Claude-Lévi Strauss and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In 1754 Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, a treatise in which he sought to demonstrate that social and economic inequality is not natural to human beings, but is rather a product of the organization of structured society and the attendant division of labour. At the outset Rousseau identifies the subject of his essay in this way: "It is of man that I have to speak." Rousseau's intent is to show that property, inequality, and their train of jealousy, hatred, crimes and war, could have arisen only in the passage from the state of nature to an artificial, unnatural state of civil society.

Rousseau Using both an array of field data provided by accounts of travellers outside Europe and his own speculative logic, Rousseau's method is to hypothesize exactly what might have happened as prehistoric humanity evolved from its natural or animal state into its civilized state. In doing so Rousseau breaks radically with the Cartesian concept of the human person as pure consciousness endowed with reason and language. The human species had to exist before language in order to create it, and reason is not a faculty that a particular being either possesses or does not, but rather a continuum of capacities that extends into the animal world.

In his 1955 autobiographical account of his intellectual development, his travels, his field work in Brazil, along with his commentary on the regrettable homogenization of global culture, entitled Tristes Tropiques (an abridged English translation has the title World on the Wane), Claude Lévi-Strauss identifies Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and geology as his three "mistresses" from whom he had learned that "understanding consists in the reduction of one reality to another," and that "true reality is never the most visible of realities" or what one sees on the surface. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had also understood this point, observing that the discourse which binds together the different elements of an inegalitarian society is not at all a true representation of reality, that it is, to use his word, a "specious" discourse contrived by the dominant class of the rich. Together with Lévi-Strauss's three mistresses, Jean-Jacques Rousseau must be reckoned as his "master" -- "Rousseau our master," he writes in Tristes Tropiques, "our brother to whom every page of this book could have been dedicated if such a tribute would not have been unworthy of his great memory."

Tristes Tropiques marked, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, "the manifesto of an entirely new concept of human studies," one in which the myth and ritual of so-called primitive societies could be decoded as representations of the unconscious mechanism of segmentation and structuration of experience common to all human beings. In a 1962 essay entitled Jean-Jacques Rousseau, fondateur des sciences de l'homme, translated rather awkwardly as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, founder of the sciences of man and published in 1977 in the English edition of Structural Anthropology, Lévi-Strauss acknowledges not only his own debt to Rousseau but the debt of the whole of cultural anthropology. Alluding to Rousseau's autobiography, the Confessions, Lévi-Strauss asks: "Does the anthropologist write anything other than confessions?" He describes in the strongest terms the determining contribution of Jean-Jacques to our understanding of what it means to be human: "Rousseau," he writes, "did not simply anticipate anthropology, he founded it."

For Lévi-Strauss the key text here is of course Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Rousseau, he argues, articulated the fundamental anthropological problem of the relationship between nature and culture. It was Rousseau who first grasped that in order to understand what the human species is in general, it is necessary to study precisely the total diversity of human experience. To this end, Rousseau suggested that it would be necessary for scientists with the skills and knowledge of philosophers and scientists like Montesquieu, Buffon, or Diderot to undertake field work in Africa, Asia, and America -- a proposal which Lévi-Strauss characterizes as the very programme and method of modern cultural anthropology.

For Lévi-Strauss, a key lesson in Rousseau's narrative of the human species' prehistoric triple transition from nature to culture, feeling to knowledge, and animality to humanity, is the necessary recognition of the human faculty that bridges both sides of the transition, namely the faculty of pity, a faculty which according to Rousseau human beings share with other animals, and which for Lévi-Strauss constitutes the innate human ability to identify with another, not just with a relative or compatriot, but with any human being and indeed with any sentient living being, and the corollary of this, the ability to refuse to identify solely with oneself. "Rousseau's revolution," he affirms, "consists of refusing obligatory identifications." This concept encapsulates Lévi-Strauss's characteristic dialectic of the universal and the particular: to be truly universal is to recognize the inherent value of the diversity of human culture and expression. And going beyond the process of identification with other human beings, the innate human ability to identify with other forms of life is illustrated in the phenomenon of totemism, which for Lévi-Strauss enables human beings to classify social status by transferring animal categories to human beings.

Rousseau saw the pre-rational faculty of pity as the very foundation of human morality, and according to Lévi-Strauss there is for contemporary human society a powerful moral lesson in Rousseau's anthropology, "It is today," writes Lévi-Strauss, "that [Rousseau's] thought takes on its fullest meaning and acquires its greatest importance." Here Lévi-Strauss cites the torture, massacres, and exterminations that have accompanied modern imperialism, and which prove the absolute failure of an anthropocentric humanism that extols the exclusive dignity of human nature. The ultimate lesson of Rousseau's anthropology is therefore a lesson in humility, a humility which derives from the human person's natural capacity to identify with all forms of sentient life. Lévi-Strauss concludes that there is only one truly unpardonable crime for a human being: "to consider oneself, in the short term or in the long term, superior [to others], and to treat other human beings as objects." Is not this lesson as important today on Lévi-Strauss's one hundredth birthday as it was forty-six years ago?

James MacLean
Oral presentation at Memorial University of Newfoundland on the occasion of the 100th birthday of Claude Lévi-Strauss, November 28, 2008.

Other essays by James MacLean

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