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Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 – 2009) was a French ethnologist. The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss, natural philosopher of ethnology

Sources of quotes: WikiQuote, EGS, GoodReads, BrainyQuote,


Quotations from Claude Levi-Strauss

It is only through difference that progress can be made. What threatens us right now is probably what we may call over-communication–that is, the tendency to know exactly in one point of the world what is going on in all other parts of the world. In order for a culture to be really itself and to produce something, the culture and its members must be convinced of their originality and even, to some extent, of their superiority over the others; it is only under conditions of under-communication that it can produce anything. We are now threatened with the prospect of our being only consumers, able to consume anything from any point in the world and from any culture, but of losing all originality.

We can understand, too, that natural species are chosen [as totems] not because they are “good to eat” but because they are “good to think. [good as personality models]

These facts make the creator of music a being like the gods, and make music itself the supreme mystery of human knowledge.

The work of the painter, the poet or the musician, like the myths and symbols of the savage, ought to be seen by us, if not as a superior form of knowledge, at least as the most fundamental and the only one really common to us all…

The development of human life is not everywhere the same but rather takes form in an extraordinary diversity of societies and civilizations. This intellectual, aesthetic and sociological diversity is in no way the outcome of the biological differences, in certain observable features, between different groups of men; it is simply a parallel phenomenon in a different sphere.

Enthusiastic partisans of the idea of progress are in danger of failing to recognize — because they set so little store by them — the immense riches accumulated by the human race on either side of the narrow furrow on which they keep their eyes fixed; by underrating the achievements of the past, they devalue all those which still remain to be accomplished.

The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions. [Is there a procedure for discovering the right questions? A habit to cultivate, like observing the box, and asking a question that is marginally just outside of it; or, seeking a question in finding intellectual convergence of disparate ideas. ]

The idea behind structuralism is that there are things we may not know but we can learn how they are related to each other. This has been used by science since it existed and can be extended to a few other studies — linguistics and mythology — but certainly not to everything.
The great speculative structures are made to be broken. There is not one of them that can hope to last more than a few decades, or at most a century or two.

The fact that so much effort and expenditure has to be wasted on reaching the object of our studies bestows no value on that aspect of our profession, and should be seen rather as its negative side. The truths which we seek so far afield only become valid when we have separated them from this dross.

The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe. The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind. [Great success brings great garbage as a by-product, the garbage of a society is a measure of its success.] I knew that, slowly and steadily, humanity was breeding such situations as a sick body breeds pus. It was as if our race was no longer able to cope with its own numbers and with the problems greater every day that resulted from this.

While I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment,

The image a society evolves of the relationship between the living and the dead is, in the final analysis, an attempt, on the level of religious thought, to conceal, embellish or justify the actual relationships which prevail among the living.

One must be very naive or dishonest to imagine that men choose their beliefs independently of their situation.

How can the study of anthropology claim to be scientific? To reestablish an objective approach, we must abstain from making judgments of this kind. We must accept the fact that each society has made a certain choice, within the range of existing human possibilities, and that the various choices cannot be compared with each other: they are all equally valid.

Enthusiastic partisans of the idea of progress are in danger of failing to recognize — because they set so little store by them — the immense riches accumulated by the human race on either side of the narrow furrow on which they keep their eyes fixed; by underrating the achievements of the past, they devalue all those which still remain to be accomplished.


COMMENTS on Quotations from Claude Levi-Strauss

The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions. Is there a procedure for discovering the right questions? A habit to cultivate, like observing the box, and asking a question that is marginally just outside of it; or, seeking a question in finding intellectual convergence of disparate ideas as described below.

The development of human life is not everywhere the same but rather takes form in an extraordinary diversity of societies and civilizations. This intellectual, aesthetic and sociological diversity is in no way the outcome of the biological differences, in certain observable features, between different groups of men; it is simply a parallel phenomenon in a different sphere. Ethnology is the study of cultures, but doesn’t generalize to convergences or differences between species, or ideas.

I have been remarking the last few blog posts about intellectual convergence as a likely place to search for basic ideas. The idea is to purposefully search for convergence in closely related systems within larger systems, and then searching for similar convergence in distantly related systems, and when these are found to search for the underlying forcing processes that are active in all of them. When these abstracted ideas can be described the new more fundamental idea may likely be applied with similar effects to unrelated systems. Ethnography does this as do other research strategies, but they apply their discoveries only within their own fields. What I have been describing here is a deeper process where the underlying forcing factors are abstracted and applied to formerly unrelated subjects.

How can the study of anthropology claim to be scientific? To reestablish an objective approach, we must abstain from making judgments of this kind. We must accept the fact that each society has made a certain choice, within the range of existing human possibilities, and that the various choices cannot be compared with each other: they are all equally valid. In this quote we see Levi-Strauss’s tendency to reduce live processes into immobile, labeled objects, the tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance. He sees the problem of placing our judgment, derived from our own personal cultural learning, and then lays over that his own judgment, which is claimed not to judge. At a deeper level all judgments are equally valid because at their root they are all artificial constructs, and thus at their root arbitrary and meaningless. They derive meaning only because we impute meaning into them, and that comes from who we are; so this is a case where we are both right and wrong no matter what we choose to say or do.


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