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The Ideological Bases of Lvi-Strauss's Structuralism Author(s): Hugo G. Nutini Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol.

73, No. 3 (Jun., 1971), pp. 537-544 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/671753 Accessed: 06/08/2009 14:41
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The Ideological Bases of Levi-Strauss's Structuralism

HUGO G. NUTINI University of Pittsburgh It is clear that Levi-Strauss combines in his writings, and often inextricably, the roles of anthropologist (read scientist) and philosopher (read ideologist). This rather unusual combination of anthropological and philosophical dimensions of Levi-Strauss's thought is the result of two tendencies that often seem to be pulling in different directions: his scientific conception of socio-cultural phenomena (or the delineation of a scientific method for harnessing human behavior under the rubric of sociological laws), on the one hand, and his conception of what society should be (or the ideological statement of what constitutes a "good sociological life"), on the other. In order to understand the nature of structuralism and Levi-Strauss's contributions to anthropological theory and practice, these two aspects of his thought must be clearly distinguished. This is what I hope to accomplish in this article.

ONE OF THE MAIN REASONS why Levi-Strauss's structuralism has elicited such resistance, and sometimes outright antagonism, from the Anglo-American anthropological world is the fact that almost invariably he writes in his dual capacity of scientist and ideologist. Had he confined himself to expounding his theory and methods in strictly anthropological terms, his ideas would by now be much more acceptable to and better understood by his colleagues. In fact, their empirical predisposition against structuralism is heightened by the philosophical matrix in which most of Levi-Strauss's ideas are embedded. As Leach (1965:16) puts it, the intellectual fireworks with which Levi-Strauss surrounds his anthropological ideas do not endear him at all to his empiricist colleagues. Regardless of the merit and adequacy of Levi-Strauss's ideological or philosophical ideas, it is indeed a shame that empiricists should be so predisposed against the study and testing of the scientific ideas implied by structuralism. Perhaps anthropologists can afford to disregard Levi-Strauss's philosophy, but they cannot afford to disregard his conception of anthropology. Given these considerations, it is my purpose in this paper to discuss briefly the basic tenets of Levi-Strauss's ideology in order to determine how it may impair the

implementation of his essentially sound conception of what scientific anthropology should be. But before I turn to Levi-Strauss, I must clarify what I mean by ideology. The term ideology is by no means a precise concept, and it is used in at least three different senses. First, it is virtually synonymous with ethical behavior or ethical norms; as philosophers are fond of saying, there is a transcendental distinction between "what is" and "what ought to be," which they construe into the distinction between epistemology and ethics. The implicit assumption here seems to be that, while "what ought to be" is always an immediate result of or is directly based in "what is," human beings living in society must of necessity formulate perceptual codes in order to communicate successfully and lead an orderly life; in other words, unless there are implicit moral codes governing individual behavior, neither culture nor society is possible. From this viewpoint, all sociocultural systems are ideological systems in the sense that "what ought to be" gives unitary meaning to the individuals composing the system, thereby permitting communication, and at the same time it assigns values to the system's physical components. To put it differently, as social beings we cannot be primitively acquainted



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with what the socio-culturaluniverse"really is," and we must necessarilyview it through the ideological screen of "what ought to be." Only as individualsmay we perceivethe socio-culturaluniverseas it is. The existence of socio-culturalsystems must therefore be predicated on the notion that consensus about what the world really is can only be achieved by arbitrarilyestablishingwhat it ought to be. This notion of our lack of real acquaintance with the "external world" of social relations, or ratherthe realizationthat we view that world through "coded screens," is one of the central ideas of Levi-Strauss'sstructuralism, and one that pervadeshis conception of the relationship between nature and culture. In recognizing the characterization of structuralism as "Kantianism without transcendental subject," Levi-Strauss(1964:19) clearly asserts that his endeavor is not in any sense idealistic, though he has often been charged with idealism. At the same time, he implicitly assumesthat laws and theoriesare not elicited at the phenomenal level alone. The second usage of the term ideology is largely a corollaryof the first. Althoughthis usage is underlain by the "what is-what ought to be" distinction, the concept here must be interpretedprimarilyas an ethicalmoral imperativeto action. The concept of ideology in this sense is not directly concerned with the epistemology-ethics distinction, but rather with changing a context, a socio-culturalsystem, or perhaps the entire fabric of human society on the basis of a specific "what ought to be" construct. Let us note, however, that although this use of the term is the most common, it is at the same time the most imprecise. More often than not, what is denoted by the concept from the epistemological point of view is always consciously relegated to the background,given the fact that the accent is on the practicaland not on determining how "what ought to be" is anchored in the relevant contextual "what is." But it must also be indicated that sometimes this use of the term may indicate conceptually both a clearly laid out

