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Claude Lévi-Strauss

A Confrontation

Paul Ricoeur: The methodological questions I should like to ask you are of three kinds; all three concern the possibility of co-ordinating your scientific methodstructuralism as a sciencewith other modes of comprehension which are not built on a generalized linguistic model, but consist of a recovery of meaning in reflective or speculative thought, in short, what I have myself called a hermeneutic. The first question concerns the intransigence of the methodits compatibility or incompatibility with other modes of understanding. This methodological question is directly inspired by a meditation on the particular examples you use in The Savage Mind 1 . I wonder to what extent your method’s success has not been facilitated by the geographical and cultural zone to which it has been applied, i.e. the zone of what used to be called totemism, of the ‘totemic illusion’, which is precisely characterized by the extraordinary exuberance of its syntactic arrangements, and perhaps in compensa- tion by the great poverty of its content; is it not this contrast which explains why structural- ism has such an easy victory, in the sense that its victory leaves almost nothing behind?


My second question, then, is to ask whether there is a unity of mythical thought— if there might not be other formulations of mythical thought which would lend themselves much less easily to structuralism?

This doubt leads me to my third question: what becomes of the structure-event and synchrony-diachrony relations as functions of other models? In a system in which synchrony is more intelligible, diachrony seems to be a perturbation, a fragility; I am thinking of the Boasian formulation you like to quote on the demolition of mythical universes which collapse as soon as they have been constituted, because their solidity is momentary— in some way, it only exists in the synchrony. If we consider thought organizations falling within the scope of a tradition-event relation rather than a diachrony-synchrony relation, we get a quite different result. This third question is related to the problem of historicity which is the object of your dispute with Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of the book.

In our study circle we also embarked on a discussion of the philosophy implicit in your method, but we did not linger over it, for we thought it unfair to your work to devote ourselves primarily to this question; for my part, I think it essential not to pass on too quickly to a discussion of structuralist philosophy, for to do so would make it impossible to devote enough time to the structural method. I therefore suggested that we should save till the end a discussion of the different philosophical possibilities that you have yourself combined in what seems to me to be a hesitant way: is it a renewal of dialectical philosophy, or on the contrary a kind of generalized combinatory, or finally even, as you put it, a materialism pure and simple in which all the structures are natural structures’?

That is the scope of the questions I should like to ask you, but I leave it up to you to take them in the order you prefer.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: A book is always something of a prematurely born child and mine strike me as fairly repugnant creatures compared with what I should have liked to have brought into the world, and ones which I do not feel too proud of when they are exposed to other people’s gaze; so I have not come here with the belligerent intention of making an absolute defence of positions which I should be the first to admit have their precarious side, as Paul Ricoeur has correctly pointed out. 2

Allow me one preliminary observation. There has been some misunder- standing, for which I am myself solely responsible, about the place this book occupies in my work as a whole. In fact, it is not—to express it in Ricoeur’s own terms—‘the last stage of a gradual process of generaliza- tion’, ‘a terminal systematization’, ‘a terminal stage’. This might seem to be the case, but my intentions were quite different. Just as Totemism 3 was a preface to The Savage Mind as I explained, in the same way The Savage Mind is a preface to a more important book; but because when I was writing the former I was not sure that I would ever even begin the

1 Claude Lévi-Strauss: La Pensée Sauvage, Paris, 1962; translated as The Savage Mind, London, 1966. 2 Lévi-Strauss is referring to Paul Ricoeur’s ‘Structure et Hermeneutique’, which appeared in the same issue of Esprit as this interview, November, 1963, pp. 596627, and which had previously been communicated to him. 3 Claude Lévi-Strauss: Le Totémisme Aujourd’hui, Paris, 1962; translated as Totemism, London, 1964.


latter, I preferred not to mention it so as to avoid the risk of having to go back on my word later. So it should rather be seen as a kind of pause in my thought, a sort of resting-place, a moment when I stopped for breath and allowed myself to contemplate the surrounding land- scape, precisely the landscape through which I shall not, cannot and have no wish to travel: the philosophical landscape which I can see from a distance but which I shall leave vague since it is not on my itinerary.

Now, a pause between what and what? Between two stages in the same undertaking, which might be defined as a kind of inventory of mental constraints, an attempt to reduce the arbitrary to an order, so as to discover a necessity immanent in the illusion of liberty. Thus, in The Elementary Structures of Kinship 4 , I had chosen a domain which might appear at first sight to be characterized by incoherence and contingency, and which I tried to show could be reduced to a very small number of significant propositions. However, this first experiment was insufficient, because the constraints in the domain of kinship are not of a purely internal order. By this, I mean that it is not certain that their origin is drawn exclusively from the structure of the mind (esprit); they might arise from the exigencies of social life, and the way the latter imposes its own constraints on the exercise of thought.

The second stage, to be completely devoted to mythology, will be an attempt to avoid this obstacle, since it seems to me that it is precisely in the domain of mythology, where the mind seems most free to aban- don itself to its own creative spontaneity, that it is significant to establish its conformity to law. As far as kinship and marriage rules are concern- ed, it might still be asked whether the constraints come from within or without; this doubt is no longer possible as far as mythology is con- cerned : if in this domain the mind is bound and determined in all its operations, than a fortiori this must be the case everywhere.

Thus I am particularly grateful to Paul Ricoeur for stressing the fact that there might be a relation between my undertaking and that of Kantianism. In short, it is a matter of a transposition of Kantian inquiry into the ethnological domain, with this difference, that instead of using introspection or reflecting on the state of science in the particular society in which the philosopher happens to be, I move to the limit: by investigating what there might be in common between the humanity which seems most remote from us and the way our own minds work; by trying to disengage the basic and constraining properties of all mind, wherever it be.

