at the outset. As a matter of fact. seeing and the like. The second criticism refers to the impossibility of experimenting in the social sciences. to the criterion of prediction. it would take too much time. it would have proved impossible for a science in its incipient state. And this insight. and that they can give us a firmer basis for investigation. which cannot be refuted. Obviously we cannot experiment with human societies for moral and practical reasons. quite the opposite: later on. and later. was made possible when Descartes made his fundamental distinction between sensory data—smelling. better explanations will prevail. hearing. I am perfectly aware that. and not an end which we can claim to reach. in a different way. advanced stages of these sciences there are hypotheses and interpretations. what appears at the level of consciousness. which are always misleading—and the true primary qualities that physical science should solely consider. of course. but what he called categories of the understanding—that is. of anthropology—is to go throughout the world in order to seek readymade experiments. The great superiority of the physical or biological sciences inheres in that any hypothesis set forth anywhere in the world can be immediately subject to an experiment. in opposition to this kind of approach to the social sciences and to social phenomena. Indeed. as those can only be reached at a hidden level. and imprisoned in a kind of vicious circle. and similarly what we ourselves as social scientists are trying to do is only to offer better explanations— which cannot be said to be true or false—than those accepted before—which certainly does not mean that they will remain good explanations forever. Yet it is Popper himself who says of Darwinism that it is the best explanation we have. and even if we had the power to do so. or our interpretations. when he asserted that what made knowledge possible was neither percepts nor ideas. then we will discover that these are altogether simpler and less numerous than the things themselves. or upon chemistry. The first is that our hypotheses. a kind of entities which are not of the same nature as the things we believe to perceive. what we believe. touching. And if these deep structures. All that we can do—and this is the strength. or 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 241–48 . we have tried to introduce into the social sciences the fundamental idea that we are looking at things which are extremely complicated and difficult. the value. to use modern terminology. Those readymade experiments are embodied in the four or five thousand societies which exist.

in a different way. And it seems to me that. If you take.” Nevertheless between the former and the latter. dealing with the hypothesis in question. striking that. there was general agreement that this was. whenever one of us anthropologists advances an interpretation or a hypothesis. Our difficulty is that it is impossible to prove anything about the mind. Why. then. in my opinion. which reveals our weakness in relation to “true sciences. It is this inability—provisional. as soon as the subfield of molecular biology took shape. and to ask why the situation is as I have described. the theory of relativity some years ago. of cell sociology— looking at communication between cells as a phenomenon comparable to social process. for instance. essential) to postulate that. this is because the mind is not a thing—it represents the way we apprehend things.” We may try to go a little farther. what we are trying to do. when we uncover a deep structure. I hope. the more fruitful approach. what is going on in the human mind.246 | Claude LÉVI-STRAUSS have existed. but all the same. is that. anthropologists. because reality ought to be studied at a completely different level. and the level one chooses is said to be of no value by others. hardly anyone is prepared to discuss the case. chemistry or biology. Whenever some great discovery is made in physics. in the long run. there is an immediate general agreement on a common frame of reference. It is by virtue of the existence of these societies that I believe that it is possible for the social sciences to become somewhat more rigorous and to make some progress toward joining the more advanced sciences—let us call them the “true sciences”—and so-called social. whether as historians. One need only look at the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in this country to see that practically all biologists are currently working with the same assumptions.” for such and such a reason. The reason. It is. and the discrepancy confronts us with a contradiction which it may be forever impossible to overcome. In biology. For quantum mechanics. and perhaps to a more limited 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 241–48 . on the surface of the earth. the kind of response we are likely to receive is that this interpretation is of no interest. or whatever is to fathom. and that biologists are also borrowing from sociologists when they speak. The mind is not of the same order as the things we are able to study. this inability—to achieve a common frame of reference in the development of our discipline. for instance. even the more advanced ones. in our case—the anthropological case—is it not at all the same situation? It is very striking that. there is a difference which we should not overlook. which much simplifies the forward advance of that science. and yet another deeper yet. psychologists. at diverse levels of interpretation. at the time. there will be another structure even deeper. for instance. Now the question is—and this will be my final observation—whether this unhappy situation is specific to the social sciences or whether it does not exist to some extent in all the sciences. biology has borrowed heavily and is still borrowing. the same consensus held. because the mind is not something we may plumb. when trying to describe the genetic code. or (as we prefer to say in French) “humane sciences. from linguistics. you will find that everybody agreed it was from this theoretical perspective that one should try to work. Instead. and it is always possible (indeed. It has been very heartening for us in the past years to see that models are increasingly being borrowed from the social sciences by the more advanced sciences. and of which we have some records. during the documented portions of human history. sociologists. and to say “you are right” or “you are wrong.

