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The Unconscious in the Anthropology of Claude Lbvi-Straussl

IN0 ROSS1
St. John’s University

Levi-Strauss claims that the unconscious activity of mind is more important than
the conscious one for understanding social phenomena and that the unconscious
consists of an aggregate of forms, which are imposed o n psychological and physical
content. The real inspiration of Ldui-Strauss’ notion is the Kantian notion o f mental
constraints and the postulate o f isomorphism of mental and physical laws The
methodological usefulness of the unconscious as a principle o f intelligibility is
placed in evidence.

IN THE LAST TWO DECADES Lkvi- they cannot be taken seriously when they
Strauss’ structuralism has been the focal accuse him of abolishing the notion of mean-
point of controversy among philosophers, ing (Zbid.:571). Sartre is serious enough to
linguists, anthropologists, and other social be given consideration, but the compromise
scientists. Some recent developments of the he offers is defined by LBvi-Strauss as unac-
controversy give the impression that what ceptable dialectics-a fact which leaves him
was an open dialogue is turning into an astonished (r6ueur) (Ibid.:616). Levi-Strauss
attitude of mutual rejection. Phenomenol- submits the most tenacious of his ad-
ogists seem to conclude that their position is versaries, the existentialists, to a caustic scru-
irreconcilable with structuralism (Ricoeur tiny and finds them involved in a self-
1967:11, 30). Some linguists assert that admiration which leads them into an ecstasy
Uvi-Strauss has had a unilateral contact of self-contemplation; the atmosphere of
with linguistics and misinterprets the specific their dialectic smoking room impedes their
c o n t r i bu t i o n s of structural linguistics seeing beyond their local interests ([bid.:
(Mounin 1970: 200-205). Some empirical an- 572).
thropologists seem intended to put an end to On the other side, when Lkvi-Strauss is
a long debate by concluding that structural- reminded that his English and American
ism is not a science but a bricolage whose critics complain about the unverifiability of
structural arrangements are to be taken as an his theories, he makes the gesture “of brush-
expression of “personal whim” (Maybury- ing away a fly” (1971c:40). They still do
Lewis 1969:118-119), or an intellectual not understand that the criterion of proving
game for self-amusement (in LBvi-Strauss something true or false, characteristic of the
1971b:ll). Earlier admirers of Levi-Strauss natural sciences, is not applicable in human
have come to a disagreement with the master sciences. Social scientists deal with repre-
on many issues (for example, Leach 1970) sentations and, therefore, their task cannot
or have been charged by LBvi-Strauss with be one of proving their truth or falsehood
having misunderstood his work (as happened but only of understanding them better and
to Needham) (LQvi-Strauss1969a:xix). LBvi- b e t t e r , a l t h o u g h never definitively
Strauss finds that many of his critics raise (1971b312). To this remark one can reply
objections so worthless that they do not that the question of truth or falsity concerns
deserve to be mentioned by name (Levi- the understanding of social phenomena and
Strauss 1971a:564). Authoritative phe- not the phenomena themselves, and the
nomenologists, such as Ricoeur, are told that question of the validity of LBvi-Strauss’
20
Rossi ] LEVI-STRAUSS: THE UNCONSCIOUS 21
understanding of cultural phenomena has tural analysis (1966b:116). He has also made
still to be faced and given an answer. I will clear that while structural anthropology
return to this question at the end of this merely prepares for the advent of a truly
article. scientific anthropology, it already possesses
Is this polemic stage of the controversy the characteristics of a true science (1971a:
going to lead to an impasse and perhaps to a 133) and enables the social scientist to reach
breaking point? A careful reexamination of a level of intelligibility inaccessible through
the origin of the thinking of LBvi-Straussand an empirical description of facts (Ibid.:614).
a clear understanding of his intentions might Of course, phenomenologists and empir-
prevent this possible outcome and help to ical anthropologists cannot limit themselves
foster an enriching dialogue among struc- to a subsidiary role and challenge Levi-
turalists and social scientists of different Strauss’ scientific pretenses. Empirical an-
epistemological and methodological persua- thropologists insist on the notion that
sions. science must be free from any ideological
The purpose of this article is to clarify commitment and philosophical assumptions,
the historical and theoretical dimensions of while Levi-Strauss describes his anthro-
the fundamental hypothesis of anthropologi- pology a s a quasi-Kantian enterprise
cal structuralism, that is, the notion that (1969b:lO); for many social scientists,
unconscious structures underlie cultural phe- science must be based on scientific experi-
nomena. I will also present a brief overview mentation, while Levi-Strauss claims to dis-
of some of the basic controversies surround- cover unconscious infrastructures, which by
ing this hypothesis and will conclude with their nature seem to elude any experimental
some considerations on its scientific merits. verification. The problem is that many
Levi-Strauss’ remarks on the criterion of empirical social scientists, who define them-
verifiability takes us directly to the heart of selves as “pure” scientists, in actuality know
the debate. On the one side, he is accused by only one notion of science, the one codified
empirical anthropologists of not being a by Francis Bacon and introduced by Comte
scientist and by phenomenologists and into the social sciences. Even some inter-
existentialists of excluding the conscious preters of structuralism follow the posi-
activity of man from his anthropological tivistic method in the neopositivistic version
analysis with the consequence that the struc- of Nagel, Hempel, and Reichenbach (see
tures he discovers amount to the syntactic Nutini 1970, 1971). Neither empirical an-
arrangement of “a discourse which tells thropologists nor neopositivistic interpreters
n o t h i n g ” ( R i c o e u r , i n LQvi-Strauss of structuralism appear to realize that cer-
[1963b:653]; in L’Homme Nu [1971a:571] tain positivistic and behavioristic premises
LBvi-Strauss quotes Ricoeur without men- jeopardize their contention that the method
tioning him by name). On the other side, they advocate is the only and universally
Lkvi-Strauss accuses empirical anthro- valid scientific method. Perhaps anthro-
pologists of using a scientific method still pologists ought to be more cautious and
embedded with mechanism and empiricism realize that they cannot decide about the
(Ibid.:615) and scolds phenomenologists and appropriateness of a scientific method in
existentialists for giving exclusive attention terms of a prioristic criteria but only in
to man, the unbearable and spoiled child terms of a careful definition of the phe-
who has until now impeded any serious nomena under investigation. Unfortunately,
work (Zbid.:614-615). In the past, LBvi- too many empirical and behavioral social
Strauss has suggested that phenomenology scientists have skirted the problem of the
might be useful as a means of verification scientific definition of cultural phenomena;
but not of discovery (1963c:31, 1966a: rather they take for granted that social
253) and that empirical analysis is a sub- phenomena are endowed with external and
sidiary instrument or precondition for struc- objective characteristics which are con-
22 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973

sidered to be a solid basis for scientific tion (Idem). Consequently, the operation of
investigation (see, for example, Jarvie 1971 understanding consists of reducing apparent
contested by Fabian 1971 and Rossi 1972a). reality to its hidden dimension through a
Lki-Strauss deserves credit for having process of decoding (1966d:33). What is,
justified the choice of his method by a then, the relation between rational and
systematic discussion about the symbolic sensory knowledge? Marx and Rousseau
nature of social phenomena. Even though have shown that knowledge in physics and
not all of his conceptualizations are thor- social sciences is not based on sense percep-
oughly clarified or unexceptionably estab- tion, but on the construction of a model
lished, a sound analysis and evaluation of (1965a:61) through which we can interpret
LQvi-Strauss’works is impossible without a empirical reality and discover its uncon-
clear understanding of these conceptualiza- scious infrastructure.
tions. LQvi-Strauss’formulations have raised LQvi-Strauss’ notion of unconscious can-
the discussion on the scientific method to a not be reduced to an arbitrary epistemologi-
sophisticated epistemological level from cal idiosyncrasy, since he claims that this
which the inadequacies of the positivistic notion is present in a specific socio-anthro-
method can be clearly seen; even though pological tradition which is opposed to the
some writers find structuralism to be a more empiricist mode of analysis. There has been
s u b t l e form of positivism (Aubenque a good deal of literature on the issue of the
1971:353ff.), still it must be considered a intellectual antecedents of LQvi-Strauss, but
partial step away from it. there is not always agreement on the relative
Consistent with LQvi-Strauss’own termi- importance of the influence of particular
nology (1971a:614), I use the word epis- thinkers on his works. Some of these intel-
temology to refer to the assumptions con- lectual influences have been denied by LQvi-
cerning the level of reality we know, the Strauss in various private correspondences,
cognitive apparatus by which we know it, while others have been admitted by him
and the theoretical premises which justify with some qualifications (1969b:ll).
the scientific procedures used. I refer to the LQvi-Strauss does not belong to one
operational techniques used in conducting specific anthropological tradition nor to a
the investigation. homogeneous group of traditions. Rather, he
Since his early works, LQvi-Strauss ex- borrows some elements, and not necessarily
plicitly asserts that the epistemological the most important ones, from certain
premises of his anthropology are based on recent theoretical perspectives which are pre-
the rejection of the immediate and sponta- sent in psychology (Gestalt, Freud), soci-
neous evidence as a criterion of truth. As a ology and anthropology (Rousseau, Durk-
consequence, he has questioned the ad- heim, Mauss, Marx), linguistics (Saussure,
equacy of the empiricist method insofar as it Troubetzkoy , Jakobson), philosophy (Kant,
claims to reach reality only through sensory Rousseau), cybernetics (Wiener, Von Neu-
perceptions, and rejects the phenomenologi- mann, Shannon), etc. The elements which
cal and existentialist methods insofar as they LQvi-Straussborrows from these thinkers do
maintain that reality can be reached through not make up a heterogeneous eclecticism
our conscious experience without offering but are organized in a consistent and some-
any guarantee against the illusions of subjec- what flexible epistemological and method-
tivity ( 1965a:61-62).2 ological perspective. However, the highly
LQvi-Strauss compares his own approach personal way by which Levi-Strauss has
to the geological method and claims that his selected, systematized, and applied these ele-
major sources of inspiration are Freud, ments has made it difficult for many social
Marx, and Saussure. These masters have scientists to understand and even label his
shown him that true reality rather than approach to socio-cultural phenomena. Per-
being obvious, evades our efforts of detec- haps one can assert without simplification
Rossi ] LEVI-STRAUSS: THE u~co~sc~ous 23
that the most fundamental notions of Levi- LQvi-Strauss states: “Philosophically I find
Strauss’ structuralism are, at the epis- myself more and more Kantian, not so much
temological theoretical level, the postulate because of the particular content of Kant’s
of the unconscious meaning of cultural doctrine (for the good peace of mind of
reality3 and, at the epistemological method- some Levi-Straussian interpreters!), but
ological level, the notion of structure with rather for the specific way of posing the
the related notions of model and transforma- problem of knowledge. First of all, because
tion. In this paper I am limiting my atten- anthropology appears to me as a philosophy
tion to those intellectual antecedents of of knowledge, a philosophy of concept; I
Levi-Strauss that are important for clarifying think that anthropology can make progress
these fundamental notions of structuralism. only if it is situated at the level of the
As early as 1955, Levi-Strauss explicitly concept” ( 1 9 6 3 ~38).
: Elsewhere, Levi-
mentioned as his sources of inspiration, Strauss quotes Mauss’ assertion that “the
Saussure, Marx, Rousseau, Freud, and, with mental and the social component of social
some reservations Durkheim (1965a:59-63). reality are undistinguishable” ( 1 9 6 6 ~22)
:
In explaining the reason for not choosing the and explains that the raw material of social
individual and its consciousness as the phenomena consists in the common aspects
central perspective of his approach, Levi- of mental structures and institutional
Strauss has very recently mentioned the schemata (1969a:95).
same masters once again. What structuralism LCvi-Strauss’ position is characterized by
wants to accomplish after Rousseau, Marx, the peculiar conception of the symbolic
Durkheim, Saussure, and Freud is to unveil component of culture. LQvi-Strauss, trained
to consciousness an “object other” and more in philosophy at the Sorbonne, finds con-
important than consciousness itself (197 la: genial the task of purifying and continuing
563), that is, its unconscious infrastructure some elements of Durkheimian thought,
or the mechanisms and conditions of its which philosophically was under the pre-
functioning. Since I am discussing the in- dominant influence of Kant (1945:518). In
fluence of the intellectual antecedents of Levi-Strauss’ view both Durkheim and Mauss
Levi-Strauss from the point of view of his insisted on the psychic nature of social
most fundamental epistemological notion, I phenomena, and Durkheim did not limit
follow a systematic rather than a historical himself to stress “the mental side of social
method of exposition. processes” but went so far as to conclude
that they belong to the realm of ideals
I (Zbid.:508-509).
THE NOTION OF UNCONSCIOUS Among the various deficiencies or con-
tradictions of Durkheim’s thinking LCvi-
The symbolic meaning of socio-cultural Strauss mentions his conceptualization of
phenomena is made possible by their uncon- social phenomena. In LQvi-Strauss’ opinion,
scious infrastructure. Durkheim was at his best when he stated
Levi-Strauss has repeatedly refused to that intellectual activity, far from being the
consider structuralism as a philosophy and reflection of social organization, is pre-
has denied having or even being interested in supposed by the latter, and therefore was at
one. However, he participated comfortably his worst when he proposed the opposite
in philosophical roundtable discussions (see view of the primacy of the social over the
Levi-Strauss 1963b) and does not dislike intellectual component of culture. Levi-
interviews with professional philosophers. It Strauss praises Bergson for having clearly
is especially in these circumstances that Lkvi- perceived that the concepts of class and
Strauss’ philosophical training emerges as an opposition are immediate data of the under-
important theoretical component of his an- standing, which are used in the formation of
thropological method. In one such interview, social order; in Levi-Strauss’ view this con-
24 A M E R ICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [ 75,1973

