Building peace in the minds of men and women

Claude Lévi-Strauss: the view from afar

“The efforts of science should not only enable mankind to surpass itself; they must also help those who lag behind to catch up”, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in his first UNESCO Courier article published in 1951. He contributed to the magazine regularly during the 1950s suggesting ideas he later developed in the works that made him world-famous.

Recommending the unification of methodological thinking between the exact sciences and the human sciences, he underlined in another article that “the speculations of the earliest geometers and arithmeticians were concerned with man far more than with the physical world”. Pythagoras, for one, was “deeply interested in the anthropological significance of numbers and figures”, as were the sages of China, India, pre-colonial Africa and pre-Colombian America, “preoccupied” with the meaning and specific attributes of numbers.

His idea grew into a thesis on the “mathematics of man – to be discovered along lines that neither mathematicians nor sociologists have as yet been able to determine exactly,” and destined to be “very different from the mathematics which the social sciences once sought to use in order to express their observations in precise terms,” as the father of structural anthropology explained in a 1954 article published in the Social Science Bulletin, another source for this issue.

“Our sciences first became isolated in order to become deeper, but at a certain depth, they succeed in joining each other. Thus, little by little, in an objective area, the old philosophical hypothesis…of the universal existence of a human nature is borne out”, he said in a 1956 document preserved in the UNESCO archives, which opened their doors wide so that this special issue could be, if not definitive, as varied as possible.

Throughout, the idea of the sciences’ crucial role in humanity’s development, and more specifically the interaction of the human and exact sciences, stands out as a fundamental concern for this remarkable personality, who had a close relationship to our Organization from the time of its foundation after the Second World War. You can read about it in the article “Claude Lévi-Strauss and UNESCO” by the anthropologist Wiktor Stoczkowski.

Already in 1950, the author of “Race and History” – a classic anti-racism text, commissioned by UNESCO – was striving to prove it was useless to combat the idea of “racial” inequality as long as we perpetuated the idea of inequality in societies’ cultural contributions to humanity’s common heritage. Down through the years, and all along the pages of the articles you will find in this issue, LéviStrauss insisted forcefully that the West had forgotten the lessons it could learn from the East; that when in Europe the mentally ill were kept in chains, so-called primitive peoples were treating them using methods akin to psychoanalysis; that a ceremonial meal among the Kwakiutl was not so different from a banquet in a so-called civilized country; that all humans speak, make tools and follow certain rules of behaviour, and this is what makes them human, not what they use to build houses. All these examples nourish the themes advocated by UNESCO since its creation.

But Stoczkowski also evokes the tension arising in 1971 and casting a shadow over the eminent anthropologist’s relationship with UNESCO. It was provoked by Lévi-Strauss’s speech at the launch of the International Year for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. That essay, “Race and Culture”, would nonetheless have international impact. We are releasing the sound recording of that speech for the first time in 37 years, in this issue (in its on line version) of the UNESCO Courier.

On 16 November 2005, Lévi Strauss returned to UNESCO to celebrate the Organization’s 60th anniversary. You will find out about this special and moving occasion in the different sections of this issue, which also includes some of Lévi-Strauss’s manuscripts and a previously unpublished interview he gave UNESCO on 20 November 2006, a week before his 98th birthday.

This is the first time the UNESCO Courier adds sound and video (on line) to its text to enrich the content of our special tribute to Claude Lévi-Strauss, celebrating his 100th birthday this year. It is also the first time most of the included articles by the famous anthropologist appear in Arabic, Chinese and Russian. This issue gave us the additional opportunity to revise the Spanish and English translations of previously published texts. We would like to thank Cathy Nolan and Francisco Vicente-Sandoval who revised the articles in the two languages.

Thanks also to Jens Boel (UNESCO) and Thierry Guednée (UNESCO) for the selection and digitization of the archive documents in this issue, like the report dated 13 March 1964, in which Claude Lévi-Strauss expresses his reserve with respect to UNESCO’s project to carry out a study on the research trends in the social and human sciences. Several documents reflecting the discussions the subject inspired at the time are also included (on line). In addition to the “chapter on anthropology” written a year later by Claude Lévi-Strauss, an “additional contribution” by the anthropologist Luc de Heusch, as well as brief and incisive comments by Professor S.A. Tokarev from the Soviet Union, are featured.

Jasmina Šopova, Editor-in-chief

Read our online articles :

For the other articles, download the PDF. 

May 2008

Read More