Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (April 10, 1857—March 13, 1939) was a French philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist. He is famous for his study of primitive mentality and his calling for the scientific study of the categories of thought in different societies. He suggested two basic mindsets of humankind—"primitive," or “pre-logical,” and "civilized," and tried to show that the mechanisms of thinking of these two types of mind were different. Lévy-Bruhl considered that “mystical thinking” was the essence of the primitive mind, whereas rational thinking, based on logic and inference, were the hallmarks of the civilized mind. This notion was in opposition to the then dominant view in France, that of Emile Durkheim. Lévy-Bruhl suggested that not all societies valued and used rational thinking at all times, opening the way for a new approach to understanding the irrational factors observed in the thought and beliefs of many societies.
Lévy-Bruhl himself was an "armchair" anthropologist who did not carry out empirical fieldwork himself, but rather read the reports of others. However, throughout his life he stressed the need for empirical investigation of the categories of thought in different societies, and indeed, much research into modes of thinking followed from his work. Some took his work to mean that "civilized" was superior to the pre-logical "primitive" mind, leading to the view that some societies are more developed, and hence more valuable than others. Combined with the tendency to ethnocentrism, this only fueled the fires of prejudice and racism. On the other hand, Lévy-Bruhl's ideas were also taken to give deeper insight into human nature, showing that we have a mystical, creative, and multidimensional aspect that transcends the linear type of logic in rational thinking.
Lucien Lévy-Bruhl was born in Paris, France on April 10, 1857. He attended the Lycée Charlemagne, majoring in music, philosophy, and natural science. He graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in philosophy in 1879. Although he then began to teach philosophy at Poitiers and Amiens, he decided to go back to university to get his doctorate degree. He then attended the University of Paris, obtaining his doctorate in 1884.
Lévy-Bruhl published his first book, History of Modern Philosophy in France, in 1889, followed by several more books on philosophy. He taught in Paris until 1896 when he was appointed titular professor of the history of modern philosophy at Sorbonne. In 1902, he published Ethics and Moral Science, with which he started his life-long engagement with anthropology. This work also helped him obtain a chair in the history of modern philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1904. He was also the editor of the Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger.
During his time at the Sorbonne, Lévy-Bruhl wrote numerous books on the nature of the primitive mind. His Mental Functions in Primitive Societies was published in 1910, Primitive Mentality in 1922, The Soul of the Primitive in 1928, The Supernatural and the Nature of the Primitive Mind in 1931, Primitive Mythology in 1935, and The Mystic Experience and Primitive Symbolism in 1938.
In 1925, Lévy-Bruhl, along with Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet, founded the Institute of Ethnology at the Sorbonne. In 1927, he resigned from the institute and the Sorbonne, deciding to spend the rest of his later life writing and traveling. He however continued to teach, giving lectures across United States—in Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California.
Lévy-Bruhl’s scholarly work started with several books on philosophy. In his Ethics and Moral Science (1902), he argued against the possibility of absolute ethics, because the thought systems in different cultures lacked a basis for comparison. He thus suggested the scientific study of different cultures and their moral systems. Although he believed that moral beliefs are wholly the result of social conditioning, Lévy-Bruhl also acknowledged the possibility that different cultures may share the same basic morality:
It may be that the characteristics of duty, and of the conscience in general, are the result of a whole mass of conditions, nearly similar, which are found in all fairly civilized human societies (Lévy-Bruhl 1902, 121).
Overall, with his Ethics and Moral Science, Lévy-Bruhl laid the foundation for his relativistic sociology.
Lévy-Bruhl opposed the rationalism associated with Emile Durkheim’s school of thought, which dominated French academia at the time. Lévy-Bruhl argued that different societies have different ways of thinking and that not all societies cherish rational thinking. In his work How Natives Think (1910), Lévy-Bruhl speculated on what he posited as the two basic mindsets of humankind, "primitive" and "civilized."
According to Lévy-Bruhl, the primitive mind is mystical and “pre-logical” in its nature. It does not differentiate between the supernatural and the natural, the material and the spiritual, the self and the non-self. It rather uses "mystical participation" to manipulate the world. In other words, rather than using logical categories, it uses a "law of participation," governing supersensible forces. However, by “pre-logical” Lévy-Bruhl did not mean contrary-to-logic (antilogical) or deprived from any logical thought. He meant that “pre-logical” was the kind of thinking not yet fully developed into logical thinking.
According to Lévy-Bruhl, the primitive mind does not address contradictions. The central idea in Lévy-Bruhl’s theory was the “law of participation.” According to that, in the mind of primitive people, the same thing or phenomenon may at the same time be several entirely different forms of being. Lévy-Bruhl thus concluded that “mystical thinking” was the essence of the primitive mind.
The civilized mind, by contrast, uses speculation and logic. Like many theorists of his time, Lévy-Bruhl believed in a historical and evolutionary teleology leading from the primitive mind to the civilized mind. His intention however was not to diminish primitive cultures and put them in an inferior cultural status, but to show that primitive cultures must be studied on their own terms.
Lévy-Bruhl was an "armchair anthropologist." He never undertook any serious fieldwork. However, he had access to numerous missionary reports, a substantial collection of ethnographic literature, and travelers' accounts that dealt with primitive cultures. By the end of his life, he changed some of his opinions, particularly on the polarity and irreconcilability of “civilized” and “primitive” minds. His later books dealt more with intermediate types of mind.
Lévy-Bruhl was among the first anthropologists who tried to show that the mechanisms of thinking of "primitive" and "civilized" man was different. Throughout his life, he stressed the need for empirical investigation of the categories of thought in different societies. He influenced generations of scholars who investigated modes of thinking in different cultures.
Within anthropology, however, Lévy-Bruhl's ideas did not meet much acceptance and had minimal influence. Anthropologists such as Lévi-Strauss, Evans-Pritchard, and John Goody did however attribute some of their theories to the influence of Lévy-Bruhl. Outside anthropology, nevertheless, especially in the French surrealist movement, Lévy-Bruhl’s influence was more substantial.
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