ception constitutes “the foundations of a mechanic explanation, that is, as an explana-


genuine sociological logic” (1967a:96-97). tion which consists in “rethinking (social
In The Savage Mind, LBvi-Strauss has phenomena) in their logical order.” Durk-
somewhat elaborated his idea of “socio- heim advocates this type of sociological
logic” as the basis of sociology (1966a:76). explanation since social phenomena are
He asserts that “the universe is an object of “objectivated systems of ideas.” At the same
thought” (Ibid.:3),and against the Naturalist time, Durkheim also advocates the “method-
school he maintains that natural conditions, ical experiment” to study social facts as if
rather than being passively accepted, are they were “things.” How can we apply both
defined, given meaning, and developed in the dialectical and experimental method?
specific directions. Man reduces natural LBvi-Strauss solves this Durkheimian an-
reality to concepts which are organized into tinomy by saying that the objectified system
an unpredetermined system, and this is the of ideas are unconscious “or that un-
reason why facts are “not of a natural but a conscious psychical structures underlie them
logical order” (1966a:95). L6vi-Strauss and make them possible”; “the unconscious
clarifies the Durkheimian thesis of the social teleology of mind” explains “how social
origin of logical thought by stating that phenomena may present the character of
between social structures and the conceptual meaningful wholes and of structuralized
system there is a dialectical relationship ensembles” because of this basic fact, social
rather than a causal relationship. The rela- phenomena present the character of
tionship between man and universe is the “things,” and at the same time can be
common substratum of the social and intel- treated as ideas to be rethought in their
lectual system, a substratum from which logical order (1945:518, 528, 534). Since it
each one of these systems translates specific is a question of unconscious logical order,
historical and spacial modalities (Ibid.:214). the anthropologist must aim at discovering
One can see here elements of a dialectical the mechanisms of an objectified (un-
view capable of avoiding the shortcomings of conscious) thought on an ethnographic basis
a causal and/or idealistic conception of (1963b3640, 1969b:10-11), that is, at find-
culture. ing out how the human mind works in the
In a famous passage to which we shall most different societies or “incarnated
return later, Lbvi-Strauss explains that the mental activities” ( 1 9 6 3 ~31).
:
human mind mediates between infrastruc- One question immediately arises: where
ture or praxis (man’s activity) and super- should we search for the meaning that LBvi-
structure or practices (cultural institutions) Strauss defines as being the proper concern
by elaborating a conceptual system which is of social anthropology? Does the notion of
a synthesizing operator between ideas and unconscious structures and objectified
facts; through this mediation, facts are thought imply that the meaning of which
turned into signs (1966a:131)> It follows social actors are aware has to be totally
that since “men communicate by means of rejected as a spurious or deceptive meaning?
symbols and signs,” all cultural domains are
“pregnant with meaning,” and the anthro- I1
pologist must work with meaning (1966b:
115). Conscious and unconscious meaning are
Because social phenomena are made both integral parts o f social phenomena;
possible by the fundamental mediation of evidence for the existence o f unconscious
the conceptual schemata and are pregnant meaning.
with meaning, their only suitable explana- LBvi-Strauss recognizes that social facts
tion must be dialectical. In an early theoreti- “are lived by man, and that subjective con-
cal essay, LBvi-Strauss peculiarly defines sciousness is as much a form of their reality
dialectic explanation in opposition to as t h e i r objective characteristics”
Rossi] LEVI-STRAUSS: THE UNCONSCIOUS 25
(1966b:113). In his view, however, the con- that a structure which is statistically demon-
scious level of social processes is the proper strated does not necessarily mean that it is
object of history, while anthropology should unconscious.
be concerned with its “unconscious founda- In support of the notion of the uncon-
tions” (1963a:18). scious dimension of culture, LBvi-Strauss
How does LBvi-Strausssupport the notion could also have referred to Edward Sapir
of an unconscious level of cultural phe- whom he mentions when he discusses the
nomena and unconscious teleology of mind? relationship between language and culture
Postponing the discussion on Levi-Strauss’ (Ibid.:85, 96). Sapir clearly stated that our
contention that these notions are based on individual behavior is influenced by an un-
“the main results of modern psychology and conscious patterning of social behavior
linguistics” (1945:518), let us first focus our which we cannot consciously describe; how-
attention on some of the anthropological ever, while asserting that the individuals are
evidence he utilizes. Boas had already shown not aware of the significance of their behav-
that the structure of language remains un- ior, Sapir excluded the existence of a myste-
known to the speaker until a scientific rious social mind which would find expres-
grammar is introduced (1963a:lg); LQvi- s i o n in individual minds (E. Sapir
Strauss adds that even the linguistic knowl- 1927~121-123).
edge of the scholar “always remains dis- Levi-Strauss does not limit himself to
associated from his experience as a speaking appeal to anthropological authorities; h e also
agent” (Ibid.:57). Boas made clear that not uses ethnological arguments to show that the
only the forms of the phonetic systems but conscious or surface dimension of a cultural
also single sounds are outside the conscious- institution can be adequately accounted for
ness of the speaker; for instance, a terminal s only in terms of its unconscious infrastruc-
does not convey the idea of plurality as a ture. LQvi-Strauss’ discussion of the Murngin
separate entity, but rather as a part of a system offers a classic example of this view.
sound complex. The speaker becomes con- Levi-Strauss argues that the Murngin
scious of single phonetic units only through marriage system originally consisted of four
purposeful analysis (Boas 1968: 19-20). The patrilineal groups which later, intersected by
use of language in general is so automatic matrilineal moieties, became an asymmetrical
that its basic notions rarely emerge into system of eight sections. This implied that
consciousness, while religious practices al- an original system of generalized exchange
most universally become a subject of reflec- had to reproduce twin structures to give the
tion (Ibid .:64). appearance of a system of restricted ex-
Levi-Strauss also comments that Tylor’s change. Since the generalized system estab-
definition of culture includes, among the lished reciprocal relationships between any
other components, habits and unconscious number of partners, and the restrictive sys-
reasons for practicing customs (1963a: 18). tem between two partners or between a
Kroeber had demonstrated that fashion ap- number of partners in multiples of two,
parently seems to follow an arbitrary evolu- these systems can be represented respec-
tion, but in reality it follows definite laws. tively by a three dimensional and a two
Since we rarely notice why the style of dimensional geometric structure. How, then,
fashion changes, the change must “depend can a three dimensional geometrical struc-
on the unconscious activity of the mind”; as ture take the appearance of a two dimen-
a matter of fact, its laws cannot be dis- sional structure? Cartographers solve this
covered by merely empirical observation or problem by representing twice the geo-
intuition, but only by measuring funda- graphical areas at the edges of the map. The
mental relationships between the elements Murngin people in order to conceptualize a
of custom (Ibid.:59). We shall see that system both as a restricted and generalized
Haudricourt would, on the contrary, argue exchange, unconsciously made analogous
26 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973

