EXPIRED: 11/01/09 – Claude Levi-Strauss, 100, was a French social anthropologist who influenced generations of intellectuals by claiming the human race was well on its way to extinction.
He, himself, is now extinct.
The French intellectual was regarded as having reshaped the field of anthropology, introducing structuralism — concepts about common patterns of behavior and thought, especially myths, in a wide range of human societies. Defined as the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity, structuralism compared the formal relationships among elements in any given system.
The son of a painter, Lévi-Strauss was sent from Brussels to Paris to live with his grandfather, a rabbi. He became interested in Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism in school and eventually became Professor of Sociology at Sao Paulo University in Brazil, during which he travelled extensively to visit interior tribes.
In ’38 he resigned and embarked on an expedition to study the Nambikwara and Kawahib tribes and discovered the Mundé peoples.
He returned to France in 1939 to help with the war effort until the country fell under Nazi occupation. As a Jew, Levi- Strauss fled Paris and made his way to the U.S. He took up an academic job at the New School for Social Research in New York until the end of the war and co-founded the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes for French intellectuals in exile.
In 1959, he became professor of social anthropology at the College de France, where he remained until his retirement in 1982. He wrote seminal works such as “Structural Anthropology” (1958), “The Savage Mind” (1962) and his master work “Mythologiques,” four volumes published over seven years.
“Tristes Tropiques” about his travels through the Amazon rainforest during the 1930s was often cited as his finest work. U.S. author Susan Sontag described it as “one of the great books of our century.”
Levi-Strauss was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and held honorary doctorates at Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Oxford universities. He was awarded the prestigious Erasmus Prize in 1973 and the Meister-Eckhart Prize for philosophy 30 years later.
Interestingly, he regularly said he would have rather been a composer of music.