Thursday, August 20, 2009

Salmon, Gildas. "Lévy-Bruhl and the Problem of Contradiction." LA VIE DES IDEES February 12, 2009

Keck, Frédéric. Lévy-Bruhl: Entre philosophie et anthropologie. Paris: CNRS, 2008. As a thinker who has no heirs and belongs to no school, Lévy-Bruhl’s influence over the three main philosophical currents of the twentieth-century – analytical philosophy, phenomenology and structuralism – is gauged by the need each of them has felt to ward off the idea of a form of thought that excluded the principle of non-contradiction. The case that supplied the point of departure for Lévy-Bruhl’s thought was borrowed from anthropologist Karl Von den Steinen, who reported that the members of a Brazilian tribe, the Borono, claimed to be araras (a type of parrot). However, to be at once human and non-human violates the most fundamental principle of logic. It was in order to describe this phenomenon that Lévy-Bruhl called upon the law of participation, which he identified as the central principle of the primitive mentality. Starting with this example, Frédéric Keck shows that the problem raised by Lévy-Bruhl offers a panoramic view of contemporary thought. In analytic philosophy, Quine’s principle of charity could thus be understood as a means for reducing the contradictory utterances upon which Lévy-Bruhl built his case to mere errors of translation. If phenomenology proved more receptive to the concept of a pre-logical mind, it is because it saw it as an instrument for describing the “naïve” experience of the perceptible world independently of the intellectual frameworks that science imposes on our perception. But by subordinating this “practical logic” to a putatively superior theoretical logic, phenomenology lost sight of what made Lévy-Bruhl’s investigation radical. The great strength of structuralism, for its part, was to prove that these apparently contradictory utterances became intelligible in the light of the ethnographic context from which Lévy-Bruhl had isolated them: if the Bororo boasted of being araras, it is not because they were unaware of the contradiction but rather because they wished to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, the Trumai, who identified with aquatic animals. While recognizing the fruitfulness of this analysis, Keck emphasizes that structuralism’s focus on networks of semantic opposition prevented it from accounting for the syntax of the contradictory utterances that so fascinated Lévy-Bruhl. Keck divides the work of Lévy-Bruhl into four periods, respectively corresponding to the concepts of the primitive, mentality, participation and experience. His approach to examining the concepts of contradiction and participation is thus simultaneously chronological and thematic. . . . Read the rest here:

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