duplications in their kinship system (1969a: knives. The conclusion is that we do not
189-192). know the origin of this particular custom
LBvi-Strauss argues that the dualistic which may have been caused by entirely
organizations found in the Americas, different reasons than those we give (Zbid.:
Melanesia and Indonesia are superficial dis- 64-65). In LBvi-Strauss’ perspective, one
tortions of more complex structures (1963a: could say that the unconscious reason or
161). The explanations offered by the origin of cultural phenomena is more genu-
natives are not merely a part or reflection of ine and important than the conscious ex-
their social organization, but may show a planation.
lack of awareness of certain characteristics Freud and Marx are the other two
and contradict them; moreover, the explana- masters who have convinced LBvi-Strauss of
tions offered by members of different social the fundamental importance of the uncon-
strata are shown to contradict each other. scious. From Freud he has learned that
Consequently, “the actual functioning of “what is not conscious is more important
these societies is quite different from its than what is conscious” (LBvi-Strauss
superficial appearance” (Ibid.:130-131, 1963b:648), and that “the true meaning is
133).5 not the one we are aware of, but the one
Does this difference imply that the un- hidden behind it” ( 1 9 6 3 ~ 4 1 ) .This belief
conscious functioning is more genuine than has been reinforced by the Marxian creed
the conscious functioning? that “men are always victims of their own as
well as other people’s frauds” (Zbid.:41).
I11 LBvi-Strauss’ thinking can be clarified
further if we consider its relationship with
The unconscious meaning is more impor- French socio-anthropological tradition. Ac-
tant than the conscious one. cording to LBvi-Strauss, Mauss constantly
LBvi-Strauss refers to Boas when he appealed to the unconscious as the common
asserts that “all types of social phenomena and specific character of social facts; “In
(language, beliefs, techniques, and customs) magic, as in religion, as in linguistics, the
have this in common, that their elaboration unconscious ideas are the ones which act”
in the mind is at the level of unconscious (1966c:30). The “unconscious categories”
thought” (1969a:108). Boas made the point for Mauss are not just one component of
that the classificatory concepts of primitives cultural phenomena, but rather their L‘deter-
never rise into consciousness and, therefore, minants” (1966b: 113). LBvi-Strauss com-
must originate in unconscious mental pro- ments on Mauss’ effort in connection with
cesses (Boas 1968:63). Linguistic and other the work of the linguistic school of Prague.
cultural facts are grouped together under At the same time that Mauss wrote “The
certain ideas and categories which are uncon- Gift,” Troubetzkoy and Jakobson with the
scious. Our experience gives evidence of the help of a new operational technique were
unconscious origin of certain clusters of able to distinguish mere phenomenological
activities, such as table manners, habits, and data, which evades scientific analysis, from
a u t o m a t i c repetition of actions. For their simpler infrastructure to which they
example, the danger of cutting the lips is owe all of their reality. It was unfortunate
easily given as the reason for not bringing that Mauss did not apply his new discovery
the table knife to the mouth; however, this in the anthropological analysis of the eth-
explanation is only a “secondary rationalis- nographical material ( 1 9 6 6 ~35).
: Durkheim
tic” explanation, since we know that the and Mauss in surveying the native categories
fork came into being later than the knife, of thought, substituted the conscious repre-
and that in certain areas people use sharply sentations of the natives for those of the
pointed forks no less dangerous than the anthropologist, but in LBvi-Strauss’ opinion
knife, while in other areas people use dull this important step was still inadequate,
Rossi ] LEVI-STRAUSS: T H E UNCONSCIOUS 27

since conscious representations may be quite The Unconscious


remote from unconscious reality (1963a: and Structural Linguistics
282).
Echoing Boas’ formulation, Levi-Strauss Levi-Strauss gives credit to Jakobson and
asserts that the conscious representations of Troubetzkoy for having proved the existence
the natives are “rationalized interpretations” of unconscious linguistic structures (1963a:
of the unconscious categories (1966b: 113) 33, 1966c:35), a contention that, as we shall
or, “a sort of ‘dialectical average’ among a see, has been questioned by more recent
multiplicity of unconscious system” (Ibid.: critics. The linguistic facts that Levi-Straus
117). Consequently, anthropological analysis mentions are mainly related to the phono-
can be scientific only if moved to the level logical level of language. Modern linguistics
of the simpler unconscious infrastructure.6 has discovered the reality of phonemes and
A scientific definition of this infrastructure distinctive features, and has shown that the
becomes a precondition for a sound scien- same pairs of oppositions exist in different
tific analysis. languages (1963a:20). Levi-Strauss explicitly
states that these distinctive features have an
IV objective existence from a psychological as
well as physical point of view; in other
The unconscious activity of mind imposes words, they are not merely theoretical and
structures upon physical and psychic con- methodological devices, as mathematical
text. The aggregate of these structures con- tools of analysis, but rather they provide a
s t i t u t e s t h e unconscious (LCui-Strauss “picture of reality,” as do the Mendelian
1963a:202-203). genetic characteristics (1969a: 109). In the
The term “unconscious” needs clarifica- last volume of Mythologiques, LBvi-Strauss
tion, since it has been used to refer to social contradicts Sartre by asserting that the
behavior which is “unresponsive, indis- oppositions described by linguists are also
criminating, conditional, subliminal, un- present in biological and physical reality; an
attending, unsightless, unremembering, un- objective dialectics is inherent within the
learned, unrecognizing, ignored and unavail- physical world (1971a:616).
able to awareness” (Machotka, in Bowman In Levi-Straus’ view, language is struc-
1965:320). Besides, the philosopher Von tured not only at the phonological level, but
Hartmann saw in the unconscious the also at the grammatical and lexical level, and
primordial foundation of reality, that is, “a even the structure of discourse “is not al-
mysterious and hidden power (which) guides together random” (1963a:85, also 1960:33).
to a definite end and goal, all the phe- Let us examine the argument that he
nomena of the objective real world (nature), develops from what he accepts as established
as well as that of the subjective-ideal linguistic facts.
(mind)” (Damoi 1967:50). The notion that (1) Following the linguistic views of the
unconscious behavior influences our con- Prague school, he conceptualizes phonologi-
scious behavior is even found with poets, cal structures as systems of relations, and the
physicians, essayists, mystics, and in the phoneme as “a bundle of distinctive fea-
philosophies of Schopenhauer and Schelling tures” (1963a:57). For this reason, language
(Whyte 1962). can be analyzed into constituent elements,
Levi-Straws’ notion of the unconscious is which can be organized according to
a product of his interpretation of certain “certain structures of opposition and cor-
elements he claims to borrow from struc- relation” (1963a: 86).
tural linguistics, Freud, Kant and cyber- (2) These relations are constitutive and
netics. One may wonder what kind of sys- determinants of language, since language
tematic notion can emerge from such differ- owes all of its reality to its simple infrastruc-
ent sources. ture, and the infrastructure consists of small
28 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973

and constant relations (1966c:35). For the the brain” (Ibid.:92); since the brain is the
first time, modern phonemics has made pos- basic mediator and constraining influence on
sible a social science capable of formulating human thought (1963c:33), it is easy to
“necessary relations” (1963a: 33), and an- conclude that the unconscious laws of lan-
thropology should emulate its vestiges by guage rigorously determine man’s mode of
trying to establish, like the natural sciences, thinking.
“certain abstract and measurable relations, Were we t o accept these two assumptions
which constitute the basic nature of the as self-evident, from the character of lin-
phenomena under study” (1963a:59). guistic structures we could conclude that
(3) Then, LQvi-Strauss, links this pre- human mind has built-in internal constraints
sumed linguistic evidence to the dynamism by which it structures psychic and physical
of human mind: “Language. . . is human content; since we are unaware of this set of
reason, which has its reasons, and of which constraints or structures, they can properly
man knows nothing” (1966a:252). The laws be called the unconscious infrastructure of
of language “rigorously determine man’s our psychic activity.
way of communicating and therefore, his LQvi-Strauss draws on psychology and
way of thinking” (1963c:43). Linguistics philosophy further to strengthen and clarify
reveals that the basic phenomena, which this notion.
determine the most general forms of mental
life, are to be found at the unconscious level LBvi-Stmuss and Freud S
(1966c:31). It appears that LCvi-Strauss Notion of the Unconscious
makes two crucial assumptions in reaching
such conclusions on the basis of the highly There is no doubt that in his early works
selective linguistic evidence he uses. LCvi-Strauss considers the notion of the un-
The first postulate is that the funda- conscious as a scientific discovery, since he
mental and objective phonemic realities, accepts it as one of the “main results of
which consist of systems of relations, are modern psychology a n d linguistics’’
“the product of unconscious thought pro- (1945:518) and as one of those “method-
cesses” (1963a:58). Obviously, LCvi-Strauss ological instruments” offered by Gestalt and
does not mean simply that we learn, more or phonemics, which alone enables sociology t o
less consciously, collective habits of behavior lay its own path (Ibid.:520). Freud’s concep-
or linguistic patterns, as it is implied by Geza tion of the human psyche is described as an
de Rohan-Csermack’s interpretation of col- example of “experimental study of the
lec t ive u n co nsci ous (Rohan-Csermack facts” which “joins the philosopher’s pre-
1967:145). Instead, LCvi-Strauss says that sentments” in attesting to what things
linguistic phenomena, as well as all other happened and how they happened (1969a:
social phenomena, are “the projection, on 490); “Freud has shown me all the possi-
t h e level of conscious and socialized bilities which are open to a scientific in-
thought, of universal laws which regulate the vestigation of human phenomena”
unconscious activities of the mind” (LBvi- (1963c:42).
Strauss 1963a:59). “ ‘Collective conscious- Certain partial similarities and funda-
ness’ would in the final analysis, be no more mental differences between LQvi-Strauss’and
than the expression, on the level of individ- Freud’s notions of the unconscious can be
ual thought and behavior, of certain time pointed out easily without claiming special
and space modalities of the universal laws expertise in psychoanalysis. We already
which make up the unconscious activity of know from the previous paragraph that LQvi-
the mind” (Zbid.:65). Strauss shares with Freud the conviction
The second basic assumption for LQvi- that a genuine meaning lies behind the ap-
Strauss’ reahoning is that the “ ‘natural basis’ parent one. At times, LCvi-Strauss has per-
of the phonemic system” is “the structure of haps somewhat forced this notion by assert-
Rossi 3 LEVI-STRAUSS: THE UNCONSCIOUS 29
ing that “no meaning has to be accepted at 203). The conception of the unconscious as
its face value,” that “the true meaning . . . is a structuring activity and the related
not that of which men are aware” (Ibid.:41), emphasis on form over content bring into
and that “conscious data are always er- focus the root of the fundamental difference
roneous or illusory” (1972a:76). In fact, an between the structuralist and psychoanalytic
authoritative interpreter of Freud explicitly perspective^.^ Psychoanalysts are interested
says, “Nor is it true that everything uncon- in the question of the individual or collective
scious is the ‘real motor’ of the mind, and origin of myth and in the historical sequence
everything conscious merely a relatively un- of events; on the contrary, LBvi-Strauss con-
important side issue” (Fenichel 1945:15). siders these questions of marginal impor-
One soon realizes that the differences tance, since they deal with the stock of
between Freud’s and LCvi-Strauss’ notions of representations or material of myth, which is
the unconscious are greater than their of secondary interest in relation to the basic
similarities. Freud presented his theory of fact that its structural laws or symbolic
personality in the two major versions of function remain the same (Zbid.:204). LQvi-
conscious, preconscious, unconscious, and Strauss insists on this point once again in the
id, ego, and superego. Commentators seem last volume of Mythofogiques, when he
to agree in characterizing the id as uncon- states that psychoanalysts claim to connect
scious, and ego and superego as partly con- the structure of a collective or individual
scious and partly unconscious, with some work to what they falsely call its origin. This
disagreement in relation to the superego. For approach amounts to reducing certain orders
our purposes, it is sufficient to note that of reality to their content, which is of a
Freud conceived the unconscious as a freely different nature and, therefore, cannot act
floating energy or set of impulses under from the outside on their form without
pressure and striving for discharge. The implying a contradiction. On the contrary,
material (content in LBvi-Strauss’ words) of authentic structuralism aims at seizing, first
the unconscious includes sensations. emo- of all, the intrinsic properties of certain
tions, feelings, and also ideas and concep- orders which do not express anything ex-
tions connected with the goal of averted ternal to them (1971a:561). For Freud,
impulses (Fenichel 1945:15, 17). Con- historical reconstruction was a precondition
sequently, the unconscious is basically a for the restructuring of the psychological
“steam boiler of basic energies” of an in- personality, while for Levi-Strauss the con-
stinctual nature (Allport 1967:145), its con- sideration of structure is the first and self-
ceptual component being only a derivative intelligible question which offers a logical
one. tool to make history intelligible.
Levi-Strauss has a different conception of On the other hand, in his theory of
the unconscious. To him, the unconscious anxiety Freud himself had suggested that
does not refer to emotional content. energy, “certain basic phenomena find their explana-
or principle of activity, but only to a form tion in the permanent structure of the
(or aggregate of forms) empty of any con- human mind, rather than its history.” Then,
tent. Its function is to impose structural laws in Totem and Taboo, Freud showed a his-
upon psychic content, which by itself is torical concern with a wavering attitude
inarticulate and originates elsewhere. The between historical sociology and a more
psychic content constitutes the preconscious modern and scientifically solid attitude,
or the individual lexicon of impulses. emo- which finds knowledge of its past and future
tions, representations, and memories ac- from the analysis of the present (1969a:
cumulated in one’s personal life; the psy- 491-492). The basic concern of structuralism
chological lexicon becomes significant when with structure and form over content solves
it is transformed into language, that is, when many objections and misunderstandings
it is structured by the unconscious (1963a: about Levi-Straus’ presumed neglect for his-
30 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973

