From savage mind to scientific thought

In 1966 Michel Foucault published the book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences whose preface brings the confession of being born from the laughter caused by a text of the Argentine writer Jorge Luiz Borges; Of a “laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought - our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography”. Borges text quotes an unusual Chinese encyclopedia, in which a strange taxonomy takes place. It states:

“animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) domesticated, (d) piglets, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) which included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from afar they look like flies”.

Faced with this curious taxonomy, enchanting and dazzling, the French philosopher realizes what enchants us there: precisely the limit of ours. What “is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that”. However, Foucault is not the only one who tried to understand “the limit of our mind”. I would like to present here some aspects of the work carried out by Levi-Strauss, in which the anthropologist reflects the savage mind together with the scientist and gives the conditions for a new perspective in the field of the human sciences, especially with the work published in 1962 entitled: The Savage Mind. Such an approach grows from the identification of fundamental categories of human thought. At the same time, such categories imply a gesture of looking at oneself, and looking at the other, at another culture, with less Eurocentrism, less colonialism, less Westernism, in short, a confrontation of our limits. This, in turn, results in an ethical stance. The second moment here will present one of the consequences of this turning point in anthropological thinking.  

This book came after the publication of Totemism Today, which reviewed theories about totemic societies. Classically, totemism is conceptualized as a set of ideas and practices based on the belief in the existence of a mystical kinship between humans and nature, such as animals and plants. It clearly appears in the fact that clans split from totems plants or animals, as a kind of banner. Levi-Strauss reviews the role of totemism in the social dynamics of different cultures, giving this phenomenon a completely new interpretation: no longer as a political or religious institution; totemism is seen by Levi-Strauss as a form of classification among others, and that implies substantially in the whole of social life, judiciously establishing a social logic.

It is in the wake of this first revolutionary gesture that The Savage Mind is a watershed book. The author extends the debate initiated on totemism and takes its interpretation to the limit, making a multidirectional attack on diverse anthropological and historical prejudices. To him, for example, it is clear "that traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge rest both on the same logical operations and, more, respond to the same appetite to know." (Manuela Carneiro Da Cunha). Levi-Strauss, aware of the forms of knowledge present in various human cultures, will call Concrete Science the type of thought and practice of knowledge characteristic of so-called 'primitive' societies. This science is a kind of thought very close to the sensible, to things, senses, apparently submitted exclusively to the utility; as in the case of medicinal plants. Frivolous, or rather extremely Eurocentric interpretations saw in this Concrete Science a primary kind of knowledge, a kind of rudimentary knowledge, which would reveal to us the primary stages of our own knowledge. This would be manifested, for example, in the lack of concepts such as "tree" and "animal". That is, in the absence of an abstract denomination for collections of individuals of the same species. Even if species names are found in these forest languages, the absence of abstract denominations provided some scholars with an indication of ineptitude, a cognitive and scientific backwardness. Likewise, such scholars, noting that the Indians named some species and others did not, characterized such knowledge as primarily utilitarian, subjected to daily, practical and immediate use, strictly tied to the satisfaction of the most organic needs.

Levi-Strauss will then come in favor of the so-called 'primitives': now, he argues, the conceptual cut varies from language to language, and the absence of general ideas is not a correct conclusion, for 'oak' is no less abstract than 'tree'. In addition, it is quite common that, between deeply different societies, one sees the other as unbalanced or backward; the native himself directs us censures, because for him, his desire for knowledge seems much more balanced.

So let us be fair to the so-called savages. Noticing well, his cognitive abilities are, in fact, often astounding; the refinement of their classifications and nomenclatures, as the very practical character of knowledge now, seems quite assertive to us. The vast memory of names, uses and characteristics; the senses, the amazing ability to recognize different species of plants, etc. It is admirable. Today it is common that even science itself advocates in favor of this knowledge, scientifically proving the knowledge of forests, although it still explains this knowledge as a kind of “coincidence”, or also taking it as a chance to appropriate this knowledge and sell it in our market. Levi-Strauss, as is usual in the studies of ethnology, lists a number of examples to prove his thesis:

“As for a population of pygmies in the Philippines, a biologist expresses himself in the following way:

'A distinguishing feature of the Negritans, who distinguishes them from their Christian neighbors of the plains, is their inexhaustible knowledge of the vegetable and animal kingdoms. This knowledge does not only imply the specific identification of a phenomenal number of plants, birds, mammals and insects, but also the knowledge of the habits of each species...” (page 19).

