The World and the Savage Mind

by François Blom-Peters

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.

                                                       — Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal


This is the translation of a paper I wrote three years ago, in the second year of my bachelor’s. It is mostly concerned with Lévi-Strauss’ claim in the first chapter of La pensée sauvage, that there are two fundamental kinds of thoughts, in the sense of two ways towards an understanding of the world, one based essentially on sensible intuition and the other on conceptual understanding. I formulate this claim in a somewhat phenomenological manner, as the claim that there are two fundamental ways of relating to the world, one immediate and pre-reflexive, the other mediated and reflexive. The main issue then becomes that of the possibility of an immediate, non-conceptual, yet meaningful relation to the world. In other words, the possibility of a purely sensible understanding. As we will see, Lévi-Strauss’ solution centers around the notion of sign, as an intermediary between the sensible and the conceptual.

I only made minor corrections to the text and some of its notions and inferences will be rather obscure. However, it still is a nice introduction to what I think is a valuable insight into the nature of the human mind.


This paper gives first a general introduction to the ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss. After a brief presentation of the principles of structural linguistic, I will present some key anthropological issues that are of particular importance in Lévi-Strauss’ work and their structural interpretation: the kinship system, totemism, and the mythical discourse. I will then discuss a particular philosophical issue that arises in the first chapter of “The Savage Mind”, namely the issue of the meaning of an immediate, prereflexive relation to the world. This discussion will be centered around three selected abstracts. Finally, I will suggest a comparison of this issue with that which is implied in the concept of “natural attitude” in Husserl’s Ideen I.

  1. The structural method in anthropology

Lévi-Strauss’ main contribution to the humanities is the introduction of the structural method in anthropology. This method inspired by structural linguistic will allow him to give an account of social facts that were until then unexplainable, and to reveal the rationality of – said primitive – societies.

Jakobson’s structural linguistic aims to “show the constants among variety”[1], and acquire this way the universality that characterizes true science. It is opposed to the inductive method in linguistic, which consists in the research of the causes or origins (whether natural or conventional) of linguistic phenomena. This implies the analysis and comparison of an almost infinite variety of phenomena and their evolution through time, in order to establish the hypothetical causes of their transformations. On the contrary Saussure, followed by Jakobson, proposed a “linguistic of the synchronic and internal language”[2], whose fundamental principles that still hold for structural linguistic are the following.

The object of linguistics is “language”: an abstract object constructed by the linguist, and not observed empirically (in contrast to “speech”). It is nevertheless a social fact, in as much as the linguistic subjects (speakers) must relate to this language in their concrete use of it. Language is a system: its elements have meaning only so far as they belong to that system and are in opposition to other elements. The most common contrary view being that these elements hold meaning in virtue of their relation to the objects they are supposed to represent. A system can only be understood in one definite given state, that is, in a synchronical manner, as opposed to a diachronical, evolutional manner. Diachronical analysis can therefore not make sense of a linguistic phenomenon.

Elements of a system are signs, understood as the association of a signifier and a signified. In linguistics, this sign is the “phoneme”: a signifying unit (a sound) that allows for the distinction of signified units (meanings), therefore bearing a signification – even though it is signifying only with the system of oppositions. The structural analysis of a linguistic system then can describe the operation of linguistic phenomena, by considering the constants that determine the relations between the elements of the system, that is, the phonemes.

Lévi-Strauss will apply a similar method to the social phenomena of primitive societies. Rather than looking for the origin of these phenomena in (often hypothetical) former customs, he will try to understand how these phenomena make sense within the social system.

1.1. Kinship

Lévi-Strauss’ study of the kinship system is exposed in detail in “Les structures élémentaires de la parenté”. For more simplicity, I will however mainly refer to the shorter text “La famille[3], that takes on the same problems. Ethnologists have long observed that relations of kinship are subject to numerous rules, both positive or negative. Traditional ethnology considers as the fundamental structure of kinship the biological group constituted by the parents and children. Consequently, relations of kinship must be explained in terms of relations of filiation, that is in a diachronical manner.