tory. Rather than neglect, we should speak theoretical approach with a detailed observa-
of a structuralist conception of history or of tion of the concrete, as well as the impor-
history in terms of its underlying and con- tance given to the symbolic component of
stant structures. culture (Santerre 1966:140). However, one
To sum up the analysis, the priority of wonders whether these generic characteriza-
form over content implies (1)priority of the tions adequately express the specificity of
structural (synchronic) over the diachronic the Freudian approach; besides, it is pre-
perspective, (2) a priority of collective and cisely the question of the origin and func-
universal invariant structures over individual tion of symbolism which characterizes Levi-
constants, and (3) a consequent disinterest S t r a w ’ position and makes it different from
with the therapeutic aspect of psycho- the affective basis of Freudian symbolism.
analysis in favor of a concern for a theory of If, then, LBvi-Strauss conceives the un-
mind (1963b:648). conscious not as psychic content, but as a
Concerning this last point, I must conceptual structure, we must turn our
emphasize a difference between Freud and attention to what the term of conceptual
LQvi-Strauss which is already implicit in structure implies. Certain elements borrowed
what I have said. Freud was primarily in- by Levi-Strauss from Kantian philosophy
terested in the unconscious as an instinctual and cybernetics help to clarify this notion.
energy and in the conceptual component of
psychic life only as its derivative, while Kant and the Unconscious
LCvi-Strauss is interested in the permanent as a Set of Mental Constraints or Categories
and logical structures of mind (1969a: 143,
151). Since Levi-Strauss believes that anthro- The insistence of Levi-Strauss on struc-
pology can make progress only if it becomes tures and on the primacy of the intellect
concerned with “concept” and “understand- immediately reveals the affinity of his think-
ing,” he considers affectivity as the most ing with certain elements of the Kantian way
obscure and incomprehensible side of man of approaching the problem of knowledge
and, therefore, totally inadequate as an ex- (1963c:37). In a 1963 roundtable discussion
planatory factor in social sciences. Emotions with P. Ricoeur and others, Lhi-Strauss
are always a result and consequence of the admitted such affinity and defined his an-
power of the body and of the impotence of thropology as a transposition of the Kantian
the mind. Intellect is the only way left for inquiry into the ethnological field; in fact,
anthropology and psychology (1967a: he wants to discover those “categories” or
69-71). We can, therefore, conclude that fundamental properties which according to
LBvi-Strauss’ insistence in considering Freud Kant always constrain the human mind
as one of his inspirers, is justified only (1963b:630-631, 1963c:29, 38). As late as
insofar as he accepts the Freudian postulate 1972, LBvi-Strauss has reiterated such
that what is unconscious is more important affinity: “I have often claimed kinship with
than what is conscious. In fact, the notion of him (Kant)” (1972a:74). There’is, however,
the unconscious refers to affective motiva- the great difference that Kant proceeds by
tion in the case of Freud and to logical internal introspection and by studying t h e
structures in the case of LQvi-Strauss. After scientific thought of his own specific soci-
all, Boas had already denied certain psycho- ety, while LQvi-Strauss wants to use an
analytic interpretations of the unconscious empirical approach and use material from
(Boas 1920:320). the most contrasting societies in order to
Some commentators have listed various find a kind of common denominator of any
similarities between LBvi-Strauss’ and thinking activity (1969b:lO-11).
Freud’s approach, such as the dynamic While LBvi-Strauss agrees with P. Ricoeur
aspects of the unconscious, the process from that his Kantian notion of the unconscious
the known to the unknown and from what is refers to a mental activity which combines
variable to its invariants, a combination of a and categorizes, he also underlies Ricoeur’s
Rossi J L E VI-STRAuss: THE UNCONSCIOUS 31
statement that his notion of the unconscious and cybernetic component. N o matter how
does not have any connection with a “think- correct this deemphasis might be, the fact
ing subject”; the categories refer t o the still remains that in the last volume of
“given” laws and constraints of mind, that Mythologiques, L’Homme Nu, Lkvi-Strauss
is, to the unconscious system of the basic once again expressed his perspective in semi-
mechanisms of any mental activity. We, Kantian terms. I n fact, he asserts that within
therefore, understand why Lkvi-Strauss is the understanding is built an apparatus of
interested in those conditions by which oppositions which act o n the occasion of
systems of truth are mutually convertible empirical experiences; the conceptual ap-
and simultaneously acceptable to different paratus extracts meaning from the concrete
subjects; since they are universally common situation, which becomes an object of
and unconscious, these conditions have “the thought because it is bent to the imperatives
character of an autonomous object, in- of the formal organization of mind (1971a:
dependent of any subject” (Zbid.:11). 539). This formulation closely echoes the
This Levi-Straussian statement can be un- words of Kant: ‘‘I maintain that the cate-
derstood only within the context of his gories are nothing but the conditions of
semiotic perspective. For Saussure and other thought in a possible experience. . . They
structural linguists, the system has priority are fundamental concepts by which we think
over its components, whose meaning derive objects in general for appearances, and have
from the position within the system. The therefore a priori objective validity . . . To
subject himself is one of the elements of the obtain any knowledge whatsoever. . . we
system and, therefore, he gets meaning from must resort t o experience; b u t is the a priori
the system instead of giving meaning to it. laws that alone can instruct us in regard to
This is, of course, the fundamental point of experience in general, and as to what it is
disagreement between Levi-Strauss and phe- that can be known as an object of experi-
nomenologists, which has taken Lkvi-Strauss ence” (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, in
to task in the long “Finale” of L’Homme Nu Jones 1969:39). The following commentary
(Lkvi-Straws 1 9 7 la). of a popular college textbook might be more
Those anthropologists who might find understandable to the anthropological audi-
Levi-Strauss’ semi-Kantian and semiotic per- ence: “Both in perceiving through t h e senses
spectives difficult to understand would prob- and in knowing through concepts, mind
ably find it helpful t o recall those passages imparts to experience certain necessary con-
where Durkheim expresses an interest in ditions which mind then finds as the uni-
“relating the variable to the permanent” and versal structural framework which prevails
in dealing with collective representations o r throughout experience. Experience is the
categories which are “permanent molds for joint product of material elements which
the mental life” (Durkheim 1961:487, 488, come to mind and formal elements which
492). These assertions bear a striking similar- mind contributes” (Lamprecht 1955:364).
ity to Lkvi-Strauss’ notion of constraints, the As soon as we think we have pinpointed
basic difference being that for Durkheim the Lkvi-Strauss’ thinking, his eclectic perspec-
categories are external molders of mind tive evades us again with t h e introduction of
because of their collective nature, while for new elements. He reinforces t h e oppositional
Lkvi-Strauss they are more Kantian-like component of the categorical apparatus with
internal constraints built within the mind a biological and cybernetic notion of binar-
itself. This difference explains why Lkvi- ism.
Strauss rejects the primacy of the social over
the mental life which is propounded in The unconscious, cybernetic,
certain passages of Durkheim. and the biological perspective
S o m e commentators have been de-
emphasizing the Kantian aspect of Lkvi- P. Ricoeur states that Lkvi-Strauss’ un-
Strauss’ thinking to underline the semiotic conscious does not refer t o a thinking sub-
3‘2 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973
ject and it is “homologous with nature; it features or between distinctive or pertinent
may perhaps be nature” (1969b:ll). To features is called opposition (Waterman
reconcile this interpretation with the some- 1963:69). Jakobson stressed the notion that
what Kantian perspective of LQvi-Strauss, distinctive features are in strict binary
one must remember that LBvi-Strauss con- opposition to one another (Leroy 1967:74).
siders conceptual structures as an epiphe- In L’Homme Nu, LQvi-Strauss reinforces
nomenon of brain structures (1967a:gO) and his binary perspective by observing that the
mental processes subjected to social and genetic code proceeds like language, that is
biological constraints. According to him, a by distinctive combination and opposition
main difference between phenomenology of a small number of elements. The dis-
and structuralism is that the latter studies covery of the genetic code gives an objective
phenomena not in “human minds,” but in reality to the principle of discontinuity,
“societies, or ‘incarnated mental activities’ which is at work within the products of
which are made concrete by their appearing nature as well as in the mind, in order to
in a certain space and time.” Man is sub- restrict the unlimited range of possibilities
jected to an ever growing biological and (1971a:605). LQvi-Straussseemed to exhibit
demographic determinism and, more funda- an ingenious capacity for discovering the
mentally, man’s relationships to the world convergency of Kantian, linguistic, cyber-
are mediated by the instrument he uses to netic, and genetic evidence in support of his
conceptualize them. In this sense, the “struc- notion of mental binary constraints. But,
ture of the brain” is the first constraint how can he infer the existence of mental
imposed on human mental functioning constraints or binary working of mind from
(1963c:31-33). According to Leach, our a presumed binary functioning of the brain?
brain does not perceive all things as they Along with Jakobson and many others,
actually are, but rather it reproduces trans- LBvi-Strauss wholeheartedly accepted the
formations of structures which occur in principle that the most parsimonious explan-
nature and then responds to them; the brain ation is the one closest to the truth. He
must follow its genetically inherited program realizes that this principle rests “upon the
i n t h e f a s h i o n of a computer identity postulated between the laws of the
(1969~547-548). universe and those of the human mind,” and
Leach’s references to the computer are raises a metaphysical problem. LQvi-Strauss
not merely incidental. In The Savage Mind advises Benveniste to put aside the meta-
and Totemism, LQvi-Strauss adopted a physical problem, and emphasizes the scien-
perspective borrowed from Information tific power of this principle which enables
Theory (1966a:19, 154, 268-269), pre- the social scientist to avoid pragmatism,
announced as early as 1953 (Tax et al. formalism, and neo-positivism (1963a: 89,
1953:323). Society is a machine for the 90). Precisely to avoid the empiricism of
exchange of communication; social phe- some contemporary sociologists as well as an
nomena are messages; the structure of lan- outmoded idealism, since 1949 Lbvi-Strauss
guage is a code used to convert messages. As had endorsed the basic premise that “the
the Morse code is based on the binary use of laws of thought ‘primitive or civilized’ are
short and long dashes, so does the brain use the same as those which are expressed in
a binary code. The contribution of structural physical reality and in social reality, which is
linguistics seems to confirm this binary per- itself only one of its aspects” (1969a:451).
spective. Troubetzkoy conceptualized the Is LQvi-Strauss advocating a physical re-
phoneme in terms of the contrastive func- ductionism or just an isomorphism of
tion of sound, that is, in terms of sound mental, social, and physical laws (LQvi-
contrasts which entail different meaning, Strauss 1971a:561, 616, 619)? If the latter,
and defined it as a bundle of distinctive is the isomorphic hypothesis a philosophical
features; the contrast between two pertinent or a scientific hypothesis?
Rossi ] LEVI-STRA USS: THE UNCONSCIOUS 33
V intend to use categorical elements as a
EVALUATION heuristic device. Lkvi-Strauss’ procedure
would be acceptable in this sense, but one
Since Levi-Strauss invokes linguistic, wonders whether this interpretation is com-
psychological, and biological disciplines to patible with Levi-Strauss’ assertion that the
support his notion of unconscious, only a structures formulated by anthropologists in
review of contemporary research in these psychological terms are a tentative approxi-
disciplines can reveal whether his notion has mation of organic and physical realities
the credibility of a scientific truth or at least ( 1971a:6 16).
of a scientific hypothesis. Moreover, not everyone would agree on a
I do not pretend to review all the basic structuralist interpretation of Freud which
literature and much less to resolve issues would exclude his historical perspective.
which are at the core of the most funda- Green, for instance, clearly stated that there
mental controversies in these various dis- is both a historical and a structuralist com-
ciplines. I merely point out the main con- ponent in psychoanalytic thought; Levi-
troversial aspects of Levi-Strauss’ hypothesis Strauss is correct in asserting that historical
and ascertain its scientific potential on the knowledge is reducible to structure in the
basis of its usefulness as a working hypo- sense that any knowledge is subjected to the
thesis in contemporary scientific research. laws of thought, but still there exists a
knowledge which is not knowledge of con-
Psychological Issues science and, therefore, history is present
i n d e p e n d e n t l y of s t r u c t u r e (Green
As far as the Freudian aspect of Levi- 1963:661). Once again, LBvi-Strauss’ posi-
Strauss’ notion of the unconscious is con- tion can be interpreted simply to assert a
cerned, one might raise questions about methodological priority of structure over
Lkvi-Strauss’ modification of the Freudian event, as a starting point of analysis and as a
notion and about its explanatory usefulness. tool of intelligibility. In fact, when Levi-
In answering the first question, one must Strauss agrees with Piaget that structures
consider whether Levi-Strauss’ intellectual- have an origin, he immediately adds that the
ization of the Freudian unconscious can be state previous to a structure must itself be a
justified in terms of psychological evidence. structure. History, then, is produced by a
This is hardly the case, if such a theoretical transformation of structures by other struc-
position claims that the intellectual or cogni- tures, so that the structure remains the first
tive component is the independent and ex- datum (1971a:560-561). In this sense, the
plaining variable of psychic life in its question is one of a methodological attitude
totality. Binet already noted that “thought and not of a logical reductionism; history is
and emotions (conscious and unconscious) not excluded but rather made intelligible
are pervasively tied together, and even sys- through the notion of structure.
tematic introspection cannot dissolve them” However, Levi-Strauss’ epistemological
(Wolf 1969:233). Contemporary psycho- perspective would seem to be incompatible
logists assert that to reduce conscious phe- with the conception of history as a set of
nomena to logical and cognitive components contingencies (Diamond 1964:44), since it
is a serious mistake (Collier 1964). One maintains that historical phenomena are
could reply that Levi-Strauss is not in- adequately accounted for only when we
terested in the totality of psychic dynamism, discover laws which give reason for their
but mainly in its process of categorization. necessary connection (1969a:22-23); the
Yet, certain psychological studies reveal that necessary connection is given, of course, by
motivational elements do influence even this their infrastructure, that is, the underlying
process (Bruner, in Jahoda 1970:44). Jahoda universal and unconscious mental structures.
suggests that Levi-Strauss might simply In actuality, the two perspectives can be
34 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [ 75,1973