ethical-moralcode, and its practicalimplications. This does not mean, of course, that the followers of an ideological creed are aware of the "what is-what ought to be" distinction in the pursuit of its practical implications. Thus, while the ethical-moral conception of ideology is primarily a philosophical question concerned with the exigencies of societal living, the practical a pragmatic dynamic conception is primarily question concerned with strategiesof how a context can be best changed, givena certain end-in-view. That is, theories of culture, insofar as they limit themselves to global societies, are ethical-moralideological constructs which make possible the primitive ensemble of individualsin orderly systems. Capitalism, communism, humanism, and many similar ideologies, on the other hand, are practical-dynamic ideological constructs at a sub-cultural level, which purport to transforma part of the societal structure,or to reorganize some aspects of the total societal structure, according to some ethical-moral construct which may not always be clearlypostulated. Finally, the third use of the term as scientificideology may be characterized epistemological.Here again, the conceptual meaning of ideology is underlain by the "what is-what ought to be" distinction, but we call it scientific-epistemological because the emphasis is entirely upon verification, upon bridging the gap between nature as individuallyperceivedand nature as socially perceived.This is primarilyan epistemological and not an ethical question, and the concept of ideology in this sense may be properly termed scientific ideology. One of the persistentthemes in Western philosophy throughout more than 2500 years has been the unreliability of the senses in experiencing the external world, a theme that runs deeply even through so-called empiricist philosophies. Furthermore, non-Western philosophies, and the information that can be culled from the ethnography of nonliterate peoples, both point to the same direction. This unreliability of sensible experience is what I mean by saying that we




cannot become directly acquainted with natural phenomena. Furthermore, as we move from the realm of the non-organic to the organic and on to the superorganic, the screens through which we view natural phenomena become increasingly complicated, and verification more difficult to attain. In this meaning of the term, ideology is opposed to science in the sense that science represents the realm of "what is" (or of what can be verified, verification being operationally defined so as to indicate the extent to which it bridges the gaps between sensible experience and rational experience) and ideology the realm of "what ought to be." From this viewpoint, then, every theory, physical or social, is basically an ideological construct until it is properly verified. It goes without saying that verification is impossible at the level of sensible experience, for an operation at such level would simply constitute consensus primarily about "what ought to be." Verification is a rational operation that can take place only at a postulated supra-empirical level. Otherwise, a true science is not possible, and any endeavor using that name will remain largely ideology or, perhaps more accurately, an unrealized scientific ideology at the intuitional level of concept formation. It should also be obvious that the science-ideology dichotomy obtains only in the meta-language (supraempirical level); at the level of sensible experience science is just another ideology, developed within the confines of a given culture, namely, that amorphous entity we refer to as Western culture.1 It is useless to debate whether the level of sensible experience is more real than the level of analysis where consensus is reached about what phenomena really are, or vice-versa; they are equally real, and both are equally important in the conduct of any scientific inquiry (in the meta-language). The "what is-what ought to be" distinction is, of course, a shorthand expression for all that the bifurcation of nature involves. Among other things, the bifurcation of nature requires that science be conducted in its own language (be it mathematical or in

