Anthropology and the “truth sciences”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Andrew Brandel and Sidney Mintz. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.024


Editors’ preface

An introduction to “Anthropology and the ‘truth sciences’” by Claude Lévi-Strauss

Andrew O. BRANDEL, Johns Hopkins University

Sidney W. MINTZ, Johns Hopkins University


Claude Lévi-Strauss won international attention from his colleagues in anthro-pology when he published his Structures élémentaires de la parenté [Elementary structures of kinship] (1947). He had been appointed to the chair of Anthropology in the Collège de France in 1959. There he had created the Laboratory of Social Anthropology, within which he would train his students, and the journal L’Homme, soon the premier anthropological journal in France. In 1963, he published La pensée sauvage [The savage mind] (1962; English translation, 1966). This work made clear that its author’s original perspective was not limited to the analysis of kinship, vital though that is, but aimed at the larger issue of universal, uniquely human symbolic meaning. It was the tetralogy Mythologiques (1964, 1966, 1968, 1971) that revealed the breadth of Lévi-Strauss’ structural approach. In his sixty-fifth year, he was elected to the Académie Française. His brilliant Tristes tropiques—widely regarded as the most remarkable traveler’s account of the twentieth century—appeared in English that same year. It was said that if there ever were a Nobel Prize in Anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss would be its first laureate.

When he came to Johns Hopkins University in February 1978 to accept an honorary degree, he was at the pinnacle of his career. He was fond of the United States, where he had sought refuge in 1941, upon losing his citizenship in Vichy France. It was in New York that he met Franz Boas, and the structural linguist Roman Jakobson, with whom he would become a founding member of the École Libre des Hautes Études. He taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City, then, served as the French cultural attaché in Washington. But it was a little surprising—and an honor to the fledgling anthropology department—that he chose to come to Baltimore to receive yet another honor and to give a public lecture. If there was any irony in his visit, it was modest. A decade earlier, Johns Hopkins had been the site of a rather intense conference on structuralism, in which the French philosopher Jacques Derrida set forth a lengthy and aggressive critique of Lévi-Straussian thought that led to brief and windy controversy.

The lecture Professor Lévi-Strauss delivered on the occasion of his visit to Johns Hopkins was not read, so much as spoken, because of his entirely justified belief that he could speak English far better than he could read it aloud. The original typescript has been modified here and there in his own hand, and all (or nearly all) of the emendations are readily understood. We do not know (or recall) whether those emendations preceded or followed the presentation. Our guess is that they were added when the text was prepared for its first publication, in the University’s magazine in July of that year. The conferral for the degree in honoris causa describes Lévi-Strauss as “master of language and master of languages,” and cites his role in “decipher[ing] the messages that embody both our relationships to nature, and to each other.”

For his theme, Lévi-Strauss chose a fundamental subject, doubtless one upon which he had spoken before in many contexts; namely, the relation of anthropo-logical research to those modes enquiry adopted by the so-called “true sciences.” It expresses his deep conviction that the nature of mind can only be apprehended by searching among the earth’s peoples for underlying and recurrent patterns of thought. His distinctive means of doing so was through the study of the forms of mythological logic. To the kinds of analysis that Lévi-Strauss would become famous for, the name “structuralism” has been given. Many suppose that it will remain his signature achievement. The text leaves us with a tantalizing suggestion— that the science of anthropology might pursue not truth, which is hopelessly out of reach, but rather some modicum of wisdom.


The editors gratefully acknowledge The Johns Hopkins University Magazine, the Ferdinand Hamburger Archives, and the Winston Tabb Center at Johns Hopkins for their assistance and permissions. The original texts and auxiliary documents are located at the Sheridan Libraries Special Collections at Johns Hopkins University.


Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1947. Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

———. 1962. La Pensée sauvage. Paris: Plon.

———. 1964. Le Cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon.

———. 1966. The Savage Mind. Translated by John and Doreen Weightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1966. Du miel aux cendres. Paris: Plon.

———. 1968. L’Origine des manières de table. Paris: Plon.

———. 1971. L’Homme nu. Paris: Plon.



Andrew O. BRANDEL is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University.

Department of Anthropology
404 Macaulay Hall
Johns Hopkins University
3400 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218


Sidney W. MINTZ is Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University.

Department of Anthropology
404 Macaulay Hall
Johns Hopkins University
3400 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218


This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Claude Lévi-Strauss. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). ISSN 2049-1115 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.1.025


Anthropology and the “truth sciences”


Edited by Andrew O. Brandel
and Sidney W. Mintz


Mr. President, Monsieur ambassador de France, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentle-men: My first words will be to apologize for delivering an extemporaneous address. It is not out of lack of respect for The Johns Hopkins University, or for the Department of Anthropology, to which I now have the honor of belonging, the brilliance of which I could appreciate this morning, during a meeting with its professors and graduate students. Indeed, the reason is simple: it is far more difficult for me to read a text in English than to try to speak it.