considered complementary to each other in (Eysenck 1964:265) and even argue that
the sense that a thorough examination of valid empirical support hardly seems possible
historical contingencies can lead to the dis- because of the difficulty in operationalizing
covery of structural continuities, unless one Freudian concepts. Others find that the
maintains a programmatic exclusion or Freudian postulate is not a parsimonious
meaninglessness of structural continuities. principle, since it implies too many assump-
The difference between these two epis- tions which are not at all needed if one
temological positions has a certain parallel in would adopt the perspective of social learn-
the difference between Sapir’s contention ing theory (Bandura 1969:592), a perspec-
that the structure of culture is a product tive which would avoid apparent contradic-
of mind, and Boas’ contention that the tions inherent in psychoanalytic explana-
form is not a product of the mental dyna- tions (Bandura and Walters 1965:210). It is
mism of the individual but “the result argued also that a more parsimonious and
of i d i o s y nc r a t i c h is t o r i c a 1 factors” meaningful explanation would come from
(Modjeska 1968:345). One might argue that the use of conscious and intentional factors
Sapir differed from Levi-Straws when he instead of unconscious processes (Papa-
temporarily held that the structure of cul- georgis 1965); others assert that intentional
ture is a product of consciousness (Idem).In processes are not only more parsimonious
fact, this seems to leave room for free scientific principles, but must be considered
decisions and historical contingencies, con- as the ultimate laws of human behavior
trary to Levi-Strauss’ contention that history (Knowles 1966). In light of this position we
is the product of the unconscious working of are not surprised to find Sartre rejecting the
the mind. In the “Finale” of L’Homme Nu, Freudian unconscious (Conkling 1968).
Levi-Strauss has clarified his thought in that In a sense, the objection of the un-
he does not exclude the role of freedom in parsimonious character of the unconscious
the historical and cultural development, but might seem more serious than that of its
instead moves his analysis to the funda- untestability, since it can be argued that it is
mental level of the basic structural mechan- arbitrary to demand experimental testability
isms which simultaneously permit and at the for any psychological or sociological con-
same time limit the actualizations of man’s struct. However, psychologists of different
active choices ( 1971a: 612-614). theoretical orientations are ready to defend
If we consider now the question of the the notion of unconscious in terms of empir-
scientific merit of the primacy given by ical evidence and of its scientific usefulness.
Freud and Levi-Strauss to the unconscious Binet already asserted that “there are very
rather than to the conscious level of func- great portions of our psychic life that are by
tioning, we immediately face one of the their very nature inaccessible to conscious-
most controversial issues in contemporary ness” (Binet 1911).More psychoanalytically
social sciences. The negative reaction against oriented psychologists are ready to cite
the primacy, or even the existence, of un- clinical and experimental evidence to sup-
conscious psychic forces has been expressed port the theory of unconscious motivation
in various forms and degrees of intensity. In (Kisker 1964: 117ff.). Herron, for instance,
the opinion of some authors, psychoanalytic offers a systematic review of the literature
premises have assumed the status of dogma, on the unconscious and shows that while
since psychoanalytically oriented psy- some of the meanings attached to the notion
chologists refuse to examine the large body of unconscious are ambiguous, the “behavior
of discrepant data and, therefore, impede which is undiscriminating, subliminal, un-
any scientific progress (Millar 1970). Some remembered, insightless, uncommunicable,
experimental psychologists maintain that or repressed, seems to provide valid evidence
there is no convincing empirical support for for inferring the existence of a dynamic
the existence of unconscious motivation psychological unconscious” (Herron 1962).
Rossi ] LEVI-STRA USS: THE UNCONSCIOUS 35

T h e contemporary psychologist Irving metaempirical analysis has brought upon


Sarnoff, among others, has offered guide- previously scarcely understood cultural
lines for theoretically and methodologically phenomena would further support this con-
sound experimental tests of Freud’s hypo- clusion.
thesis and has expressed the conviction that
“Freud’s theory is surely as worthy as other Linguistic Issues
psychological theories for evaluation by
methods that most completely satisfy the A thorough examination of Lkvi-Strauss’
logical requirements of scientifically ad- use of linguistics is beyond the scope of this
equate evidence” (Sarnoff 1971:vii). G. W. essay. For the convenience of the reader, I
Allport, a psychologist of eclectic orienta- mention a few points directly connected
tion, asserts: “Like other writers I have been with the question of the linguistic structures,
critical of Freud’s depreciation of the role of their binary and unconscious character.
consciousness, but there is a residual truth in Levi-Strauss is not the first to explain
his formulation-especially in accounting for linguistic facts in terms of mental processes.
neurotic trends in personality that are often We have seen that Boas, for instance, argues
due to unconscious motives and unconscious that the presence of certain grammatical
conflicts” (Allport 1967:150). This qualified concepts and classifications of concepts in
support of a “residual truth” of Freudian all languages is the product of the unity of
theory is outdone by a seemingly more fundamental psychological processes; since
generous backing of J. Piaget, author of the they are unconscious they must originate in
“excellent small book” on structuralism (to unconscious or “instinctive” processes of the
quote Levi-Strauss 1971a:560), who asserts mind (Boas 1968:63, 67). Later on, Boas
that psychogenetic studies have shown that attributed the unconscious form of language
“the mechanisms on which the individual not to the unconscious psychoanalytically
subject acts of intelligence depend, are not understood, but to historical factors (1920,
in any way contained by his consciousness, see in Modjeska 1968:345). Sapir shifted his
yet they cannot be explained except in attention from the conscious and accidental
terms of structures” (Piaget 1970:138). A historical factors to the unconscious pattern-
stronger view is held by Fromm, who con- ings of human mind and experience, and to
siders Freud’s theory of unconscious as the an “innate striving for formal elaboration
continuation of the work of Copernicus, a n d expression” (Sapir, in Modjeska
Darwin, and Marx, all of whom attacked 1968:345-347; for additional material on
man’s illusion about his own place in the Boas and Sapir, see Hymes 1964 and Boas
cosmos, in nature, and in society; Freud 1964).8
destroys the myth of conscience as the LQvi-Strauss accepts this notion, and un-
ultimate and unique datum of human experi- der the influence of Jakobson he emphasizes
ence (Arnaud 1971:256). that phonological structures present a binary
As we can see, both critics and supporters and unconscious character. Chomsky main-
differ in the degree of criticism or support of tains that LBvi-Strauss erroneously puts
the Freudian postulate. One conclusion emphasis on the formal aspect of phonologi-
appears to be warranted. The opposition of cal structures rather than on the fact that
many psychologists to the preeminence or few absolute features seem to provide the
even to the existence of the unconscious basis for organizing all phonological systems;
prevents its acceptance as a scientific truth. the structural pattern of phonemes is an
On the other side, the central role that this epiphenomenon, while the important phe-
hypothesis plays in the works of many nomenon to reckon with is the system of
psychologists seems to warrant its status as a rules of t h e s e p a t t e r n s (Chomsky
scientific hypothesis. Moreover, the pre- 1968:65-66). Given Levi-Strauss’ insistence
s u m e d intelligibility that Levi-Strauss’ that culture does not consist only of forms
36 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973

