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Home page > 20- ENGLISH - MATERIAL AND REVOLUTION > Claude Lévi-Strauss sociology

Claude Lévi-Strauss sociology

Thursday 15 May 2008, by Robert Paris

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1958)

Structural Anthropology Chapter II Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology

LINGUISTICS OCCUPIES a special place among the social sciences, to whose ranks it unquestionably belongs. It is not merely a social science like the others, but, rather, the one in which by far the greatest progress has been made. It is probably the only one which can truly claim to be a science and which has achieved both the formulation of an empirical method and an understanding of the nature of the data submitted to its analysis. This privileged position carries with it several obligations. The linguist will often find scientists from related but different disciplines drawing inspiration from his example and trying to follow his lead. Noblesse oblige. A linguistic journal like Word cannot confine itself to the illustration of strictly linguistic theories and points of view. It must also welcome psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists eager to learn from modern linguistics the road which leads to the empirical knowledge of social phenomena. As Marcel Mauss wrote – already forty years ago : “Sociology would certainly have progressed much further if it had everywhere followed the lead of the linguists. ...” The close methodological which exists between the two disciplines imposes a special obligation of collaboration upon them.

Ever since the work of Schrader it has been unnecessary to demonstrate the assistance which linguistics can render to the anthropologist in the study of kinship. It was a linguist and a philologist (Schrader and Rose) who showed the improbability of the hypothesis of matrilineal survivals in the family in antiquity, to which so many anthropologists still clung at that time. The linguist provides the anthropologist with etymologies which permit him to establish between certain kinship terms relationships that were not immediately apparent. The anthropologist, on the other hand, can bring to the attention of the linguist customs, prescriptions, and prohibitions that help him to understand the persistence of certain features of language or the instability of terms or groups of terms. At a meeting of the Linguistic Circle of New York, Julien Bonfante once illustrated this point of view by reviewing the etymology of the word for uncle in several Romance languages. The Greek theios corresponds in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese to zio and tio ; and he added that in certain regions of Italy the uncle is called barba. The “beard,” the “divine” uncle – what a wealth of suggestions for the anthropologist ! The investigations of the late A. M. Hocart into the religious character of the avuncular relationship and “theft of the sacrifice” by the maternal kinsmen immediately come to mind. Whatever interpretation is given to the data collected by Hocart (and his own interpretation is not entirely satisfactory), there is no doubt that the linguist contributes to the solution of the problem by revealing the tenacious survival in contemporary vocabulary of relationships which have long since disappeared. At the same time, the anthropologist explains to the linguist the bases of etymology and confirms its validity. Paul K. Benedict, in examining, as a linguist, the kinship systems of South East Asia, was able to make an important contribution to the anthropology of the family in that area.

But linguists and anthropologists follow their own paths independently. They halt , no doubt, from time to time to communicate to one another certain of their findings ; these findings, however, derive from different operations, and no effort is made to enable one group to benefit from the technical and methodological advances of the other. This attitude might have been justified in the era when linguistic research leaned most heavily on historical analysis. In relation to the anthropological research conducted during the same period, the difference was one of degree rather than of kind. The linguists employed a more rigorous method, and their findings were established on more solid grounds ; the sociologists could follow their example in renouncing consideration of the spatial distribution of contemporary types as a basis for their classifications. But, after all, anthropology and sociology were looking to linguistics only for insights ; nothing foretold a revelation.

The advent of structural linguistics completely changed this situation. Not only did it renew linguistic perspectives ; a transformation of this magnitude is not limited to a single discipline. Structural linguistics will certainly play the same renovating role with respect to the social sciences that nuclear physics, for example, has played for the physical sciences. In what does this revolution consist, as we try to assess its broadest implications ? N. Troubetzkoy, the illustrious founder of structural linguistics, himself furnished the answer to this question. In one programmatic statement, he reduced the structural method to four basic operations. First, structural linguistics shifts from the study of conscious linguistic phenomena to study of their unconscious infrastructure ; second, it does not treat terms as independent entities, taking instead as its – basis of analysis the relations between terms ; third, it introduces the concept of system – “Modern phonemics does not merely proclaim that phonemes are always part of a system ; it shows concrete phonemic systems and elucidates their structure” finally, structural linguistics aims at discovering general laws, either by induction “or ... by logical deduction, which would give them an absolute character.”

Thus, for the first time, a social science is able to formulate necessary relationships. This is the meaning of Troubetzkoy’s last point, while the preceding rules show how linguistics must proceed in order to attain this end. It is not for us to show that Troubetzkoy’s claims are justified. The vast majority of modern linguists seem sufficiently agreed on this point. But when an event of this importance takes place in one of the sciences of man, it is not only permissible for, but required of, representatives of related disciplines immediately to examine its consequences and its possible application to phenomena of another order.

New perspectives then open up. We are no longer dealing with an occasional collaboration where the linguist and the anthropologist, each working by himself, occasionally communicate those findings which each thinks may interest the other. In the study of kinship problems (and, no doubt, the study of other problems as well), the anthropologist finds himself in a situation which formally resembles that of the structural linguist. Like phonemes, kinship terms are elements of meaning ; like phonemes, they acquire meaning only if they are integrated into systems. “Kinship systems,” Eke “phonemic systems,” are built by the mind on the level of unconscious thought. Finally, the recurrence of kinship patterns, marriage rules, similar prescribed attitudes between certain types of relatives, and so forth, in scattered regions of the globe and in fundamentally different societies, leads us to believe that, in the case of kinship as well as linguistics, the observable phenomena result from the action of laws which are general but implicit. The problem can therefore be formulated as follows : Although they belong to another order of reality, kinship phenomena are of the same type as linguistic phenomena. Can the anthropologist, using a method analogous in form (if not in content) to the method used in structural linguistics, achieve the same kind of progress in his own science as that which has taken place in linguistics ?

We shall be even more strongly inclined to follow this path after an additional observation has been made. The study of kinship problems is today broached in the same terms and seems to be in the throes of the same difficulties as was linguistics on the eve of the structuralist revolution. There is a striking analogy between certain attempts by Rivers and the old linguistics, which sought its explanatory principles first of all in history. In both cases, it is solely (or almost solely) diachronic analysis which must account for synchronic phenomena. Troubetzkoy, comparing structural linguistics and the old linguistics, defines structural linguistics as a “systematic structuralism and universalism,” which he contrasts with the individualism and “atomism” of former schools. And when he considers diachronic analysis, his perspective is a profoundly modified one : “The evolution of a phonemic system at any given moment is directed by the tendency toward a goal. ... This evolution thus has a direction, an internal logic, which historical phonemics is called upon to elucidate.” The “individualistic” and “atomistic” interpretation, founded exclusively on historical contingency, which is criticised by Troubetzkoy and Jakobson, is actually the same as that which is generally applied to kinship problems. Each detail of terminology and each special marriage rule is associated with a specific custom as either its consequence or its survival. We thus meet with a chaos of discontinuity. No one asks how kinship systems, regarded as synchronic wholes, could be the arbitrary product of a convergence of several heterogeneous institutions (most of which are hypothetical), yet nevertheless function with some sort of regularity and effectiveness.

However, a preliminary difficulty impedes the transposition of the phonemic method to the anthropological study of primitive peoples. The superficial analogy between phonemic systems and kinship systems is so strong that it immediately sets us on the wrong track. It is incorrect to equate kinship terms and linguistic phonemes from the viewpoint of their formal treatment. We know that to obtain a structural law the linguist analyses phonemes into “distinctive features,” which he can then group into one or several “pairs of oppositions.” Following an analogous method, the anthropologist might be tempted to break down analytically the kinship terms of any given system into their components. In our own kinship system, for instance, the term father has positive connotations with respect to sex, relative age, and generation ; but it has a zero value on the dimension of collaterality, and it cannot express an affinal relationship. Thus, for each system, one might ask what relationships are expressed and, for each term of the system, what connotation – positive or negative – it carries regarding each of the following relationships : generation, collaterality, sex, relative age, affinity, etc. It is at this “micro-sociological” level that one might hope to discover the most general structural laws, just as the linguist discovers his at the infraphonemic level or the physicist at the infra-molecular or atomic level. One might interpret the interesting attempt of Davis and Warner in these terms.

But a threefold objection immediately arises. A truly scientific analysis must be real, simplifying, and explanatory. Thus the distinctive features which are the product of phonemic analysis have an objective existence from three points of view : psychological, physiological, and even physical ; they are fewer in number than the phonemes which result from their combination ; and, finally, they allow us to understand and reconstruct the system. Nothing of the kind would emerge from the preceding hypothesis. The treatment of kinship terms which we have just sketched is analytical in appearance only ; for, actually, the result is more abstract than the principle ; instead of moving toward the concrete, one moves away from it, and the definitive system – if system there is - is only conceptual. Secondly, Davis and Warner’s experiment proves that the system achieved through this procedure is infinitely more complex and more difficult to interpret than the empirical data. Finally, the hypothesis has no explanatory value ; that is, it does not lead to an understanding of the nature of the system and still less to a reconstruction of its origins.

What is the reason for this failure ? A too literal adherence to linguistic method actually betrays its very essence. Kinship terms not only have a sociological existence ; they are also elements of speech. In our haste to apply the methods of linguistic analysis, we must not forget that, as a part of vocabulary, kinship terms must be treated with linguistic methods in direct and not analogous fashion. Linguistics teaches us precisely that structural analysis cannot be applied to words directly, but only to words previously broken down into phonemes. There are no necessary relationships at the vocabulary level. This applies to all vocabulary elements, including kinship terms. Since this applies to linguistics, it ought to apply ipso facto to the sociology of language. An attempt like the one whose possibility we are now discussing would thus consist in extending the method of structural linguistics while ignoring its basic requirements. Kroeber prophetically foresaw this difficulty in an article written many years ago. And if, at that time, he concluded that a structural analysis of kinship terminology was impossible, we must remember that linguistics itself was then restricted to phonetic, psychological, and historical analysis. While it is true that the social sciences must share the limitations of linguistics, they can also benefit from its progress.