any other symbolic system) as distinct from everyday language. The non-scientist may complain, especially with regard to the behavioral sciences, that scientists seldom if ever explain scientific theories in everyday language, but this is clearly impossible; consensus in science is reached in the meta-language. It is in this sense of the bifurcation of nature that science represents a fundamental transformation in the history of mankind. What I am saying is simply that we cannot begin to visualize what the bifurcation of nature has in store for the evolution (in the meta-language) of man. Meanwhile, we anthropologists are doing our best to deny it in the socio-cultural realm, thereby depriving ourselves of a powerful tool and reinforcing old patterns of intellectual socialization.2 Let us note that there may be other conceptual usages of the term ideology, but they are always corollaries of either my first (ethical-moral) or third (scientific-epistemological) usages. Furthermore, any well-established and comprehensive ideological system, or even an ideological viewpoint, may be a compound ideological construct in that it may entail any two, or sometimes all three of the analytical usages of the term described above. For example, humanism involves a well-thought-out ethical-moral conception of what society should be, and at the same time it is a practical-dynamic endeavor, or at least it involves pragmatic considerations as guides to action. Marxism is a practical-dynamic program for political and social reform, and at the same time it is a fairly well-thought-out scientific-epistemological theory of culture and society. It should be clear that I am not discussing ideology from the actor's viewpoint and the philosophical implications that its different usages imply, but rather from the universal viewpoint that, given the nature of man as a superorganic entity, we cannot at particular levels of conceptualization escape the "what is-what ought to be" distinction. In order to transcend ideology, we must raise ourselves to higher analytical levels, in the same manner as, in a logical context, it is



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impossible to solve semantic paradoxes (i.e., "All Cretans are liars; I am a Cretan") without the notion of a meta-language; that is, any statement about any object language must be made in its meta-language. The theory of levels of language is a consequence of Russell's theory of types (Reichenbach 1946:39), and I believe that it applies equally to the epistemological context of finding the appropriate levels of analysis at which the "what is-what ought to be" distinction does not obtain. The only analytical level at which this takes place is at the theoretical level of contemporary science, which involves both an object language (organization of empirical facts) and a meta-language (theory construction and verification). No "scientific ideology" which persists in reaching consensus about "what is"3 at the strictly empirical level can attain the status of science. Sensible experience is a true datum for individuals, but it is not consensually true at the societal level. Once more, then, we must emphasize the uselessness of thinking in terms of the greater reality of either of the contrasting elements of the "what is-what ought to be" distinction. In the light of the preceding remarks, let us begin by saying that Levi-Strauss employs the concept of ideology in my first and third senses, for it is my contention that structuralism is a curious combination of an ethical-moral ideological system and a scientific-epistemological theory of culture. There are two tendencies in Levi-Strauss's thought which often pull in different directions: his scientific conception of sociocultural phenomena (or the delineation of a specific method for harnessing human behavior under the rubric of sociological laws), on the one hand, and his conception of what society should be (or the ideological statement of what constitutes a "good" sociological life), on the other. I believe this dichotomy in his conception of anthropology to be the result of the opposition in his conceptual system between anthropology as an ethical-moral study of culture and society, and anthropology as a well defined

