THE 100th birthday of influential anthropologist, philosopher and Académie Française member Claude Lévi-Strauss is being celebrated today.
The occasion will be marked with the publication of around 20 new books on his thought, a night of special programming on Arte and exhibitions in Paris on his life and work.
Trained as a philosopher, Lévi-Strauss became famous for his studies of Amazonian Indians, in which he applied the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure's “structural linguistics” to family life and myths in indigenous societies.
His main works - Elementary Structures of Kinship, The Savage Mind and Structural Anthropology – have inspired generations of philosophers, linguists and literary theorists.
He is recognised as one of the founders of the Structuralist school, whose members aimed to uncover the hidden, unconscious or primitive patterns of thought that believed underlay human culture and relationships.
Today, he is the oldest member of the Académie Française, a much-respected but retiring figure who has said he no longer feels at home on an overpopulated planet.
The director general of Unesco, Koichiro Matsuura, said: “His work, with its humanist message and universal scope, has radically changed our understanding of the world. Interested in all civilizations, he has taught us about the complexity of myths and the diversity of cultures, as well as their fragility. Thanks to him, we know that the wealth of humanity lies in its diversity and its ability always to accept the other.”
Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels in 1908, the son of French Jewish parents from the German-speaking region of Alsace. He studied philosophy and in 1935 set off for Brazil, where he had been named professor at the University of Sao Paolo.
There he studied the lives of the tribes of the Mato Grosso and the Amazonian rainforest, collecting material for his theories on the underlying structures of human relationships and the myths he believed to be shared, in various forms, by all cultures.
He returned to France in 1939 and was called up for military service, but when the army collapsed in the face of the Nazi German invasion he was, as a Jew, forced to flee to the United States, where he taught while waiting for a chance to return home.
Given the chair in social anthropology at the College de France in 1959, he worked there until retirement in 1982 and in 1973 was the first ethnologist to join the Académie Française.
One of his biographers, Denis Bertholet, said: “Straddling the worlds of philosophy and science, his work is essential for any attempt to reflect on our society and how it works. He had an ecological approach to the world and to individuals that was ahead of its time.”
In his own words, Lévi-Strauss was not merely studying the thoughts of “primitive” peoples in The Savage Mind (La Pensée Sauvage) but the underlying structures of all human thought. Commenting on his concept of la pensée sauvage, (which in French can simply mean “wild” and is therefore milder than the English “savage”) he said: “It’s a form which is the prerogative of all humanity, which we can find in ourselves but which we prefer to go and seek in exotic societies.”
Photo: AFP/Pascal Pavani