Thursday, October 25, 2007

From Language to Stone via Marriage

Reading "Introducing Levi-Strauss" by Boris Wiseman and Judy Groves, one of those enjoyable cartoon philosophy books produced by Icon Books, I have been reminded that one of the fundamental analogies used by Levi-Strauss is that between the functioning of language and kinship.

Levi-Strauss believes that the key to understanding kinship lies not in the study of family units (mother, father and children) but in understanding various taboos related to marriage, for example the incest taboo or the commonly encountered taboo which has it that parallel cousins cannot marry (i.e. the respective offspring of two brothers or of two sisters) while cross cousins can (i.e. the respective offspring of a brother and a sister).

At the origin of this type of analysis is an analogy with a similar emphasis on relationships, but this time in the analysis of language. Such emphasis on relationships is found in the work of Saussure which simply states that the meaning of words is not found in single letter sounds or 'phonemes' but in the relationships between a group of 'phonemes', for example, the three phonemes which create the word B-A-T have no significance by themselves, only when they are related to form a word.

Levi-Strauss draws an analogy between 'phoneme' and 'family unit' and implies thereby that the 'family unit' is has no meaning without understanding what the relationship with other 'family units' is. This is because marriage in primitive societies involves reciprocal exchange of women within the tribes which builds strong bonds between the various clans.

What is more, Levi-Strauss argues that the development of such reciprocal systems of exchange cannot occur without the development of language. Here is a quote from the book: "In terms of human evolution, Levi-Strauss attributes to the emergence of language ("symbolic thought") a key role in setting into motion the entire system of reciprocity whereby women first came to be exchanged"... in some cases symbolically represented by the tribes' most precious material asset in the form of stone axes.

The last phrase in italics is my own. I have written much more about this subject here.


Dick said...

This nails it re Levi-Strauss about as well as anything could, Jonathan. And all without a single picture!

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks Dick. Well, it's one aspect of his thinking. There are many many others.