I wanted to get this clear first of all; I shall now pass on to Paul

Ricoeur’s first question, which seems to me to dominate his study: i.e. the question as to whether mythology has a unique explanation.

There is something about his argument that I find a little disturbing.

It seems to me that, logically, it ought not to have come from someone

4 Claude Lévi-Strauss: Les Structures Elémentaires de la Parenté, Paris, 1949 (revised

edition, The Hague, 1967); translated as The Elementary Structures of Kinship, London,



with Ricoeur’s position, but from an ‘ultra’ of The Savage Mind, if I may say so, who could well attack me for not having included within its jurisdiction the Bible, the Hellenic tradition and a number of other traditions as well. For either these bodies of work derive from mythical thought, and if it is accepted that the method is valid for the analysis of the latter it follows that it must also be valid for the former; or the method is held to be inappropriate to these cases, thereby excluding them from mythical thought. Then I should have been correct in leaving them out.

In fact, my position is extremely cautious and nuanced. I do not at all postulate that there is a unique explanation for everything which can be roughly classified as mythical thought—I even find the term itself too narrow. I set out to isolate a number of things which I felt structural analysis had some grasp on, I studied these things and I have been care- ful to go no further. My eminent English colleague, Edmund Leach of Cambridge University, has amused himself by applying structural analysis to the Bible in a study with the significant title ‘Lévi-Strauss in the Garden of Eden’. 5 It is a very brilliant study and only in part a joke. For myself, I am very hesitant to embark on anything of a similar kind, because I have scruples which are similar to those of Paul Ricoeur. First of all, because the Old Testament, while certainly using mythical material, reorganizes it with a different end in view than it had origin- ally. Editors have no doubt deformed it by their interpretations; so, as Paul Ricoeur so brilliantly puts it, the myths have been put through an intellectual operation. Preliminary work aimed at rediscovering the mythological and archaic residue underlying Biblical literature would be required and obviously this work could only be done by a specialist. In the second place, it seems to me that an undertaking of this order implies a kind of vicious circle, since as I see it—and here I am perhaps in disagreement with Paul Ricoeur—symbols, to use a term he is particularly fond of, never have any intrinsic significance. Their mean- ings can only be ‘positional’ meanings, and it follows that they cannot be available to us in the myths themselves, but only be reference to the ethnographic context, i.e. to what we know about the way of life, the techniques, the ritual and the social organization of the societies whose myths we wish to analyse. In the case of ancient Judaism we come up against a paradox since we lack almost completely any ethnographic context, except precisely the one that can be extracted from Biblical texts. What I have said of the Bible could be extended to other mytho- logical sources: the great texts of Ancient India, the classics of Japanese proto-history, Kojiki and Nihongi, and many others. So there is quite a lot of material that I have decided to leave alone, on the one hand, I repeat, because of the lack of an ethnographic context, and, on the other because they demand preliminary exegesis which the ethnologist is not qualified to undertake.

Even in the mythology to which my next book 6 is almost completely devoted, that of tropical America, I can see that there are heterogeneous levels. So I have preferred to leave aside certain texts, at least for the time being, because their internal organization seems to depend on

other principles: mixed with myths in South America there is an almost novelistic literature which is perhaps open to structural analysis, but to

a refined and transformed structural analysis which I cannot embark on for the moment.

So in this perspective a cautious attitude is called for: to embark only on what seems likely to give worthwhile results; to leave the rest aside for better times when the method has proved itself. This reserve seems to me to be characteristic of any undertaking which claims to be scien- tific. If the study of matter had started with a theory of crystallization, many physicists could have said: that is not the only state of matter, there are others you cannot deal with; to which the ancient crystallo- graphers would no doubt have replied: yes, but these are the best or the simplest properties, those offering a kind of short-cut to the structure; because of this, we have set aside for the moment the question as to whether the study of crystals explains the whole of matter, or if there are really other things to consider.

Now for the philosophical objections which I shall deal with rapidly, since Paul Ricoeur wants to leave them aside for the moment: he stressed their ‘outline’ character, their hesitant side. I agree with him completely. I have no wish to produce a philosophy, I have simply set out to examine the philosophical implications of some aspects of my work for my own personal profit. What I should like to say before moving on is simply that where Paul Ricoeur sees two possibly con- tradictory philosophies, one close to dialectical materialism, accepting the primacy of praxis, and the other leaning towards materialism tout court, I see rather two stages in a single reflection; but I only attach secondary importance to this and I am quite ready to be taken to task on this point by philosophers.

I also find myself in complete agreement with Paul Ricoeur when, no

doubt as a criticism, he defines my position as ‘a Kantianism without a transcendental subject’. This deficiency arouses his reservations, but I am quite happy to accept his formulation.

I come now to what seems to me to be Paul Ricoeur’s fundamental

objection, which he repeated just now, and which I have copied from his essay in the following significant sentence: ‘It seems’, he says, ‘as if one part of civilization, precisely the part which did not produce our own culture, lends itself to the structural method better than any other.’ This raises a considerable problem. Are we dealing with an intrinsic difference between two kinds of civilization, or simply with the relative position of the observer, who cannot adopt the same perspectives vis- à-vis his own civilization as would seem normal to him vis-à-vis a differ- ent civilization? In other words, Ricoeur’s disquiet, his conviction that

if I wished to apply my method to the mythical texts of our own tradi-

tion (which, be it noted, I have carefully refrained from doing) I would find that there was something left over, an irreducible residue