Next I wish to express my deep gratitude, and I am sure I may do so as well on behalf of Dr. Chester Kerr, for the great honor that has been bestowed upon us today. I am all the more grateful because, as you may know, some thirty-five years ago I spent several years of my life in the United States. It so happens that, for me, the recollection of the years of my youth and of this country are indissolubly linked. Every time that I have an opportunity to return here, it is as if I were recapturing a little bit of my youth—a complete illusion, needless to say. But, perhaps it is on account of this life, divided between your country and mine, that you have thought me worthy of this great distinction. It is as if—and this is only a hope that I entertain—I might have helped to build a bridge between an American intellectual tradition deeply embedded in the empiricist and positivist character of the Anglo-Saxon world stemming from Bacon through Locke and Hume, and the French rationalist tradition which is usually associated with the name of Descartes.

Out of this attempt, out of this mixture, if I may say so, a very strange offspring has appeared, bearing the name Structuralism, a creation in which, I fear neither America nor France would be willing to recognize themselves. In my view, structuralism is trying at one and the same time to make the social sciences a little bit more scientific, even while its practitioners are quite aware that the social sciences are limited as sciences, and aspire to levels that we will probably never be able to reach. If you will permit me, I would like to offer a few reflections on this paradox. I have said that we are trying to make the social sciences a little more scientific. Why, and how, can be summarized, I believe, in terms of four principles. First, we need to recall an old lesson, one first taught in history by Marx, then in linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure and, about at the same time, in psychology by Freud. That is, that what we perceive, what we believe, what appears at the level of consciousness, does not consist of the really important phenomena, as those can only be reached at a hidden level. And this insight, of course, was made possible when Descartes made his fundamental distinction between sensory data—smelling, touching, hearing, seeing and the like, which are always misleading—and the true primary qualities that physical science should solely consider, that is, extension and movement in his philosophy. Second, we take note that this is also what Kant told us, in a different way, when he asserted that what made knowledge possible was neither percepts nor ideas, but what he called categories of the understanding—that is, a kind of entities which are not of the same nature as the things we believe to perceive. And if these deep structures, to use modern terminology, hidden beneath the surface structures, were to remain of the same nature as the surface structures, then we would be led towards a regression ad infinitum, and imprisoned in a kind of vicious circle. Third, we have tried to introduce into the social sciences the fundamental idea that we are looking at things which are extremely compli-cated and difficult, sometimes even impossible to describe because of their complexity. Yet if instead of looking at things themselves we look at the relations which prevail between things, then we will discover that these are altogether simpler and less numerous than the things themselves, and that they can give us a firmer basis for investigation.

I am perfectly aware that, in opposition to this kind of approach to the social sciences and to social phenomena, several critiques may be raised and have been raised. The first is that our hypotheses, or our interpretations, cannot be refuted, and it is only in a true science that it is possible to demonstrate the falsity of a hypothesis. To this assertion I will answer: if this is true for a science which has reached an advanced stage of development, it would have proved impossible for a science in its incipient state. If such a condition had been imposed upon physics at the outset, or upon chemistry, or upon biology, then these sciences would never have existed. As a matter of fact, within the modern, advanced stages of these sciences there are hypotheses and interpretations, which cannot be refuted. I am referring, of course, to the criterion of prediction. Yet it is Popper himself who says of Darwinism that it is the best explanation we have, and similarly what we ourselves as social scientists are trying to do is only to offer better explanations— which cannot be said to be true or false—than those accepted before—which certainly does not mean that they will remain good explanations forever. Indeed, quite the opposite: later on, better explanations will prevail, and later, even better explanations—and so on. It is a progression, and not an end which we can claim to reach.

The second criticism refers to the impossibility of experimenting in the social sciences. The great superiority of the physical or biological sciences inheres in that any hypothesis set forth anywhere in the world can be immediately subject to an experiment, or to numerous experiments, which can serve to verify or to refute. Obviously we cannot experiment with human societies for moral and practical reasons; and even if we had the power to do so, it would take too much time. All that we can do—and this is the strength, the value, of anthropology—is to go throughout the world in order to seek readymade experiments. Those readymade experiments are embodied in the four or five thousand societies which exist, or have existed, on the surface of the earth, and of which we have some records, during the documented portions of human history.