Nor should we overlook the profound differences between the phonemic chart of a language and the chart of kinship terms of a society. In the first instance there can be no question as to function ; we all know that language serves as a means of communication. On the other hand, what the linguist did not know and what structural linguistics alone has allowed him to discover is the way in which language achieves this end. The function was obvious ; the system remained unknown. In this respect, the anthropologist finds himself in the opposite situation. We know, since the work of Lewis H. Morgan, that kinship terms constitute systems ; on the other hand, we still do not know their function. The misinterpretation of this initial situation reduces most structural analyses of kinship systems to pure tautologies. They demonstrate the obvious and neglect the unknown.

This does not mean that we must abandon hope of introducing order and discovering meaning in kinship nomenclature. But, we should at least recognise the special problems raised by the sociology of vocabulary and the ambiguous character of the relations between its methods and those of linguistics. For this reason it would be preferable to limit the discussion to a case where the analogy can be clearly established. Fortunately, we have just such a case available.

What is generally called a “kinship system” comprises two quite different orders of reality. First, there are terms through which various kinds of family relationships are expressed. But kinship is not expressed solely through nomenclature. The individuals or classes of individuals who employ these terms feel (or do not feel, as the case may be) bound by prescribed behaviour in their relations with one another, such as respect or familiarity, rights or obligations, and affection or hostility. Thus, along with what we propose to call the system of terminology (which, strictly speaking, constitutes the vocabulary system), there is another system, both psychological and social in nature, which we shall call the system of attitudes. Although it is true (as we have shown, above) that the study of systems of terminology places us in a situation analogous, but opposite, to the situation in which we are dealing with phonemic systems, this difficulty is “inversed,” as it were, when we examine systems of attitudes. We can guess at the role played by systems of attitudes, that is, to insure group cohesion and equilibrium, but we do not understand the nature of the interconnections between the various attitudes, nor do we perceive their necessity. In other words, as in the case of language, we know their function, but the system is unknown.

Thus we find a profound difference between the system of terminology and the system of attitudes, and we have to disagree with A. R. Radcliffe-Brown if he really believed, as has been said of him, that attitudes are nothing but the expression or transposition of terms on the affective level. The last few years have provided numerous examples of groups whose chart of kinship terms does not accurately reflect family attitudes, and vice versa. It would be incorrect to assume that the kinship system constitutes the principal means of regulating interpersonal relationships in all societies. Even in societies where the kinship system does function as such, it does not fulfil that role everywhere to the same extent. Furthermore, it is always necessary to distinguish between two types of attitudes : first, the diffuse, uncrystallised, and non-institutionalised attitudes, which we may consider as the reflection or transposition of the terminology on the psychological level ; and second, along with, or in addition to, the preceding ones, those attitudes which are stylised, prescribed, and sanctioned by taboos or privileges and expressed through a fixed ritual. These attitudes, far from automatically reflecting the nomenclature, often appear as secondary elaborations, which serve to resolve the contradictions and overcome the deficiencies inherent in the terminological system. This synthetic character is strikingly apparent among the Wik Munkan of Australia. In this group, joking privileges sanction a contradiction between the kinship relations which link two unmarried men and the theoretical relationship which must be assumed to exist between them in order to account for their later marriages to two women who do not stand themselves in the corresponding relationship. There is a contradiction between two possible systems of nomenclature, and the emphasis placed on attitudes represents an attempt to integrate or transcend this contradiction. We can easily agree with Radcliffe-Brown and assert the existence of real relations of interdependence between the terminology and the rest of the system. Some of his critics made the mistake of inferring from the absence of a rigorous parallelism between attitudes and nomenclature, that the two systems were mutually independent. But this relationship of interdependence does not imply a one-to-one correlation. The system of attitudes constitutes, rather, a dynamic integration of the system of terminology.

Granted the hypothesis (to which we wholeheartedly subscribe) of a functional relationship between the two systems, we are nevertheless entitled, for methodological reasons, to treat independently the problems pertaining to each system. This is what we propose to do here for a problem which is rightly considered the point of departure for any theory of attitudes – that of the maternal uncle. We shall attempt to show how a formal transposition of the method of structural linguistics allows us to shed new light upon this problem. Because the relationship between nephew and maternal uncle appears to have been the focus of significant elaboration in a great many primitive societies, anthropologists have devoted special attention to it. It is not enough to note the frequency of this theme ; we must also account for it. ...

Chapter XII Structure and Dialectics From Lang to Malinowski, through Durkheim, Lévy-Bruhl, and van der Leeuw, sociologists and anthropologists who were interested in the interrelations between myth and ritual have considered them as mutually redundant. Some of these thinkers see in each myth the ideological projection of a rite, the purpose of the myth being to provide a foundation for the rite. Others reverse the relationship and regard ritual as a kind of dramatised illustration of the myth. Regardless of whether the myth or the ritual is the original, they replicate each other ; the myth exists on the conceptual level and the ritual on the level of action. In both cases, one assumes an orderly correspondence between the two, in other words, a homology. Curiously enough, this homology is demonstrable in only a small number of cases. It remains to be seen why all myths do not correspond to rites and vice versa, and most important, why there should be such a curious replication in the first place.

I intend to show by means of a concrete example that this homology does not always exist ; or, more specifically, that when we do find such a homology, it might very well constitute a particular illustration of a more generalised relationship between myth and ritual and between the rites themselves. Such a generalised relationship would imply a one-to-one correspondence between the elements of rites which seem to differ, or between the elements of any one rite and any one myth. Such a correspondence could not, however, be considered a homology. In the example to be discussed here, the reconstruction of the correspondence requires a series of preliminary operations. – that is, permutations or transformations which may furnish the key to the correspondence. If this hypothesis is correct, we shall have to give up mechanical causality as an explanation and, instead, conceive of the relationship between myth and ritual as dialectical, accessible only if both have first been reduced to their structural elements. ...

Chapter XV Social Structure THE TERM “social structure” refers to a group of problems the scope of which appears so wide and the definition so imprecise that it is hardly possible for a paper strictly limited in size to meet them fully. This is reflected in the program of this symposium, in which problems closely related to social structure have been allotted to several papers, such as those on “Style,” “Universal Categories of Culture,” and “Structural Linguistics.” These should be read in connection with the present paper.

On the other hand, studies in social structure have to do with the formal aspects of social phenomena ; they are therefore difficult to define, and still more difficult to discuss, without overlapping other fields pertaining to the exact and natural sciences, where problems are similarly set in formal terms or, rather, where the formal expression of different problems admits of the same kind of treatment. As a matter of fact, the main interest of social structure studies seems to be that they give the anthropologist hope that, thanks to the formalisation of his problems, he may borrow methods and types of solutions from disciplines which have gone far ahead of his own in that direction.

Such being the case, it is obvious that the term “social structure” needs first to be defined and that some explanation should be given of the difference which helps to distinguish studies in social structure from the unlimited field of descriptions, analyses, and theories dealing with social relations at large, which merge with the whole scope of social anthropology. This is all the more necessary, since some of those who have contributed toward setting apart social structure as a special field of anthropological studies conceived the former in many different manners and even sometimes, so it seems, came to nurture grave doubts as to the validity of their enterprise. For instance, Kroeber writes in the second edition of his Anthropology :

“Structure” appears to be just a yielding to a word that has perfectly good meaning but suddenly becomes fashionably attractive for a decade or so – like “streamlining” - and during its vogue tends to be applied indiscriminately because of the pleasurable connotations of its sound. Of course a typical personality can be viewed as having a structure. But so can a physiology, any organism, all societies and all cultures, crystals, machines – in fact everything that is not wholly amorphous has a structure. So what “structure” adds to the meaning of our phrase seems to be nothing, except to provoke a degree of pleasant puzzlement.’

Although this passage concerns more particularly the notion of “basic personality structure,” it has devastating implications as regards the generalised use of the notion of structure in anthropology.

Another reason makes a definition of social structure compulsory : From the structuralist point of view which one has to adopt if only to give the problem its meaning, it would be hopeless to try to reach a valid definition of social structure on an inductive basis, by abstracting common elements from the uses and definitions current among all the scholars who claim to have made “social structure” the object of their studies. If these concepts have a meaning at all, they mean, first, that the notion of structure has a structure. This we shall try to outline from the beginning as a precaution against letting ourselves be submerged by a tedious inventory of books and papers dealing with social relations, the mere listing of which would more than exhaust the limited space at our disposal. At a further stage we will have to see how far and in what directions the term “social structure,” as used by the different authors, departs from our definition. This will be done in the section devoted to kinship, since the notion of structure has found its chief application in that field and since anthropologists have generally chosen to express their theoretical views also in that connection.

DEFINITION AND PROBLEMS OF METHOD Passing now to the task of defining “social structure,” there is a point which should be cleared up immediately. The term “social structure” has nothing to do with empirical reality but with models which are built up after it. This should help one to clarify difference between two concepts which are so close to each that they have often been confused, namely, those of social structure and of social relations. It will be enough to state at this social relations consist of the raw materials out of which the models making up the social structure are built, while social structure can, by no means, be reduced to the ensemble of the social relations to be described in a given society. Therefore, social structure cannot claim a field of its own among others in the social studies. It is rather a method to be applied to any kind of social studies, similar to the structural analysis current in other disciplines.

The question then becomes that of ascertaining what kind of model deserves the name “structure.” This is not an anthropological question, but one which belongs to the methodology of science in general. Keeping this in mind, we can say that a structure consists of a model meeting with several requirements.

First, the structure exhibits the characteristics of a system. It is made up of several elements, none of which can undergo a change without effecting changes in all the other elements.

Second, for any given model there should be a possibility of ordering a series of transformations resulting in a group of models of the same type.

Third, the above properties make it possible to predict how the model will react if one or more of its elements are submitted to certain modifications.

Finally, the model should be constituted so as to make immediately intelligible all the observed facts.

These being the requirements for any model with structural value, several consequences follow. These, however, do not pertain to the definition of structure, but have to do with the chief properties exhibited and problems raised by structural analysis when contemplated in the social and other fields.

