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Claude Levi-Strauss is dead


Claude Levi-Strauss is dead

19:10:11, by Lorenz
Categories: anthropology (general), persons and theories

A month before his 101st birthday, Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the most influential anthropologists, died at the age of 100. He died over the weekend, according to the office of the president of the School for the Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, in Paris, Bloomberg reports.

See also my collection of articles on Levi-Strauss’ 100th birthday
UPDATE - Obituaries:
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologist, Dies at 100 (New York Times)

Robert Mackey: The Influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss (New York Times News Blog)

Heather Horn: Remembering Claude Lévi-Strauss, Academic Giant (The Atlantic Wire)

Claude Lévi-Strauss (Telegraph)

Claude Levi-Strauss, Scientist Who Saw Human Doom, Dies at 100

By David Henry

Nov. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Claude Levi-Strauss, the French social anthropologist who influenced generations of intellectuals with his ideas on culture and said the human species would become extinct, has died. He was 100.

He died over the weekend, according to the office of the president of the School for the Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, in Paris.

Levi-Strauss’s method, known as structuralism, reduced mythology and rituals to their basic components to find an underlying pattern. His theories on primitive societies held that the characteristics of the native mind are equal to those in Western civilization and that all communities function using folklore based on opposites.

“I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact,” he said.

The Marxist social scientist who dedicated more than three decades examining the behavior of Amazonian and American Indian tribes applied the structural approach employed in linguistics to discover a common form in myth. He looked for opposing concepts -- using examples such as raw versus cooked, natural versus cultural, and life versus death -- that underpinned all ideas in society.

Levi-Strauss drew comparisons between American Indian myths and the story of Cinderella; demonstrated how some Amazonian tribes divided their villages into rival halves that synthesize through marriage; and tracked diverse folk tales through Latin America to show how they were related in form.

‘Most Distinguished Exponent’

Intellectuals such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida cited Levi-Strauss’s methods in their social analyses. Seminal French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre engaged him in debate over the issue of personal freedom, while feminist Simone de Beauvoir agreed with his human-kinship theories, which focused on the social exchange of females in non-Western societies.

In 1970, Cambridge University anthropologist Edmund Leach described Levi-Strauss as “the most distinguished exponent of this particular academic trade to be found anywhere outside the English-speaking world.”

A member of the Academie Francaise -- which bestows France’s highest honor for intellectuals -- Levi-Strauss wrote more than 20 books over 50 years. Describing his world view as one of “serene pessimism,” he viewed humans as having no privileged status in the universe and said they would become extinct without leaving significant traces of their existence.

“The world began without the human race and will certainly end without it,” he said in his 1955 autobiographical book “Tristes Tropiques.” “What else has man done except blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration?”

Sorbonne Education

Levi-Strauss was born in Brussels on Nov. 28, 1908, into an affluent French Jewish family. The son of an artist father, he studied law at the University of Paris and philosophy at the Sorbonne. Levi-Strauss had a passion for classical music and referred to Marxism, psychoanalysis and geology as his “three mistresses” in life.

After teaching secondary school for two years, he took part in a cultural mission to Brazil and acted as a visiting professor at the University of Sao Paulo from 1935 to 1939. There he organized several ethnographic expeditions into the Amazon jungle and the Mato Grosso region of central Brazil.

He returned to France in 1939 to help with the war effort until the country fell under Nazi occupation. As a Jew, Levi- Strauss fled Paris and made his way to the U.S. He took up an academic job at the New School for Social Research in New York until the end of the war and co-founded the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes for French intellectuals in exile.

Main Works

In 1959, he became professor of social anthropology at the College de France, where he remained until his retirement in 1982. He wrote seminal works such as “Structural Anthropology” (1958), “The Savage Mind” (1962) and his master work “Mythologiques,” four volumes published over seven years.

“Tristes Tropiques” -- about his travels through the Amazon rainforest during the 1930s -- was often cited as his finest work. U.S. author Susan Sontag described it as “one of the great books of our century.”

Levi-Strauss was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and held honorary doctorates at Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Oxford universities. He was awarded the prestigious Erasmus Prize in 1973 and the Meister-Eckhart Prize for philosophy 30 years later.

Levi-Strauss lived in the well-to-do 16th district of western Paris, near the River Seine. He was married three times, first to philosophy professor Dina Dreyfus. With second wife Rose-Marie Ullmo, he had a son, Laurent, who became deputy director of the cultural heritage division of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. With third spouse Monique Roman, Levi-Strauss had another son, Matthieu.

“Such is how I view myself: a traveler, an archeologist of space, trying in vain to restore the exotic with the use of particles and fragments,” he said.
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