As a member of my own

civilization who has internalized this mythical tradition, who has been brought up on it, I willingly agree; but I wonder if some native sage, who happened to read The Savage Mind and noted the way I treated his own myths, could not, with reason, raise exactly the same objection. When Ricoeur’s text opposes totemism and kerygmatism (a word with whose meaning in contemporary philosophy and theology I am un- familiar, but which from its etymology I take to imply the idea of a promise, an announcement), I should like to ask him what could be more ‘kerygmatic’ than the Australian totemic myths which are also based on events: the appearance of the totemic ancestor at a certain point in the territory, his peregrinations which have sanctified each named place and which define for each native the motives for the personal attachment which gives profound significance to the country,

which it was impossible for me to absorb

and which are at the same time, on condition that the native remain faithful to him, a promise of happiness, an assurance of safety, convic- tion of re-incarnation? These profound certainties are found among all those who have internalized their own myths, but they cannot be per- ceived by those who study them from the outside and must be left on one side by them. So much so, that this kind of bargain I am offered, of

a domain where structural analysis reigns supreme in exchange for

another where its powers are limited, well, I wonder, suppose I accepted it, would it not lead, if not to a re-introduction of the traditional dis- tinction between a primitive mentality and a civilized mentality, at least to a more reduced, let us say miniature distinction between two kinds of pensée sauvage: one falling entirely within the scope of structural

analysis, and another containing something else as well? I hesitate to accept this bargain because it would give me more than I bargained for.

Perhaps I laid too little stress on this in my book: what I have tried to define as pensée sauvage cannot as such be attributed to anything, be this one part or type of civilization. It has no predicative character. Or

rather, what I mean by pensée sauvage is the system of postulates and axioms required to establish a code which allows the least unfaithful translation possible of ‘the other’s’ into ‘ours’ and vice versa, the set of conditions in which we can best understand ourselves; certainly, there

is always something left over. Ultimately, pensée sauvage as I intend it is

merely the meeting-point achieved by an attempt at understanding, by me putting myself in their place and by them being put by me in my place. The circumlocutions best suited to an examination of its nature appeal to the notions of geometric space, common denominator, highest common factor, etc, and exlude the idea of anything belonging

intrinsically to one part of humanity, defining it absolutely. So, to sum up, I feel that I am ultimately in total agreement with Paul Ricoeur, except that the differential principle he postulates does not seem to me

to be in the thoughts themselves, but in the various situations which the observer happens to be in vis-à-vis these thoughts.

Paul Ricoeur: But if I refer to your work, this permutation of observers does not completely satisfy me; there are differences in the very object of study which


are not effected by a permutation of the roles of observer and observed. These are the objective characteristics which ensured an optimal relation between diachrony and synchrony in a cultural ensemble during the era of classical totemism. So it cannot be the observer’s viewpoint which distinguishes one mythical ensemble from another; they differ even from the same viewpoint; with the result that they all fall within the scope of the structuralist approach, but with different degrees of success; at the end of my essay I demonstrated the non-existence of the naturally symbolic, that a symbolism only functions within an economy of thought, within a structure; that is why hermeneutics will never be possible without structuralism. The question which emerges is whether there do not exist gradients, or, if you prefer, stages, corresponding to the prevalence of the synchronic over the dia- chronic which condition the very existence of your profession as a structuralist. I cannot believe that this is a question of the observer: temporality does not have the same significance everywhere; precisely where you can say that synchrony is strong and diachrony weak, this does not seem to me to be the product of our position as observers, but results from a certain constitution of the ensemble you are studying.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: That is quite correct. It can be explained by the fact that you take the adjective ‘totemic’ to have a much wider meaning than the one I give it. As an ethnologist, I use it in a narrow, technical sense. Indeed I realise that throughout your article you assume a kind of equation of pensée totémique and pensée sauvage. I think that the rela- tion is quite different: totemism arises from pensée sauvage—as I have strongly emphasized—but pensée sauvage extends far beyond the limits of the religious and legal system which was (falsely) categorized within the term ‘totemism’. Consequently when I refer to the ‘totemic void’ in the great civilizations of Europe and Asia, I do not mean that the distinc- tive features of pensée sauvage are not to be found there as well, in other guises. The two problems cannot be raised on the same plane.

If the basis of your argument amounts to the claim that an objective difference exists between our civilization and those of non-literate peoples in that the former accept a historical dimension while the latter reject it, we are in agreement, since I have myself strongly in- sisted on the same point. But it seems to me that we are not talking about the same history: the temporality you put forward as an intrinsic property of certain forms of mythical thought is not necessarily a func- tion of the objective historicity of our Western civilizations and of the way they have ‘historicized’ their development. ‘Historicized’ myths are well-known throughout the world; a particularly striking example is the mythology of the Zuni indians of the South Western USA, which has been ‘historicized’ (on the basis of material which is not so histori- cized) by native theologians in a way comparable to that of other theologians on the basis of the ancestral myths of Israel. As it appears in your study, the difference does not seem to me to relate so much to the existence of history in the mythology (for even the most ‘totemic’ Australian myths tell a story, they are in a temporality)—but to the fact that this history is either closed in on itself, locked up by the myth, or left open as a door into the future.

Paul Ricoeur: Do you think it is an accident that it was precisely the pre- Hellenic, Indo-European and Semitic bases which made possible all the re-


interpretations which philosophers and theologians have given us? Surely this must be related precisely to a richness in content which calls for a reflection on the semantics itself, and no longer on the syntax. If we accept an ultimate unity in the domain of myth, it must follow that other methods than your own could be applied to totemism, that it is possible to consider what they say and not merely the way they say it, that what they say is full of meaning, charged with latent philosophies; that we can therefore expect totemisms Hegel and Schelling.

Claude Lévi-Strauss’: It has been tried. It was not very productive.

