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Claude Levi-Strauss and the Philosophy of Myth

Updated: Feb 27

Claude Levi-Strauss and the Philosophy of Myth

Fernando J. Villalovs

In this project, I examine the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss' metaphysics of mythology, through his work Myth and Meaning[1]. I show how Levi-Strauss demonstrates that there is an artificial metaphysical schism between myth and science, insofar as the latter is built on the former's illusion of power.

The Modes of Science: Structuralism and Reductionism

Claude Levi-Strauss begins his account of myth by suggesting that he does not believe in personal identity, that is, a phenomenology, or "experience" of a ghost within him. He experiences himself bereft of an "I" or "me," because he thinks that he is a passive place of "things going on," a crossroads of happenings, in which he has no choice on the matter as the things happening within him are up to the force of entropic chance. Levi-Strauss cautions he does not claim that everyone thinks this way, his view is one of the many manners of thinking and writing; it is his opinion as a scholar whose purpose is to open up new ways of looking at humanity. Every idiosyncratic outlook is the right way of pointing at something new, says Levi-Strauss. He says that his view of myth is an exploration of lost things that modern science is trying to re-integrate via its explanatory power.

Levi-Strauss locates the "gap" between science and "mythical thought" in the seventeenth and eighteen century, when scientists such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton, who were known to have a history of intellectual curiosity in esoteric ideas[2], developed the scientific outlook from the knowledge of the past. Levi-Strauss claims that science:

"[B]uild[s] itself up against the old generations of mythical and mystical thought, and it was thought that science could only exist by turning its back upon the world of the senses, the world we see, smell, taste, and perceive; the sensory was a delusive world, whereas the real world was a world of mathematical properties which could only be grasped by the intellect and which was entirely at odds with the false testimony of the senses."[3]

Had there not been a schism between science and mythical thought, science would not have gone forward, insofar as it needed to constitute itself into an outlook of concrete experience. To exemplify that gap, Levi-Strauss looks at two classical theories about the origin of mathematical ideas (notions of the line, the circle, and the triangle) in ancient Greek thought, which continues to influence the modern view of mathematics. The first is the theory of mind as a tabula rasa, which claims that we are born into this world with nothing in it. We furnish the space of mind through the experience of seeing round, imperfect circles, which allows us to extract the notion of the circle. The second theory belongs to Plato, who claimed that the ideas of the circle, the triangle, and the line, are perfect and innate; they were given to the mind, and so we can project these shapes onto reality, even though reality never proffers perfect circles or triangles. And from these paradigms, from the ancients to the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and finally, the twentieth century, we have moved onto empirical theories of the mind:

"Now, contemporary researchers on the neurophysiology of vision teach us that the nervous cells in the retina and the other apparatus behind the retina are specialized: some cells are sensitive only to straight direction, in the vertical sense, others in the horizontal, others in the oblique, some of them to the relationship between the background and the central figures, and the like [...] this whole problem of experience versus mind seems to have a solution in the structure of the nervous system, not in the structure of the mind or in experience, but somewhere between mind and experience in the way our nervous system is built and in the way it mediates between mind and experience."[4]

Levi-Strauss grants that there is probably something deep within his mind, what a structuralist calls an "invariant element" between "superficial differences." He recalls how searching for invariant elements was an interest of his, which began with his focus in geology, wherein he explored consistencies among diverse landscapes to reduce them to particular geological layers and operations. Constant properties can be found everywhere, in any "set of codes," says Levi-Strauss; in the language of the musical code, the literary code, the artistic code; but the issue among codes, he thinks, is finding commonalities between them, which he calls the problem of translation. "The problem is to find what is common to all of them. It's a problem, one might say, of translation, of translating what is expressed in one language—or one code, if you prefer, but language is sufficient—into expression in a different language."[5] And while structuralism is proclaimed in the twentieth century as a revolutionary metaphysics, a methodology of discovering commonalities between superficial differences, Levi-Strauss says it is nothing new, as this way of thinking was a trend from the Renaissance, to the nineteenth century, and to the present time. The "hard sciences," he says, have been doing it since their inception because science proceeds through reductionism and structuralism:

"It is reductionist when it is possible to find out that very complex phenomena on one level can be reduced to simpler phenomena on other levels. For instance, there is a lot in life which can be reduced to physico-chemical processes, which explain a part but not all. And when we are confronted with phenomena too complex to be reduced to phenomena of a lower order, then we can only approach them by looking to their relationships, that is, by trying to understand what kind of original system they make up."[6]

The methodologies adopted by science, reductionism, and structuralism, reach an impasse when facing the irrational, however. Early in his career, Levi-Strauss entertained the thesis that there is order behind what is given to us as a disorder; that sentiment is what led him to leave philosophy to work in anthropology. Early in his career in anthropology, he discovered that marriage rules and codes seem meaningless, as there being different rules worldwide suggests that there is bound to be foreign rules from person to person, and no particularly reason to adjudicate among them. But if that absurdity and others appear repeatedly, says Levi-Strauss, then something must not be absurd about them. He finds the same issue with myth. "Mythical stories are, or seem, arbitrary, meaningless, absurd, yet nevertheless they seem to reappear all over the world. A 'fanciful' creation of the mind in one place would be unique—you would not find the same creation in a completely different place."[7]

Hence, Levi-Strauss claims meaning cannot be conceived without order. But defining what "meaning" is becomes impossible when one attempts to offer an answer that holds for different languages. Meaning, he thinks, designates the ability of any data to be translated into a foreign language. And by a different language, Levi-Strauss does not mean languages like French or German, "but different words on a different level." The translation of linguistic utterances at the level of musical notes or mathematical numbers seem impossible to articulate except via the intuition of how value translates from one code to the other. He suggests that the way around this problem is by the power of rule-making; meaning is rules because they govern the style of translation among languages.

