Evelyn Reed 1967

The Savage Mind

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol. 29, No. 4, July-August 1967, pp. 58-59;
Transcribed: by Daniel Gaido;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris Clayton;
Public Domain: this text is free of copyright.

The Savage Mind, by Claude Levi-Strauss. University of Chicago Press, 290 pp., $5.95.

The erudite French professor, Claude Levi-Strauss, is today the most prestigious figure in the field of anthropology. The Savage Mind is a companion volume to his book Totemism, both originally published in 1962.

The nineteenth-century founders of anthropology who discovered totemism regarded it as a central institution of the epoch of savagery. Levi-Strauss, on the other hand, sets forth the thesis that totemism never existed. “Heterogeneous beliefs and customs have been arbitrarily collected together under the heading of totemism.”

Thus the several generations of scholars who have tried to decipher the secrets of its origin, evolution and significance were victims of a “totemic illusion.” Frazer’s four-volume study of Totemism and Exogamy is to Levi-Strauss more a monument to fiction than a reliable accumulation of data on the subject, as a guide to prehistoric theory.

Levi-Strauss sides with the anti-totemic school of anthropologists led by Boas, Goldenweiser, Lowie and others who have sought to dispose of the riddle of totemism by denying that it was a social and historical reality. This position corresponds to their denial that a primitive collectivist society, with fundamentally different relations, preceded the advent of civilization with its class-divided formations. For example, Levi-Strauss equates the castes of an aristocratic society with the kinship clans of equalitarian tribal society.

Apart from its other features, totemism is inseparable from the classificatory system of kinship. Historically, totemic classifications, in which social relations were expressed through animals, plants and other things, were the earliest, most rudimentary from of the classificatory system. Later, with the casting off of this original shell, social relations came to be expressed in exclusively human kinship terms. But this is not the view of Levi-Strauss, who deals with both phenomena in The Savage Mind.

Unlike the evolutionary thinkers, Levi-Strauss rejects any overall continuity of development in history. He belongs with the piece-meal anthropologists who sever history into fragments. A “total” history of mankind is impossible and would lead to “chaos,” he says. “Insofar 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... It inevitably remains partial - that is, incomplete.”

From such a standpoint the totemic period is not the most ancient stage in social history, nor are totemic classifications the earliest from of social relations. These represent, he says, only one arbitrary mode of classification among others, “namely that constituted by reference to natural species.” It was part of the remarkable capacity of the savage mind that they could make precise and even subtle distinctions among natural species, naming up to 2,000 specimens of plants and animals.

According to Levi-Strauss, totemism is simply an exercise in logic of the savage mind, not the mark of the colossal achievement of our savage ancestors in constituting the first form of social organization. This accords with his conception that “ethnology is first of all psychology.”

Curiously, Levi-Strauss claims that Marxism is the “point of departure” of his thought and that he aspires to a “theory of superstructures, scarcely touched on by Marx.” Actually, his non-historical and non-materialist approach is far removed from the Marxist method.


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