Observation and Experimentation. Great care should be taken to distinguish between the observational and the experimental levels. To observe facts and elaborate methodological devices which permit the construction of models out of these facts is not at all the same thing as to experiment on the models. By “experimenting on models,” we mean the set of procedures aiming at ascertaining how a given model will react when subjected to change and at comparing models of the same or different types. This distinction is all the more necessary, since many discussions on social structure revolve around the apparent contradiction between the concreteness and individuality of ethnological data and the abstract and formal character generally exhibited by structural studies. This contradiction, disappears as one comes to realise that these features belong to two entirely different levels, or rather to two stages of the same process. On the observational level, in the main one could almost say the only rule is that all the facts should be carefully observed and described, without allowing any theoretical preconception to decide whether some are more important than others. This rule implies, in turn, that facts should be studied in relation to themselves (by what kind of concrete process did they come into being ?) and in relation to the whole (always aiming to relate each modification which can be observed in a sector to the global situation in which it first appeared).

This rule together with its corollaries has been explicitly formulated by K. Goldstein in relation to psycho-physiological studies, and it may be considered valid for any kind of structural analysis. Its immediate consequence is that, far from being contradictory, there is a direct relationship between the detail and concreteness of ethnographical description and the validity and generality of the model which is constructed after it. For, though many models may be used as convenient devices to describe and explain the phenomena, it is obvious that the best model will always be that which is true, that is, the simplest possible model which, while being derived exclusively from the facts under consideration, also makes it possible to account for all of them. Therefore, the first task is to ascertain what those facts are.

Consciousness and Unconsciousness A second distinction has to do with the conscious or unconscious character of the models. In the history of structural thought, Boas may be credited with having introduced this distinction. He made clear that a category of facts can more easily yield to structural analysis when the social group in which it is manifested has not elaborated a conscious model to interpret or justify it. Some readers may be surprised to find Boas’ name quoted in connection with structural theory, since he has often been described as one of the main obstacles in its path. But this writer has tried to demonstrate that Boas’ shortcomings in matters of structural studies did not lie in his failure to understand their importance and significance, which he did, as a matter of fact, in the most prophetic way. They rather resulted from the fact that he imposed on structural studies conditions of validity, some of which will remain forever part of their methodology, while some others are so exacting and impossible to meet that they would have withered scientific development in any field.

A structural model may be conscious or unconscious without this difference affecting its nature. It can only be said that when the structure of a certain type of phenomena does not lie at a great depth, it is more likely that some kind of model, standing as a screen to hide it, will exist in the collective consciousness. For conscious models, which are usually known as “norms,” are by definition very poor ones, since they are not intended to explain the phenomena but to perpetuate them. Therefore, structural analysis is confronted with a strange paradox well known to the linguist, that is : the more obvious structural organisation is, the more difficult it becomes to reach it because of the inaccurate conscious models lying across the path which leads to it.

From the point of view of the degree of consciousness, the anthropologist is confronted with two kinds of situations. He may have to construct a model from phenomena the systematic character of which has evoked no awareness on the part of the culture ; this is the kind of simpler situation referred to by Boas as providing the easiest ground for anthropological research. Or else the anthropologist will be dealing on the one hand with raw phenomena and on the other with the models already constructed by the culture to interpret the former. Though it is likely that, for the reasons stated above, these models will prove unsatisfactory, it is by no means necessary that this should always be the case. As a matter of fact, many “primitive” cultures have built models of their marriage regulations which are much more to the point than models built by professional anthropologists Thus one cannot dispense with studying a culture’s “home-made” models for two reasons. First, these models might prove to be accurate or, at least, to provide some insight into the structure of the phenomena ; after all, each culture has its own theoreticians whose contributions deserve the same attention as that which the anthropologist gives to colleagues. And, second, even if the models are biased or erroneous, the very bias and type of error are a part of the facts under study and probably rank among the most significant ones. But even when taking into consideration these culturally produced models, the anthropologist does not forget – as he has sometimes been accused of doing – that the cultural norms are not of themselves structures. Rather, they furnish an important contribution to an understanding of the structures, either as factual documents or as theoretical contributions similar to those of the anthropologist himself.

This point has been given great attention by the French sociological school. Durkheim and Mauss, for instance, have always taken care to substitute, as a starting point for the survey of native categories of thought, the conscious representations prevailing among the natives themselves for those stemming from the anthropologist’s own culture. This was undoubtedly an important step, which, nevertheless, fell short of its goal because these authors were not sufficiently aware that native conscious representations, important as they are, may be just as remote from the unconscious reality as any other.

Structure and Measure. It is often believed that one of the main interests of the notion of structure is to permit the introduction of measurement in social anthropology. This view has been favoured by the frequent appearance of mathematical or semi-mathematical aids in books or articles dealing with social structure. It is true that in some cases structural analysis has made it possible to attach numerical values to invariants. This was, for instance, the result of Kroeber’s study of women’s dress fashions, a landmark in structural research, as well as of a few other studies which will be discussed below.

However, one should keep in mind that there is no necessary connection between measure and structure. Structural studies are, in the social sciences, the indirect outcome of modern developments in mathematics which have given increasing importance to the qualitative point of view in contradistinction to the quantitative point of view of traditional mathematics. It has become possible, therefore, in fields such as mathematical logic, set theory, group theory, and topology, to develop a rigorous approach to problems which do not admit of a metrical solution. The outstanding achievements in this connection – which offer themselves as springboards not yet utilised by social scientist e to be found in J. von Neumann and O. Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour ; N. Wiener, Cybernetics ; and C. Shannon and W. Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. ...

Chapter XVI ... I do not postulate a kind of pre-existent harmony between different levels of structure. They may be – and often are – completely contradictory, but the modes of contradiction all belong the same type. Indeed, according to dialectic materialism it should always be possible to proceed, by transformation, from economic or social structure to the structure of law, art, or religion. But Marx never claimed that there was only one type of transformation - for example, that ideology was simply a “mirror image” of social relations. In his view, these transformations were dialectic, and in some cases he went to great lengths to discover the crucial transformation which at first sight seemed to defy analysis.

If we grant, following Marxian thought, that infrastructures and superstructures are made up of multiple levels and that there various types of transformations from one level to another, it becomes possible – in the final analysis, and on the condition that we disregard content – to characterise different types in terms of the types of transformations which occur within them. These types of transformations amount to formulas showing the number, magnitude, direction, and order of the convolutions that must be unravelled, so to speak, in order to uncover (logically, not normatively) an ideal homologous relationship between the different structural levels.

Now, this reduction to an ideal homologous relationship is at the same time a critique. By replacing a complex model with a simple model that has greater logical value, the anthropologist reveals the detours and manoeuvres, conscious and unconscious, that each society uses in an effort to resolve its inherent contradictions – or at any rate to conceal them.

This clarification, already furnished by my previous studies, which Gurvitch should have taken into consideration, may expose me to still another criticism. If every society has the same flaw, manifested by the two-fold problem – of logical disharmony and social inequality, why should its more thoughtful members endeavour to change it ? Change would mean only the replacement of one social form by another ; and if one is no better than the other, why bother ?

In support of this argument, Rodinson cites a passage from Tristes Tropiques : “No human society is fundamentally good, but neither is any of them fundamentally bad ; all offer their members certain advantages, though we must bear in mind a residue of iniquity, apparently more or less constant in its importance... .

But here Rodinson isolates, in biased fashion, one step in a reasoning process by which I tried to resolve the apparent conflict between thought and action. Actually :

(1) In the passage criticised by Rodinson, the relativistic argument serves only to oppose any attempt at classifying, in relation to one another, societies remote from that of the observer - for instance, from our point of view, a Melanesian group and a North American tribe. I hold that we have no conceptual framework available that can be legitimately applied to societies located opposite poles of the sociological world and considered in their mutual relationships.

(2) On the other hand, I carefully distinguished this first frame from a very different one, which would consist in comparing remote societies, but two historically related stages in the development of our own society – or, to generalise, of the observer’s society. When the frame of reference is thus “internalised,” everything changes. This second phase permits us, without retaining anything from any particular society,

... to make use of one and all of them in order to distinguish those principles of social life which may be applied to the reform of our own customs, and not of those of societies foreign to our own. That is to say, in relation to our own society we stand in a position of privilege which is exactly contrary to that which I have just described ; for our own society is the only one that we can transform and yet not destroy, since the changes we should introduce would come from within.

Far from being satisfied, then, with a static relativism – as are certain American anthropologists justly criticised by Rodinson (but with whom he wrongly identifies me) – I denounce it as a danger ever-present on the anthropologist’s path. My solution is constructive, since it derives from the same principles, two apparently contradictory attitudes, namely, respect for societies very different from ours, and active participation in the transformation of our own society.

Is there any reason here, as Rodinson claims, “to reduce Billancourt to desperation” ? Billancourt would deserve little consideration if cannibalism in its own way (and more seriously so than primitive man-eaters, for its cannibalism would be spiritual), should feel it necessary to its intellectual and moral security that the Papuans become nothing but proletarians. Fortunately, anthropological theory does not play such an important role in trade union demands. On the other hand, I am surprised that a scientist with advanced ideas should present an argument already formulated by thinkers of an entirely different orientation.

Neither in Race and History nor in Tristes Tropiques did I intend to disparage the idea of progress ; rather, I should like to see progress transferred from the rank of a universal category of human development to that of a particular mode of existence, characteristic of our own society – and perhaps of several others – whenever that society reaches the stage of self-awareness.

To say that this concept of progress – progress considered as an internal property of a given society and devoid of a transcendent meaning outside it – would lead men to discouragement, seems to me to be a transposition in the historical idiom and on the level of collective life, of the familiar argument that all morality would be jeopardised if the individual ceased to believe in the immortality of his soul. For centuries, this argument, so much like Rodinson’s, was raised to oppose atheism. Atheism would “reduce men to desperation” – most particularly the working classes, who, it was feared, would lose their motivation for work if there were no punishments or rewards promised in the hereafter.

Nevertheless, there are many men (especially in Billancourt) who accept the idea of a personal existence confined to the duration of their earthly life ; they have not for this reason abandoned their sense of morality or their willingness to work for the improvement of their lot and that of their descendants.

Is what is true of individuals less true of groups ? A society can live, act, and be transformed, and still avoid becoming intoxicated with the conviction that all the societies which preceded it during tens of millenniums did nothing more than prepare the ground for its advent, that all its contemporaries – even those at the antipodes – are diligently striving to overtake it, and that the societies which will succeed it until the end of time ought to be mainly concerned with following in its path. This attitude is as naive as maintaining that the earth occupies the center of the universe and that man is the summit of creation. When it is professed today in support of our particular society, it is odious.