"To speak of rules and to speak of meaning is to speak of the same thing; and if we look at all the intellectual undertakings of mankind, as far as they have been recorded all over the world, the common denominator is always to introduce some kind of order. If this represents a basic need for order in the human mind and since, after all, the human mind is only part of the universe, the need probably exists because there is some order in the universe and the universe is not a chaos."[8]

The Artificial Schism of Myth and Science

Myth and science in that regard needed a divorce, since "the logic of the concrete [...] the respect for and the use of the data of the senses," contrasts the language of images and symbols. However, he is optimistic that the divorce will be overcome or reversed, for modern science is finding ways of broadening its line of thinking, which opens the reincorporation of past problems up to revision. Levi-Strauss considers he could be critiqued as a scientistic thinker who believes science can solve every issue of reality and self, but he rebuts the notion by suggesting that science will never become complete. His view of science allows for a slow increase in the quantity and quality of answers. For example, he shows how the work of Lévy-Bruhl considered the distinction between "primitive" and "modern" thought as arising from the former being determined by emotion and mystic representations, and the latter by the intellect and evidence-based theories. He notes that this is not necessarily true:

"[P]eople whom we usually consider as completely subservient to the need of not starving, of continuing able just to subsist in very harsh material conditions, are perfectly capable of disinterested thinking; that is, they are moved by a need or a desire to understand the world around them, its nature and their society. On the other hand, to achieve that end, they proceed by intellectual means, exactly as a philosopher, or even to some extent a scientist, can and would do."[9]

The ambitions of primitive and modern thought are the same, namely, to understand and master nature, but the procedures are different. Levi-Strauss thinks scientific thinking achieves mastery over nature, that is, the material power over the environment that myth cannot produce. But what is essential to highlight about science and myth is the illusion they create that humanity can understand the universe. Suppose the knowledge of plants and animals, says Levi-Strauss. There is a record of nomadic people's precision over the environment and its resources, which paved the way for automobiles, televisions, and radio. He suggests that what allows for this evolution of mind is the training of mental capacities. However, primitive people did not need to develop certain mental traits, as the kind of life and relationship they had to nature corresponded with the state of their mental faculties. The mind cannot be developed fully when a single "sector" of it is under development. Thus, when there is communication between cultures, the whole mind evolves.

Levi-Strauss points out that cultural differences are not harmful, nor should they be overcome; instead, he posits the fecundity of contrasts that allow progression. The issue lies, he says, in "over-communication," namely, "the tendency to know exactly in one point of the world what is going on in all other parts of the world." Cultural identity hinges on a conviction of the originality and superiority of the ideas of its members, as it allows emergence from the idiosyncrasies of their thinking. "Under-communication" is a structural condition for the production of new ideas. Levi-Strauss claims that contemporary consumerism drives consumption of anything from any point in the world and every culture, which erases the originality of cultural idiosyncrasy.

Concluding Comments

Claude Levi-Strauss discards the schism between myth and science on the premise that the quantitative properties of science are built on the qualitative aspects of myth. Science is mythological in its qualitative projection of quantitative order over what nature proffers in the form of chaos; science is a model of rules created by the mind which govern the translatability of the languages of the cosmos[10]. What propels science forward is what motivated myth in its pursuit of power over nature. But most fundamentally, Levi-Strauss claims science is increasingly recognizing the thesis that perhaps life and thought, science and myth, are closer than once conceived:

"This undoubtedly will enable us to understand a great many things present in mythological thinking which we were in the past prone to dismiss as meaningless and absurd. And the trend will lead us to believe that, between life and thought, there is not the absolute gap which was accepted as a matter of fact by the seventeenth-century philosophical dualism. If we are led to believe that what takes place in our mind is something not substantially or fundamentally different from the basic phenomenon of life itself, and if we are led then to the feeling that there is not this kind of gap which is impossible to overcome between mankind on the one hand and all the other living beings—not only animals, but also plants—on the other, then perhaps we will reach more wisdom, let us say, than we think we are capable of."[11]

[1] Claude Levi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning. Routledge, 2001.

[2] For a history of the occult interests of intellectuals normally not associated with the esoteric arts, see Gary Lachman, A Dark Muse: A History of the Occult. Basic Books, 2004, and his A Secret History of Consciousness. Lindisfarne Books, 2003.

[3] Cf. Claude Levi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning, p. 1.

[4] Ibid, p. 2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p. 3

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, p. 4.

[9] Ibid, p. 5.

[10] This position resembles the central claim of the Participation Mystique. For a revision of its historical context, personalities, and ideas, see my “Epistemological Issues in Science and Esotericism.” Arkesoul,

[11] Cf. Claude Levi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning, p. 8.

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