Such an approach was very problematic in respect to certain issues, for instance the problem of the avuncular kinship: the fact that the uncle on the mother’s side often seems to be included in the close family, even in societies where lineage follows the patriarchal line. This fact couldn’t be explained in a filial model of kinship, and it was thus necessary to make the hypothesis of an older custom that would have survived somehow, despite the fact that it ceased to make any sense. The avunculate (the institution of a special relationship between the uncle and his sister’s children) would then be the leftover of a preceding matriarchal state of the society. But this is, according to Lévi-Strauss, nothing but a dogmatic assertion on the structure of society[4].

If we study the constant properties, or distinctive characters of family, we must admit that « … marriage unites groups, more than individuals … »[5]. Family is then defined according to relations of alliance between groups. The alliances are materialized under the form of the exchange of women, that is through marriage, which from a social point of view doesn’t concern foremost a husband and his wife, but a group that gives and one that receives. We then understand the role of the avuncular uncle: he is the representative of the group that gives a woman.

The fact that women are exchanged means they have to get out of their native group: this obligation takes the general form of the prohibition of incest. This prohibition can realize itself under various particular forms, but always boils down to that obligation of exogamy. Thus she makes alliances between groups a necessary feature of society, and is even the condition of any society (which is nothing but a system of alliances). This is why it is a universal feature of societies.

Family in the strong sense is therefore far from being naturally founded. On the contrary, it is by the institution of a « … social interdependence between biological families … »[6] (that is made possible the family in the cultural sense, that is, the structure in which relations of kinship are realized. Family in this sense can therefore only emerge from a pre-existing society, through the union of two families.

The system of kinship that is realized in concrete relations between groups and individuals thus affords to give these relations a signification, that is to differentiate them by giving them a symbolical value. The order that is produced through these significations is society. Society is thus never to be found in a natural state, for it is always at play with natural demands, and produces some order that is contingent but nevertheless rational, because it obeys its own rules.

1.2. Totemism

This emergence of signification among concrete relations is also to be found in the thought (or mind) of primitive cultures, which expresses itself in their mythology. The problem of totemism is in this perspective very representative.

It has been generally observed that primitive societies ascribe themselves a totem-animal, which represents them in some way, and is considered to be the ancestor of the tribe, and warrants some positive or negative practices (obligation to do some rituals, interdiction to eat certain foods, … ). The first question that comes to mind is of course: why this animal and not another? What does it represent? The usual answer would be to look for the ways in which that animal corresponds to the society that chose it. This correspondence would be established according to similarity relations between the tribe and the animal. This presupposes that the primitive man recognizes his own animality and entertains a special and natural relationship with it. Totemism then, would be the expression of the natural feeling of the savage which feels related to a particular animal for some reason. It is therefore not a matter of rationality, but of affectivity, since the meaning of the totem rests on a particular experience relating the tribe to its totem.

However, to presuppose the existence of a natural link between man and the animal « … leads then to the negation of the cultural diversity of the forms of totemism »[7]. Even more, a theory resting on such a presupposition negates the properly cultural dimension of the phenomenon by reducing it to a product of natural phenomena. On the contrary, to give account of a cultural phenomenon means to give account of the differences that distinguish it from other, similar cultural phenomena, that is to give it its proper signification. In that view, the problem of totemism is « … to determine this relation [between man and animal], not as a natural affinity, but as a difference which produces cultural variations »[8].

