the late, great claude lévi-strauss on myth and meaning

He was building not so much a science of myth as a brilliant explication of the nuances and competing interpretation of our oldest stories. And he lived to see his 101st year, thereby proving reading is good for you! 

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 

 The Meeting Of Myth And Science

Let me start with a personal confession. There is a magazine which I read faithfully each month from the first line to the last, even though I don’t understand all of it; it is the Scientific American. I am extremely eager to be as informed as possible of everything that takes place in modern science and its new developments. My position in relation to science is thus not a negative one.

Secondly, I think there are some things we have lost, and we should try perhaps to regain them, because I am not sure that in the kind of world in which we are living and with the kind of scientific thinking we are bound to follow, we can regain these things exactly as if they had never been lost; but we can try to become aware of their existence and their importance.

In the third place, my feeling is that modern science is not at all moving away from these lost things, but that more and more it is attempting to reintegrate them in the field of scientific explanation. The real gap, the real separation between science and what we might as well call mythical thought for the sake of finding a convenient name, although it is not exactly that—the real separation occurred in the seventeenth and the eighteenth century. At that time, with Bacon, Descartes, Newton, and the others, it was necessary for science to build itself up against the old generations of mythical and mystical thought, and it was thought that science could only exist by turning its back upon the world of the senses, the world we see, smell, taste, and perceive; the sensory was a delusive world, whereas the real world was a world of mathematical properties which could only be grasped by the intellect and which was entirely at odds with the false testimony of the senses. This was probably a necessary move, for experience shows us that thanks to this separation—this schism if you like—scientific thought was able to constitute itself.

Now, my impression (and, of course, I do not talk as a scientist—I am not a physicist, I am not a biologist, I am not a chemist) is that contemporary science is tending to overcome this gap, and that more and more the sense data are being reintegrated into scientific explanation as something which has a meaning, which has a truth, and which can be explained.

Take, for instance, the world of smells. We were accustomed to think that this was entirely subjective, outside the world of science. Now the chemists are able to tell us that each smell or each taste has a certain chemical composition and to give us the reasons why subjectively some smells or some tastes feel to us as having something in common and some others seem widely different. 

Let’s take another example. There was in philosophy from the time of the Greeks to the eighteenth and even the nineteenth century—and there still is to some extent—a tremendous discussion about the origin of mathematical ideas—the idea of the line, the idea of the circle, the idea of the triangle. There were, in the main, two classical theories: one of the mind as a tabula rasa, with nothing in it in the beginning; everything comes to it from experience. It is from seeing a lot of round objects, none of which were perfectly round, that we are able nevertheless to abstract the idea of the circle. The second classical theory goes back to Plato, who claimed that such ideas of the circle, of the triangle, of the line, are perfect, innate in the mind, and it is because they are given to the mind that we are able to project them, so to speak, on reality, although reality never offers us a perfect circle or a perfect triangle.

Now, contemporary researchers on the neurophysiology of vision teach us that the nervous cells in the retina and the other apparatus behind the retina are specialized: some cells are sensitive only to straight direction, in the vertical sense, others in the horizontal, others in the oblique, some of them to the relationship between the background and the central figures, and the like. So—and I simplify very much because it is too complicated for me to explain this in English—this whole problem of experience versus mind seems to have a solution in the structure of the nervous system, not in the structure of the mind or in experience, but somewhere between mind and experience in the way our nervous system is built and in the way it mediates between mind and experience.

Probably there is something deep in my own mind, which makes it likely that I always was what is now being called a structuralist. My mother told me that, when I was about two years old and still unable to read, of course, I claimed that actually I was able to read. And when I was asked why, I said that when I looked at the signboards on shops—for instance, boulanger (baker) or boucher (butcher)—I was able to read something because what was obviously similar, from a graphic point of view, in the writing could not mean anything other than ‘bou,’ the same first syllable of boucher and boulanger. Probably there is nothing more than that in the structuralist approach; it is the quest for the invariant, or for the invariant elements among superficial differences.

Throughout my life, this search was probably a predominant interest of mine. When I was a child, for a while my main interest was geology. The problem in geology is also to try to understand what is invariant in the tremendous diversity of landscapes, that is, to be able to reduce a landscape to a finite number of geological layers and of geological operations. Later as an adolescent, I spent a great part of my leisure time drawing costumes and sets for opera. The problem there is exactly the same—to try to express in one language, that is, the language of graphic arts and painting, something which also exists in music and in the libretto; that is, to try to reach the invariant property of a very complex set of codes (the musical code, the literary code, the artistic code). The problem is to find what is common to all of them. It’s a problem, one might say, of translation, of translating what is expressed in one language—or one code, if you prefer, but language is sufficient—into expression in a different language.

Structuralism, or whatever goes under that name, has been considered as something completely new and at thetime revolutionary; this, I think, is doubly false. In the first place, even in the field of the humanities, it is not new at all; we can follow very well this trend of thought from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century and to the present time. But it is also wrong for another reason: what we call structuralism in the field of linguistics, or anthropology, or the like, is nothing other than a very pale and faint imitation of what the ‘hard sciences,’ as I think you call them in English, have been doing all the time.