Paul Ricoeur: But if I do not understand myself better by understanding them, can I still talk of meaning? If meaning is not a sector of self-understanding, I do not know what it is.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: But as we are prisoners of subjectivity where that is concerned, we cannot try to understand things both from the outside and from the inside at once; and we cannot understand them from the inside unless we were born inside, unless we are effectively inside. The undertaking that consists of transporting—if I may say so—a particular interiority into a general interiority seems to me to be compromised from the start. This would appear to be a point on which we are far from agreeing with one another. In your article you claim that La pensée sauvage makes a choice for syntax against semantics; as far as I am concerned there is no such choice. There is no such choice because the phonological revolution that you have invoked on several occasions consists of the discovery that meaning is always the result of a combina- tion of elements which are not themselves significant. Consequently, what you are looking for—and I do not think this is a falsification of your position, for you have said as much and even insisted on it—is a meaning of meaning, a meaning behind meaning: whereas in my perspec- tive meaning is never the primary phenomenon: meaning is always reducible. In other words, behind all meaning there is a non-meaning, while the reverse is not the case. As far as I am concerned, significance is always phenomenal.

Marc Gaboriau: There has been some discussion of history, of the ‘diachrony’; I should like to ask a few questions on this subject, concerning more particu- larly the problems of the ‘diachrony’. Why is it that a given society transforms itself over time? In certain parts of your work—in particular in Structural Anthropology 7 and in your preface to Mauss’s Sociologie et Anthropologie 8 —you insist on the fact that the factors behind transformation should not be looked for in the social systems in isolation (the kinship system, mythology, etc

but in the way they are superimposed on one another and articulated together. You claim that the latter constitutes a series of factors which must be studied before considering external influences. I should like you to throw more light on this first series of factors: at the end of Structural Anthropology you introduce the concept of a ‘structure of subordination’; but it seems to me that you use the same term to mean two different things: on the one hand, social inequalities


(polygamy, privilege, etc), on the other, you seem sometimes to denote by this term the superimposition of the different systems which constitute a society. Can you make this point a little clearer?

Claude Lévi-Strauss: This is really two questions, is it not? First of all, a general question. I must admit that I am unable to answer it. I think that ethnology, sociology and the human sciences in general are unable to answer it, because societies develop very largely through the action of external factors which fall within the scope of history, not that of structural analysis. So the construction of a theory of social develop- ment demands the observation of a large number of societies which have been immune from any external influence (and by external I mean not merely the action of other societies, but that of biological and other phenomena) which is obviously impossible. I often tell my students that there would have been no Darwin if there had not pre- viously been a Linnaeus; the problem of the evolution of species could not have been posed without initially defining what is meant by species and making a typology of them. Now we are far from possessing, and perhaps will never possess, even a taxonomy of societies compar- able with pre-Linnaean taxonomies, such as Tournefort’s. So I see this as a question which—yes, we can speculate about, such speculation is not futile—but which we can never say anything very serious about.

As far as the other question is concerned, if there is an ambiguity in my text—I must admit that it was a long time ago—I am sorry; it is a matter of a translation from English, since it was originally in that language. But I seen to remember limiting the expression ‘structures of subordination’ by opposing it to ‘structures of communication’, meaning thereby that there are in society two major structure types:

structures of communication which are reciprocal and structures of subordination on the other hand which are univocal and not reversible. It may be that there is somewhere an ambiguity between this particular meaning and the one you have indicated, but it was not an intentional ambiguity.

Marc Gaboriau: There is an ambiguity, especially is this text as compared with others; notably the Mauss preface, where you attempt to explain the transform- ations of societies by studying the articulation of the different systems. In particular, you say that, in their very nature, these systems are never integrally translatable one into another, and that therefore a society can never remain identical to itself.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Yes, what we are looking for, let us say, in a society reduced to a certain number of structural agencies stacked one on top of another or imbricated into one another, is the ways of establishing the kinds of disequilibria which explain why a society would still ‘budge’, even if it were immune to external influence.

Mikel Dufrenne: I should like to return to the problem raised earlier of the relations between syntax and semantics. I wonder if what you have just said about the fact that as far as you are concerned meaning is always secondary to a pre-mythical and non-significant given, is not to some extent in conflict with your


own analyses. For example, in the analysis of the Asdiwal myth 9 in which you show that ultimately, considering the behaviour of the Tsimshian, particularly Tsimshian women, in respect to fish, man is identified with the fish, this suddenly illuminates the rest of the myth. It is as if the previous analysis which revolved around the oppositions: high-low, East-West, sea-mountain, etc, was in some sense a preparation for this sort of ultimate revelation of meaning, and that therefore, the meaning here is given differently through a kind of immediate act of consciousness, and is not the result of a syntactical analysis. It may be true that in mathematics, truly formal thought, semantics is always in some sense on a level with syntax and subordinate to it, but in an analysis like the one above, or your analysis of the Oedipus myth which suddenly shows that the lame Oedipus means something in itself, i.e. one form of birth opposed to another, surely there is a kind of revenge of semantics on syntax, an immediacy of a meaning which has not been logically produced or revealed?

Claude Lévi-Strauss: It is my impression that in the examples you refer to the meaning is not directly perceived but deduced, a reconstruction based on a syntactical analysis. If my memory is correct, the passage from La Geste dAsdiwal demonstrates that a certain syntactical relation- ship is not reversible (as opposed to what happens in grammar, where

both ‘Peter kills the bull’ and ‘the bull kills Peter’, are permitted). The fact that a proposition can only be formulated in one direction means that certain hypotheses can be made about the hidden movement of the native thought. But this is, after all, my own hypothetical statement, so

I feel that it is eminently a ‘reconstruction’. To satisfy Dufrenne and

Ricoeur, I must add that, naturally, I am not in the slightest excluding

—it would be impossible, anyway—the recovery of meaning to which Paul Ricoeur has alluded; perhaps the difference between us lies in the fact that I think it is a supplementary means which we can use in an

attempt at post factum control of the validity of our syntactical operations. We work in the ‘human sciences’ and we are men studying men, so we can allow ourselves the luxury of trying to put ourselves in their places. But this is at the last moment, our last satisfaction: to ask the question:

does it work? if I try it out on myself, will it go? Consequently, I feel that from a methodological point of view, the recovery of meaning is secondary and derivative compared with the essential work which consists of taking apart the mechanism of an objectified thought; here

I can do no better than to take up the terms of Ricoeur’s critique; for it

does not seem to me to be a critique; it is just exactly what I set out to do.