What is more, Rodinson attacks me in the name of Marxism, whereas my conception is infinitely closer to Marx’s position than his. I wish to point out, first, that the distinctions developed in Race and History among stationary history, fluctuating history and cumulative history can be derived from Marx himself :

The simplicity of the organisation for production in those, self-sufficing communities that constantly reproduce themselves in the same form and, when accidentally destroyed, spring again on the spot and with the same name – this simplicity supplies the key to the secret of the unchangeableness of Asiatic Societies, an unchangeableness in such striking contrast with constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic states, and never-ceasing changes of dynasty.

Actually, Marx and Engels frequently express the idea that primitive, or allegedly primitive, societies are governed by “blood ties” (which, today, we call kinship systems) and not by economic relationships. If these societies were not destroyed from without, they might endure indefinitely. The temporal category applicable to them has nothing to do with the one we employ to understand, the development of our own society.

Nor does this conception contradict in the least the famous dictum of the Communist Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In the light of Hegel’s philosophy of the State, this dictum does not mean that the class struggle is co-extensive with humanity, but that the ideas of history and society can be applied, in the full sense which Marx gives them, only from the time when the class struggle first appeared. The letter to Weydemeyer clearly supports this : “What I did that was new,” Marx wrote, “was prove ... that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production... .”

Rodinson should, therefore, ponder the following comment by Marx in his posthumously published introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy :

The so-called historical development amounts in the last analysis to this, that the last form considers its predecessors as stages leading up to itself and perceives them always one-sidedly, since it is very seldom and only under certain conditions that it is capable of self-criticism ...

This chapter had already been written when Jean-François Revel published his lively, provocative, but often unfair study.

Since part of his chapter VIII concerns my work, I shall briefly reply –

Revel criticises me, but not without misgivings. If he recognised me for what I am an anthropologist who has conducted field work and who, having presented his findings, has re-examined the theoretical principles of his discipline on the basis of these specific findings and the findings of his colleagues – Revel would, according to his own principles, refrain from discussing my work. But he begins by changing me into a sociologist, after which he insinuates that, because of my philosophical training, my sociology is nothing but disguised philosophy. From then on we are among colleagues, and Revel can freely tread on my reserves, without realising that he is behaving toward anthropology exactly as, throughout his book, he upbraids philosophers for behaving toward the other empirical sciences.

But I am not a sociologist, and my interest in our own society is only a secondary one. Those societies which I seek first to understand are the so-called primitive societies with which anthropologists are concerned. When, to Revel’s great displeasure, I interpret the exchange of wine in the restaurants of southern France in terms of social prestations, my primary aim is not to explain contemporary customs by means of archaic institutions but to help the reader, a member of a contemporary society, to rediscover, in his own experience and on the basis of either vestigial or embryonic practices, institutions that would otherwise remain unintelligible to him. The question, then, is not whether the exchange of wine is a survival of the potlatch, but whether, by means of this comparison we succeed better in grasping the feelings, intentions, and attitudes of the native involved in a cycle of prestations. The ethnographer who has lived among natives and has experienced such ceremonies as either a spectator or a participant, is entitled to an opinion on this question ; Revel is not.

Moreover, by a curious contradiction, Revel refuses to admit that the categories of primitive societies may be applied to our own society, although he insists upon applying our categories to primitive societies. “It is absolutely certain,” he says, that prestations “in which the goods of a society are finally used up ... correspond to the specific conditions of a mode of production and a social structure.” And he further declares that “it is even probable – an exception unique in history, which would then have to be explained – that prestations mask the economic exploitation of certain members of each society of this type by others.”

How can Revel be “absolutely certain” ? And how does he know that the exception would be “unique in history” ? Has he studied Melanesian and Amerindian institutions in the field ? Has, he so much as analysed the numerous works dealing with the kula and its evolution from 1910 to 1950, or with the potlatch from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the twentieth ? If he had, he would know, first of all, that it is absurd to think that all the goods of a society are used up in these exchanges. And he would have more precise ideas of the proportions and the kinds of goods involved in certain cases and in certain periods. Finally, and above all, he would be aware that, from the particular viewpoint that interests him – namely, the economic exploitation of man by man – the two culture areas to which he refers cannot be compared. In one of them, this exploitation presents characteristics which we might at best call pre-capitalistic. Even in Alaska and British Columbia, however, this exploitation is an external factor : It acts only to give greater scope to institutions which can exist without it, and whose general character must be defined in other terms.

Should Revel hasten to protest, let me add that I am only paraphrasing Engels, who by chance expressed his opinion on this problem, and with respect to the same societies which Revel has in mind. Engels wrote :

In order finally to get clear about the parallel between the Germans of Tacitus and the American Redskins I have made some gentle extractions from the first volume of your Bancroft [The Native Races of the Pacific States, etc.]. The similarity is indeed all the more surprising because the method of production is so fundamentally different – here hunters and fishers without cattle-raising or agriculture, there nomadic cattle-raising passing into agriculture. It just proves how at this stage the type of production is less decisive than the degree in which the old blood bonds and the old mutual community of the sexes within the tribe have been dissolved. Otherwise the Tlingit in the former Russian America could not be the exact counterpart of the Germanic tribes . ...

It remained for Marcel Mauss, in Essai sur le Don (which Revel criticises quite inappropriately) to justify and develop Engels’ hypothesis that there is a striking parallelism between certain Germanic and Celtic institutions and those of societies having the potlatch. He did this with no concern about uncovering the “specific conditions of a mode of production,” which, as Engels had already understood, would be useless. But then Marx and Engels knew incomparably more anthropology almost a hundred years ago than Revel knows today.

I am, on the other hand, in full agreement with Revel when he writes, “Perhaps the most serious defect which philosophy has transmitted to sociology is ... the obsession with creating in one stroke holistic explanations." He has here laid down his own indictment. He rebukes me because I have not proposed explanations and because I have acted as if I believed “that there is fundamentally no reason why one society adopts one set of institutions and another society other institutions.” He requires anthropologists to answer questions such as : “Why are societies structured along different lines ? Why does each structure evolve ? ... Why are there differences [Revel’s italics] between institutions and between societies, and what responses to what conditions do these differences imply ... ?” These questions are highly pertinent, and we should like to be able to answer them. In our present state of knowledge, however, we are in a position to provide answers only for specific and limited cases, and even here our interpretations remain fragmentary and isolated. Revel can believe that the task is easy, since for him “it is absolutely certain” that ever since the social evolution of man began, approximately 500,000 years ago, economic exploitation can explain everything.

As we noted, this was not the opinion of Marx and Engels. According to their view, in the non- or pre-capitalistic societies kinship ties played a more important role than class relations. I do not believe that I am being unfaithful to their teachings by trying, seventy years after Lewis H. Morgan, whom they admired so greatly, to resume Morgan’s endeavour – that is, to work out a new typology of kinship systems in the light of knowledge acquired in the field since then, by myself and others.”

I ask to be judged on the basis of this typology, and not on that of the psychological or sociological hypotheses which Revel seizes upon ; these hypotheses are only a kind of mental scaffolding, momentarily useful to the anthropologist as a means of organising his observations, building his classifications, and arranging his types in some sort of order. If one of my colleagues were to come to me and say that my theoretical analysis of Murngin or Gilyak kinship systems was inconsistent with his observations, or that while was in the field I misinterpreted chieftainship among the Nambicuara, the place of art in Caduveo society, the social structure of the Bororo, or the nature of clans among the Tupi-Cawahib, I should listen to him with deference and attention. But Revel, who could not care less about patrilineal descent, bilateral marriage, dual organisation, or dysharmonic systems, attacks me – without even understanding that I seek only to describe and analyse certain aspects of the objective world – for “flattening out social reality,” For him everything is flat that cannot be instantaneously expressed in a, language which he may perhaps use correctly in reference to Western civilisation, but to which its inventors explicitly denied any other application. Now it is my turn to exclaim : Indeed, “what is the use of philosophers ?”

Reasoning in the fashion of Revel and Rodinson would mean surrendering the social sciences to obscurantism. What would we think of building contractors and architects who condemned cosmic physics in the name of the law of gravity and under the argument that a geometry based on curved spaces would render obsolete the traditional techniques for demolishing or building houses ? The house-wrecker and the architect are right to believe only in Euclidean geometry, but they do not try to force it upon the astronomer. And if the help of the astronomer is required in remodelling his house, the categories he uses to understand the universe do not automatically prevent him from handling the pick-axe and plumb-line.

Claude Lévi-Strauss 1962

History and Dialectic

Source : final chapter of “The Savage Mind,” October 1961, translated by George Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd 1966. Footnotes and references omitted

In the course of this work I have allowed myself, not without ulterior motive, to borrow a certain amount of Sartre’s vocabulary. I wanted to lead the reader to face a problem, the discussion of which will serve to introduce my conclusion. The problem is to what extent thought that can and will be both anecdotal and geometrical may yet be called dialectical. The savage mind totalizes. It claims indeed to go very much further in this direction than Sartre allows dialectical reason, for, on the one hand, the latter lets pure seriality escape (and we have just seen how classificatory systems succeed in incorporating it) and, on the other, it excludes schematization, in which these same systems reach their consummation. In my view, it is in this intransigent refusal on the part of the savage mind to allow anything human (or even living) to remain alien to it, that the real principle of dialectical reason is to be found. But my idea of the latter is very different from Sartre’s.

In reading the Critique it is difficult to avoid feeling that Sartre vacillates between two conceptions of dialectical reason. Sometimes he opposes dialectical and analytical reason as truth and error, if not as God and the devil, while at other times these two kinds of reason are apparently complementary, different routes to the same truths. The first conception not only discredits scientific knowledge and finally even leads to suggesting the impossibility of a science of biology, it also involves a curious paradox ; for the work entitled Critique de la raison dialectique is the result of the author’s exercise of his own analytical reason : he defines, distinguishes, classifies and opposes. This philosophical treatise is no different in kind from the works it examines and with which it engages in discussion, if only to condemn them. It is difficult to see how analytical reason could be applied to dialectical reason and claim to establish it, if the two are defined by mutually exclusive characteristics. The second conception is open to a different objection : if dialectical and analytical reason ultimately arrive at the same results, and if their respective truths merge into a single truth, then, one may ask in what way they are opposed and, in particular, on what grounds the former should be pronounced superior to the latter. Sartre’s endeavour seems contradictory in the one case and superfluous in the other.

