Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

The French philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) concerned himself primarily with the nonrational belief systems of primitive man.

Lucien Lévy-Bruhl was born in Paris on April 10, 1857. He attended the Lycée Charlemagne, pursuing studies in music, philosophy, and natural science, and graduated from the école Normale Supérieure in philosophy in 1879. He taught philosophy at Poitiers and Amiens before he attended the University of Paris to pursue his doctorate in 1884. He taught in Paris until his appointment to the Sorbonne in 1896 as titular professor of the history of modern philosophy. Lévy-Bruhl's scholarly work began with a history of modern French philosophy in 1889; a book on German philosophy (since Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz) appeared in 1890, one on Jacobean philosophy in 1894, and one on Comtean philosophy in 1900. Ethics and Moral Science (1902) marked the beginning of Lévy-Bruhl's anthropological interests. He recognized the impossibility of an absolute ethic because of the incommensurability of thought systems in different cultures, and he called for scientific study of the known range of moral systems, including the primitive. This book was probably influential in the appointment of Lévy-Bruhl to a chair in the history of modern philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1904.

Although Lévy-Bruhl remained more interested in primitive thought than in social institutions, his work moved from philosophy toward sociology under the influence of the Durkheimian sociologists. In 1925 he, along with Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet, founded the Institute of Ethnology at the Sorbonne, dedicated to the memory of Émile Durkheim, who had died in 1917. Lévy-Bruhl, however, disagreed with some tenets of Durkheim's methodology, particularly the rationality of primitive man. He thus resigned from the institute and the Sorbonne in 1927 to devote himself to writing and travel.

Lévy-Bruhl wrote six books elaborating his concept of the nature of the primitive mind: Mental Functions in Primitive Societies (1910), Primitive Mentality (1922), The Soul of the Primitive (1928), The Supernatural and the Nature of the Primitive Mind (1931), Primitive Mythology (1935), and The Mystic Experience and Primitive Symbolism (1938). Never a fieldworker, he had access to more adequate descriptions of primitive cultures at the end of his life. He rejected some evolutionary implications of his earlier formulation of civilized and "primitive," or "prelogical," mentalities as polar and irreconcilable types. Later books dealt more fully with intermediate types. Posthumously published notebooks (1949) indicated his willingness to compromise even on the term "prelogical."

Lévy-Bruhl was aware of similarities between primitive and civilized thought but, in response to previous attributions of extreme rationality to primitive man, preferred to stress differences. Although postulation of a "primitive mentality" at first glance relegates primitive man to an inferior cultural status, Lévy-Bruhl was more concerned to demonstrate that primitive cultures must be studied in terms of their own categories. Though this view should encourage extensive fieldwork, his equation of all primitive thought patterns in practice minimized descriptive efforts.

After his retirement Lévy-Bruhl lectured at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California. He died in Paris on March 13, 1939.

Further Reading on Lucien Lévy-Bruhl

There is a short study of Lévy-Bruhl's anthropological work in Hoffman R. Hays, From Ape to Angel: An Informal History of Social Anthropology (1958). Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (1965), provides a British critique of Lévy-Bruhl. Lévy-Bruhl's importance is analyzed in Thomas Kenneth Penniman, A Hundred Years of Anthropology (1935; 3d ed. 1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Marrow, Alfred Jay, The practical theorist: the life and work of Kurt Lewin, New York: Teachers College Press, 1977, 1969.