Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lévi Strauss and structural linguistics

We haven't noted the passing  of Claude Lévi Strauss here yet (nor that of Dell Hymes). For a piece that talks about Lévi Strauss in connection to linguistics, check out this obituary, including these quotes:
he came into contact with structural linguistics, a behaviouristic amalgam of European and American theories, and particularly the more imaginative work of Roman Jacobson, the Russian theoretician of language who was also at the New School at the time.
 …
For him anthropology was scientific and naturalistic, that is scientific in the way that structural linguistics had become scientific. By looking at the transformations of language that occur as new utterances are generated, by using the tools that a particular language makes available, structural linguistics was able, so Lévi-Strauss believed, to understand not only the irreducible specificities of a particular language, but also the principles that made their production possible. In this way, linguistics, as he understood it, was a branch of the humanities and a natural science that is able to connect directly with psychology and neurology.
Any reactions to that?

3 comments:

B H said...

It's obviously a little weird that Bloch picked the words transformations and generated in the context of structural linguistics, but then again, it wasn't the goals of linguistics that early generativists changed so much as the methods and the relative importance of syntax. Likewise, the sentiment on "irreducible specificities" seems to force a contemporary reading onto the past, but I'm not sure it's wrong so much as anachronistically phrased. Structuralists did want to catalog the smallest phonemes and morphemes and rules for putting them together, but before Harris, I'm not sure anyone would have framed an analysis inside a formal mechanism for generating strings.

However, connecting structural linguistics with psychology or (heavens!) neurology is a delicate task. Structuralists had diverse and complex opinions on the first matter (which seems to have largely meant semantics to them). No clue as to their thoughts on neurology - I'm not sure I've ever seen it mentioned in association with structuralists before. Bloch attributes the belief to Lévi-Strauss, and I'm not confident enough in my knowledge on his work to comment there.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. Yeah, it's an interesting mix of turns of phrase.

But the American structuralists did get into behaviorist psychology heavily, like Bloomfield, right?

B H said...

Some definitely did. But the structuralists as a whole were so diverse one has to be careful about who is being included and what is meant by psychology to say anything about it.