How is the paradox to be explained, and avoided ? Sartre attributes a reality sui generis to dialectical reason in both the hypotheses between which he hesitates. It exists independently of analytical reason, as its antagonist or alternatively its complement. 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. It corresponds to a tension within human thought which may persist indefinitely de facto, but which has no basis de jure. In my view dialectical reason is always constitutive : it is the bridge, forever extended and improved, which analytical reason throws out over an abyss ; it is unable to see the further shore but it knows that it is there, even should it be constantly receding. The term dialectical reason thus covers the perpetual efforts analytical reason must make to reform itself if it aspires to account for language, society and thought ; and the distinction between the two forms of reason in my view rests only on the temporary gap separating analytical reason from the understanding of life. Sartre calls analytical reason reason in repose ; I call the same reason dialectical when it is roused to action, tensed by its efforts to transcend itself.

In Sartre’s terminology I am therefore to be defined as a transcendental materialist and aesthete. I am a transcendental materialist because I do not regard dialectical reason as something other than analytical reason, upon which the absolute originality of a human order would be based, but as something additional in analytical reason : the necessary condition for it to venture to undertake the resolution of the human into the non-human. And I count as an aesthete since Sartre applies this term to anyone purporting to study men as if they were ants. But apart from the fact that this seems to me just the attitude of any scientist who is an agnostic, there is nothing very compromising about it, for ants with their artificial tunnels, their social life and their chemical messages, already present a sufficiently tough resistance to the enterprises of analytical reason ... So 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. The pre-eminent value of anthropology is that it represents the first step in a procedure which involves others. Ethnographic analysis tries to arrive at invariants beyond the empirical diversity of human societies ; and, as the present work shows, these are sometimes to be found at the most unforeseen points. Rousseau foresaw this with his usual acumen : ‘One needs to look near at hand if one wants to study men ; but to study man one must learn to look from afar ; one must first observe differences in order to discover attributes’. However, it would not be enough to reabsorb particular humanities into a general one. This first enterprise opens the way for others which Rousseau would not have been so ready to accept and which are incumbent on the exact natural sciences : the reintegration of culture in nature and finally of life within the whole of its physico-chemical conditions.

However, in spite of the intentionally brutal turn given to my thesis, I am not blind to the fact that the verb ‘dissolve’ does not in any way imply (but even excludes) the destruction of the constituents of the body subjected to the action of another body. The solution of a solid into a liquid alters the disposition of its molecules. It also often provides an efficacious method of putting them by so that they can be recovered in case of need and their properties be better studied. The reductions I am envisaging are thus legitimate, or indeed possible, only if two conditions are satisfied. First, the phenomena subjected to reduction must not be impoverished ; one must be certain that everything contributing to their distinctive richness and originality has been collected around them. For it is pointless to pick up a hammer unless to hit the nail on the head.

Secondly, one must be ready to accept, as a consequence of each reduction, the total overturning of any preconceived idea concerning the level, whichever it may be, one is striving to attain. The idea of some general humanity to which ethnographic reduction leads, will bear no relation to any one may have formed in advance. And when we do finally succeed in understanding life as a function of inert matter, it will be to discover that the latter has properties very different from those previously attributed to it. Levels of reduction cannot therefore be classed as superior and inferior, for the level taken as superior must, through the reduction, be expected to communicate retroactively some of its richness to the inferior level to which it will have been assimilated. Scientific explanation consists not in moving from the complex to the simple but in the replacement of a less intelligible complexity by one which is more so.

Seen in this light, therefore, my self is no more opposed to others than man is opposed to the world : the truths learnt through man are ‘of the world’, and they are important for this reason. This explains why I regard anthropology as the principle of all research, while for Sartre it raises a problem in the shape of a constraint to overcome or a resistance to reduce. And indeed what can one make of peoples ‘without history’ when one has defined man in terms of dialectic and dialectic in terms of history ? Sometimes Sartre seems tempted to distinguish two dialectics : the ‘true’ one which is supposed to be that of historical societies, and a repetitive, short-term dialectic, which he grants so-called primitive societies whilst at the same time placing it very near biology. This imperils his whole system, for the bridge between man and nature which he has taken such pains to destroy would turn out to be surreptitiously re-established through ethnography, which is indisputably a human science and devotes itself to the study of these societies. Alternatively Sartre resigns himself to putting a ‘stunted and deformed’ humanity on man’s side, but not without implying that its place in humanity does not belong to it in its own right and is a function only of its adoption by historical humanity : either because it has begun to internalize the latter’s history in the colonial context, or because, thanks to anthropology itself, historical humanity has given the blessing of meaning to an original humanity which was without it. Either way the prodigious wealth and diversity of habits, beliefs and customs is allowed to escape ; and it is forgotten that each of the tens or hundreds of thousands of societies which have existed side by side in the world or succeeded one another since man’s first appearance, has claimed that it contains the essence of all the meaning and dignity of which human society is capable and, reduced though it may have been to a small nomad band or a hamlet lost in the depths of the forest, its claim has in its own eyes rested on a moral certainty comparable to that which we can invoke in our own case. But whether in their case or our own, a good deal of egocentricity and naivety is necessary to believe that man has taken refuge in a single one of the historical or geographical modes of his existence, when the truth about man resides in the system of their differences and common properties.

He who begins by steeping himself in the allegedly self-evident truths of introspection never emerges from them. Knowledge of men sometimes seems easier to those who allow themselves to be caught up in the snare of personal identity. But they thus shut the door on knowledge of man : written or unavowed ‘confessions’ form the basis of all ethnographic research. Sartre in fact becomes the prisoner of his Cogito : Descartes made it possible to attain universality, but conditionally on remaining psychological and individual ; by sociologizing the Cogito, Sartre merely exchanges one prison for another. Each subject’s group and period now take the place of timeless consciousness. Moreover, Sartre’s view of the world and man has the narrowness which has been traditionally credited to closed societies. His insistence on tracing a distinction between the primitive and the civilized with the aid of gratuitous contrasts reflects, in a scarcely more subtle form, the fundamental opposition he postulates between myself and others. Yet there is little difference between the way in which this opposition is formulated in Sartre’s work and the way it would have been formulated by a Melanesian savage, while the analysis of the practico-inert quite simply revives the language of animism.

Descartes, who wanted to found a physics, separated Man from Society. Sartre, who claims to found an anthropology, separates his own society from others. A Cogito – which strives to be ingenuous and raw – retreats into individualism and empiricism and is lost in the blind alleys of social psychology. For it is striking that the situations which Sartre uses as a starting point for extracting the formal conditions of social reality – strikes, boxing matches, football matches, bus-stop queues – are all secondary incidentals of life in society ; and they cannot therefore serve to disclose its foundations.

This axiomatic, so far removed from the anthropologist’s, is all the more disappointing when he feels himself very close to Sartre whenever the latter applies himself, with incomparable artistry, to grasping, in its dialectical movement, a present or past social experience within our own culture. Sartre then does what every anthropologist tries to do in the case of different cultures : to put himself in the place of the men living there, to understand the principle and pattern of their intentions, and to perceive a period or a culture as a significant set. In this respect we can often learn from him, but these are lessons of a practical, not a theoretical, nature. It is possible that the requirement of ‘totalization’ is a great novelty to some historians, sociologists and psychologists. It has been taken for granted by anthropologists ever since they learned it from Malinowski. But Malinowski’s deficiencies have also taught us that this is not where explanation ends. It only begins when we have succeeded in constituting our object. The role of dialectical reason is to put the human sciences in possession of a reality with which it alone can furnish them, but the properly scientific work consists in decomposing and then recomposing on a different plane. With all due respect to Sartrian phenomenology, we can hope to find in it only a point of departure, not one of arrival.

Furthermore, dialectical reason must not let itself be carried away by its own elan, nor must the procedure leading to the comprehension of an other reality attribute to it, in addition to its own dialectical features, those appertaining to the procedure rather than to the object : it does not follow from the fact that all knowledge of others is dialectical, that others are wholly dialectical in every respect. By making analytical reason an anti-comprehension, Sartre often comes to refuse it any reality as an integral part of the object of comprehension. This paralogism is already apparent in his manner of invoking history, for one is hard put to it to see whether it is meant to be the history men make unconsciously, history of men consciously made by historians, the philosopher’s interpretation of the history of men or his interpretation of the history of historians. The difficulty becomes even greater, however, when Sartre endeavours to explain the life and thought of the present or past members not of his own society but of exotic societies.

He thinks, rightly, that this attempted comprehension stands no chance of succeeding unless it is dialectical ; and he concludes, wrongly, that the relationship between native thought and his knowledge of it, is that of a constitutive to a constituted dialectic, and thus, by an unforeseen detour, he repeats all the illusions of theorists of primitive mentality on his own account. It seems even less tolerable to him than to Levy-Bruhl that the savage should possess ‘complex understanding’ and should be capable of analysis and demonstration. Of the Ambrym native, made famous by Deacon’s work, who was able to show the field-worker the functioning of his marriage rules and kinship system by a diagram in the sand (an aptitude in no way exceptional as plenty of similar cases are recorded in ethnographic literature) Sartre says : ‘It goes without saying that this construction is not a thought : it is a piece of manual work governed by unexpressed synthetical knowledge’. Granted : but then the same must be said of a professor at the Ecole Polytechnique demonstrating a proof on the blackboard, for every ethnographer capable of dialectical comprehension is intimately persuaded that the situation is exactly the same in both cases. So it would follow that all reason is dialectical, which for my part I am prepared to concede, since dialectical reason seems to me like analytical reason in action ; but then the distinction between the two forms of reason which is the basis of Sartre’s enterprise would become pointless.

I must now confess to having myself unintentionally and unwittingly lent support to these erroneous ideas, by having seemed all too often in Les structures élémentaires de la parenté as if I were seeking out an unconscious genesis of matrimonial exchange. I should have made more distinction between exchange as it is expressed spontaneously and forcefully in the praxis of groups and the conscious and deliberate rules by which these same groups – or their philosophers – spend their time in codifying and controlling it. If there is anything to be learnt from the ethnographic enquiries of the last twenty years, it is that this latter aspect is much more important than has generally been realized by observers, who labour under the same delusion as Sartre. Thus we must, as Sartre advocates, apply dialectical reason to the knowledge of our own and other societies. But we must not lose sight of the fact that analytical reason occupies a considerable place in all of them and that, as it is present, the approach we adopt must also allow us to rediscover it there.

