Janine Mileaf on Levi-Strauss, "Science of the Concrete"

In the first chapter of "The Savage Mind," 1962, Claude Levi-Strauss attempted to characterize two modes of thought, or methods toward acquiring knowledge. One, the "science of the concrete" or mythical thought, is prior to the other, modern scientific inquiry. Although his often dated terminology-"savage," for example-might lead the reader to assume that Levi-Strauss privileged scientific thought, he stressed that both scientific and mythical thought should be understood as valid and that one does not supersede the other. They are two autonomous ways of thinking, rather than two stages in an evolution of thought. Thus, magic is not primitive science.

Mythical thought is based in observation "of the sensible world in sensible terms" (p. 16). Scientific thought, on the other hand, explains the imperceptible and thus forges new systems of knowledge. The two systems further differ in the degree of determinism that each assumes. That is to say that magic presumes a causal relationship between an observed similarity among members of a class and their characteristics. Poisonous plants tend to taste bitter, therefore bitterness must be poison. As Levi-Strauss notes, this intuitive mode of inquiry can often lead to predictable results. Science might yield the same prediction based on a chemical component of the various poisonous plants. Thus, the boundaries between these two strains of inquiry sometimes blur and the difference seems more a question of quantity than quality.

To elaborate on his definition of mythical thought, Levi-Strauss drew an analogy to "bricolage": "Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual 'bricolage'" (p. 17). The French verb, "bricoler," has no English equivalent, but refers to the kind of activities that are performed by a handy-man. The "bricoleur" performs his tasks with materials and tools that are at hand, from "odds and ends." He draws from the already existent while the engineer or scientist, according to Levi-Strauss, seeks to exceed the boundaries imposed by society. "The scientist creating events (changing the world) by means of structures and the 'bricoleur' creating structures by means of events" (p. 22).

Furthermore, the bricoleur deals in signs, whereas the engineer deals in concepts. Concepts open possibilities while signs recycle previously available meanings. "One way in which signs can be opposed to concepts is that whereas concepts aim to be wholly transparent with respect to reality, signs allow and even require the interposing and incorporation of a certain amount of human culture into reality (p. 20)." This comparison is difficult to support because it implies that mythical thought is culturally dependent whereas scientific thought is somehow natural. Remembering Paul de Man's argument about that which presents itself as natural, we might challenge the supposed transparency of science's link with reality as ideological.

This part of Levi-Strauss's argument also seems to contradict one of the premises on which it is based. He began the discussion with a series of long quotes from anthropologists' field notes that suggested that so-called primitive cultures pay close attention to their biological environment and therefore have developed specialized vocabularies with which to deal with this knowledge. Thus, language varies in terms of a society's interests. This interest, Levi-Strauss argued, is not always practical, but is intellectual as well. Naming can therefore be seen to produce cultural value. Language constructs reality. Nonetheless, Levi-Strauss reserved a place for "objective reality" in his theory. He posited that modern science somehow finds a truth that exists prior to and regardless of society's interest. At the same time, Levi-Strauss himself acknowledged that these distinctions are not "absolute," but relative (p. 19). In this light, "bricolage" or mythical thought seems to subsume the category of science, rather than the reverse.

In his penultimate point, Levi-Strauss argued that art lies somewhere between magic and science because it balances structure and event. This discussion, however, seems particularly based on assumptions, such as "to understand a real object in its totality we always tend to work from its parts" (p. 23) and is therefore difficult to pin down. He identified three modes of art, each of which emphasizes a different mode of communication: Western art stresses the model, "primitive" art stresses the materials, and applied art stresses the user. The translation of an object into art or representation requires a quantitative reduction, as in size or number of properties. This simplification makes the thing able to be grasped "at a glance" and thus compensates for the loss. This is the reverse of science, but it is also not myth. The artist produces something that is both real and not the thing itself. Art hovers between mythical and scientific thought, and between the practical and the theoretical.