Claude Lévi-Strauss

The Savage Mind

Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. 1966 [1962]

  cover illustration

A wildly spectacularly untranslatable pun (Geertz [1967] 1973: 357)

The classical passages that brought bricolage into the social sciences (pp 19ff)

There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call 'prior' rather than 'primitive', could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called 'bricolage' in French. In its old sense the verb 'bricoler' applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the 'bricoleur' is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual 'bricolage' - which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two.

Like 'bricolage' on the technical plane, mythical reflection can reach brilliant unforeseen results on the intellectual plane. Conversely, attention has often been drawn to the mytho-poetical nature of 'bricolage' on the plane of so-called 'raw' or 'naive' art, in architectural follies like the villa of Cheval the postman or the stage sets of Georges Me1ies, or, again, in the case immortalized by Dickens in Great Expectations but no doubt originally inspired by observation, of Mr Wemmick's suburban 'castle' with its miniature drawbridge, its cannon firing at nine o'clock, its bed of salad and cucumbers, thanks to which its occupants could withstand a siege if necessary ...

The analogy is worth pursuing since it helps us to see the real relations between the two types of scientific knowledge we have distinguished. The 'bricoleur' is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with 'whatever is at hand', that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the 'bricoleur's' means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or 'instrumental sets', as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use or, putting this another way and in the language of the 'bricoleur' himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that 'they may always come in handy'. Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the 'bricoleur' not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determinate use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are 'operators' but they can be used for any operations of the same type.

The elements of mythical thought similarly lie half-way between percepts and concepts. It would be impossible to separate percepts from the concrete situations in which they appeared, while recourse to concepts would require that thought could, at least provisionally, put its projects (to use Husserl's expression) 'in brackets'. Now, there is an intermediary between images and concepts, namely signs. For signs can always be defined in the way introduced by Saussure in the case of the particular category of linguistic signs, that is, as a link between images and concepts. In the union thus brought about, images and concepts play the part of the signifying and signified respectively.

Signs resemble images in being concrete entities but they resemble concepts in their powers of reference. Neither concepts nor signs relate exclusively to themselves; either may be substituted for something else. Concepts, however, have an unlimited capacity in this respect, while signs have not. The example of the 'bricoleur' helps to bring out the differences and similarities. Consider him at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem. He interrogates all the heterogeneous objects of which his treasury* is composed to discover what each of them could 'signify' and so contribute to the definition of a set which has yet to materialize but which will ultimately differ from the instrumental set only in the internal disposition of its parts. A particular cube of oak could be a wedge to make up for the inadequate length of a plank of pine or it could be a pedestal - which would allow the grain and polish of the old wood to show to advantage. In one case it will serve as extension, in the other as material. But the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes. The elements which the 'bricoleur' collects and uses are 'pre-constrained' like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on their freedom of manoeuvre (Levi-Strauss, 5, p- 35). And the decision as to what to put in each place also depends on the possibility of putting a different element there instead, so that each choice which is made will involve a complete reorganization of the structure, which will never be the same as one vaguely imagined nor as some other which might have been preferred to it.

The engineer no doubt also cross-examines his resources. The existence of an 'interlocutor' is in his case due to the fact that his means, power and knowledge are never unlimited and that in this negative form he meets resistance with which he has to come to terms. It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the 'bricoleur' addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours, that is, only a sub-set of the culture. Again, Information Theory shows that it is possible, and often useful, to reduce the physicists' approaches to a sort of dialogue with nature. This would make the distinction we are trying to draw less clearcut. There remains however a difference even if one takes into account the fact that the scientist never carries on a dialogue with nature pure and simple but rather with a particular relationship between nature and culture definable in terms of his particular period and civilization and the material means at his disposal. He is no more able than the 'bricoleur' to do whatever he wishes when he is presented with a given task. He too has to begin by making a catalogue of a previously determined set consisting of theoretical and practical knowledge, of technical means, which restrict the possible solutions.


Here is Levi-Strauss on driving on a highway. It is compatible, though not exactly, with Garfinkel (2002) and with Latour. Note the mention of the objects as subjects (things with agency) in interaction with each other, conversing with other drivers/cars as they drift in their lane, and mutely commanding them to take care or give way. [10/31/14]

An exotic observer would probably judge that car traffic in the center of a big city on a highway surpass human faculties; and indeed traffic surpasses human faculties in so far as it does not really place against each other neither men nor natural laws, but rather system of natural forces humanized by the intention of the drivers and human beings transformed into natural forces by the physical energy of which they have made themselves the mediator. It is not the case any more than an agent operates on an inert object, nor of the return action of an object, as agent, on a subject alienated by itself and demanding nothing in return, that is a situation involving some passivity on either side: the beings confronting each other struggle both as subjects and as objects; and, in the code which they use, a small variation in the distance that separate them has the strength of a mute command.

This "pensée sauvage" is not the pensée of the savages, nor that of primitive or archaic humanity, but pensée in its wild state, disctinct from pensée that has been cultivated or domesticated in order to produce some output. (p. 219)

Ethnographic analysis seeks to reach invariants, and this work shows that these invariants are often found in the least predictable locations. ... The idea of a general humanity to which ethngraphic reduction leads will have no relationship to the idea one had earlier. (p. 247-8)

Whether among [the hundreds of thousands societies ... that have existed since man made its apparition] or among us, it takes much egocentrism and naivete to believe that man is fully found in only one of the historical or geographical modes of its being. The truth of man lifes in the system of their differences et their common properties. (p. 249)

By socializing the Cogito, Sartre only changes prison. From now on, the group and the epoch will make its intemporal consciousness. ... Descartes, who wished to provide the foundation for physicsm cut Man from Society. Sartre who pretends to provide the foundation for an anthropology, cuts his society from other societies. (p. 249-50)


Some folktales about wild pensies included as appendix to the French edition but absent from the English translation

Wild pansy (Viola tricolor, L.; Field pansy, Plant of the Trinity)

Once upon a time, the tricolored violet [wild pansy] exhaled a perfumed more powerful than the march violet (or perfumed violet). It grew then in wheat fields which were trampled by all those who wanted to pick it. The violet took pity of the wheat, and she humbly prayed the Holy Trinity to take away her perfume. Her prayer was answered, and this is why she is called flower of the Trinity.

The flower of domesticated varieties comes in two colors (violet and yellow, or yellow and white) sometimes in three (violet, yellow, yellowish white), and is vividly contrasted... In German: Stiefmutterchen: small step mother. In popular interpretation, the magnificent spurred petal represents the step mother (second wife of the father), the two adjacent petals, which are also very colored, represent her children, and the two top petals (the colors of which are blander), the children of the first wife. Polish folklore offers a slight different symbolic interpretation, which is all the more interesting since it takes into account the position of the sepals, while offering a poetic content as rich as the German version. The bottom petal, which is the most remarkable, leans on each side on one sepal: it is the step mother, sitted in an armchair. The two adjacent petals, still richly colored, lean each on one sepal, and they represent the children of the second wife, each with one seat. The two top petals, whose color is more washed out, lean laterally on the spur od the chalice which points between: these are the poor children of the first marriage, who must be content with one seat for two. Wagner (In die Natur, p. 3) completes this interpretation. the sumptuously colored petal--that is to say the step mother--must lean downwards as a punishment, while the humble children of the first marriage (the top petals) are turned upwards. The wild pansy is used to prepare a tea which purifies the blood. It is called: tea of the Trinity.

May 11, 1999