then we may be—and this is perhaps our advantage—we may be more ready to resign ourselves to the general truth that science will remain forever incomplete. Claude LÉVI-STRAUSS (1908–2009) was a prominent French anthropologist and one of the founders of structuralist anthropology. cannot be refuted or falsified. because our life interests. it may be that it is as impossible in the long run to explain what is life as it will probably prove impossible for us in the social sciences to explain what is the mind. and from complex to even more complex. that instead of a “revolutionary tree” (which was the illustration fashionable in the last century). 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 241–48 . that all problems pertaining to humankind are ultimately problems for humankind. that the historical approach has of late been invading biology. a great difference remains between the hard sciences. our temperament. Thank you. that does not concern each of us. a code is accordingly needed. molecular biologists have pointed out over and over again that the components that translate the genetic code are themselves coded in DNA. we are confronted with these difficulties at every step. and chemistry. cannot be proved. He held the chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France (1959–1982) and he was elected a member of the Académie Française in 1973. if I may say so. moreover. Biology. That is. for instance. there is also regression. Of course. these antimonies. and on our own. a history which is obviously a unique event. ed. the advanced sciences are now confronted with those same antinomies and contradictions we have ourselves confronted for so long. Thus. It is striking. There appears to be a kind of vicious circle here. in the long run. however small. biology is now concerned with showing that at the same time that there is progress and movement. there is a multiplicity of directions.ANTHROPOLOGY AND THE ‘TRUTH SCIENCES’ | 247 extent. The same case may be made in regard to the attempt to reduce chemistry to physics—a great problem of the more advanced sciences. but more modestly some amount of wisdom—the achievement of which is supremely difficult. And yet. a problem in the history of the cosmos. But if we are able to make even some limited progress towards wisdom. is now viewing evolution rather in the same light as historians consider history. there is a branching pattern more like an intricate bush. It follows that in order to make a code. This is one fundamental weakness— and perhaps also the fundamental greatness—of the humane sciences. one which cannot be explained. our prejudices are immediately implicated in every problem. and. The elementary structures of kinship. the growth pattern of which can be described but not accounted for by a simple law. and so on. There is no problem. This is probably the reason why the social sciences should not pretend to reach truth. our personal history. physics. since it has not completely abandoned the old idea of a unilinear evolutionism going from elementary life forms to more complex. This difference is that these problems. confront the more advanced sciences only when they engage the ultimate problems and there are a great many problems they can solve before confronting the ultimate questions. as a matter of fact. His best known works include Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949. these difficulties which are logically impossible to solve. and what is consciousness. for instance. that rather than unidirectionality. which is probably impossible of attainment.

The savage mind. trans. 1966).248 | Claude LÉVI-STRAUSS Rodney Needham. J. Structural anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. H. La pensée sauvage (1962. R. Doreen and John Weightman. J. Bell. trans. Anthropologie structurale (1958. 1963). 2013 | HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1): 241–48 . and Tristes Tropiques (1955. and Rodney Needham. 1969). trans. 1973). trans. von Sturmer. Doreen and John Weightman.