Saturday, 9 June 2001

Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Savage Mind (1962)

Translation: 1966 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972
Review number: 837

Many books that, like The Savage Mind, go on to become influential on the way that people think, have at their time of writing two purposes, of which one only ensures their survival. The immediate cause of the genesis of such a book is to make a specific point or answer some then current school of thought; in this case, Lévi-Strauss wanted to counter some ideas about totemism in anthropology. This first purpose then suggests a more general thesis, more philosophical and theoretical, more illuminating of the way in which people think; in this case, it concerns how human beings classify and understand the world around them.

I have no claims to be an expert - or even to be greatly interested - in anthropology. The argument about totemism is hard to follow (mainly because the opinions with which Lévi-Strauss is disagreeing are assumed to be known to the reader), and in the end is only interesting as a series of illustrations to the philosophical thesis about the need we have to classify our environment.

I am not sure that I would agree with everything that Lévi-Strauss has to say. He argues against the idea that the various classification schemes he looks at are antecedents of scientific method, feeling instead that they are substantially different. There are clearly differences, but I would feel that the history of science shows the development of modern method in the late medieval period, as experiment and verifiability began to be seen as important, but that the body of knowledge attained by that time in Western Europe is in many ways analogous to (say) the medical theories of a tribe in the Amazon. Possibly what Lévi-Strauss meant is that the ideas of the medieval West were more theoretical and analytical, the theory of humours for example generalising ideas like bitter tasting substances being good for stomach upsets.

On the other hand, he may be against the implication that science is a superior development, an advance on earlier thought systems. In some ways, this is clearly the case; we certainly seem to be able to understand the nature of the physical world more accurately than our medieval ancestors could - every time we turn on an electric light bears witness to this. On the other hand, to say that this makes science "better" goes against the trend of thought since the sixties, and Lévi-Strauss could easily be anticipating this.

As a logician, one thing which struck me is that the classifications which form the examples are almost exclusively binary; something is either in a group or out of it with no middle ground, even if this requires some strange manipulation to shoehorn some objects into one group. This is clearly related to one of the main functions of classification, which is to reduce the complexity of the world and make it easier to understand; a tendency to view things as black or white is much simpler than admitting to hundreds of shades of grey.

I wouldn't claim to completely understand The Savage Mind. There is too much from fields of knowledge unfamiliar to me, and Lévi-Strauss' argument is very complex to take in at a single reading. From the very first page, however, it is clear that the book is the product of a first-rate mind, and it is absolutely fascinating.

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