As with Darwin and Freud and many other famous men Claude Lévi-Strauss, Professor of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France, needs to be judged on two quite different levels. First we may ask: ‘What has he contributed to the particular scientific discipline in which he is a professional expert?’ and secondly: ‘What is the basis of his public celebrity?’ The treatment which is now being accorded to Lévi-Strauss’ work in French intellectual journals suggests that he should be looked upon as an original thinker of the first rank. He is beginning to be spoken of as a philosopher, the founder of ‘structuralism’, on a par with Sartre, the founder of existentialism.footnote1 How should we judge him in this role?

A fellow anthropologist like myself is not perhaps the best kind of person to answer this sort of question. I can make judgments about Lévi-Strauss’ skill as an analyst of ethnographic materials, but when it comes to his still embryonic but potentially much more grandiose reputation as a philosopher I am not only out of my depth but somewhat unsympathetic to his position.

In this 20th century, ‘idealist’ attitudes are not at all respectable and Lévi-Strauss, himself emphatically rejects any suggestion that his arguments must imply an idealist foundation. But this is awkward. The elements in Lévi-Strauss, thought which I find most interesting all seem to me to be idealist in tone; yet these are precisely the points at which Lévi-Strauss feels that I misunderstand his intentions. Readers of this essay should bear this discrepancy in mind.

At the outset of his academic career Lévi-Strauss was associated with Marcel Mauss, the principal pupil and collaborator of Emile Durkheim. This means that there is substantial common ground between the social anthropology of Lévi-Strauss and the social anthropology of his British colleagues, for the latter likewise trace their intellectual descent in a direct line back to Durkheim. But the common ground is treated in very different ways. Whereas the British show an obsessional interest in particulars and an exaggerated suspicion of generalization, Lévi-Strauss is at his best when talking in completely general terms and at his weakest when demonstrating the fit of his general theory with the tiresome details of particular cases. This difference is partly a matter of national temperament, the French love of logical order, the British love of practical experiment, but it is also the outcome of history. In all countries the 20th-century Founding Fathers of anthropology favoured grandiose generalization. They thought of anthropology as the study of Man, the whole species of homo sapiens, and their objective was to discover facts which were universally true of all men everywhere, or at least of all men at ‘a particular stage of development’. They showed great ingenuity in the construction of logically plausible schemes of universal human evolution and they then used ethnographic evidence simply as ‘illustration’, arguing (without justification) that the primitive peoples of the modern world were really very ancient peoples whose development had somehow been arrested. Lucretius had managed just as well in the 1st century bc without dragging in the ethnography at all.

But with the turn of the century, British social anthropologists executed a complete volte face. Under the influence of W. H. R. Rivers, an experimental psychologist, they began to concentrate their efforts on the detailed ethnographic description of particular societies. The history and social organization of a single tribe is not perhaps a subject of such general and enthralling interest as the History of Mankind but, for a scientist, a few verifiable facts about the former are worth any number of mere guesses about the latter. Generally speaking, things have stayed that way. For over half a century the distinguishing quality of British social anthropology has been the superlatively high standards of its ethnographic description and analysis. But along with this bias towards empiricism goes a limitation of objectives. Pushed to define his subject a British social anthropologist is likely to say that his concern is with ‘the principles of organization in small scale societies’. For him social structure is something which ‘exists’ at much the same level of objectivity as the articulation of the human skeleton or the functional-physiological interdependence of the different organs of the human anatomy. In contrast, Lévi-Strauss still retains the grander more macrocosmic viewpoint of the 19th century; he is concerned with nothing less than the structure of the human mind, meaning by ‘structure’ not an articulation which can be directly observed but rather a logical ordering, a set of mathematical equations which can be demonstrated as functionally equivalent (as in a model) to the phenomenon under discussion.

Some of the critical formative influences on Lévi-Strauss’ thinking are quite easy to detect. An early item is Mauss’ ‘Essai sur le don’ (1923).footnote2 In this celebrated essay Mauss used two detailed ethnographic descriptions of primitive systems of ritual exchange (Malinowski’s account of the Trobriand kula and Boas’ account of the Kwakiutl potlatch) as the foundation for a broad generalization about the nature of social action. Sociologists (and social anthropologists) are concerned with ‘man in society’, with systems of relationships rather than with individuals in isolation. Mauss’ insight was to recognize that the concept of ‘relationship’ is itself an abstraction from something quite concrete. We say of two individuals that they are ‘in relationship’ when we can see that they are in communication, that is when they pass ‘messages’ to one another, and these messages are conveyed through material media, sound waves in the air, ink scribbles on a piece of paper, the symbolic value embodied in a gift of flowers. The ‘gift’, that is to say the material thing which passes from one individual to the other, is an ‘expression’ of the relationship, but the quality of the relationship is something both more abstract and more mysterious. The recipient of a gift, whether of words or of things, feels coerced by it, he is not only compelled to receive he is also compelled to reciprocate. Mauss’ original treatment of this theme borders on the mystical and Lévi-Strauss’ own much more subtle elaborations of the idea always hover on the edge of metaphysics. This perhaps is unavoidable.

Mauss’ essay contains another very fundamental idea, that of the prestation totale. A person to person interaction is never an isolated event but only part of a total set of transactions widely dispersed through space and through time. A particular gift has significance because of its comparability and contrast with other transactions, not only those between the same actors, but also those which are taking place round about between other members of the same communication system.