Paul Ricoeur: If the meaning which I have recovered in this way does not in- crease the understanding I have of myself or of things, it is not worthy of the name of meaning. But there can be nothing of this sort if the syntactical inquiry stand out against a background of non-meaning; for what else do we understand by the very words meaning and non-meaning if not the episodes of a consciousness of history which is not simply one culture’s subjectivity looking at another culture, but truly a stage in the reflection which is trying to understand everything? In other words, it is the particular discourses which have a meaning, it is the things said and not simply their syntactical arrangements by an outside observer. I

realize that it is essential for the scientist to restrict himself to the arrange- ments of which he has set himself up as the observer; that is how he avoids what I have called the ‘hermeneutic circle’ which makes me one of the historical sectors of that very content which is interpreted through me; to be a human scientist, I must be beyond my own reach; but can I still talk of meaning and non-meaning if this meaning is not an episode in a fundamental reflection or a fundamental ontology (without here choosing between the two great traditions, Kantian and Hegelian).

Claude Lévi-Strauss: It seems to me that you are linking the notion of person with the notion of discourse. But what do the myths of a society consist of? They make up the discourse of that society, and there is no personal transmission of this discourse; so it is a discourse which can be collected just as a linguist who goes off to study a little known language can hope to construct its grammar without bothering to know who said what was said.

Paul Ricoeur: But if I do not understand myself better by understanding them, can I still talk of meaning? If meaning is not a sector of self-understanding, I do not know what it is.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: I find it quite legitimate that a philosopher who posed the problem in terms of the person should raise this objection, but I am not obliged to follow suit. What do I understand by meaning? A particular flavour perceived by a consciousness when it tastes a com- bination of elements of which any one taken alone would not produce a comparable flavour. So, just as a laboratory worker trying to make a chemical compound has many means at his disposal to test his result— he has his spectrograph, and his reagents, but he is not usually content with these for he also knows that he has a tongue, so he tastes, recog- nizes the characteristic flavour and says: yes, that’s it—the ethnologist also tries to recover the meaning and complement his objective proofs by intuition. He is a being endowed with sensitivity and intelligence, he has these means as well. So he tries to reconstitute the meaning; he reconstitutes it by mechanical means, he constructs it, unwraps it. And then, after all, he is a man, so he tastes it.

Jean-Pierre Faye: I should like to ask a question about contemporary myths. It concerns language zones in which it is history which has been mythologized. As opposed to cases of historicized myths, these are mythologized ‘histories’ (histori- cal interpretations). Take the case of the German nationalist ideologies of the inter-war period: this seems to me to be a ‘privileged’ field to which your criteria might be applied. We have here a kind of language halo with a strong biological charge, very close to the forms of ancient mythology and in which history is absolutely inverted in the myth. An attempt to map out these different languages gives, on the one hand, a kind of topology in which these languages represent very precise intersections. On the other hand, they can also be treated as transforma- tions of meaning, and in this respect they present two remarkable features: each of them will allow of an inverse transformation. On the other hand, the combination or composition of two of them gives ‘something’ (a signification) which itself in turn belongs to the ideological ensemble, no doubt because we are dealing with a retrograde system of thought which is consequently closed in on itself. This ‘axiom of closure’ is not to be found in the case of other ideologies, eg. those of liberals or of the Marxist left. In the case of the nationalist ideology which


decked out National Socialism in Weimar Germany and which referred to itself as the ‘National Movement’, the kind of closure which would seem to lend itself to structural analysis is really present, if the word structure is being used in its algebraic sense: a particular set has a structure if it is endowed with a well- defined ‘law of composition’.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: I completely agree with you in thinking that noth- ing bears a closer resemblance—formally speaking—to the myths of what we call exotic or non-literate societies than the political ideology of our own societies. Any attempt at a transposition of the method would no doubt have to start with political thought rather than relig- ious tradition. But is it necessary to single out any particular kind of political thought? I am very reluctant to do so; it would seem to me, for example, that the ‘mythology’ of the French Revolution would show similar ambiguities to the one which you have referred to. After all, the term ‘sans-culotte’ has had a spectacular career while its primitive meaning has probably been lost and the affinity with ‘culot’, ‘culotté’ (cheek, cheeky) may have played a larger part in its success. But when all is said and done, we always come back to the same point. The ques- tion is to know whether what we are trying to attain is what is true in and of the consciousness we have of it or outside this consciousness. I believe it is perfectly legitimate to look inside, by a recovery of mean- ing, except that this recovery, this interpretation philosophers or his- torians give of their own mythology, I treat simply as a variant of that mythology itself. In my analysis it becomes matter, objectified thought once again. In other words, I am not at all contemptuous of efforts such as the one I only know from the résumé given by Ricoeur, but—from what I know of it from his résumé—and if, God help me, I had to attack this kind of problem, I should see in it a variant of Biblical mythology and stack it on top of the latter rather than putting it after the latter.