But even were it not present, Sartre’s position would not be improved. For in this case exotic societies would merely confront us, in a more general manner than others, with an unconscious teleology, which, although historical, completely eludes human history : that of which certain aspects are revealed by linguistics and psycho-analysis and which rests on the interplay of biological mechanisms (structure of the brain, lesions, internal secretions) and psychological ones. There, it seems to me, is ‘the bone’ (to borrow a phrase from Sartre) which his critique does not manage to break, and moreover cares nothing about, which is the most serious charge one could level at it. For language does not consist in the analytical reason of the old-style grammarians nor in the dialectic constituted by structural linguistics nor in the constitutive dialectic of individual praxis facing the practico-inert, since all three presuppose it. Linguistics thus presents us with a dialectical and totalizing entity but one outside (or beneath) consciousness and will. Language, an unreflecting totalization, is human reason which has its reasons and of which man knows nothing. And if it is objected that it is so only for a subject who internalizes it on the basis of linguistic theory, my reply is that this way out must be refused, for this subject is one who speaks : for the same light which reveals the nature of language to him also reveals to him that it was so when he did not know it, for he already made himself understood, and that it will remain so tomorrow without his being aware of it, since his discourse never was and never will be the result of a conscious totalization of linguistic laws. But if, as speaking subject, man can find his apodictic experience in an other totalization, there seems no longer any reason why, as living subject, he should not have access to the same experience in other, not necessarily human, but living beings.

This method could also lay claim to the name ‘progressive-regressive’ ; in fact, what Sartre describes as such is the very method anthropologists have been practising for many years. But Sartre restricts it to its preliminary step. For our method is progressive-regressive not once but twice over. In the first stage, we observe the datum of experience, analyse it in the present, try to grasp its historical antecedents as far as we can delve into the past, and bring all these facts back to the light of day to incorporate them into a meaningful totality. The second stage, which repeats the first on a different plane and at a different level, then begins. This internalized human thing which we have sought to provide with all its wealth and originality, only fixes the distance analytical reason must cover, the leap it must make, to close the gap between the ever unforeseen complexity of this new object and the intellectual means at its disposal. It must therefore transform itself as dialectical reason, in the hope that once flexible, widened and strengthened, by its agency this unforeseen object will be assimilated to others, this novel totality will be merged into other totalities and that thus little by little clambering on to the mass of its conquests, dialectical reason will descry other horizons and other objects. No doubt the procedure would go astray if it were not, at every stage and, above all, when it seemed to have run its course, ready to retrace its steps and to double back on itself to preserve the contact with that experienced totality which serves both as its end and means. This return on itself is in my view a verification, rather than, as Sartre regards it, a demonstration, for, as I see it, a conscious being aware of itself as such poses a problem to which it provides no solution. The discovery of the dialectic subjects analytical reason to an imperative requirement : to account also for dialectical reason. This standing requirement relentlessly forces analytical reason to extend its programme and transform its axiomatic. But dialectical reason can account neither for itself nor for analytical reason.

It will be objected that this expansion is illusory since it is always accompanied by a contraction in meaning, and we should abandon the substance for the shadow, clarity for obscurity, the manifest for the conjectural, truth for science fiction. Again, Sartre would have to show that he himself avoids this dilemma, inherent in every attempt at explanation. The real question is not whether our endeavour to understand involves a gain or a loss of meaning, but whether the meaning we preserve is of more value than that we have been judicious enough to relinquish. In this respect Sartre seems to have remembered only half of Marx’s and Freud’s combined lesson. They have taught us that man has meaning only on the condition that he view himself as meaningful. So far I agree with Sartre. But it must be added that this meaning is never the right one : superstructures are faulty acts which have ‘made it’ socially. Hence it is vain to go to historical consciousness for the truest meaning. What Sartre calls dialectical reason is only a reconstruction, by what he calls analytical reason, of hypothetical moves about which it is impossible to know – unless one should perform them without thinking them – whether they bear any relation at all to what he tells us about them and which, if so, would be definable in terms of analytical reason alone. And so we end up in the paradox of a system which invokes the criterion of historical consciousness to distinguish the ‘primitive’ from the ‘civilized’ but – contrary to its claim – is itself ahistorical. It offers not a concrete image of history but an abstract schema of men making history of such a kind that it can manifest itself in the trend of their lives as a synchronic totality. Its position in relation to history is therefore the same as that of primitives to the eternal past : in Sartre’s system, history plays exactly the part of a myth.

Indeed, the problem raised by the Critique de la raison dialectique is reducible to the question : under what conditions is the myth of the French Revolution possible ? And I am prepared to grant that the contemporary Frenchman must believe in this myth in order fully to play the part of an historical agent and also that Sartre’s analysis admirably extracts the set of formal conditions necessary if this result is to be secured. But it does not follow that his meaning, just because it is the richest (and so most suited to inspire practical action), should be the truest. Here the dialectic turns against itself. This truth is a matter of context, and if we place ourselves outside it – as the man of science is bound to do – what appeared as an experienced truth first becomes confused and finally disappears altogether. The so-called men of the Left still cling to a period of contemporary history which bestowed the blessing of a congruence between practical imperatives and schemes of interpretation. Perhaps this golden age of historical consciousness has already passed ; and that this eventuality can at any rate be envisaged proves that what we have here is only a contingent context like the fortuitous ‘focusing’ of an optical instrument when its object-glass and eye-piece move in relation to each other. We are still ‘in focus’ so far as the French Revolution is concerned, but so we should have been in relation to the Fronde had we lived earlier. The former will rapidly cease to afford a coherent image on which our action can be modelled, just as the latter has already done. What we learn from reading Retz is that thought is powerless to extract a scheme of interpretation from events long past.

At first sight, there seems no doubt : on one side the privileged, on the other the humble and exploited ; how could we hesitate ? We are Frondeurs. However, the people of Paris were being manoeuvred by noble houses, whose sole aim was to arrange their own affairs with the existing powers, and by one half of the royal family which wanted to oust the other. And now we are already only half Frondeurs. As for the Court, which took refuge at Saint-Germain, it appears at first to have been a faction of good for nothings vegetating on their privileges and growing fat on exactions and usury at the expense of the collectivity. But no, it had a function all the same since it retained military power ; it conducted the struggle against foreigners, the Spaniards, whom the Frondeurs invited without hesitation to invade the country and impose their wills on this same Court which was defending the fatherland. The scales, however, tilt the other way again : the Frondeurs and Spaniards together formed the party of peace. The Prince de Conde and the Court only sought warlike adventures. We are pacifists and once again become Frondeurs. But nevertheless did not the military exploits of Mazarin and the Court extend France to its present frontiers, thus founding the state and the nation ? Without them we should not be what we are today. So here we are on the other side again.

It suffices therefore for history to move away from us in time or for us to move away from it in thought, for it to cease to be internalizable and to lose its intelligibility, a spurious intelligibility attaching to a temporary internality. I am not however suggesting that man can or should sever himself from this internality. It is not in his power to do so and wisdom consists for him in seeing himself live it, while at the same time knowing (but in a different register) that what he lives so completely and intensely is a myth – which will appear as such to men of a future century, and perhaps to himself a few years hence, and will no longer appear at all to men of a future millennium. All meaning is answerable to a lesser meaning, which gives it its highest meaning, and if this regression finally ends in recognizing ‘a contingent law of which one can say only : it is thus, and not otherwise’ (Sartre), this prospect is not alarming to those whose thought is not tormented by transcendence even in a latent form. For man will have gained all he can reasonably hope for if, on the sole condition of bowing to this contingent law, he succeeds in determining his form of conduct and in placing all else in the realm of the intelligible.

Sartre is certainly not the only contemporary philosopher to have valued history above the other human sciences and formed an almost mystical conception of it. The anthropologist respects history, but he does not accord it a special value. He conceives it as a study complementary to his own : one of them unfurls the range of human societies in time, the other in space. And the difference is even less great than it might seem, since the historian strives to reconstruct the picture of vanished societies as they were at the points which for them corresponded to the present, while the ethnographer does his best to reconstruct the historical stages which temporally preceded their existing form.

This symmetry between history and anthropology seems to be rejected by philosophers who implicitly or explicitly deny that distribution in space and succession in time afford equivalent perspectives. In their eyes some special prestige seems to attach to the temporal dimension, as if diachrony were to establish a kind of intelligibility not merely superior to that provided by synchrony, but above all more specifically human.

It is easy to explain, if not to justify, this preference. The diversity of social forms, which the anthropologist grasps as deployed in space, present the appearance of a discontinuous system. Now, thanks to the temporal dimension, history seems to restore to us, not separate states, but the passage from one state to another in a continuous form. And as we believe that we apprehend the trend of our personal history as a continuous change, historical knowledge appears to confirm the evidence of inner sense. History seems to do more than describe beings to us from the outside, or at best give us intermittent flashes of insight into internalities, each of which are so on their own account while remaining external to each other : it appears to re-establish our connection, outside ourselves, with the very essence of change.

There would be plenty to say about this supposed totalizing continuity of the self which seems to me to be an illusion sustained by the demands of social life – and consequently a reflection of the external on the internal – rather than the object of an apodictic experience. But there is no need to resolve this philosophical problem in order to perceive that the proposed conception of history corresponds to no kind of reality. As historical knowledge is claimed to be privileged, I feel entitled (as I would not otherwise feel) to make the point that there is a twofold antinomy in the very notion of an historical fact. For, ex hypothesi, a historical fact is what really took place, but where did anything take place ? Each episode in a revolution or a war resolves itself into a multitude of individual psychic movements. Each of these movements is the translation of unconscious development, and these resolve themselves into cerebral, hormonal or nervous phenomena, which themselves have reference to the physical or chemical order. Consequently, historical facts are no more given than any other. It is the historian, or the agent of history, who constitutes them by abstraction and as though under the threat of an infinite regress.

