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Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss remembered

By Elizabeth Landau, CNN
  • Claude Levi-Strauss, eminent anthropologist, died at age 100
  • He said people understand the world in terms of binary oppositions
  • His philosophical ideas are key in thinking about personal responsibility
  • Levi-Strauss considered myths an important way of understanding culture

(CNN) -- Anyone who has taken an anthropology course has probably heard of Claude Levi-Strauss, who died recently at age 100.

Born in Brussels, Belgium, in November 1908, Levi-Strauss was a eminent intellectual who had a profound influence on modern anthropology.

"He was the last of the greats, the last of the great anthropologists who had a worldwide view," said Marshall Sahlins, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

From 1935 to 1939, he conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Brazil. He became the chair of social anthropology at the College of France in 1959, a position he held until his retirement in 1982. His well-known work, "The Savage Mind," was published in 1962. The Academie Francaise, of which he had been a member since 1973, said he died October 30 in Paris, France.

His writings about the importance of culture in human thought are so "eye-opening" that they inspired Tanya Luhrmann, professor at Stanford University in California, to go into anthropology.

"You think about the way you are created in a social [context] through interaction with other people in a way that doesn't occur to you really until you read his books," she said. "It's so brilliant, it's sui generis."

Much of Levi-Strauss' widely-taught anthropological writings contain charts and maps of concepts that explore key elements of culture. In trying to explain various myths, such as the Oedipus story from Greek mythology, he assigned key themes and events to columns to explore the relationships and values within.

He found that myths were a way of retelling stories such as the relationship between the living and the dead, Lurhmann said. The myth form makes these difficult-to-deal-with concepts more complicated, but also softens them and makes them more comprehensible.

He showed the world that you could be a brilliant, empirical social scientist with a poet's soul.
--Ari Samsky, anthropologist

"His fundamental lesson was that culture shapes the way we think far more fundamentally than we are aware," she said.

Levi-Strauss wrote that people are accustomed to understanding the world in terms of binary opposites -- for instance, hot and cold, hard and soft, up and down, and the title of his seminal work, "The Raw and the Cooked."

"I think he didn't appreciate how important he was himself," Sahlins said. "He was underappreciated at the end, I think, but he will come back, as long as there's a discipline of that kind."

Unlike anthropologists who have spent many years living in one place as both participants and observers of a culture, Levi-Strauss didn't dwell in any particular location in Brazil for very long, she said. Many of his ideas were more general, abstract and philosophical than other anthropologists -- and for this level of removal from his informants' way of life, he was criticized by Clifford Geertz, who also helped shape modern anthropological theory.

Still, Levi-Strauss remains relevant to anyone who is trying to figure out how cultures are shaped. His ideas are essential "for us to be able to reconstruct any part of the human past or the cultural experience," said Scott Thompson, an archaeologist and doctoral candidate at Arizona State University.

"Levi-Strauss's ideas really brought to the forefront how shared cognitive ideas between people come together to make cultural norms," he said.

Levi-Strauss also contributed seminal ideas to philosophy, said Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

The anthropologist criticized the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre for his idea that people are free to do anything they want. For Levi-Strauss, this "freedom" is mostly out of the individual's control. Forces such as culture and language constrain a person in what he or she says and does. This issue of whether people are indeed responsible for their own actions comes up all the time in modern life, Gutting noted.

"You're better off if you're aware of the tensions between those two viewpoints," Gutting said.

The philosophical movement Levi-Strauss led is called "structuralism," which essentially means that to see something, you have to put it in a system of other things that define it, Luhrmann said. The subsequent reaction to Levi-Strauss' structuralism by such thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault is called "post-structuralism."

"Tristes Tropiques," which chronicles Levi-Strauss' travels in Brazil and other countries, is "surely one of the greatest travel books of all time even if you don't count its prodigious contributions to social theory," said Ari Samsky, who recently finished a Ph.D. in anthropology at Princeton University and is now at the University of Iowa.

"He showed the world that you could be a brilliant, empirical social scientist with a poet's soul," Samsky said in an e-mail.