universal theory of culture. Let us note that Levi-Strauss's conceptual system still falls largely within the domain of ideology, and from this viewpoint, structuralism is not greatly different from any of the empiricist approaches. Thus, the dichotomy in structuralism is between two different meanings of the concept of ideology, and not really between science and ideology. But what makes structuralism differ radically from other empiricist approaches is that it contains the notion of meta-language or levels of analysis, and this takes structuralism one step along the way from "scientific-ideology" to genuine science. In any event, the ethical-moral aspects of LeviStrauss's ideological system do constitute certain impediments to moving structuralism from "scientific-ideology" (the scientificepistemological meaning of the concept) to a genuine science. We need not look into the genesis of Levi-Strauss's structuralism or into the intellectual traditions that have influenced its development.4 In order to determine how ideology interferes with science, we need only look into the principles of structuralism as a conception of anthropology and as a theory of culture and society. The dichotomy in Levi-Strauss's structuralism may be interpreted as follows: Structuralism as a conceptual system elicited from sensible social experience is an ethicalmoral construct (or constructs) which implicitly recognizes the "what is-what ought to be" distinction, but remains to a large extent a conceptual system in which the operational variables are largely unverifiable; they are primarily the expression of aesthetic and traditional but not necessarily rational-empirical (deductive-inductive) considerations. Structuralism in this sense is no different from, say, evolutionism or any broad social theory in anthropology, and it may be termed a kind of seemingly scientific humanism. At the opposite extreme, structuralism as a "scientific-epistemological" theory of culture involves the operational distinction between "what is" and "what ought to be"; as a genuine scientific en-




deavor, structuralism does not expect to conceptualize the socio-culturaluniverse at the level of sensiblesocial experience,but at a meta-linguistictheoretical level which is the result of inductive-deductive operations or second-level-induction. Hence the dichotomy mainly ideology mainly science in Levi-Strauss's anthropologicalapproach: although structuralism involves the fundamental notion of scientific meta-linguistic analysis, its inextricability from largely ideological considerations hampers its successful passage from "scientific-ideology" (where only concepts by intuition are possible) to genuinescience (wherethe formulation of concepts by postulationis the goal). This, then, is what I mean by saying that Levi-Strauss's ideological biases interfere with his scientific aims. It should be clear, however, that the interplay of the ideological and scientific components of structuralism is neither clear-cutnor associatedwith specific conceptual activities. If we wish to extricate the scientific from the ideological in L.viStrauss'sstructuralism,we cannot view it as just another approach to the study of phenomena;but rather socio-anthropological we must addressourselvesto its logical and epistemological functions, for the value of structuralismlies in its basic principles of inquiry and not in what it has achieved in substantive results. From this standpoint, is nothing more than a method structuralism in need of deductive-inductiveimplementation in order to achieve that status of a full-fledged scientific method in the socioculturaldomain. As anthropologistswe need not be concerned that the ideological elements of Levi-Strauss's structuralism may have strictly aesthetic and moral value for other areas of endeavor (literature,poetry, philosophy, etc.); our only concern as scientists should be with devising appropriate verification procedures in order to implement structuralismfor the formulation of scientific theories in anthropology.If this will of course is not done, then structuralism remain just another approach such as functionalism or cross-culturalism.Part of

the difficulty is that despite its explicit endorsement of the use of mathematical tools, and despite the seemingformalization sometimesemployed by Levi-Strauss (1964, 1966, 1969), structuralismseems somehow to resist the formulation of calculi in the theoconstruction of socio-anthropological warnshis readersnot ry. In fact, Levi-Strauss to take too seriously the uses that he makes of mathematical symbols and apparently mathematical equations. I am not sure whetherhe is simply being cautious because he does not yet know how to formulate meaningful calculi, or whether ultimately this activity is not possible in the conceptualization of social phenomena, and he is engaged in such an operation solely for clarity of exposition. In any case, I believe that it is for aesthetic reasons that the scientific aspects of structuralismare prevented from being meaningfullyand profitably expressed in Levi-Strauss'swritings. I might give an example in order to understandbetter what the ideologic-scientific opposition means in the conduct of structuralism. One of the fundamental notions of Levi-Strauss's structuralismis the opposition between nature and culture which is mediated by the structure of the human brain, and which many anthropologists (Leach 1965:17) bent on makingan idealist of him interpretas a metaphysicalentity of the collective-consciousnesskind. The nature-cultureopposition plays a very important role in Levi-Strauss's conceptualsystem, not only as an ontological property of sensible social experience, but also as an epistemologicaldevice in the analysisof that experience. In any event, what does the nature-culture opposition mean in the light two usages of the concept of Levi-Strauss's of ideology? On the one hand, as an ethical-moral conceptual tool the natureculture opposition implies not only a clear distinctionbetween "what is" (nature) and "what out to be" (culture), but at the same time it implies the fundamentalnotion that at the level of sensibleexperience,we cannot possibly bridge the gap between these two