What is true of the constitution of historical facts is no less so of their selection. From this point of view, the historian and the agent of history choose, sever and carve them up, for a truly total history would confront them with chaos. Every corner of space conceals a multitude of individuals each of whom totalizes the trend of history in a manner which cannot be compared to the others ; for any one of these individuals, each moment of time is inexhaustibly rich in physical and psychical incidents which all play their part in his totalization. Even history which claims to be universal is still only a juxtaposition of a few local histories within which (and between which) very much more is left out than is put in. And it would be vain to hope that by increasing the number of collaborators and making research more intensive one would obtain a better result. In so far as history aspires to meaning, it is doomed to select regions, periods, groups of men and individuals in these groups and to make them stand out, as discontinuous figures, against a continuity barely good enough to be used as a backdrop. A truly total history would cancel itself out – its product would be nought. What makes history possible is that a sub-set of events is found, for a given period, to have approximately the same significance for a contingent of individuals who have not necessarily experienced the events and may even consider them at an interval of several centuries. History is therefore never history, but history-for. It is partial in the sense of being biased even when it claims not to be, for it inevitably remains partial – that is, incomplete – and this is itself a form of partiality. When one proposes to write a history of the French Revolution one knows (or ought to know) that it cannot, simultaneously and under the same heading, be that of the Jacobin and that of the aristocrat. Ex hypothesi, their respective totalizations (each of which is anti-symmetric to the other) are equally true. One must therefore choose between two alternatives. One must select as the principal either one or a third (for there are an infinite number of them) and give up the attempt to find in history a totalization of the set of partial totalizations ; or alternatively one must recognize them all as equally real : but only to discover that the French Revolution as commonly conceived never took place.

History does not therefore escape the common obligation of all knowledge, to employ a code to analyse its object, even (and especially) if a continuous reality is attributed to that object. The distinctive features of historical knowledge are due not to the absence of a code, which is illusory, but to its particular nature : the code consists in a chronology. There is no history without dates. To be convinced of this it is sufficient to consider how a pupil succeeds in learning history : he reduces it to an emaciated body, the skeleton of which is formed by dates. Not without reason, there has been a reaction against this dry method, but one which often runs to the opposite extreme. Dates may not be the whole of history, nor what is most interesting about it, but they are its sine qua non, for history’s entire originality and distinctive nature lie in apprehending the relation between before and after, which would perforce dissolve if its terms could not, at least in principle, be dated.

Now, this chronological coding conceals a very much more complex nature than one supposes when one thinks of historical dates as a simple linear series. In the first place, a date denotes a moment in a succession : d2 is after d1 and before d3. From this point of view dates only perform the function of ordinal numbers. But each date is also a cardinal number and, as such, expresses a distance in relation to the dates nearest to it. We use a large number of dates to code some periods of history ; and fewer for others. This variable quantity of dates applied to periods of equal duration are a gauge of what might be called the pressure of history : there are ‘hot’ chronologies which are those of periods where in the eyes of the historian numerous events appear as differential elements ; others, on the contrary, where for him (although not of course for the men who lived through them) very little or nothing took place. Thirdly and most important, a date is a member of a class. These classes of dates are definable by the meaningful character each date has within the class in relation to other dates which also belong to it, and by the absence of this meaningful character with respect to dates appertaining to a different class. Thus the date 1685 belongs to a class of which 1610, 1648 and 1715 are likewise members ; but it means nothing in relation to the class composed of the dates : 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th millennium, nor does it mean anything in relation to the class of dates : 23 January, 17 August, 30 September, etc.

On this basis, in what would the historian’s code consist ? Certainly not in dates, since these are not recurrent. Changes of temperature can be coded with the help of figures, because the reading of a figure on the thermometer evokes the return of an earlier situation : whenever I read 0°C, I know that it is freezing and put on my warmest coat. But a historical date, taken in itself, would have no meaning, for it has no reference outside itself : if I know nothing about modern history, the date 1643 makes me none the wiser. The code can therefore consist only of classes of dates, where each date has meaning in as much as it stands in complex relations of correlation and opposition with other dates. Each class is defined by a frequency, and derives from what might be called a corpus or a domain of history. Historical knowledge thus proceeds in the same way as a wireless with frequency modulation : like a nerve, it codes a continuous quantity – and as such an asymbolic one – by frequencies of impulses proportional to its variations. As for history itself, it cannot be represented as an aperiodic series with only a fragment of which we are acquainted. History is a discontinuous set composed of domains of history, each of which is defined by a characteristic frequency and by a differential coding of before and after. It is no more possible to pass between the dates which compose the different domains than it is to do so between natural and irrational numbers. Or more precisely : the dates appropriate to each class are irrational in relation to all those of other classes.

It is thus not only fallacious but contradictory to conceive of the historical process as a continuous development, beginning with prehistory coded in tens or hundreds of millennia, then adopting the scale of millennia when it gets to the 4th or 3rd millennium, and continuing as history in centuries interlarded, at the pleasure of each author, with slices of annual history within the century, day to day history within the year or even hourly history within a day. All these dates do not form a series : they are of different species. To give just one example, the coding we use in prehistory is not preliminary to that we employ for modern and contemporary history. Each code refers to a system of meaning which is, at least in theory, applicable to the virtual totality of human history. The events which are significant for one code are no longer so for another. Coded in the system of prehistory, the most famous episodes in modern and contemporary history cease to be pertinent ; except perhaps (and again we know nothing about it) certain massive aspects of demographic evolution viewed on a world-wide scale, the invention of the steam-engine, the discovery of electricity and of nuclear energy.

Given that the general code consists not in dates which can be ordered as a linear series but in classes of dates each furnishing an autonomous system of reference, the discontinuous and classificatory nature of historical knowledge emerges clearly. It operates by means of a rectangular matrix,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

where each line represents classes of dates, which may be called hourly, daily, annual, secular, millennial for the purposes of schematization and which together make up a discontinuous set. In a system of this type, alleged historical continuity is secured only by dint of fraudulent outlines.

Furthermore, although the internal gaps in each class cannot be filled in by recourse to other classes, each class taken as a whole nevertheless always refers back to another class, which contains the principle of an intelligibility to which it could not itself aspire. The history of the 17th century is ‘annual’ but the 17th century, as a domain of history belongs to another class, which codes it in relation to earlier and later centuries ; and this domain of modern times in its turn becomes an element of a class where it appears correlated with and opposed to other ‘times’ : the middle ages, antiquity, the present day, etc. Now, these various domains correspond to histories of different power.

Biographical and anecdotal history, right at the bottom of the scale, is low-powered history, which is not intelligible in itself and only becomes so when it is transferred en bloc to a form of history of a higher power than itself ; and the latter stands in the same relation to a class above it. It would, however, be a mistake to think that we progressively reconstitute a total history by dint of these dovetailings. For any gain on one side is offset by a loss on the other. Biographical and anecdotal history is the least explanatory ; but it is the richest in point of information, for it considers individuals in their particularity and details for each of them the shades of character, the twists and turns of their motives, the phases of their deliberations. This information is schematized, put in the background and finally done away with as one passes to histories of progressively greater ‘power’. Consequently, depending on the level on which he places himself, the historian loses in information what he gains in comprehension or vice versa, as if the logic of the concrete wished to remind us of its logical nature by modelling a confused outline of Gödel’s theorem in the clay of ‘becoming’. The historian’s relative choice, with respect to each domain of history he gives up, is always confined to the choice between history which teaches us more and explains less, and history which explains more and teaches less. The only way he can avoid the dilemma is by getting outside history : either by the bottom, if the pursuit of information leads him from the consideration of groups to that of individuals and then to their motivations which depend on their personal history and temperament, that is to say to an infra-historical domain in the realms of psychology and physiology ; or by the top, if the need to understand incites him to put history back into prehistory and the latter into the general evolution of organized beings, which is itself explicable only in terms of biology, geology and finally cosmology.

There is, however, another way of avoiding the dilemma without thereby doing away with history. We need only recognize that history is a method with no distinct object corresponding to it to reject the equivalence between the notion of history and the notion of humanity which some have tried to foist on us with the unavowed aim of making historicity the last refuge of a transcendental humanism : as if men could regain the illusion of liberty on the plane of the ‘we’ merely by giving up the ‘I’s that are too obviously wanting in consistency.

In fact history is tied neither to man nor to any particular object. It consists wholly in its method, which experience proves to be indispensable for cataloguing the elements of any structure whatever, human or non-human, in their entirety. It is therefore far from being the case that the search for intelligibility comes to an end in history as though this were its terminus. Rather, it is history that serves as the point of departure in any quest for intelligibility. As we say of certain careers, history may lead to anything, provided you get out of it.

This further thing to which history leads for want of a sphere of reference of its own shows that whatever its value (which is indisputable) historical knowledge has no claim to be opposed to other forms of knowledge as a supremely privileged one. We noted above that it is already found rooted in the savage mind, and we can now see why it does not come to fruition there. 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. A multitude of images forms simultaneously, none exactly like any other, so that no single one furnishes more than a partial knowledge of the decoration and furniture but the group is characterized by invariant properties expressing a truth. The savage mind deepens its knowledge with the help of imagines mundi. It builds mental structures which facilitate an understanding of the world in as much as they resemble it. In this sense savage thought can be defined as analogical thought.

But in this sense too it differs from domesticated thought, of which historical knowledge constitutes one aspect. The concern for continuity which inspires the latter is indeed a manifestation, in the temporal order, of knowledge which is interstitial and unifying rather than discontinuous and analogical : instead of multiplying objects by schemes promoted to the role of additional objects, it seems to transcend an original discontinuity by relating objects to one another. But it is this reason, wholly concerned with closing gaps and dissolving differences, which can properly be called ‘analytical’. By a paradox on which much stress has recently been laid, for modern thought ‘continuity, variability, relativity, determinism go together’.

This analytic, abstract continuity will doubtless be opposed to that of the praxis as concrete individuals live it. But this latter continuity seems no less derivative than the former, for it is only the conscious mode of apprehending psychological and physiological processes which are themselves discontinuous. I am not disputing that reason develops and transforms itself in the practical field : man’s mode of thought reflects his relations to the world and to men. But in order for praxis to be living thought, it is necessary first (in a logical and not a historical sense) for thought to exist : that is to say, its initial conditions must be given in the form of an objective structure of the psyche and brain without which there would be neither praxis nor thought.