Paul Ricoeur: I did not say that meaning was meaning in or of consciousness; meaning is first of all what instructs consciousness: language is above all a vehicle for the meaning to be recovered and this potentiality of meaning cannot be reduced to my own consciousness. The choice is not between the subjectivism of an immediate consciousness of meaning and the objectivity of a formalized meaning; between the two there is what meaning proposes, what meaning says, and it is this ‘to-be-said’ and ‘to-be-thought’ which seems to me to be the other side of structuralism; and when I say the other side of structuralism, I am, perforce, not indicating a subjectivism of meaning, but a dimension of meaning which is ob- jective as well, but the objectivity only appears in the consciousness which recovers it. This recovery expresses the extension of consciousness by meaning rather than consciousness’s jurisdiction over meaning. That is why I am not opposing sub- jectivity to structure, but precisely what I call the object of the hermeneutic, i.e. the dimensions of meaning opened up by these successive recoveries; which then raises the question: do all cultures offer as much to be recovered, re-said and re- thought?

Claude Lévi-Straus: A moment ago I was on the point of talking of privi- leged examples—I shall come back to Ricoeur’s point via this detour

—but are they really privileged? They are too rich in material whose abundance overwhelms us. We are in an eminently favourable situa- tion as far as exotic societies are concerned precisely because we know almost nothing about them and this poverty is in some sense our strength: we cannot avoid the essential

Jean-Pierre Faye: Perhaps this privilege will be illuminated by another question I should like to ask you. For Saussure, at any given moment there is a distinction between the pure sign and the symbol: the symbol has more in it than the sign, for the sign’s arbitrariness does not have complete sway. There is a kind of presence of the natural; there is a kind of natural content still adhering, weighing it down. This seems to me to make a difference between mythology and ideologies of a rationalist type like those of the French Revolution or of the 19th-century workers’ movement. For example, the word ‘sans-culotte’ has completely broken free of the ‘culotte’ (breeches) of the nobility—there is hardly any longer any thought given to silken breeches; the term has really become semiologic- ally autonomous, it is current as a completely ‘arbitrary’ money. And the mean- ings that have come to reinvest it, as you described just now, such as ‘culot’ (‘cheek’) are derived, derived

Claude Lévi-Strauss: So the sign has quite simply been transformed into a symbol.

Jean-Pierre Faye: Yes, but it has lost the connections which linked it to the initial symbol.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: No, no, it was a sign, and it became a symbol.

Jean-Pierre Faye: Yes, but the later symbol is somewhat factitious, there is

something fabricated about it, whereas in retrograde political mythologies there is perhaps what might be called a recourse to the umbilical cord. The political signs of the Left or of liberalism are more ‘semiological’ and less ‘symbolic’, are in some sense on the road leading to a mode of thought of Kantian (or Durkheim- ian) type, Kantian thought being itself, as an historical fact, a by-product of ideological liberalism (of which it is by rights the philosophical under-pinning). But if, on the contary, it is a question of types of political thought which are themselves ‘savage’, if it is a matter of ideologies more directly at grips with mythologies, perhaps it would then appear that their ‘pensée sauvage’ is more

savage than yours

That is to say, it retains more of the element of participa-


the one hand operates within a certain structural circle and, on the other, hangs on to its connections with a ‘nature’ of the language. Obviously, this linguistic

nature raises problems. But Heidegger’s insistence on always going back to the origin of the language is, it seems, a movement quite distinct from that of structuralism, and one which does not seem baseless. For just at the moment when he was the dupe of an ideological language, Heidegger discovered that he was in some sense verifying his philosophy of language

Kostas Axelos: I should like to ask a question which troubles me a lot, especially since reading The Savage Mind. There could be said to be two forms of genealogical thought: one a naïve genealogical thought according to which things follow one another from generation to generation in space-time, and the other a speculative genealogical thought, for example Hegel’s, according to which there

By ‘participation’ I mean the kind of double action of the sign, which on


is a genealogical development, a Phenomenology of Mind, this genealogical de- velopment being none other than the development of an original and total structure, that of the Greater Logic. In my humble opinion, Hegel is the father of structural- ism, so to speak, being at the same time the first to have made such use of genetic thought. In genealogy the logos aspect of genealogy must also be understood. You have broken out of the limited framework of a primitive mentality on the one hand and a civilized thought, which begins when one requires it to have begun, on the other, and you talk of a global pensée sauvage. I must ask a naïve question which worries me perhaps because of its naïvety: when did pensée sauvage begin in space-time? From what point on is it possible to talk of thought?

Claude Lévi-Strauss: That is a big question, but I am not sure why I am expected to be able to answer it, for it is the question of the problem of the origins of humanity, of what the anthropologists call ‘hominization’. Since when have there been thinking beings? I have no notion, and I doubt whether my colleagues in physical anthropology have any clear ideas on the subject. I would go further and doubt even whether theoretically we will ever be able to pinpoint a moment in this develop- ment when man began to think, and I rather tend to suggest that thought began before man.

Jean Lautman: I should like to return once again to the question of meaning, for, ultimately, if Lévi-Strauss’s work worries me at all, it is in some way because he tells us that we express ourselves when we do not think we an expressing our- selves. My question is in several parts.

First of all, in Structural Anthropology, where you show that the shaman’s method compares structurally with a psycho-analytic cure, I sensed a kind of ambiguity: on the one hand, an underlying criticism of psycho-analytic therapy as nothing new since it is the shaman’s method, on the other hand, a valorization which I find much more comprehensible now that you have given us The Savage Mind, in so far as where you are concerned either of these liberating expressions and human self-revelations are valuable. Do you accept the statement that you have in some sense proposed an attempt at the constitution of a collective psycho- analysis which does not approach the individual structures of Mr X or even the set of psychological structures in a society, but, aiming higher, the organizational schema of all society? If so, I can understand the interest in linguistics you share with the modern French school of psycho-analysis, and for similar reasons:

Zipf’s Law, for example, shows that when we speak, and think we are speaking freely, we are in fact governed by structures older than the emergence of meaning in our own thought.