[...]      “To this knowledge and the linguistic means at their disposal, there is a rich morphology. The Tewa language employs different terms for each part of the body of birds and mammals. Likewise, the morphological description of the leaves of the trees or of the plants comprises 40 terms, and there are 15 different terms corresponding to the different parts of a foot of corn“ (page 23).

As one might note, the savage mind is, on the contrary, highly refined, it is perceptive and quite diversified. The long series of examples that Levi-Strauss presents to us in his book proves: the relation does not occur directly between knowledge and use, as if the use would determine knowledge. Indian knowledge considers animals and plants useful or interesting because they know them. Hence it must be admitted that in human’s formations, in societies in general, there are intellectual demands which do not correspond primarily to needs, which concern the very nature of thought. It is at this point that Levi-Strauss will bring his original interpretation of the savage mind, for “whatever the classification, it has its own virtue in relation to the absence of classification” (p. 25). That is, any order, any organization, in the field of taxonomies, is already something in relation to no classification at all. Scientists, as wrote a modern taxonomy theorist, “can take doubt and failure, because they cannot do otherwise. But disorder is the only thing they cannot and should not tolerate” (Simpson and Levi 25). Thus, “the demand for ordering is the basis of the so-called primitive mind, but solely because it forms the basis of all possible thought” (page 26).

Now, it is here that the anthropologist draws a line in relation to everything that had been done in his discipline. Other anthropologists have already explored the question of the fundamental categories of every operation of human thought, but Levi-Strauss certainly gives this common basis all its logical power. This brings us to a modern philosophical reflection initiated by Kant in the XVIII century, which seeks to understand and determine the limits and foundations of reason itself. With Levi-Strauss, we see such criticism of reason suddenly transposed into distant, diversified cultures and diverse social practices. According to this thesis, every thought tends to organize the diversity of things (concrete), to classify and order sensitive data, in different ways, departing from elementary categories such as time, space, cause, gender, number, species, totality, quantity… There would always be these terms in the logical operations of any human culture. Levi-Strauss, therefore, does no more than test in his own way certain philosophical conclusions with the so-called savages, with the assurance that the universalist pretension of the analysis of thought would have some effect in this application. As the sociologist Durkheim says, such categories:

“Are like rigid frames enclosing the mind; It does not seem that we can think of objects that are not in time or space, that are not countable, and so on. The other notions are contingent and mobile; we conceive that they may lack a man, a society, a time; they seem almost inseparable from the normal functioning of the spirit. They are like the bones of intelligence...” (Durkheim, 1973; 513).

Now, such categories are not individual, they belong to man insofar as thought composes his humanity; they belong to an unperceived domain of mental operations. In this sense the idea of ​​a 'bone' leads us to think that such categories structure the thought with elementary logical functions, as rigid frameworks, allowing diverse interactions with the world and organizing the experience from predisposed schemes that compose human reality. That develops a comparative method, which consists in finding among different cultures those elementary categories, those structuring aspects of human experience.

It would be by this method, which does not fail to consider Western culture itself, for we would also operate from those same categories, which would be completely different cultures, and that, finally, they could establish exchanges and inaugurate passages between their terms. Classification, that is, the grouping of common properties under a sign and a name (species, genus) is what, at the end, facilitates access to forms of thought foreign to ours.

Let us, therefore, list some characteristics of this Concrete Logic. First, affection and intelligence maintain close relations. The significance given to some animals, leading humans to even domesticate them proves that Concrete knowledge includes affectivity (unlike our occidental claim to objectivity). Still transmitted in a “conjugal and filial climate” in everyday practice, this knowledge “is described with such noble simplicity” as to make some philosophical principles seem superfluous.

Conscious and complex, the systems of classification and order do not cease to trace a continuity with everything that is external to it, always preserving the reciprocity of things with the world.

That is why Levi-Strauss makes a simple request for reassessment: ”the traditional image we make of this primitiveness must change. Never, and nowhere, the 'savage' was this newly born animal being still surrendered to the mastery of his needs and instincts...” They are a variation of what we are; diversified by other choices.

Author: Thiago Magalhaes

Published 28.7.2017




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