From the ruins, there comes hope

From my last Blog on Levi-Strauss, a bit more gossip came to light–I got more back story.  Apparently, Marvin Harris came wading in and heavily criticized Levi-Strauss’ talk (1972) in which Levi-Strauss was defending the material basis of myth-making (see Descola, 2013, Chapter 1 “The Clam Debate”).

Harris first criticized the presentation of some details in the Canadian myths although Levi-Strauss rebutted this later and Harris was wrong.

But the biggest point is that they are still both getting it wrong about the material basis of using language, whether conversation or myth telling.  Harris wants language use to be closely linked to survival and natural selection (superstructure), whereas we saw in the last Blog that Levi-Strauss puts it partly on ‘the human mind’ and this was then put on brain physiology (and I criticized that and gave an alternative account).  [Both these mistakes are also made in psychology and in therapies, which I have outlined in previous Blogs.]

My view (spelt out in 7 steps in the last Blog) is that language only functions ever, ever, ever by doing stuff to people and therefore it can never be directly linked to the environment other than what people do subsequently.  If people’s behaviour which arises from the things you say happens to be linked to better survival then, yes, Harris has a point; but such links are very, very indirect and can also lead eventually to non-survival just as much as survival.  Plenty of groups have been held together through all means of social organization (including talking) and then died out…

Giving ‘survival’ as a function for observable behaviour is not a good mode of explanation!

Giving ‘survival’ as a function for language use is a worse mode of explanation!

[If we move to linguistics, this actually follows from what Saussure wrote, that language is arbitrary; which I translate as meaning that the effects on people from language use are very materially real but this is not from what is said.  I can call someone a ‘total pumpkin head’ which is imaginary, but they can hit me back, which is very materially real.]

What Harris has done to make this mistake is also the same as what psychologists do to get language all wrong—they mistake the things talked about as the function—for them, if I talk about a cat then the function of that conversation must be about cats… and this is simply wrong.  So, talking about clams in my myth-making with my community as a form of talk is not necessarily functioning because of anything to do with clams.  The functioning is still only what people do because of their social history after my myth-making is told to them .  And my “clam myths” could be about starting a war with our neighbours for all we know and we all get killed off (more ethnography is required at this point).

This “mistaking the things talked about as the function of what said” is a widespread mistake through all the social sciences and I could give a lot more examples (including ‘tacts’ in BA!).  I’ve said all this before for psychology but here is the same thing occurring for social anthropology.  The mistake comes from treating language use as expressing, communicating, meaning, representing or referring to some things in the world (Harris’ mistake) or in the mind or brain (Levi-Strauss’ mistake). Language use merely changes people behaviour if they have a relevant history.

The Positive Spin

Interesting, though, that two big mistakes of psychology turn up in social anthropology (and linguistics):

  • deriving the ‘cause’ or ‘function’ of language use as the things that are said (Marvin Harris and many others)
  • deriving the ‘cause’ or ‘function’ of language use as the ‘mind’ or as the brain (Levi-Strauss)


Perhaps all this is getting closer to a common interdisciplinary basis… here’s hoping…

Let’s hope this tips the scales…



Descola, P. (2013). The ecology of others. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.


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