A powerful thinker, Mr. Lévi-Strauss, in studying the mythologies of primitive tribes, transformed the way the 20th century came to understand civilization itself. Tribal mythologies, he argued, display remarkably subtle systems of logic, showing rational mental qualities as sophisticated as those of Western societies.
Mr. Lévi-Strauss rejected the idea that differences between societies were of no consequence, but he focused on the common aspects of humanity’s attempts to understand the world. He became the premier representative of “structuralism,” a school of thought in which universal “structures” were believed to underlie all human activity, giving shape to seemingly disparate cultures and creations.
His work was a profound influence even on his critics, of whom there were many. There has been no comparable successor to him in France. And his writing — a mixture of the pedantic and the poetic, full of daring juxtapositions, intricate argument and elaborate metaphors — resembles little that had come before in anthropology.
...With the fading of myth’s power in the modern West, he also suggested that music had taken on myth’s function. Music, he argued, had the ability to suggest, with primal narrative power, the conflicting forces and ideas that lie at the foundation of society.
But Mr. Lévi-Strauss rejected Rousseau’s idea that humankind’s problems derive from society’s distortions of nature. In his view, there is no alternative to such distortions. Each society must shape itself out of nature’s raw material, he believed, with law and reason as the essential tools. This application of reason, he argued, created universals that could be found across all cultures and times. He became known as a structuralist because of his conviction that a structural unity underlies all of humanity’s mythmaking, and he showed how those universal motifs played out in societies, even in the ways a village was laid out.
For Mr. Lévi-Strauss, every culture’s mythology was built around oppositions: hot and cold, raw and cooked, animal and human. And it is through these opposing “binary” concepts, he said, that humanity makes sense of the world.
-Claude Lévi-Strauss, 100, Dies; Altered Western Views of the ‘Primitive’