This Day in Jewish History

1908: An Anthropologist Who Saw the Commonalities of Man Is Born

Claude Levi-Strauss didn't ennoble the savage mind or aggrandize the Western one, but thought they were largely one and the same.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, wearing brown tortoise-shell type glasses, a dark gray suit and black tie and a lapel pin.
Michel Ravassard, UNESCO, Wikimedia Commons

November 28, 1908, is the birthdate of a father of anthropology who believed more in the common features of human cultures than in their differences. 

Claude Levi-Strauss is celebrated as the pioneer of the “structural” school of anthropology, which explores not the differences between societies but rather the way certain archetypal patterns of thought and organization are shared by different cultures.

The French anthropologist did do some field work of his own, early in his career, but was mainly dependent on data collected by others. His breakthroughs were largely intuitive insights into general principles that apply to all humanity, characteristics that today we might describe as being “hard-wired” into human beings.

'I hate traveling'

Claude Levi-Strauss was born in Brussels, Belgium, and grew up in Paris, in the prosperous 16th arrondissement. His father Raymond Levi-Strauss, was a portrait painter whose own grandfather was a well-known violinist from the Alsatian of Strasbourg. His mother, Emma Levy, was the daughter of the rabbi of Versailles. The family owned a collection of Jewish antiquities parts of which are today on display at the Musee de Cluny in Paris.

After studying at both the Lycee Janson de Sailly and the Lycee Condorcet, Levi-Strauss entered the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) in 1927 as a student of law of philosophy, and completed his aggregation exam (required for certain civil-service educational positions) at the very young age of 23.

After a brief period of teaching high school, in 1935, Levi-Strauss and his then-wife, Dina Dreyfus, an ethnographer, traveled to Brazil, after he was offered a visiting professorship at the new, French-sponsored University of Sao Paulo. It was during the next four years that Levi-Strauss, working with Dreyfus, did some of his only fieldwork, studying indigenous tribes in the Mato Grosso and Amazon areas of Brazil.

Later, when he wrote the memoir of this period, “Tristes Tropiques” (1955; first published in English in 1961 as “A World on the Wane”), Levi-Strauss declared in the first sentence that “I hate traveling and explorers.” Even if that was an exaggeration, it is true that he spent nearly all of the rest of his life in urban environments.

Watching the Maginot Line collapse

After the outbreak of World War II, Claude and Dina returned to France. Initially he was sent to act as army liaison with British troops along the Maginot Line. After the occupation of France, he taught high school briefly, until the Nazi racial laws deprived him not only of his job but of his citizenship. He and his wife separated: she joined the Resistance, and Levi-Strauss made his way circuitously to the United States, after receiving an offer to teach at the New School in New York.

He spent the rest of the war in New York, and together with several other French exiles founded the cole Libre des Hautes tudes for other French academics in New York. Before his return to France, in 1948, he also worked for a year as cultural attaché at the embassy in Washington.

A savage mind

Levi-Strauss was a prolific and highly gifted writer. Besides his much praised memoir, he is probably best known for “La Pensee Sauvage” (called “The Savage Mind” in English) from 1962, in which he makes his case for structuralism, the theory that says there is no fundamental difference between the thinking of pre-modern (“primitive”) societies and modern ones. He also became renowned for the four-volume “Mythologiques”,  published between 1964 and 1971, in which Levi-Strauss examined how a single general archetype of a myth found its expression in indigenous, Amerindian cultures stretching from the southern end of South America north to the Arctic Circle.

Myths were for him a key tool for understanding human societies of all kinds, as they serve as the way that cultures try to make sense of the world, with common themes repeating themselves throughout time and place.

Writing before the high-tech field of cognitive brain science had really gotten under way, Levi-Strauss posited that humans approached reality in a binary manner. Although he respected non-modern societies, he did not romanticize them, and certainly didn’t view them as being inherently more noble than industrialized cultures.

Claude Levi-Strauss died on October 30, 2009, less than a month before his 101st birthday. A year earlier, France had treated his centenary as reason for a major national celebration.