of communication but also of rules of com- a neutral and a mixed term (Barthes
munication (1963a:296), one might wonder 1962:121). More recently, some linguists
whether Chomsky’s criticism is ultimately a have argued that the binary principle is in
question of semantics or of different conflict with the criterion of simplicity pro-
emphasis. posed by Halle and that multivalued features
There is no question that a great deal of may better fit the data without introducing
L6vi-Strauss’ use of linguistic method con- complications (Coubreras 1969:1).
sists in the application of the oppositional While LBvi-Strauss’ binarism continues to
method (1963a, Ch. 12). N. Chomsky and M. find wider and wider application (for a
Halle have defended their own adaptation of Russian example, see Meletinsky and Segal
the Jakobsonian notion of distinctive fea- 1971:99, 114), anthropological literature
tures, since, among other things, it enables abounds with criticisms against the assump
one to build a universal phonetic theory tion of the binary dimensionality not only
(Chomsky and Halle 1965:120). Sebeok ex- of phonological structures and of the brain,
presses the opinion that the Jakobsonian but also of cultural phenomena (see Leach
notion of sound structures, based on the 1970:88ff., among others). In the words of
theory of universal features, is much ahead a contemporary linguist from Budapest, the
of any other kind of previous attempts hypothesis of binary semantic oppositions is
(Sebeok 1968:4), and Bondarko categorical- untenable since semantic oppositions give
ly asserts that “without any doubt the most threefold, fourfold oppositions, etc. (Tar-
economic and systematic description of noczi 1970:82).
phonemes is in terms of distinctive features. Has L&i-Strauss softened his position
At the present time no one will attempt to after so many criticisms? In Mythologique
deny the reality and significance of distinc- Four, he still uses the notion of binary
tive features” (Bondarko 1969:l). operator (1971a:499, 500, 501, 518) and
On the contrary, others doubt whether all binarism (Zbid.:498, 621). Moreover, LBvi-
phonemic systems can be described ad- Strauss supports his basic binarism with
equately in terms of Jakobsonian distinctive recent empirical research on the oppositional
features (see Scheffler 1966:73), while and binary character of visual perception
others, in denying that auditory Jakobsonian (Ibid.:619). Linguists assert that feature
features can provide a universal framework analysis has been demonstrated for visual
at the articulatory level and at the sys- perception, even though little research has
tematic phonemic level, make the suggestion been done on aural perception (Lehman
that phonologists had “better bum their 1971:273). Lbvi-Strauss finds support for
phonetic books and turn to a genuine ab- the Jakobson and Troubetzkoy’s views even
stract framework” (Fudge 1967:23-26). from the molecular structure of the genetic
In the words of N. Chomsky and M. code, which is ultimately composed of a
Halle, “each feature corresponds to a pair of finite set of discrete units (1971a:612).
opposed categories” (1965: 121). All lin- At the same time, L6vi-Strauss seems to
guists agree in using phonological opposi- adopt a less rigid attitude when, for instance,
tions in linguistic analysis even when they do he suggests a possible alternative interpreta-
not use the concept of opposition, but they tion to binarism in terms of triadic opposi-
are far from accepting the idea that the tions (Ibid.:501) or recognizes the impor-
oppositions are always binary (Mounin tance of the neutral term in his explanation
1972). The rigorous binarism of Jakobson of “mana” (1966c:50). For a long time,
and of the early LOvi-Strauss has attracted a Lki-Strauss’ notion of “opposition” has
widespread criticism since a three valued been criticized because it encompasses the
dimensionality may be a more satisfactory much larger categories of “difference”; how-
alternative (Scheffler 1966:73); Jakobson ever, in asserting that the apprehension of
himself has introduced in the binary scheme the “other” as an opposition is an absolute
Rossi ] LE VI-STRAuss: THE UNCONSCIOUS 31

truth, Lkvi-Strauss has recently explained damental failure of Jakobson consists in not
that the world is essentially a “disparity” having connected the notion of opposition to
and that myth dissects the world by means that of function. For instance, in Sanskrit the
of distinctions, contrasts, and oppositions simple p and aspirated p are two phonemes
(Ibid.:607). We can conclude that LBvi- because they have the function of distin-
Strauss adopts a flexible binarism integrated guishing two different meanings, while in
with a tridimensionality (Ibid.:617). In the English they do not have this function and,
ultimate analysis, binarism is used as a parsi- therefow, their opposition is not distinctive.
monious hypothesis to be used insofar as it Since Levi-Strauss followed Jakobson, Levi-
works without excluding a multidimensional Strauss has made the same mistake of not
approach when the latter fits the data better. looking for the function of his oppositions
I t is usually agreed that Levi-Strauss’ in the cultural domain; consequently, he
basic methodological perspective is derived lacks a criterion to assert that his differ-
from the linguistic school of Prague. Yet, ences are relevant. Levi-Strauss might be
Mounin has recently offered a drastic criti- anthropologically right, but he certainly uses
cism of the linguistic foundations claimed by mistaken linguistic figures (Mounin 1972).
Levi-Strauss. Of the four basic operations Some of the linguists I have consulted agree
attributed by Levi-Straus to Troubetzkoy’s with Mounin’s criticisms, while others argue
structural method (insistence on relation- that Mounin follows the linguistics school of
ship, the notion of system, the notion of Martinet and is unfair to Jakobson; more-
general laws and the shift to the study of the over, his understanding of Saussure would
u n c o n s c i o u s infrastructure: 1963a: 33), reflect the interpretation of the French
Mounin asserts that the second and third academic circles (Rey 1972); still others
notions originally came from Saussure and disagree with Mounin and assert that LCvi-
not from Troubetzkoy,’ and the first and Strauss has worked in an appropriate,
second notions are not two but one notion; phonological framework and has shown the
moreover, since linguists have always studied function of his oppositions (Durbin 1972).
habitual and not conscious processes,’ the As far as Levi-Strauss is concerned, he
fourth notion and the connection between does not seem to take the credentials of
Freud and Troubetzkoy is a product of some of his critics too seriously and leaves
Levi-Strauss’ misreading; the remaining two the solution of linguistic disputes and inter-
notions of structure and opposition which pretations to linguists! ’ The ethnographic
Levi-Strauss would have borrowed from evidence and ethnological conclusions
structural phonology are not at all specifical- reached in his long career would seem to
ly linguistic notions, as Troubetzkoy and excuse him from supporting his basic hypo-
Sausure themselves had already seen (Mou- thesis in terms of linguistic and, we shall see,
nin 1970:201-203). Mounin’s radical criti- of psychological arguments. In a sense,
que, which is directed to many other pre- Livi-Strauss’ contacts with linguistics or
sumed misperceptions of LQvi-Strauss,might psychology can be interpreted more as
puzzle those anthropologists who have been fortuitous circumstances which stimulated
trained to take Livi-Strauss’ linguistic cre- the formulation of his perspective than
dentials seriously. as influences to be taken in the literal
The reader has to realize that a great part s e n s e of t h e word. The question of
of Mounin’s critique comes from his opposi- whether the notions of structure, opposi-
tion to Jakobsonian linguistics. For instance, tion, and unconscious infrastructure are
he disagrees with Jakobson’s belief that derived from structural linguistics or some
there exists a kind of Mendeleieffs univer- other linguistic school would seem to be a
sal table of phonological traits, a belief marginal historical question for the purpose
which, according to Mounin, is shared by of interpreting L6vi-Strauss’ work. The con-
few linguists. In Mounin’s view, another fun- tention that these notions do not have any
38 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [ 75,1973

linguistic support, combined with the thin Chomsky asserts that “it is perfectly possible
similarity with psychoanalytic notions, that a particular grammar is acquired by
seems to make of Levi-Strauss’ notion of differentiation of a mixed innate scheme,
unconscious a somewhat Kantian and a rather than by slow growth of new items,
basically cybernetic notion. Haudricourt patterns or associations” (1966: 19). Piaget,
asserts that linguistic phonological infra- however, rightly states that LQvi-Strauss’un-
structures have statistical value but that their conscious activity is not the “innate reason”
unconscious character has different degrees of Chomsky, but a system of schemata
and, at certain times and places, they are intercalated between infrastructures and su-
clearly conscious both for internal and ex- perstructures (1970: 111). In other words,
ternal reasons (Haudricourt 1970:606-608). there are no innate rules but a mind which,
If it is true that linguistics is interested in through a dissecting and combining activity,
arriving “at the structure which lies behind imposes structures to empirical facts. Every-
the behavior of language-users” and not in thing is governed by the mind through
mere “game-playing’’ (Fry 1971:6), it also general operations without a need of special-
seems true that this structure can be ad- ized and innate mechanisms (Sperber
equately conceived in statistical terms. 1968:234-237).
Since LQvi-Strauss asserts that he has Levi-Strauss is likely to puzzle his ad-
derived his linguistic inspiration mainly from mirers with his recent shift away from (or
the phonetic school of Prague (or Jakobson, perhaps clarification of) the notion of im-
as the case might be), I will bypass the mutable and universal structures (1969a:
discussion on LQvi-Strauss’assertion of the 491) to the notion of absolute structures as
structural character of language at the gram- “generative matrices by successive deforma-
matical level; the structural study of the tions” (1971a:33). LQvi-Strauss has made
grammatical, and especially semantic level of this recent statement under the pressure of
language, is less advanced, and the opinions Piaget, who considers psychological reality
of linguists are even more sharply divided as a permanent construction rather than as
than they are in relation to the structural an accumulation of already made structures.
quality of the phonological level. As an LBvi-Strauss comments that he has never
example, we can turn our attention once conceived human nature as a set of totally
more to the linguist from Budapest, who set up and immutable structures, but rather
asserts that “the structure is the product of a as matrices generating structures which, even
theory imposed a priori to the analyzed though they derive from the same complex,
object” and that the attempts to unveil the do change during the life of individuals and
semantic structure of language will never throughout societies (Ibid.:561). While this
give more than conceptual structure rather clarification of the notion of structure might
than formal structure, which is the specific puzzle some structuralists, it seems to differ-
goal of linguistics; to suppose that under a entiate Levi-Strauss’ position from the in-
heterogeneous linguistic system there exists natist position. I may dispense, therefore,
a hidden coherent substructure is to invoke a with the task of discussing the enormous
third level of abstraction and cultivate a pure literature on the innatist controversy spear-
illusion (Tarnoczi 1970:81, 82). headed by Chomsky and Lenneberg, to
In this linguistic context, one more aspect name just two prominent authors (for a
of Levi-Strauss’ position would seem to recent review, see Wardlaugh 1971), and on
deserve consideration. Given Levi-Strauss’ the question of innate mapping mechanism
assertion that logical structures are a projec- and Lailguage Acquisition Device (see Von
tion of mind, one might wonder whether the Raffler Engel 1970).’
contemporary debate on the supposed in-
natism of linguistic structures might be rele- Neuroph ysiological research
vant here. Strictly speaking it is not. and the unconscious.
Rossi ] LE VI-STRAuss: THE UNCONSCIOUS 39