Furthermore, the traditional, “naturalistic” approach faces two issues. First, ethnological observation shows that men simply do not identify themselves as animals. Second, it cannot rationally explain why a specific animal is chosen among others. Structural analysis brings a solution to these problems. That the animal symbolizes a tribe means in that view that the animal is signifier while the tribe is signified. However, the relation between signifier and signified is arbitrary: it is therefore vain to search for the signification of the totem in the reasons of its choice. On the contrary, relations among signifiers themselves, and among signifieds themselves, are necessary. It is therefore possible to produce two necessary (therefore “objective”) series of relations: a “natural” and a “cultural” one[9]. Both these series are related to each other, for it is the differential relation between signifiers that produces signs as signified, the same way the signification of word is made possible through the phonic (signifying) differences between corresponding terms.

The signification of the totem is therefore to be searched in these differential relations between animals-signifiers, which are representative of the differential relations between people-signifieds. To put it short: the differences between animals (“x is faster than y”) represent differences between people (“tribe x’ is faster than tribue y’”). As we already saw in the study of parenthood systems, culture appears emerges with the introduction of differential relations among natural phenomena. These relations can only be understood if we consider them as parts of the complete system formed by the elements of this relation: the signification of a totem-animal is understandable only if we situate that animal among all other animals of the natural series (the composition of the series itself being contingent).

1.3. Myths

This analysis can be applied more generally to the whole mythology of a people. Myths give meaning to the phenomena, natural or cultural, which people are confronted with. In that sense, their origin is arbitrary. But they form a coherent system as far as their association follows some « mental constraints»[10]. These are constants, discovered a posteriori through empirical research, which rule the relations between the elements of the system of myths. They are not myths themselves, but “mythems” (mythèmes): elements without proper signification but whose differential relations allow the expression of significations (again, as phonemes do).

In order to fully understand the signification of a myth, it is therefore necessary to situate it among the other known myths of a people. This signification has some value by itself, it doesn’t necessarily have to explain anything or to correspond to any reality. It only has to produce meaning. Hence the existence of myths which do not correspond to anything, and are only possible variations (that is, coherent within the system) in relation to other existing myths. This disinterested creation of meaning is the specificity of primitive thought.

  1. The world as an acquaintance

The philosophical problem I will present in in the Savage Mind is the problem of an immediate relation to the world: how do immediately relate to the world, before any reflection? In phenomenological terms, we can formulate it as the problem of the nature of the “natural attitude”. Or yet: in what does a “familiar” relation to the world consist, by opposition to the “formal relation” entertained by science?

First, I will show how Lévi-Strauss argues that primitive, or rather, wild thought is disinterested and that it only follows constraints of order (contra functionalist interpretations). It is however speculative and actively searches to know the world as it is in itself. Hence the neolithic paradox: why does this search seem to stop at the neolithic age only to resume at the modern age? According to Lévi-Strauss, we have to admit two kinds of thoughts, or ways to related to the world. The modern way is essentially conceptual, formal: it is that of the science of the engineer. In opposition, the neolithic way is rooted in sensation.

We now face another issue: how do we make sense of a thought that is only sensation? How is a « logic of the sensitive » even possible ?[11]. The solution is a thought made of signs, which are at the junction of sensation and concept. Lévi-Strauss uses, to illustrate this kind of thought, the metaphor of the handyman. We then understand that the savage mind “understands” the world on the mode of pure and meaningless experience, but that it produces meaning and possesses its own rationality.

2.1. The neolithic paradox

We observe that the technical progresses of humanity stop after the neolithic revolution. The discoveries that were made until then were much too complex to have happened solely by accident: they suppose therefore a genuine enterprise of “scientific” research.

« The man of the neolithic or of proto-history is then the heir of a long scientific tradition; however, if the spirit that inspired him, as well as all his predecessors, had been exactly the same as that of the moderns, how could we understand that it stopped, and that several millennia of stagnation separate, like a landing between two flights of stairs, the neolithic revolution and modern science? The paradox only admits one solution: that there are two distinct modes of scientific thought, each a function, not of different levels of development of the human mind, but of both strategic levels at which nature lets itself tackled by scientifical knowledge: one approximately adjusted to that of perception and imagination, the other shifted away from it; as if the necessary relations which make the object of all science – whether neolithic or modern – could be reached through two different ways: one very close to sensible intuition, the other more remote »[12].

