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Review of Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory by Patrick Wilcken

This biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss is a great introduction to his life, his thinking and to changes in culture, society and academia across the twentieth century. Lévi-Strauss once named geology, Marx and Freud as his three sources of inspiration (in a toned-down translation from the French).

Although he is known as an anthropologist, which he believed might become the universal science, Lévi-Strauss was really a polymath soaking up ideas from multiple academic disciplines including semiotics (he was very strongly influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure).

He achieved a high degree of fame, even among the general public, perhaps because of the breadth of his work and its popularization. His longevity may have helped too as he died in 2009 just short of his 101st birthday.

His work is perhaps best summarized by his own (paraphrased) explanation of his approach referencing his influences, “Reality is like a club sandwich. It is composed of three similarly structured strata: nature, the brain and myth. Each of these elements cascades from the other – the brain being merely one aspect of nature, and mythic thought a subset of mental function. These strata are separated by two layers of chaos: sensory perception and social discourse.”

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