Levi-Strauss’ reference to the structure of In connection with Levi-Strauss’ in-


the brain as the natural basis of the sistence on the brain, we must clarify the
phonemic system (1963a:92, 94) is in question of Levi-Strauss’ supposed biological
harmony with the marked interest of recent reductionism. It seems that already in The
phonetics in the neurophysiological pro- Savage Mind Levi-Strauss avoided the re-
cesses. Earlier, Jakobson had emphasized the ductionist shortcoming when h e asserted
acoustic aspect of distinctive features, but that the unconscious teleology rests on the
lately he has turned his attention to their interplay of psychological mechanisms with
articulatory aspect; since what is happening the biological mechanisms of the brain,
in the language has a neurophysiological lesions, and internal secretions (1966a:252).
counterpart in the brain, the language In Mythologiques Four, Levi-Strauss ex-
generator, the attention is directed to the plicitly intends to avoid a reductionist posi-
brain with the hope of discovering the un- tion, since he declares that structuralism is
derlying mechanisms of speech production interested in structures conceived as intrinsic
(Kim 1971:35). Unfortunately, phonologists properties of certain orders and not as ex-
must rely on neurologists who do not know pressions of anything external to them. If
much about linguistics and who have not yet one absolutely wants to relate structures to
turned out much material in this area in something external, we must resort to
general and, to Jakobson’s own admission, cerebral organization conceived as a network
on the problems of aphasia in particular of which ideological systems translate only
(Tikofsky 1970:23). It is held that the lin- some properties in terms of a particular
guistic system is a patterning imposed by the structure (1971a:561). Structuralist ideas
brain on sensory and motor activity; the are psychological formulations, which might
brain uses the store of information about the be nothing else but tentative approximations
system to encode speech to be sent out and of organic and physical truths (Ibid.:616)
to decode speech which comes in. However, brought to the surface of the conscious
we do not have a direct access to the (Ibid.:619). In the context of this same
patterns of the brain’s neural activity and, passage of The Savage Mind, these assertions
therefore, we have to rely on the study of do not imply a direct and exclusive deriva-
the correlation between the patterns of tion of mental from biological structures,
phonetic and linguistic behavior on the one but rather a difference between brain and
side, and the patterns visible in physiological, ideological structures, organic and psychic
acoustic, and perceptual data on the other truths, mind and body; all that is affirmed is
side (Fry 1971:8-9). Some scholars are con- their parallel or isomorphic structure, and
fident that we will eventually know what in the basic unity of mind and body in opposi-
the brain gives man his capacity for lan- tion to the old dualism (Levi-Strauss 1972b).
guage, even though now it is too early to tell As Green observes, chemical combinations
(Lenneberg 1971:20). As of now, it seems are unlimited in number (1963:651), and
clear that the features do not correspond mental structures realize only a few of these
one to one to particular muscles, and the combinations, as a product, we should add,
question of the physiological basis of phono- of the interaction of the unconscious tele-
logical features is a matter of speculation ology of mind (itself an interplay of psycho-
(Lieberman 1970:320). We, therefore, can logical and biological processes) with
conclude that Levi-Strauss’ reference to the physical reality.
brain for the purpose of explaining phono- While discussing neurophysiological re-
logical structure has some scientific verisi- search, I briefly mention whether it has
mility among some contemporary phono- brought any evidence to bear on the ques-
logists, even though the specific operational- tion of the conscious versus the unconscious
ization of the hypothesis demands a great level of mental functioning. Recent research
deal more research. has shown that consciousness is a measurable
40 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973

state of the neural system and that it is the VII


most important factor in giving informa-
tional value to sensory and motor messages Let us now consider the unconscious as a
(Bergstrom 1967:442). The biologist R. W. theory of mind and as a methodological
Sperry, who has tackled this problem in a hypothesis.
series of studies, notices that most con-
temporary behavioral scientists do not have A Modemte Position
any place for conscious experience in brain
processes and resist the idea that the The previous discussion shows that if
electro-physico-chemical events of the brain LBvi-Strauss’ notion of binary and uncon-
are influenced by conscious forces; accord- scious working of mind is not a mere a
ing to them, a complete explanation of brain prioristic and arbitrary speculation, its
functions is possible without referring to scientific and parsimonious value is far from
conscious mental states; at most, conscious- having universal scientific support. It is per-
ness is considered an inner aspect of the haps because of this that, when directly
brain process, an epiphenomenon, an asked, LBvi-Strauss presents a moderate ver-
impotent by-product, or an artifact of sion of his notion of unconscious. Recently,
semantics, and, finally, a pseudoproblem. to the question of whether he considers the
Yet, Sperry is convinced on the basis of his unconscious as a postulate, a reality, or a
own research that experienced conscious principle of intelligibility, LBvi-Strauss re-
phenomena have a causal influence on plied that it is up to the psychologists to
cerebral excitation and are an essential part decide on this matter. He declares himself
of brain processes. The influence is recipro- satisfied with the fact that there are things
cal in the sense that subjective mental states going on in the brain’s processes without the
govern the flow of the nerve impulse traffic awareness of the self.I4 Apparently the
and, at the same time, the conscious prop- statement can be interpreted to mean that
erties of cerebral patterns directly depend even if current linguistic, psychological, and
on the action of the neural component; it is, neurophysiological research would seriously
however, clear that conscious phenomena question, and possibly disprove, the preemi-
are in a position of higher command. nence of the unconscious level of mental
Sperry’s interpretation of his own neurologi- functioning over the conscious one, his own
cal research has also something to say on the enterprise would still be warranted by the
question of biological reductionism. He ex- existence of at least some unconscious
cludes a mere materialistic position, since he processes somehow connected with the func-
admits the existence of powerful mental tioning of the’brain (see also his even more
forms, which transcend material forces in radical departure from previous positions in
the functioning of the brain; he excludes LBvi-Strauss 1971d; see note 6). After all, he
also a merely mentalistic position, since objects only to giving exclusive attention to
mental forces cannot exist apart from the the person and to conscious intentionality
brain processes of which they are a direct (1971a:615), and perhaps his overall empha-
property (Sperry 1969:532-534). This posi- sis on the unconscious processes must be
tion seems to offer an appropriate interpre- interpreted more as a methodological re-
tative framework to LBvi-Strauss’ perspec- action than as an ontological position.
tive, which, if it is examined in its totality One realizes, however, the importance of
would seem to make room for both mental the ontological perspective in LQvi-Strauss’
and biological processes, notwithstanding works. He wants to make of anthropology a
the seemingly reductionist flavor of certain scientific discipline since he wants to dis-
of his formulations (see 1967a:90).’ cover “a number of rigorous relations as
Rossi] LEVI-STRAUSS: THE UNCONSCIOUS 41