2.2. Primitive science

We have no reason to think that scientific research stopped by itself only to resume millennia later, under another form. To make sense of the sudden progress, from the point of view of human history, which modern science makes possible, we therefore have to admit two different kinds of scientific thought. To these two modes of scientific thought correspond the two ways man can follow to relate to the world: sensible intuition and concepts.

Primitive thought produces a “concrete science”: it classifies and identifies things as they are given in sensible intuition. For instance, by classifying foods according to their smells[13]. Or by attributing curative properties to some natural object because of its similarity with some part of the body, for instance claiming that a woodpecker’s beak has a curative effect on toothache. While modern though will try to understand experience from abstract concepts, primitive thought takes things themselves as they given in experience and directly establishes meaningful relations between them.

« One will object that such a science cannot be very efficient, practically speaking. But precisely, its first purpose is not to be of practical interest. It answers to intellectual demands before, or instead of satisfying practical needs.

The real question is not whether the contact of the woodpecker beak cures toothache, but whether it is possible, from some point of view, to make “go together” the woodpecker beak and the human tooth (a congruence whose therapeutic interest is only a hypothetical application, among others) and, through these associations of things and beings, to introduce a beginning of order into the universe; classification, in any way whatsoever, having its own virtue compared to the lack of classification. (…)

Now, this need for order is the basis of any thought that we call primitive, but only as far as it is at the basis of all thought: for it is from the point of view of common properties that we more readily access these forms of thought that seem very foreign to us »[14].

Lévi-Strauss previously showed through numerous observations that primitive people know their environment very well and seek an objective understanding of it. In doing so he refutes the belief that primitive people only have a merely instrumental knowledge of things, that they only know what is useful to them. Their thirst for knowledge is akin to that of a modern scientist: « In both cases, the universe is an object of thought, at least as much as a means to satisfy one’s needs »[15]. Like the scientist, the primitive man classifies things and establishes relations. Thus he has a science. This science follows only one imperative: to give things a place in the world. It follows the « requirement of order »[16] which immediately imposes itself to any kind of mind that wants to relate to the world.

To put order in the world means to put its elements in relations. But this association, since it stems from purely intellectual needs, doesn’t need to have any practical utility. It doesn’t even need to be “true” in the scientifical sense, as long as it is conceivable. However, because it is the condition of meaningful relation to the world, primitive science might be called the “first science”, as it is the condition of all science and all thought.

Consequently, terms like “primitive” or “savage” are in no way synonyms of “underdeveloped”. On the contrary, the mind is savage in the sense that it constitutes the most immediate relation to the world: the discovery of some kind of order and unity. More exactly, the discovery that there is an order, the revelation of the « truth of determinism »[17].

All in all, Lévi-Strauss rejects two mischaracterizations of primitive thought, either as purely utilitarian or as a chaotic flux of sensations devoid of rationality. In both these cases, thought would be merely subjective – relating only to subjective interests or to subjective phenomena. On the contrary, primitive thought is directly objective in that man relates himself to a world, that is, in that he produces order and meaning. This production of meaning isn’t arbitrary. It follows its own rationality and rests on elements that are generally overlooked by modern science, signs.

2.3. Thinking with signs

« Like a picture, the sign is a concrete being, but it is similar to the concept in that it is referential: both do not relate exclusively to themselves, they can replace something else. However, the concept has in that respect an unlimited power, while that of the sign is limited. The difference and similarity are well illustrated by the image of the handyman. Let us watch him work: thrilled by its project, his first practical endeavor is retrospective: he must get back to an already constituted set, composed of tools and materials; make, or remake, its inventory; last and foremost, to engage in some kind of dialogue with it, to list, before choosing among them, all possible answers that this set can offer to the problem at hand. All these incongruous objects constitute his treasure, he questions them to understand what each one of them could “mean”, thus partially defining a set to realize, but which would in the end only differ from the instrumental set from the internal disposition of its parts. This cube of oak can be a wedge to remedy the lack of pine plank, or a stand, which would bring out the grain and the smoothness of the old wood. In one case it will be extension, in the other matter. But these possibilities are always limited by each piece’s particular history, and by what remains in them that is predetermined, either due to the original purpose for which it was conceived, or to the adaptations it has gone through for other uses.

