Claude Lévi-Strauss and postmodernism

ep-100x156The expanded edition of my Explaining Postmodernism: From Rousseau to Foucault is being published late this summer. In preparing the manuscript, I re-read several transition figures, i.e., those twentieth-century intellectuals whom I judge to be important in preparing the groundwork for postmodernism.

One is anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), whom I first read as an undergraduate. Lévi-Strauss formally studied philosophy and law, but because the bulk of his influential career was in anthropological field studies and theory he is sometimes labeled the father of modern anthropology. He is enough of a metaphysical realist not to be a postmodernist, but his positions on other major philosophical issues put him among the forerunners.

strauss-claude-levi-the-savage-mind-100x156Here are three excerpts from his The Savage Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1962).

First, on his and Jean-Paul Sartre’s common inheritance from Karl Marx: “Although in both our cases Marx is the point of departure of our thought, it seems to me that the Marxist orientation leads to a different view, namely, that the opposition between the two sorts of reason is relative, not absolute” (p. 246).

Second, on his anti-humanism, which he shares with Martin Heidegger: “I accept the characterization of aesthete in so far as I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man” (p. 247).

Third, on his carrying on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s glorification of the primitivism: “we therefore remain faithful to the inspiration of the savage mind when we recognize that the scientific spirit in its most modern form will, by an encounter it alone could have foreseen, have contributed to legitimize the principles of savage thought and to re-establish it in its rightful place” (p. 269).levi-straussclaude-100x103

So: Lévi-Strauss is a post-Marxian anti-humanistic primitivist, and thus one of the gurus of the emerging postmodern movement that took off in the late 1960s and is still with us.

For more on the postmodernists and postmodernism, see my Explaining Postmodernism page.

3 thoughts on “Claude Lévi-Strauss and postmodernism

  • February 22, 2011 at 12:29 am

    Claude sounds like a fun guy, another member of the postmodernism hall of shame. Looking forward to the expanded edition. Your book is one of my favorites!

  • February 27, 2011 at 4:53 am

    Stanislav Andreski in “The Social Sciences as Sorcery” attacked Levi- Strauss, claiming that when his first work fieldwork was criticised on empirical grounds he gave up on facts and took flight into untestable mythology. Many other defective lines of thougth got a good rubbishing in that book!

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