Paul Ricoeur: The methodological questions I should like to ask you are of three kinds; all three concern the possibility of co-ordinating your scientific method—structuralism as a science—with other modes of comprehension which are not built on a generalized linguistic model, but consist of a recovery of meaning in reflective or speculative thought, in short, what I have myself called a hermeneutic. The first question concerns the intransigence of the method—its compatibility or incompatibility with other modes of understanding. This methodological question is directly inspired by a meditation on the particular examples you use in The Savage Mind.footnote1 I wonder to what extent your method’s success has not been facilitated by the geographical and cultural zone to which it has been applied, i.e. the zone of what used to be called totemism, of the ‘totemic illusion’, which is precisely characterized by the extraordinary exuberance of its syntactic arrangements, and perhaps in compensation by the great poverty of its content; is it not this contrast which explains why structuralism has such an easy victory, in the sense that its victory leaves almost nothing behind?

My second question, then, is to ask whether there is a unity of mythical thought—if there might not be other formulations of mythical thought which would lend themselves much less easily to structuralism?

This doubt leads me to my third question: what becomes of the structure-event and synchrony-diachrony relations as functions of other models? In a system in which synchrony is more intelligible, diachrony seems to be a perturbation, a fragility; I am thinking of the Boasian formulation you like to quote on the demolition of mythical universes which collapse as soon as they have been constituted, because their solidity is momentary—in some way, it only exists in the synchrony. If we consider thought organizations falling within the scope of a tradition-event relation rather than a diachrony-synchrony relation, we get a quite different result. This third question is related to the problem of historicity which is the object of your dispute with Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of the book.

In our study circle we also embarked on a discussion of the philosophy implicit in your method, but we did not linger over it, for we thought it unfair to your work to devote ourselves primarily to this question; for my part, I think it essential not to pass on too quickly to a discussion of structuralist philosophy, for to do so would make it impossible to devote enough time to the structural method. I therefore suggested that we should save till the end a discussion of the different philosophical possibilities that you have yourself combined in what seems to me to be a hesitant way: is it a renewal of dialectical philosophy, or on the contrary a kind of generalized combinatory, or finally even, as you put it, a materialism pure and simple in which all the structures are natural structures’?

That is the scope of the questions I should like to ask you, but I leave it up to you to take them in the order you prefer.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: A book is always something of a prematurely born child and mine strike me as fairly repugnant creatures compared with what I should have liked to have brought into the world, and ones which I do not feel too proud of when they are exposed to other people’s gaze; so I have not come here with the belligerent intention of making an absolute defence of positions which I should be the first to admit have their precarious side, as Paul Ricoeur has correctly pointed out.footnote2

Allow me one preliminary observation. There has been some misunderstanding, for which I am myself solely responsible, about the place this book occupies in my work as a whole. In fact, it is not—to express it in Ricoeur’s own terms—‘the last stage of a gradual process of generalization’, ‘a terminal systematization’, ‘a terminal stage’. This might seem to be the case, but my intentions were quite different. Just as Totemismfootnote3 was a preface to The Savage Mind as I explained, in the same way The Savage Mind is a preface to a more important book; but because when I was writing the former I was not sure that I would ever even begin the latter, I preferred not to mention it so as to avoid the risk of having to go back on my word later. So it should rather be seen as a kind of pause in my thought, a sort of resting-place, a moment when I stopped for breath and allowed myself to contemplate the surrounding landscape, precisely the landscape through which I shall not, cannot and have no wish to travel: the philosophical landscape which I can see from a distance but which I shall leave vague since it is not on my itinerary.