When therefore I describe savage thought as a system of concepts embedded in images, I do not come anywhere near the robinsonnades of a constitutive constituent dialectic : all constitutive reason presupposes a constituted reason. But even if one allowed Sartre the circularity which he invokes to dispel the ‘suspect character’ attaching to the first stages of his synthesis, what he proposes really are ‘robinsonnades’, this time in the guise of descriptions of phenomena, when he claims to restore the sense of marriage exchange, the potlatch or the demonstration of his tribe’s marriage rules by a Melanesian savage. Sartre then refers to a comprehension which has its being in the praxis of their organizers, a bizarre expression to which no reality corresponds, except perhaps the capacity which any foreign society presents to anyone looking at it from the outside, and which leads him to project the lacunae in his own observation on to it in the form of positive attributes. Two examples will show what I mean.

No anthropologist can fail to be struck by the common manner of conceptualizing initiation rites employed by the most diverse societies throughout the world. Whether in Africa, America, Australia or Melanesia, the rites follow the same pattern : first, the novices, taken from their parents, are symbolically ‘killed’ and kept hidden in the forest or bush where they are put to the test by the Beyond ; after this they are ‘reborn’ as members of the society. When they are returned to their natural parents, the latter therefore simulate all the phases of a new delivery, and begin a re-education even in the elementary actions of feeding or dressing. It would be tempting to interpret this set of phenomena as a proof that at this stage thought is wholly embedded in praxis. But this would be seeing things back to front, for it is on the contrary scientific praxis which, among ourselves, has emptied the notions of death and birth of everything not corresponding to mere physiological processes and rendered them unsuitable to convey other meanings. In societies with initiation rites, birth and death provide the material for a rich and varied conceptualization, provided that these notions (like so many others) have not been stripped by any form of scientific knowledge oriented towards practical returns – which they lack – of the major part of a meaning which transcends the distinction between the real and the imaginary : a complete meaning of which we can now hardly do more than evoke the ghost in the reduced setting of figurative language. What looks to us like being embedded in praxis is the mark of thought which quite genuinely takes the words it uses seriously, whereas in comparable circumstances we only ‘play’ on words.

The taboos on parents-in-law furnish the matter for a cautionary tale leading to the same conclusion by a different route. Anthropologists have found the frequent prohibition of any physical or verbal contact between close affines so strange that they have exercised their ingenuity in multiplying explanatory hypotheses, without always making sure that the hypotheses are not rendered redundant by one another. Elkin for instance explains the rarity of marriage with the patrilateral cousin in Australia by the rule that as a man has to avoid any contact with his mother-in-law, he will be wise to choose the latter among women entirely outside his own local group (to which his father’s sisters belong). The aim of the rule itself is supposed to be to prevent a mother and daughter from being rivals for the affections of the same man ; finally, the taboo is supposed to be extended by contamination to the wife’s maternal grandmother and her husband. There are thus four concurrent interpretations of a single phenomenon : as a function of a type of marriage, as the result of a psychological calculation, as protection against instinctive tendencies and as the product of association by contiguity. This, however, still does not satisfy Elkin, for in his view the taboo on the father-in-law rests on a fifth explanation : the father-in-law is the creditor of the man to whom he has given his daughter, and the son-in-law feels himself to be in a position of inferiority in relation to him.

I shall content myself with the last explanation which perfectly covers all the cases considered and renders the others worthless by bringing out their naivety. But why is it so difficult to put these usages into their proper place ? The reason is, I think, that the usages of our own society which could be compared with them and might furnish a landmark to identify them by, are in a dissociated form among ourselves, while in these exotic societies they appear in an associated one which makes them unrecognizable to us.

We are acquainted with the taboo on parents-in-law or at least with its approximate equivalent. By the same token we are forbidden to address the great of this world and obliged to keep out of their way. All protocol asserts it : one does not speak first to the Queen of England or the President of the French Republic ; and we adopt the same reserve when unforeseen circumstances create conditions of closer proximity between a superior and ourselves than the social distance between us warrants. Now, in most societies the position of wife-giver is accompanied by social (and sometimes also economic) superiority, that of wife-taker by inferiority and dependence. This inequality between affines may be expressed objectively in institutions as a fluid or stable hierarchy, or it may be expressed subjectively in the system of interpersonal relations by means of privileges and prohibitions.

There is therefore nothing mysterious about these usages which our own experience enables us to see from the inside. We are disconcerted only by their constitutive conditions, different in each case. Among ourselves, they are sharply separated from other usages and tied to an unambiguous context. In exotic societies, the same usages and the same context are as it were embedded in other usages and a different context : that of family ties, with which they seem to us incompatible. We find it hard to imagine that, in private, the son-in-law of the President of the French Republic should regard him as the head of the state rather than as his father-in-law. And although the Queen of England’s husband may behave as the first of her subjects in public, there are good reasons for supposing that he is just a husband when they are alone together. It is either one or the other. The superficial strangeness of the taboo on parents-in-law arises from its being both at the same time.

Consequently, and as we have already found in the case of operations of understanding, the system of ideas and attitudes is here presented only as embodied. Considered in itself, this system has nothing about it to baffle the anthropologist. My relation to the President of the Republic is made up entirely of negative observances, since, in the absence of other ties, any relations we may have are wholly defined by the rule that I should not speak unless he invites me to do so and that I should remain a respectful distance from him. But this abstract relation need only be clothed in a concrete relation and the attitudes appropriate to each to accumulate, for me to find myself as embarrassed by my family as an Australian aborigine. What appears to us as greater social ease and greater intellectual mobility is thus due to the fact that we prefer to operate with detached pieces, if not indeed with ‘small change’, while the native is a logical hoarder : he is forever tying the threads, unceasingly turning over all the aspects of reality, whether physical, social or mental. We traffic in our ideas ; he hoards them up. The savage mind puts a philosophy of the finite into practice.

This is also the source of the renewed interest in it. This language with its limited vocabulary able to express any message by combinations of oppositions between its constitutive units, this logic of comprehension for which contents are indissociable from form, this systematic of finite classes, this universe made up of meanings, no longer appears to us as retrospective witnesses of a time when : ‘... le ciel sur la terre Marchait et respirait dans un peuple de dieux’ [when heaven walked and breathed on earth among a population of Gods], and which the poet only evokes for the purpose of asking whether or not it is to be regretted. This time is now restored to us, thanks to the discovery of a universe of information where the laws of savage thought reign once more : ‘heaven’ too, ‘walking on earth’ among a population of transmitters and receivers whose messages, while in transmission, constitute objects of the physical world and can be grasped both from without and from within.

The idea that the universe of primitives (or supposedly such) consists principally in messages is not new. But until recently a negative value was attributed to what was wrongly taken to be a distinctive characteristic, as though this difference between the universe of the primitives and our own contained the explanation of their mental and technological inferiority, when what it does is rather to put them on a par with modern theorists of documentation. Physical science had to discover that a semantic universe possesses all the characteristics of an object in its own right for it to be recognized that the manner in which primitive peoples conceptualize their world is not merely coherent but the very one demanded in the case of an object whose elementary structure presents the picture of a discontinuous complexity.

The false antinomy between logical and prelogical mentality was surmounted at the same time. The savage mind is logical in the same sense and the same fashion as ours, though as our own is only when it is applied to knowledge of a universe in which it recognizes physical and semantic properties simultaneously. This misunderstanding once dispelled, it remains no less true that, contrary to Levy-Bruhl’s opinion, its thought proceeds through understanding, not affectivity, with the aid of distinctions and oppositions, not by confusion and participation. Although the term had not yet come into use, numerous texts of Durkheim and Mauss show that they understood that so-called primitive thought is a quantified form of thought.

It will be objected that there remains a major difference between the thought of primitives and our own : Information Theory is concerned with genuine messages whereas primitives mistake mere manifestations of physical determinism for messages. Two considerations, however, deprive this argument of any weight. In the first place, Information Theory has been generalized, and it extends to phenomena not intrinsically possessing the character of messages, notably to those of biology ; the illusions of totemism have had at least the merit of illuminating the fundamental place belonging to phenomena of this order, in the internal economy of systems of classification. In treating the sensible properties of the animal and plant kingdoms as if they were the elements of a message, and in discovering ‘signatures’ – and so signs – in them, men have made mistakes of identification : the meaningful element was not always the one they supposed. But, without perfected instruments which would have permitted them to place it where it most often is namely, at the microscopic level – they already discerned ‘as through a glass darkly’ principles of interpretation whose heuristic value and accordance with reality have been revealed to us only through very recent inventions : telecommunications, computers and electron microscopes.

Above all, during the period of their transmission, when they have an objective existence outside the consciousness of transmitters and receivers, messages display properties which they have in common with the physical world. Hence, despite their mistakes with regard to physical phenomena (which were not absolute but relative to the level where they grasped them) and even though they interpreted them as if they were messages, men were nevertheless able to arrive at some of their properties. For a theory of information to be able to be evolved it was undoubtedly essential to have discovered that the universe of information is part of an aspect of the natural world. But the validity of the passage from the laws of nature to those of information once demonstrated, implies the validity of the reverse passage – that which for millennia has allowed men to approach the laws of nature by way of information.

Certainly the properties to which the savage mind has access are not the same as those which have commanded the attention of scientists. The physical world is approached from opposite ends in the two cases : one is supremely concrete, the other supremely abstract ; one proceeds from the angle of sensible qualities and the other from that of formal properties. But if, theoretically at least and on condition no abrupt changes in perspective occurred, these two courses might have been destined to meet, this explains that they should have both, independently of each other in time and space, led to two distinct though equally positive sciences : one which flowered in the neolithic period, whose theory of the sensible order provided the basis of the arts of civilization (agriculture, animal husbandry, pottery, weaving, conservation and preparation of food, etc.) and which continues to provide for our basic needs by these means ; and the other, which places itself from the start at the level of intelligibility, and of which contemporary science is the fruit.

We have had to wait until the middle of this century for the crossing of long separated paths : that which arrives at the physical world by the detour of communication, and that which as we have recently come to know, arrives at the world of communication by the detour of the physical. The entire process of human knowledge thus assumes the character of a closed system. And 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.

16 October 1961

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