those which regulate natural sciences.” How- existence of linguistic and mental structures,
ever, to succeed in this, Levi-Strauss must how could we consider them as the only
formulate philosophical hypotheses and adequate explanation of universal cultural
postulates; “I formulate them, and I am structures without falling into a psychologi-
aware of it: may be the difference which cal reductionism?
separates me from my colleague ethnologists How far Levi-Strauss is from such a form
is my greater awareness of how much I have of reductionism is shown by the care with
to sacrifice to philosophy” (1963c:36). which he avoids a merely mentalistic or
Ultimately, much of the criticism of “empir- materialistic explanation. He rejects the accu-
ical” anthropology to structuralism is a sation of idealism (1969b:9,1972b) aswellas
question of choosing between structuralist the notion that cultural institutions originate
and positivistic or behaviorist assumptions. directly from their infrastructure, by elabo-
rating a theory of superstructure which is
The Unconscious missing in Marx; between man’s activity and
as Theory of Mind and of Culture cultural institutions there exists the media-
tion of a conceptual scheme, or the dialectic
As a psychological theory, LQvi-Strauss’ of superstructure, which sets up facts in con-
notion of unconscious has been attacked for trasting pairs and turns them into signs; in
its ontological or ideological character. The this way, it is elaborated a system which is
question is whether we must conceive struc- “a synthesizing operator between ideas and
tures and models as ontological realities or facts” (1966a:130-131). This does not imply
just as methodological heuristic tools. LQvi- that ideology gives rise to social relations
Strauss has expressively argued for the (Ibid.:ll7) or that social categories are a re-
second interpretation (1965c:18), but all his sult of social structure, as Durkheim states;
epistemological and theoretical discourse rather, social structure and ideology in a pro-
also clearly implies their ontological con- cess of mutual adjustment translate certain
ception. This has been explicitly stated in the historical and local modalities of the relation
Finale of L’Homme Nu (1971a). between man and world, which are their
Some authors easily conclude to a dichot- common substratum (Ibid.:214). This view
omy or contradiction between the ontologi- can be considered a satisfactory beginning of
cal ideology and epistemological ideology of a theory of culture, which accounts for the
Levi-Strauss (for an example of such pre- specificity of the symbolic element and
sumed contradiction, see Nutini 1971), integrates the individual (biological and
while the point can easily be made that psychological), cultural, and historical varia-
L6vi-Strauss’ ontological premises might turn bles in a unified framework. Once again, a
out to show the plausibility of his epis- global interpretation of LBvi-Strauss’ posi-
temological and methodological views, as tion is the only appropriate context for a
some recent developments in physics might right interpretation of apparently reduc-
lead one to believe (Rossi 1972b). However, tionist passages of his notion of culture (see,
not the discovery of binary neurological pro- for instance, 1969a:xxx).
cesses correlated with phonetic or perceptual
processes, nor the discovery of ultimate The Unconscious
structural components of physical reality, as Methodological Hypothesis
seem sufficient to prove by themselves the
existence of universal mental structures Were we to dismiss the notion of uncon-
without falling into a neurological or physi- scious as an ontological position, as some
ological reductionism. Moreover, even as- structuralists are seemingly inclined to do,
suming that we could prove definitely the the unconscious would still retain great
42 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973
importance and relevance as a methodologi- categories (1966b:113-114). Once we have
cal hypothesis and principle of intelligibility. discovered the unconscious we have reached
“If, as we believe to be the case, the uncon- the basic mechanisms which are common to
scious activity of the mind consists in “us” and to “others,” and therefore we have
imposing form upon content, and if these established a real communication and media-
forms are fundamentally the same for all tion between us and them ( 1 9 6 6 ~ 3 1 ) .Of
minds. . . it is necessary and sufficient to course, this would bring a solution not only
grasp the unconscious structure underlying to the problem of communication between
each institution and each custom, in order to people of the same culture, but also between
obtain a principle of interpretation valid for the anthropologist and the natives of a dif-
other institutions and other customs” ferent culture. One might be tempted to
(1963a:21). characterize this thinking as a sheer and
In this sense, the unconscious becomes a gratuitous speculation, but if we conceive
methodological device which enables one to anthropological analysis as an understanding
give a unifying intelligibility to apparently of mental representations by the use of our
heterogeneous and incoherent social phe- own mental activity, we can see that our
nomena; however, its scientific value can be understanding is validated only when we
perceived only if we divest ourselves of the discover the universal mental categories or,
positivistic perspective and we understand it in L6vi-Strauss’ terms, the logical structures
in terms of (1) the structuralist epistemologi- underlying both observable cultural phe-
cal premises, (2) the scientific definition of nomena and our own psychic activity; this is
the symbolic character of cultural phe- the reason why the structuralist is interested
nomena, (3) the methodological advantages not in the particular modalities of culture
of this hypothesis. Since I have already and in the content of mental activities, but
illustrated the first two points, let us briefly in their underlying, binary and constraining
discuss the last one. categories.
Lhi-Strauss does not avoid the problem Perhaps we can push our analysis a little
of how to validate the analysis made by the further. LBvi-Strauss asserts that structural-
ethnographer. As Mauss did before him, ism has the ambition of launching a bridge
LBvi-St rau ss conceives anthropological between sensory and intelligible knowledge
interpretation as an intersection of two sub- rather than sacrificing one at the expense of
jectivities (1969b:13); as suggested by Rous- the other (1971a:618). The unconscious can
seau (LBvi-Strauss 1967a:101), through a be considered a bridge between sensory and
process of identification we relive the experi- rational knowledge in the sense that the
ence of the protagonists and, in so doing, we unconscious mechanisms of mind are the
bring to light an object which is objectively real foundation and condition of both ex-
very remote and subjectively very concrete. periential and rational conscious processes
LQvi-Straussaccepts such understanding and (see LBvi-Strauss’ remarks on the role of the
empathy as a supplementary form of proof, unconscious linguistic code as a precondition
or as a guarantee rather than a proof. How- for the enunciation of conscious discourse
ever, we can never really identify with the Zbid. :6 12-613).
“other” or we will never know whether the
“other” makes of his social experience the Does L4vi-Stmuss ’ Notion of Unconscious
Same synthesis as the observer. At the end of Exclude Conscious Intentionality
fieldwork, the anthropologist will not meet and the Relevance of
himself or the “other,” but by superposing Phenomenological Analysis?
himself on the “other” he will reveal the
more universal and more real facts of general There is one last puzzling issue which
functioning, at the condition that he has appears to be a serious obstacle in the way
carried the analysis up to the unconscious of accepting structuralism as a sound
Rossi J LEVI-STRA uss: T H E UNCONSCIOUS 43
methodological approach. What is the rela- encompassing rationality. The great merit of
tionship between the unconscious infrastruc- structuralism consists in finding the unity
ture and the conscious superstructure? The and coherence existing behind social phe-
quarrel of the existentialists, phenomenol- nomena not only by focusing on the rela-
ogists, and dialecticians is with Levi-Strauss’ tionship between facts rather than on facts
explicit bypassing, if not rejection, of the themselves, but also by reintegrating man
conscious level of meaning in order to dis- into nature (Ibid.:614).
cover its unconscious foundation. It would One can understand the reason for stress-
be simplistic to assert that L6vi-Straws does ing the intrinsic intelligibility of reality and
not recognize any value to conscious inten- the essential link of man with nature, but
tionality, as one often gets the impression would also like to see made an attempt to
from certain interpreters. Besides recogniz- relate the conscious level of human function-
ing the genuineness of the conscious com- ing to its unconscious structures. In all fair-
ponent of reality (see Rossi 1973), Lkvi- ness, Lkvi-Strauss’ latest emphasis on the
Strauss has repeatedly recognized also its proportionality between mind and the real-
methodological relevance as a supplementary ity which becomes known, and on the
form of proof or verification (1963c:31, isomorphism of mental and cerebral ap-
1966a:253, 1966b:110-113). Lkvi-Strauss paratuses, still leaves room for phenomenol-
has clearly asserted that meaning is not only ogical analysis as a preliminary and verifying
intentional, since the receiver of the message phase of structural analysis. In fact, he is
has to perceive it and understand it, and in against relegating the object of sciences
doing so he casts it in his own mold “entirely” to the level where the subject
(1965b:126). The preoccupation with the perceives it (Ibid.:570) and against making
unconscious is a preoccupation with dis- of man an object of “exclusive attention”
covering the basic structures, which are com- (Ibid.:615). Lkvi-Strauss himself seems to
mon to the mental mold of the sender and use phenomenology as a kind of verification
of the receiver of the message, and which of his own structural analysis when he
enable a genuine intersection of two in- asserts that structuralism brings to the sur-
tentionalities. In this sense, the unconscious face of conscience deep and organic truth,
is the only guarantee of objectivity of phe- and “only those who practice it know by
nomenological analysis itself and the in- intimate experience the impression of full-
trinsic link which would make of phe- ness given by its practice, a practice by
nomenology an essential complement of which mind experiences a true communica-
structural analysis rather than its mere ex- tion with the body” (Ibid.:619).
ternal verification (see Rossi 1972a).
Obviously, Levi-Strauss is not interested VII
in elaborating such theoretical methodologi- CONCLUSION
cal integration. The epistemological thrust of
his latest effort is aimed at reinstating and Perhaps three conclusive remarks are in
partially clarifying his position, and in re- order. Empirically minded social scientists
buffing existentialist (1971a:614) and phe- should start reflecting on their own epis-
nomenological critiques (Ibid.:571). LQvi- temological premises and realize after the
Strauss states that what we call progress of advent of psychoanalysis and ethnosemantic
conscience is a process of interiorization of a school of anthropology that we might gain
rationality which preexists in two forms, one further insight into the symbolic level of
immanent in the universe and enabling culture by moving the analysis to its uncon-
thought to reach reality, and the other pre- scious infrastructure. The fact that they
sent in the objective thought, which func- might be unprepared for this type of analysis
tions rationally and autonomously before does not abolish the possibility that intuitive
subjugating and making subjective this analysis might still have an important role in
44 AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST [75,1973

social sciences. As far as their preoccupation For the fundamental importance of the
with verification is concerned, they should notion of unconscious in LBvi-Strauss’ struc-
take notice of L6vi-Strauss’ remarks that the turalism see Y. Simonis (1968: Ch. 3 and
1973).
criteria of verifiability of physical sciences
LBvi-Strauss has characterized his in-
are not applicable in the human sciences terest in the basic mental structures as a
(1971b:12), and that structuralism, even psy c ho-logic” (LBvi-Strauss 1972a:74);
though recognizes its “pre-scientific” stage, however, since they mediate between infra-
has its own internal (1971c:40) and external structure and superstructure they lay the
criteria of validity (1965b: 126). Second, foundation of sociology or “socio-logic”
(LBvi-Strauss 1966a:76). Barthes clearly
those structuralists who believe in the scien- explained why LBvi-Strauss’ socio-logic has
tific potential of LBvi-Strauss’ notions (see to be understood as a semiology or sociology
Nutini 1971) should start working on their of signs rather than as the traditional soci-
methodological implementation. Finally, ology of symbols (Barthes 1962:119-120).
On the cybernetic conceptualization of
structuralists and phenomenologists should social phenomena as messages, see among
begin to look more seriously at possible o t h e r passages LBvi-Strauss (1966a:
points of complementarities between their 267-268, Wilden 1972). On the structuralist
respective perspectives with the goal of notion of meaning as opposed ._ to the phe-
formulating a more adequate theoretical and nomenological notion, see LBvi-Strauss
(1963b, 197l a : 57 Off. ).
methodological perspective. They have the
David Sapir (1972) has made the com-
legitimate right of choosing for their analysis ment that LBvi-Strauss readily uses native
either the conscious or the unconscious level ideas in explaining myths, while he ignores
of meaning, but the very point of their them when they are not suited for his
differences might well be changed from what purposes. It is D. Sapir’s contention that a
“fine-grained” analysis necessitates such con-
seems an apparent mutual rejection into a scious “meta-information.”
connecting link between two levels of reality ‘However, Simonis has called my atten-
and two relative methodological perspec- tion to a recent text where LBvi-Strauss
tives. This, after all, does not seem to be states: “After all, if customs of neighboring
alien from the programmatic integration of people reveal relations of symmetry, one
does not have to look for a cause in a
essence and form, method and reality somewhat mysterious law of nature or mind.
advocated by Lbvi-Strauss himself (1967a: This geometric perfection presently sums up
91). more or less conscious but innumerable
efforts accumulated by history and all aimed
at the same end . . .” (1971d:177). Simonis
rightly remarks that this passage “seems to
NOTES indicate a certain prudence (or a certain
evolution!) of the author (LBvi-Strauss) in
‘An earlier and shorter version of this his thesis on the unconscious and the human
paper was presented at the symposium on mind” (Simonis 1972). See also LBvi-Strauss
“The Unconscious in LBvi-Strauss’ Anthro- 1965c.
pology,” organized and chaired by the 7The precedence given to form over
author, at the 69th Annual Meeting of the content (1963a:202) has to be interpreted
American Anthropological Association, San not as a formalistic opposition of form
Diego, California, on November 20, 1970. I against content, which LBvi-Strauss rightly
acknowledge the helpful suggestions and rejects in his critique of Propp (LBvi-Strauss
comments that I have received on the short- 1960). David Sapir rightly observes that at
er version of this paper from Pierre Maranda, least in the Mythologiques, “the structure of
Bob Scholte, Yvan Simonis, Stephen A. content as expressed in a dialectic defines
Tyler, and on the longer version of the paper the overall form” (D. Sapir 1972). LBvi-
from Georges Mounin and David Sapir. Strauss has very recently reiterated the basic
‘1 fully discuss the epistemological and d i f f e r e n c e b e tween structuralism and
methodological foundations of the struc- psychoanalysis by asserting that “for
turalist method in the Introduction to Struc- psychoanalysts the final explanation is
turalism in Perspective, which I have edited found in content, not in ‘form’” (1972a:
(Rossi 1973). 76).
Rossi J LEVI-STRAUSS: T H E UNCONSCIOUS 45
‘G. Mounin asserts that the notion of body as two separate entities is a question-
unconscious is important in Jakobson but able metaphysical position and a form of
that, contrary to what LBvi-Strauss asserts, is Cartesianism. In nature, as in the brain and
strongly rejected by Troubetzkoy (Mounin in the mind, there is the same structural
1970:202). code, so that structural analysis is possible
’In Mounin’s opinion, in 1945 LBvi- since the same operation goes on at all three
Strauss was unaware that Troubetzkoy owed levels of reality. In LBvi-Strauss’ words, this
the notion of unconscious to Saussure be- conception would bring back the unity of
cause he had not read Saussure and knew mind and body (see LBvi-Strauss 1972b).
linguistics only through Jakobson who early Similarly, the question of whether mind
differentiated himself from Saussure and is the same as brain or its epiphenomenon
Troubetzkoy (Mounin 1972). would seem to be an incorrect question,
One can perhaps object that this is not from LBvi-Strauss’ point of view. It would
the case, for instance, with Boas and E. seem that for him their homologous struc-
Sapir. tural functioning is sufficient to establish
their unity.
This is the impression I received in a
conversation on these issues with LBvi- 4 ~ e r s o n a l communication from Levi-
Strauss on the occasion of his recent visit in Strauss on the occasion of the symposium
the United States (March 28, 1972). on “The Unconscious in LCvi-Strauss’ An-
thropology” (see note 1).
After all, the technical controversies
among contemporary linguists d o not direct-
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