Like the constitutive units of myth, whose possible combinations are constrained by the fact that they are borrowed from a language in which they already have a meaning that restricts the freedom of movement, the elements collected and used by the handyman are “preconstrained”. Furthermore, the decision depends on the possibility of permuting another element in the vacant function, so that each choice brings about a total reorganization of the structure, which will never be like that which was vaguely dreamed of, nor another which could have been preferred to it »[18].

Again, primitive thought is immediately objective and can produce a genuine science, in that it can discover relations between things of experience. But this doesn’t mean that we are producing here a science which would only take as its objects only the pure data of sensitive experience, the phenomena. In short: it is not classical positivism. For the object of primitive science is not the phenomenon (as picture), but the sign, understood as « a link between a picture and a concept »[19], that is, between a signifier and a signified.

In that it signifies something, the sign represents something else than itself: an understanding through signs can therefore be objective. But this objective signification of the sign is only possible through a sensitive signifier. Primitive thought can therefore only give a signification to things as far as available signifiers allow it.

Lévi-Strauss uses to illustrate the working of this signs-thought the metaphor of the handyman. First there is a project, an end. We saw that, in the realm of thought, this end isn’t necessarily practical. It can be the mere desire for order. We then have to list all available means, and above all to identify which functions they will take in the final structure. This identification is complicated by the fact that the possible functions of any element of structure are limited by two types of constraints. On the one hand are intrinsic constraints pertaining to the elements by themselves. For these elements, the signs, are themselves ancient projects or elements thereof, and consequently already possess a signification. On the other hand, relations between the elements must follow some general constraints that are necessary conditions for the consistency of the structure.

2.4. Thinking with concepts

This kind of thought that gives precedence to the instrumental character of its elements is opposed to modern thought, whose elements are fully adapted to the finality of its project. It is the thought of the engineer, for whom the signification of the elements at play must be found in nature itself, “beyond” culture[20]. He has to question nature, for sure with only what is available to him at a given time, but always with the idea of outgrowing those means, the instrumental elements at his disposition.

It is for that reason that the scientist’s tool is the concept, which is ideally « … fully transparent to reality »[21]. The signification of a concept is in principle totally independent of any local or historical contingency: a given concept necessarily represents a given reality. To be sure, the determination, in fact, of the signification of a concept is itself the product of a contingent process. But this doesn’t undermine the principled possibility the concept offers of representing without any ambiguity a determinate object.

Furthermore, a concept can represent an object that is indeterminate from the point of view of intuition, for instance a molecule[22]. Finally, a concept can be said to be « the operator of the opening of the set with which one works »[23]. The apparent contradiction between the determinacy and the indeterminacy of the concept seems to me to rest on the ambiguity of the expression “signification of a concept”. It is resolved when one considers it as determinate as far as it belongs to a conceptual set (or a structure: theories, hypotheses, …), but indeterminate as an isolated element. In that sense, its indeterminacy is precisely what allows the opening of the set. But by itself, a concept doesn’t have a proper signification.

The relation to the world that is realized in modern thought is thus always a relation to a world that is potentially undetermined, whose properties always escape intuition and only form a formal structure into which are inserted sensitive contents or events. Those events, although they are of a sensitive nature, do not possess any signification by themselves: they are only the contingent elements of a structure that is taken as necessary. On the contrary, the savage mind starts with these events to build a structure in which meaning is expressed. In that sense, it can be considered to constitute the more natural relation to the world, in that it is a relation where the object of thought is itself given in intuition.

