Saturday, April 10, 2010

The wisdom of our fathers

My Italian friend Umberto [Laurelli, not Eco] used the expression – The wisdom of our fathers – the last time we yakked away. It has been almost six months since the death of the great French thinker Claude Levi-Strauss, the old Jew of Alsace, whose beautiful observations in Tristes Tropiques [The sad tropics], made the anthropological world stand up and take notice. As one of the world’s finest minds, Levi Strauss was the first to observe that ‘human mind’ has the same structure – the world over. Both the savage mind and the civilized mind, he thundered, are structurally the same.

Man’s wild goose chase for answers, the search for underlying pattern of thought of all forms and kinds of human activity – like why we do something, what prompts an action, who prods us, when are we decided about something, where does it all evolve – came to be collectively called Structuralism. In the analysis of culture and language – the building blocks of any society -- as also mythology and kinship, the role of Structuralism has been very profound.

When Levi Strauss came out with La pensée sauvage [The Savage mind] – a body of scholarly work, it pitted two of the greatest French intellectuals of all times – Levi Strauss and Juan Paul Sartre over the question of ‘nature’ of human freedom. Freedom has been an eternal fascination with all men of words and ages. Strauss rubbished the idea of radical human freedom, put forth by Sartre and instead focused on human behavior. In the 60’s these ideas became a rage. But times change. And everything changes with it. Eventually Structuralism came to be overcast by post-structuralism and deconstruction.

Literary theorist Jacques Derrida made a pitch for binary opposites -- like maleness and femaleness, day and night, gay and straight – to drive home the point that there are no rigid categories but fluidity and it is well nigh impossible to compartmentalize or separate things fully. So there are no categories in absolute sense. Michel Foucault -- chair at the prestigious Collège de France – argued that all history and cultures influence ‘underlying structures’ – like texts – and a bias can’t be ruled out. Therefore we must study both – the object and the system of knowledge that produced it.

Philosophers. How they anatomize feelings? Super-sleuths.

© Sameer
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