The second part of my question is about history: in the critical comments on Jean-Paul Sartre’s work that you put forward at the end of The Savage Mind, I shall pass over the points on which there is general agreement with you, to discuss the aspect of history you criticize: the fact that it uses a very meagre code; the essential of this coding system is chronology, and this is ultimately an im- portant but limited area of knowledge. For you do say that history is important nevertheless. But it seems to me that you see history as consisting usually of the obscuring of meaning, and meaning, to the extent that it is important, as much better expressed at the moment it springs forth from the structures of society in their first crystallization than in the ongoing development which is imposed on them.


For my last point, I was astonished by your affirmation in the last few pages of The Savage Mind that the recent paths of science lead to a rapprochement with the world of matter via communication. You show that this process is, in fact, the very process of magic thought, which has always approached the paths of nature via the modalities of interpretation; personally, however, I am reluctant to think that the paths of contemporary science and magic practices can be re- absorbed into the same set. You have certainly shown that there is a structured set in both cases, but—and here I cannot agree with your quotation of Heyting in the same chapter—the structured systems at work in the societies you study are totally saturated structured systems, whereas the axiomatic systems of contem- porary thought are basically unsaturated systems. It seems to me that this opposition has a wider scope, but it would be rash of me to ask you to take it further.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: What huge problems! The first, on psycho-analysis:

I am trying to make an analysis of meaning, but why call it a psycho-

analysis? You have shown, I think, that what is not conscious is more important than what is conscious. I could be said to be trying, in my own way—that is, as an ethnographer—to participate in a collective undertaking in which the ethnographer has only a modest part to play. This undertaking is to find out how the human mind functions. So it probably parallels part—I repeat, part—of what psycho-analysts are doing, for I distinguish between two aspects of psycho-analysis: the theory of the mind worked out by Freud, which is based on a critique of meaning (and here I have a feeling that the ethnologist does the same thing for collective ensembles that the psycho-analyst does for indi- viduals); and, on the other, what might be called a theory of the cure which I leave completely alone. For I do not believe for one moment that the self-analysis undertaken by the mind will improve it; so from this angle it is not a psycho-analysis; and I am completely indifferent as to whether it improves or no. What interests me is to find out how it works and that is all. So much for the first point.

As for the second, I am afraid there must be some misunderstanding, and this is not the first time I have come across it. Ultimately, what is in

the last chaper is no critique of history, in the sense that it was not I that started it. I have nothing against history; I have the greatest respect for it; I read the works of historians with infinite interest, even passion, and I have always maintained that it is impossible to embark on any structural analysis without having first obtained from history all it is able to give us in illumination, which is unfortunately very little when we are dealing with non-literate societies. I merely sought to redress, or at least

I rebelled against, what seems to me to be a very manifest tendency in

contemporary philosophical France to regard historical knowledge as a kind of knowledge superior to all others. So I limited myself to the statement that history was one kind of knowledge among others, that there could be no knowledge of continuity, only of discontinuity, and that history was no exception in this respect. So I do not claim that history’s code is any more meagre than any other: this would obviously be inaccurate; merely that it is a code and that therefore historical knowledge suffers from the same weaknesses as all of knowledge, which is not to say that it is not very important. I should like to suggest (with out any ill-feeling) that you twist my position for your own purposes


when you attribute to me a certain tendency to think that men express themselves better in their crystallized institutions than in their historical development. This raises a major problem which we have touched on several times and should have dealt with, and which we shall now deal with thanks to you: that is, the problem of diachronic structures. After all, the fact that events are situated in time is not sufficient to exclude them from structural analysis; it merely makes the latter more difficult. But the linguists’ position on this point is quite clear: they accept that there is a diachronic linguistics as well as a synchronic linguistics, but the former raises many problems, the principal one being the necessity to begin by revealing recurrent sequences in a development which does not always allow of an isolation of terms of comparison. Perhaps with the assistance of sociology, ethnography, and who knows what else, history will one day achieve this, but that day has not yet arrived. Consequently, it is better to leave the problem of diachronic structures aside for the moment, and devote ourselves to those aspects on which we have a firm grip.

Now for the third point. I must admit that in the last few pages of The Savage Mind there is a little rather false lyricism, and that I even allowed myself to say a little more than I should have—I have already been reproached for this by our colleagues in the exact and natural sciences. Nevertheless, I do not think I ever suggested an equation of modern scientific thought and magical thought. As you put it yourself, one is saturated and the other non-saturated; I think that is what I wrote myself, in almost those same words, in the first chapter of the book, when I said that a sign is an operator for the reorganization of a set, whereas a concept is an operator for the opening-up of a set. It is obvious that if I had set out to establish an equation of modern science and magic, I would have been laughed at to my face, and rightly so. All I was trying to point out was that as it progresses, modern science is rediscovering in and through itself a certain number of things which allow it to pass a more tolerant judgment on magical thought than it has ever done before.

