Claude Lévi-Strauss: anthropologist or shaman?


If we are led to believe that what takes place in our mind is something not substantially or fundamentally different from the basic phenomena of life itself, and if we are led to the feeling that there is not this kind of gap between mankind on the one hand and all the other living beings – not only animals, but also plants – on the other, then perhaps we will reach more wisdom, let us say, than we think we are capable of.

— Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘Myth and Meaning’, 1977 Massey Lecture.

While decidedly throwing in the towel in a period when post-structural anthropology gained currency by growing largely from critiques of his work, Lévi-Strauss briefly includes in his 1977 Massey Lecture the evocative idea above. Partially kicked out of the church of reason, did the great anthropologist subsequently find himself falling off the edge of Enlightenment mores into a kind of neoanimism or even romantic primitivism? Is animism as an embodied perspective only “good to think with” (Lévi-Strauss 1966) for animistic societies or can it perturb the rational social scientist in ways that allow for a greater accommodation of truth? Truth not simply as analogy, nor as a taxonomised feathered ritual mask in a cabinet of curiosities, but as something that bares weight on notions of ontological condition. Something that allows us to ‘reach more wisdom’ about our shared nature with the nonhuman world. Something that is not only an epistemological strategy mounted to empower moral ambitions of environmentalists or activists in the politics of the human and nonhuman. Lévi-Strauss may be seen to take an intuitive or Kierkegaardian leap from established scientific notions of human and nonhuman unity that remain on the levels of biological, molecular, or DNA resonance. He makes a claim that the architecture of the mind is a “basic phenomena of life” not substantially different from the worlds of animals and plants, and, finally, that the “feeling” behind this idea offers a means of attaining unimaginable knowledge and wisdom.

Far from trying to explain away notions of nonhuman “mind” with recourse to social, moral, and political underpinnings, Lévi-Strauss appears to be subtly shapeshifting from anthropologist to shaman. Consider the Amazonianist Graham Townsley’s description of shamanism and the mind:

One of the keys to this [Yaminahua] knowledge and, more widely, the whole question of the so-called “primitive mind” which shamanism has so often been taken to exemplify, seems to me to lie exactly in an image of the person and knowing subject which, paradoxically has no place for a “mind” and associates “mental” events with animate essences which can drift free from bodies and mingle with the world, participating in it much more intimately than any conventional notion of “mind” would allow. (1993:454-5)

What is the “feeling” of overcoming a perceived “gap” between humans and nonhumans that Lévi-Strauss asks us to explore? Where does it come from? To what end does it flow?What does it say about the mores and limits of scientific rationality? And, finally, what is the unimaginable knowledge and wisdom that resides through the gates of this mysterious feeling?



Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1977 ‘Myth and Meaning’ The Massey Lectures. Routledge

Townsley, G. 1993, ‘Song Paths: The Way and Means of Yaminahua Shamanic Knowledge’. L’Homme. Vol. 33 pp.449-468

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