Levi-Strauss and Dialectics:More Wisdom from the Sad Tropics

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 21 Apr 1994 15:50:05 JST

In a previous post I quoted Levi-Strauss on the dialectical
method he had learned in his philosophy classes: the
method which, he says, depends "on a certain skill in
punning, which replaces thought." On the next page he
writes as follows:

"I can see an even graver danger in confusing the
advancement of knowledge with the growing complexity of
intellectual structures. We were asked to produce a
dynamic synthesis, by starting from the least adequate
theories and progressing towards the most subtle; but at
the same time (since all our teachers were obsessed with
the historical approach), we had to explain how the latter
had gradually emerged from the former. Basically, it was
not so much a system of discovering what was true and
what was false as of understanding how mankind had
gradually overcome certain contradictions. Philosophy was
not *ancilla scientiarum*, the servant and auxiliary of
scientific exploration, but a kind of aesthetic contemplation
of consciousness by itself. It was seen as having evolved, in
the course of the centuries, ever higher and bolder
structures, as having solved problems of balance or support
and as having invented logical refinements, and the result
was held to be valid, in proportion to its technical
perfection or internal coherence. The teaching of philosophy
might be compared to instruction in a form of art history
which proclaimed that Gothic was necessarily superior to
Romanesque, and, within the Gothic, the flamboyant style
more perfect than the primitive, but which did not raise
any questions about what was beautiful and what was not.
The signifier did not relate to any signified; there was no
referent. Expertise replaced the truth. After years of this
training, I now find myself intimately convinced of a few
unsophisticated beliefs, not very different from those I held
at the age of fifteen. Perhaps I see more clearly the
inadequacy of these intellectual tools; at least they have an
instrumental value which makes them suitable for the
service I require of them. I am in no danger of being
deceived by their internal complexity, not of losing sight of
their practical purpose through becoming absorbed in the
contemplation of their wonderful elaborateness."

Dare I say, especially concerning the last few lines, "Me,

"Making Symbols is My Business"--John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)