Jean Cuisenier: It is certainly difficult to apply structural linguistics to the diachrony. But there is one case where there has been for some time an attempt to apply analogous methods to the diachrony, that is, in political economy. In this domain an interest appeared and grew in the study of types of fluctuation, the registrations of long periods, the delimitation of certain sequential forms, etc Indeed, we have a large quantity of high-quality statistical information on the 19th century and much work has been done to disengage the principal types of fluctuation from this material by empirical means. So there is one case—probably a privileged case—where structural analysis is typically applied to sequences and in which it has indisputably achieved a certain success. It seems to me that this is because economic events fall very largely outside the conscious and voluntary control of the human subjects they affect. A comparison, for example, of the phenomena of kinship with economic phenomena is a comparison of analogous things, for they are both phenomena which are only comprehensible over long periods of time, and also phenomena which men find particularly difficult to grasp or interfere with voluntarily. Now these are precisely the cases where structural analyses, diachronic as well as synchronic, have been most remarkably successful. It is certainly not chance that economics has been able to develop structural


analysis to an extraordinary degree of refinement through techniques such as the tableau économique, national accounting, input-output matrices, etc. The success and refinement of the analysis when it is applied to kinship structures and the structures of the economy is an epistemological fact which has something to teach us.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Yes, I agree that it has something to teach us, but this lesson is not completely optimistic, to the extent that economic phenomena are an exceptionally favourable example, in that, firstly, we are examining a society in which they have played an essential part for a long time; secondly, they also have a rapid rhythm, a low periodicity; in a century or a century and a half many things have taken place and it is possible to extract a large number of recurrences; finally, our capital- ist societies are such that all these phenomena have been directly or indirectly written down and collected in documents. Even in the case of language (although diachronic linguistics can count some considerable achievements to its name) it is more difficult, because there are so many things in the evolution of language which have completely escaped us, since they were not transcribed at the time they could be observed, and there is now no trace of them left, or almost no trace. We are not always so lucky as to find favourable phenomena.

Pierre Hadot: You have dedicated your book to Maurice Merleau-Ponty and it has also been pointed out to me that the expression ‘esprit sauvage’ occurs in Merleau-Ponty’s work. Is there some relationship between your thought and his? We have already discussed this a little amongst ourselves this year.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: I should say that the relationship was certainly not reciprocal, in that Merleau-Ponty, from his writings and what he said to me in conversation, had a much stronger impression that what I was doing derived from his philosophical work than I had of the possibility of joining him; probably because of a certain, perhaps provisional, incompatibility in the way ethnologists and philosophers pose their problems. Paul Ricoeur has emphasized this several times, and with reason. The philosopher makes a kind of all-or-nothing demand which my emphasis is not intended to criticize. He is immediately attentive to the extension of a position into other domains, insisting that its con- sistency must be retained, and when he sees a weak point in this con- sistency he raises a fundamental objection, whereas the ethnologist is more careless as to the future. He tries to resolve one problem, then another, then a third. If there is a contradiction between the philo- sophical implications of the three attempts, he does not torment himself about it, for as far as he is concerned, philosophical reflection is a means rather than an end.

Jean Conilh: In your book you explain that Western thought has always been drawn towards pensée sauvage. I wonder if the problem you have raised is not the following: each time we attempt an interpretation of savages, is this not always ultimately a way of finding a meaning for them so as to understand our- selves? In the 18th century we find writers discussing the Good Savage in relation to the questions they were asking about themselves. In the bourgeois colonialist epoch we find a conception of the primitive which presents him as inferior (pre- logkal). I find it very remarkable that today economists and even novelists also


talk of structuralism and recognize themselves in your work. In other words, have you not constituted a philosophy, and a philosophy of our time ? But in that case, I can reject this philosophy and go back to primitive mentality, reading it at another level, the level of symbols for example, and find a new meaning for it. In short, is our problem to classify or to find a meaning?

Claude Lévi-Strauss: To be sure, I think that one of the reasons for the attraction ethnology exercises, even on non-professionals, is that its inquiries have powerful motivations within the heart of our society, integrating as they do a number of our society’s dramas. But a distinc- tion must be made: after all, what motivated the constitution of astro- nomy?—preoccupations of a theological kind, or even the desire to draw up horoscopes ensuring the success in love and war of the powers of this world. However, these are not the real reasons for its import- ance, which depends on results whose interest lies on another plane. So I do not think there is any contradiction in this double aspect. We ought to recognize that, whether we are ethnologists or are merely interested in ethnology, it is for scientifically impure reasons; nevertheless, if ethnology is to deserve recognition someday for its role in the con- stitution of the human sciences, it will be for other reasons.

Paul Ricoeur: Perhaps we can find common ground precisely in this field to which your work has led you. Do you put your philosophy down to transient, impure personal motivations or do you think that there is a structuralist philosophy in solidarity with the structural method? In the first case your work is philosophic- ally neutral; it leaves us the responsibility of choosing at our own cost and risk

Claude Lévi-Strauss: No, it would be hypocritical of me to claim that; but in this matter I am no longer speaking as the man of science I try to be when I set out to solve ethnological problems, but as a man of philosophical formation who could not but have remained something of a philosopher. With this reservation, I must confess that the philo- sophy which seems to me to be implied by my inquiries is the most down-to-earth and simplest of the ones you outlined in your article where you asked what the philosophical orientation of structuralism was and remarked that several were conceivable. So I am not frightened by the possibility of a demonstration that structuralism will lead to the restoration of some kind of vulgar materialism. But anyway, I know too well that this orientation is contrary to the movement of contemporary philosophical thought not to take up an attitude of defiance: I have read the sign-posts and I refuse to go along the road they point out for me

Paul Ricoeur: For myself, I think that this implicit philosophy affects your work itself, in which I see an extreme form of modern agnosticism; as far as you are concerned there is no ‘message’: not in the cybernetic, but in the kerygmatic sense; you despair of meaning; but you console yourself with the thought that, if men have nothing to say, at least they say it so well that their discourse in amenable to structuralism. You retain meaning, but it is the meaning of non- meaning, the admirable syntactical arrangement of a discourse which has nothing to say. I see you as occupying this conjunction of agnosticism and a hyperintelli- gence of syntax. Thereby you are at once fascinating and disquieting.