“It has long been the fashion to invoke languages which lack the terms for expressing such a concept as ‘tree’ or ‘animal,’ even though they contain all the words necessary for a detailed inventory of species and varieties.”
– Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, 1962
This is the very first sentence of Levi-Strauss’ book, the point of entry rather than the conclusion. Already in the early sixties it wasn’t just the anthropological avant-garde who dismissed linguistic abstraction as just so much modernist alienation from our ancient narrative traditions. Immediately Levi-Strauss sets out to debunk the romantic notion of primitive concreteness.
Do we believe Franz Boas when, early in the twentieth century, he reports that the proposition “The bad man killed the poor child” is rendered in Chinook “The man’s badness killed the child’s poverty”? Perhaps not: he may have been misled by the indeterminacy of translation. We instead tend to believe those anthropologists who insist that primitive peoples assign categorical names only when there’s a pragmatic need to do so: to distinguish the edible berry from the poisonous, for example, rather than berry from not-berry. Levi-Strauss demurs:
“Words like ‘oak,’ ‘beech,’ ‘birch’, etc., are no less entitled to be considered as abstract words than the word ‘tree’… The proliferation of concepts, as in the case of technical languages, goes with more constant attention to properties of the world, with an interest that is more alert to possible distinctions which can be introduced between them. This thirst for objective knowledge is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call ‘primitive.’ Even if it is rarely directed toward facts of the same level as those with which modern science is concerned, it implies comparable intellectual application and methods of observation. In both cases the universe is an object of thought at least as much as it is a means of satisfying needs.”
Levi-Strauss cites example after example of idiosyncratically complex taxonomic schemes devised by “primitive” cultures around the world. His conclusion:
“[A]nimals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known. It may be objected that science of this kind can scarcely be of much practical effect. The answer to this is that its main purpose is not a practical one. It meets intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs.”
And we’re only on page 9 of his book.
“Let there be light,” proclaims elohim. “And elohim separated the light from the darkness; and elohim called the light day, and the darkness He called night.” Light and darkness, day and night: are these the properties of a raw natural universe that God is creating? Or is God imposing a system of abstract categories on raw nature? We are at day one, when God began creating the first science of the concrete.