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ontological levels. Hence, Levi-Strauss's insistence that cultures are coded screens which enable us to organize the facts of nature, as a projector is needed to make sense out of a film strip. This is, of course, a sound view of the interplay between man and his natural environment, and an ontological view with a long tradition in Western philosophy, although differently expressed in traditional and contemporary philosophy. On the other hand, the natureculture opposition as a scientific-epistemological conceptual tool goes beyond the ontological domain and asserts that in order to achieve true consensus regarding sensible experience (i.e., universal agreement irrespective of individual social perception), we must postulate a meta-level of analysis. It asserts, in short, that epistemological consensus can only be arrived at by transcending both individual sensible experience (nature) and social sensible experience (culture).5 We can see, then, that the ontological (primarily ideological) and the epistemological (primarily scientific) implications of the natureculture opposition in L.vi-Strauss's system do not really conflict, and that they are in a sense complementary. But what then constitutes the dichotomy of structuralism with respect to ontology and epistemology, that is, with respect to socio-cultural phenomena and method? Levi-Strauss knows that a genuine science is primarily method, and that this basically epistemological activity cannot possibly succeed at the ontological level of sensible social experience. Why, then, does he seem to persist in searching for epistemological constructs (laws or theories) at the level of the social facts, much as his empiricist opponents do, when he knows that this is impossible? Hence the paradox of structuralism: L_vi-Strauss is clearly aware of what constitutes good science and yet he seems unable to practice it or at least to carry its implications to their logical conclusions. It is obvious that no contextual situation ever involves constructs based strictly on "what is" or on "what ought to be," for these are limiting parameters, so we are

simply saying that Levi-Strauss has chosen to practice what his ideology dictates to him rather than what he knows science to be. We cannot easily determine his reasons, but may venture to say that they are traditional (and who can entirely escape tradition!) and aesthetic. Levi-Strauss seems unwilling to implement his basically excellent conception of science because he is unwilling to leave the realm of social relations. He is too enamored of the study of social life itself (myth, religion, kinship in the traditional ethnographic sense) to be able to address himself to the methodological implementation of the science that he has so insightfully delineated. Thus, his Mythologiques (L.viStrauss 1964, 1966, 1969) is a magnificent failure as a scientific enterprise, or perhaps it can be more appropriately characterized as a meta-study of myth involving a fundamental mistake: the search for consensus at the object language level, or, if you will, the empirical construction of a theory of myth without the notion of structure as a supra-empirical entity which Levi-Strauss himself theoretically advocates. When one reads Mythologiques, one gets the strange impression that the scientific superstructure of these studies is always pointing in the right direction, and yet that the results are neither scientifically verifiable nor, in Levi-Strauss's context, scientifically adequate. The net assessment of these studies is that Levi-Strauss has not logically come to grips with his own theoretical notions, and that they remain within the realm of ideology. Any future attempt at structuralism along similar lines will result either in another piece of ideological construction without epistemological unity, or in seemingly scientific constructs which lack the mathematical tools for the construction of appropriate calculi of verification. In summary, although Levi-Strauss has a truly Galilean conception of scientific methodology, his adherence to ancient, ideological ideas about qualities and contraries prevents him from producing truly scientific results. To use an analogy from the physical sciences, had physics conceived of heat and

