Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Savage Mind” (1966)

Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1966).

“Savage mind” does not refer to “primitive” mind or the mind of “savages.” Instead, it describes the mind itself in its “savage” or natural state of classifying, distinguishing, ordering the world. Binary oppositions form the basis of its systems of classification. “The savage mind totalizes” (245), it “builds mental structures which facilitate an understanding of the world in as much as they resemble it” (263).

Culture consists of symbolic systems. Levi-Strauss treats culture like Saussure’s linguistics treats language: culture possesses deep structures behind surface phenomena. Discrete elements/units can be combined, recombined, and re-ordered in many different ways—but they are always ordered, and always ordered according to consistent patterns, and those patterns ultimately rest on binary oppositions—general/particular, up/down, God/human, etc.

Magic and science: “Magical thinking is not to be regarded as a beginning, a rudiment, a sketch, a part of a whole which has not yet materialized. It forms a well-articulated system, and is in this respect independent of that other system which constitutes science, except for the purely formal analogy which brings them together and makes the former a sort of metaphorical expression of the latter. It is therefore better, instead of contrasting magic and science, to compare them as two parallel modes of acquiring knowledge… Both science and magic however require the same sort of mental operations and they differ not so much in kind as in the different types of phenomena to which they are applied” (13).

Bricolage, Bricoleur – “[The Bricoleur's] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions” (17). The figure of the bricoleur describes the activity of the savage mind–it stands in contrast to the engineer, which describes the scientific mind (theorizing, generating new methods and tools, etc. “The elements which the ‘bricoleur’ collects and uses are ‘pre-constrained’ like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on their freedom of maneuver” (19). Mytheme – fundamental unit of myth. Can be deployed in many different contexts/structures (like a morpheme or phoneme).

History and anthropology shouldn’t be antagonistic. This will only happen if we stop privileging history. We ought to recognize history as “a method with no distinct object corresponding to it” (262). No such thing as human nature. No given facts. History, a highly selective enterprise, orders the past. There is no “history” per se, only “history-for” someone, some culture.

… “The characteristic feature of the savage mind is its timelessness; its object is to grasp the world as both a synchronic and a diachronic totality and the knowledge which it draws therefrom is like that afforded of a room by mirrors fixed on opposite walls, which reflect each other (as well as objects in the intervening space) although without being strictly parallel” (263).