Science has only two ways of proceeding: it is either reductionist or structuralist. It is reductionist when it is possible to find out that very complex phenomena on one level can be reduced to simpler phenomena on other levels. For instance, there is a lot in life which can be reduced to physico-chemical processes, which explain a part but not all. And when we are confronted with phenomena too complex to be reduced to phenomena of a lower order, then we can only approach them by looking to their relationships, that is, by trying to understand what kind of original system they make up. This is exactly what we have been trying to do in linguistics, in anthropology, and in different fields.

It is true—and let’s personalize nature for the sake of the argument—that Nature has only a limited number of procedures at her disposal and that the kinds of procedure which Nature uses at one level of reality are bound to reappear at different levels. The genetic code is a very good example; it is well known that, when the biologists and the geneticists had the problem of describing what they had discovered, they could do nothing better than borrow the language of linguistics and to speak of words, of phrase, of accent, of punctuation marks, and the like. I do not mean at all that it is the same thing; of course, it is not. But it is the same kind of problem arising at two different levels of reality.

It would be very far from my mind to try to reduce culture, as we say in our anthropological jargon, to nature; but nevertheless what we witness at the level of culture are phenomena of the same kind from a formal point of view (I do not mean at all substantially). We can at least trace the same problem to the mind that we can observe on the level of nature, though, of course, the cultural is much more complicated and calls upon a much larger number of variables.

I’m not trying to formulate a philosophy, or even a theory. Since I was a child, I have been bothered by, let’s call it the irrational, and have been trying to find an order behind what is given to us as a disorder. It so happened that I became an anthropologist, as a matter of fact not because I was interested in anthropology, but because I was trying to get out of philosophy. It also so happened that in the French academic framework, where anthropology was at the time not taught as a discipline in its own right in the universities, it was possible for somebody trained in philosophy and teaching philosophy to escape to anthropology. I escaped there, and was confronted immediately by one problem—there were lots of rules of marriage all over the world which looked absolutely meaningless, and it was all the more irritating because, if they were meaningless, then there should be different rules for each people, though nevertheless the number of rules could be more or less finite. So, if the same absurdity was found to reappear over and over again, and another kind of absurdity also to reappear, then this was something which was not absolutely absurd; otherwise it would not reappear. 

Such was my first orientation, to try to find an order behind this apparent disorder. And when after working on the kinship systems and marriage rules, I turned my attention, also by chance and not at all on purpose, toward mythology, the problem was exactly the same. Mythical stories are, or seem, arbitrary, meaningless, absurd, yet nevertheless they seem to reappear all over the world. A ‘fanciful’ creation of the mind in one place would be unique—you would not find the same creation in a completely different place. My problem was trying to find out if there was some kind of order behind this apparent disorder—that’s all. And I do not claim that there are conclusions to be drawn.

It is, I think, absolutely impossible to conceive of meaning without order. There is something very curious in semantics, that the word ‘meaning’ is probably, in the whole language, the word the meaning of which is the most difficult to find. What does ‘to mean’ mean? It seems to me that the only answer we can give is that ‘to mean’ means the ability of any kind of data to be translated in a different language. I do not mean a different language like French or German, but different words on a different level. After all, this translation is what a dictionary is expected to give you—the meaning of the word in different words, which on a slightly different level are isomorphic to the word or expression you are trying to understand. Now, what would a translation be without rules?

It would be absolutely impossible to understand. Because you cannot replace any word by any other word or any sentence by any other sentence, you have to have rules of translation. To speak of rules and to speak of meaning is to speak of the same thing; and if we look at all the intellectual undertakings of mankind, as far as they have been recorded all over the world, the common denominator is always to introduce some kind of order. If this represents a basic need for order in the human mind and since, after all, the human mind is only part of the universe, the need probably exists because there is some order in the universe and the universe is not a chaos.


What I have been trying to say here is that there has been a divorce—a necessary divorce—between scientific thought and what I have called the logic of the concrete, that is, the respect for and the use of the data of the senses, as opposed to images and symbols and the like. We are witnessing the moment when this divorce will perhaps be overcome or reversed, because modern science seems to be able to make progress not only in its own traditional line—pushing forward and forward but still within the same narrow channel—but also at the same time to widen the channel and to reincorporate a great many items previously left outside.

In this respect, I may be subjected to the criticism of being called ‘scientistic’ or a kind of blind believer in science who holds that science is able to solve absolutely all problems. Well, I certainly don’t believe that, because I cannot conceive that a day will come when science will be complete and achieved. There will always be new problems, and exactly at the same pace as science is able to solve problems which were deemed philosophical a dozen years or a century ago, so there will appear new problems which had not hitherto been not perceived as such. There will always be a gap between the answer science is able to give us and the new question which this answer will raise. So I am not ‘scientistic’ in that way. Science will never give us all the answers. What we can try to do is to increase very slowly the number and the quality of the answers we are able to give, and this, I think, we can do only through science.

 —from Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning, University of Toronto Press, 1978. Originally in the form of a talk given as part of the 1977 Massey Lectures entitled “Myth and Meaning,” and  broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio series, Ideas, in December 1977.