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cold as if they were two different sorts of the other, scientific, side of structuralism. It will not do, then, to examine a structuralist things rather than as arbitrary categories applied to measures of a single physical construction in strictly empirical terms, as entity, it could not have achieved its present empiricist anthropologists are fond of doing results. In the same fashion, as long as when they assert that Levi-Strauss's generalistructuralism does not discard its ideological zations cannot stand the test of particular trappings it will remain only a potentially ethnographic situations. By all means let us adequate scientific framework for the have tests and verification procedures, but conceptualization of socio-cultural phenomnot of the nominal definitional sort which is ena, unable to devise genuine (verifiable) all that empiricist anthropology can achieve. theoretical terms, hence unable to formulate We should learn from structuralism only its concepts by postulation. scientific aspects, its basically sound analytiWe have a case then, in which the cal principles, for its ideological aspects are ideological aspects of structuralism, as we no more adequate than any of the empiricist have termed them, interfere with its approaches. scientific aspects. The same argument can be I have emphasized throughout this paper made against binary opposition, distinctive that structuralism teaches us to conceptufeatures, the theory of infrastructures, and alize socio-cultural phenomena in terms of many lesser conceptual tools in Levi- meta-linguistic levels of analysis. This may Strauss's system. In my opinion, the be a small point to many anthropologists, potential of structuralism as a method for but if the theoretical and methodological formulating genuine theoretical terms in the unity of science is accepted, then it becomes search for concepts by postulation are so of transcendental importance. If we do not evident, that the interference offered by its think in terms of meta-languages (i.e., uniideological aspects should not seriously dimensionally), we shall be unable to formuhamper its use in anthropology. Given these late genuine laws and theories in anthroconsiderations, what does the ideology-scipology. For those who think that the endence dichotomy mean substantively? Two in-view of anthropology is not scientific in things primarily: (1) Levi-Strauss's structurthe above sense, the point will be totally alism cannot, from the anthropological irrelevant. standpoint, be viewed profitably as a kind of philosophy. As such, it is simply another NOTES view of man and his relationship to nature, which has no particular attraction over other li think this basic idea is what such views in the intellectual marketplace. I Levi-Strauss has in mind when he maintains believe that empiricist anthropologists, that at the perceptual level there are no funinstinctively realizing the differences in the damental differences between scientific conscientific foundations of the empiricist structs and the constructs of primitive peojples. approach and of structuralism (and in The science-ideology dichotomy, and defense of their vested interests for no especially the implications of the bifurcation of nature, are discussed at length in my apparent analytical reason), have viewed structuralism as just another philosophy in article "A Comparison of Levi-Strauss's disguise, and for the wrong reasons have Structuralism and Chomsky's Transformational Generative Grammar" (Nutini 1970). rightly concluded that it has no value for the By "reaching consensus about what is" I conduct of anthropological inquiry. (2) mean the verification of a theoretical conStructuralism should not be regarded as struct, or that theories can become realities only at a supra-empirical level of natural another approach to the handling of phenomena. empirical social facts in conceptual contexts 4 One of the best articles on the of that do not involve the bifurcation of the Levi-Strauss's structuralism and genesis the insocio-cultural universe, not in the light of fluences to which it has been subjected is



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Leach's "Claude Levi-Strauss: (1965) Anthropologist and Philosopher." 5 This again is a sound epistemological view of what constitutes modern science, and in this respect Levi-Strauss's structuralism represents a Galilean view of the socio-cultural universe. REFERENCES CITED Leach, Edmund R. 1965 Claude Levi-Strauss: Anthropologist and Philosopher. New Left Review 34, November-December. Levi-Strauss, Claude 1964 Le Cru et le Cuit. Paris: Plon.

1966 Du Miel aux Cendres. Paris: Plon. 1969 L'Origine des Manieres de Table. Paris: Plon. Nutini, Hugo G. 1970 A Comparison of Levi-Strauss's Structuralism and Chomsky's Transformational Generative Grammar. In Essays in Structural Anthropology: in Honor of Claude Levi-Strauss, Hugo G. Nutini, Ira R. Buchler, and Betty Bell, eds. New York: Appleton-CenturyCrofts. (In press) Reichenbach, Hans 1946 Bertrand Russell's Logic. In The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, P. A. Schilpp, ed. The Library of Living Philosophers. Evanston, Illinois.

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