It is by virtue of the existence of these societies that I believe that it is possible for the social sciences to become somewhat more rigorous and to make some progress toward joining the more advanced sciences—let us call them the “true sciences”—and so-called social, or (as we prefer to say in French) “humane sciences.” Nevertheless between the former and the latter, there is a difference which we should not overlook. Whenever some great discovery is made in physics, chemistry or biology, there is an immediate general agreement on a common frame of reference, which much simplifies the forward advance of that science. If you take, for instance, the theory of relativity some years ago, you will find that everybody agreed it was from this theoretical perspective that one should try to work. For quantum mechanics, the same consensus held. In biology, as soon as the subfield of molecular biology took shape, there was general agreement that this was, at the time, the more fruitful approach. One need only look at the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in this country to see that practically all biologists are currently working with the same assumptions. Why, then, in our case—the anthropological case—is it not at all the same situation? It is very striking that, whenever one of us anthropologists advances an interpretation or a hypothesis, hardly anyone is prepared to discuss the case, and to say “you are right” or “you are wrong,” for such and such a reason, dealing with the hypothesis in question. Instead, the kind of response we are likely to receive is that this interpretation is of no interest, because reality ought to be studied at a completely different level, and the level one chooses is said to be of no value by others. It is this inability—provisional, I hope, but all the same, this inability—to achieve a common frame of reference in the development of our discipline, which reveals our weakness in relation to “true sciences.”

We may try to go a little farther, and to ask why the situation is as I have described. The reason, in my opinion, is that, in the long run, what we are trying to do, whether as historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, or whatever is to fathom, at diverse levels of interpretation, what is going on in the human mind. Our difficulty is that it is impossible to prove anything about the mind, because the mind is not something we may plumb, and it is always possible (indeed, essential) to postulate that, when we uncover a deep structure, there will be another structure even deeper, and yet another deeper yet. The mind is not of the same order as the things we are able to study; this is because the mind is not a thing—it represents the way we apprehend things, and the discrepancy confronts us with a contradiction which it may be forever impossible to overcome.

Now the question is—and this will be my final observation—whether this unhappy situation is specific to the social sciences or whether it does not exist to some extent in all the sciences, even the more advanced ones. It has been very heartening for us in the past years to see that models are increasingly being borrowed from the social sciences by the more advanced sciences. It is, for instance, striking that, when trying to describe the genetic code, biology has borrowed heavily and is still borrowing, from linguistics; and that biologists are also borrowing from sociologists when they speak, for instance, of cell sociology— looking at communication between cells as a phenomenon comparable to social process. And it seems to me that, in a different way, and perhaps to a more limited extent, the advanced sciences are now confronted with those same antinomies and contradictions we have ourselves confronted for so long. Thus, for instance, molecular biologists have pointed out over and over again that the components that translate the genetic code are themselves coded in DNA. It follows that in order to make a code, a code is accordingly needed. There appears to be a kind of vicious circle here; it may be that it is as impossible in the long run to explain what is life as it will probably prove impossible for us in the social sciences to explain what is the mind, and what is consciousness. It is striking, moreover, that the historical approach has of late been invading biology, physics, and chemistry. Biology, for instance, since it has not completely abandoned the old idea of a unilinear evolutionism going from elementary life forms to more complex, and from complex to even more complex, and so on, is now viewing evolution rather in the same light as historians consider history. That is, biology is now concerned with showing that at the same time that there is progress and movement, there is also regression; that rather than unidirectionality, there is a multiplicity of directions; that instead of a “revolutionary tree” (which was the illustration fashionable in the last century), there is a branching pattern more like an intricate bush, the growth pattern of which can be described but not accounted for by a simple law. The same case may be made in regard to the attempt to reduce chemistry to physics—a great problem of the more advanced sciences, and, in the long run, a problem in the history of the cosmos, a history which is obviously a unique event, one which cannot be explained, cannot be proved, cannot be refuted or falsified.

Of course, a great difference remains between the hard sciences, if I may say so, and on our own. This difference is that these problems, these antimonies, these difficulties which are logically impossible to solve, confront the more advanced sciences only when they engage the ultimate problems and there are a great many problems they can solve before confronting the ultimate questions. And yet, we are confronted with these difficulties at every step. This is one fundamental weakness— and perhaps also the fundamental greatness—of the humane sciences; that all problems pertaining to humankind are ultimately problems for humankind. There is no problem, however small, that does not concern each of us, because our life interests, our personal history, our temperament, our prejudices are immediately implicated in every problem. This is probably the reason why the social sciences should not pretend to reach truth, which is probably impossible of attainment, but more modestly some amount of wisdom—the achievement of which is supremely difficult, as a matter of fact. But if we are able to make even some limited progress towards wisdom, then we may be—and this is perhaps our advantage—we may be more ready to resign ourselves to the general truth that science will remain forever incomplete.

Thank you.



Claude LÉVI-STRAUSS (1908–2009) was a prominent French anthropologist and one of the founders of structuralist anthropology. He held the chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France (1959–1982) and he was elected a member of the Académie Française in 1973. His best known works include Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949, The elementary structures of kinship, ed. Rodney Needham, trans. J. H. Bell, J. R. von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham, 1969), Anthropologie structurale (1958, Structural anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, 1963), La pensée sauvage (1962, The savage mind, trans. Doreen and John Weightman, 1966), and Tristes Tropiques (1955, trans. Doreen and John Weightman, 1973).