  1. Conclusion: signs and the world out there

In lieu of a conclusion, I will compare Lévi-Strauss’ savage mind with the phenomenological description of the “natural attitude” offered by Husserl in the Ideen I. According to him, the natural attitude rests on the following thesis: « “Reality” (Wirklichkeit), this word says it already enough, I discover it as existing and I welcome it, as it is given to me, also as existing »[24]. I am myself an existing thing which has an experience of things existing by themselves in space and time. The beings I meet in the world, whether they are animated or not, are always already determined independently of my intuition of them. That is: they exist. Together, these beings make up a world which, even it is not directly the object of my attention, always remains present to me as my « undetermined environment »[25] (unbestimmte Umgebung).

The world is that in which things, myself included, are given through sensitive intuition. The latter, although it can be a source of error (for instance in the case of hallucination), gives me in principle an access to the things themselves. By things, Husserl doesn’t understand material things, but also cultural things : « In this [natural attitude] the world is not there for me as a mere world of things (Sachen), but in the same immediacy, as world of values, as world of goods, as practical world »[26]. The existence of that independent world implies it also exists for other subjects, although they access it through different points of view.

The comparison with Lévi-Strauss’ claims seems difficult, insofar as their main concerns do not overlap at first sight: there is no question of existence in Lévi-Strauss’, and no question of signs in Husserl’s. However, it seems that the nature of the sign necessarily implies that of the question of existence. Indeed, the sign, as a signifier, is a thing of the world, a concrete being. The general thesis of the natural attitude seems therefore to be a necessary condition for the savage mind.

In other words, it is because the world exists as such that a genuine logic of the sensitive, or a science of the concrete, is possible. Otherwise, experience could never provide any sign. Without this fundamental thesis of the existence of the world, experience only offers a mere procession of appearances. These appearances might well proceed with some form of regularity, but regularity doesn’t give meaning. The world only makes sense to me because I and others are part of it. The savage mind is the exploration of that world to which I belong, of that which is given to me immediately, whether they are things of nature or social facts.

(“The Savage Mind” is the usual translation of Lévi-Strauss’s book title, La Pensée sauvage, which could also be translated as “the wild thought”, and also denotes a particular species of flower, the viola tricolor. All quotes are translated from French and German by myself. )

[1] Lévi-Strauss, 1983, p. 192

[2] Moeschler, 2006

[3] In Lévi-Strauss, 1983

[4] Ibid., p. 70

[5] Ibid., p. 75

[6] Ibid., p. 74

[7] Lévi-Strauss, 1962, p. 32

[8] Ibid., p. 33

[9] Ibid., p. 36

[10] Lévi-Strauss, 1983, p. 146

[11] Keck, 2004, p. 48

[12] Lévi-Strauss, 1962, p. 28

[13] Ibid., p. 25

[14] Ibid., p. 21-22

[15] Ibid., p. 13

[16] Ibid., p. 22

[17] Ibid., p. 24

[18] Ibid., p. 32-33

[19] Ibid., p. 32

[20] Ibid., p. 33

[21] Ibid., p. 24

[22] Ibid., p. 25

[23] Ibid., p. 34

[24] Husserl, 1950, p. 95 [§30, 52]

[25] Ibid., p. 89 [§ 27, 49]

[26] Ibid., p. 90 [§ 27, 50]


  • Husserl, Idées directrices pour une phénoménologie, trad. fr. P. Ricoeur, Paris, Gallimard, 
  • Keck, Lévi-Strauss et la pensée sauvage, Paris, PUF, 2004
  • Lévi-Strauss, Le regard éloigné, Paris, Plon, 1983
  • Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage, Paris, Plon, 1962
  • Mesure et P. Savidan (dir.), Le dictionnaire des sciences humaines, Paris, PUF, 2006

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