The Legacy of Structuralism: An Interview with Paul-François Tremlett (Part 1)

I interviewed Paul-François Tremlett in early 2012, hoping to draw out some of the links between his 2008 book Lévi-Strauss on Religion: The Structuring Mind (Equinox Publishing) and the relevance of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss for the contemporary study of religion.  The result was a fascinating, insightful conversation, presented here in 3 parts.

Part 1: Lévi-Strauss’s connections to theory and method in the study of religion and cognitive science of religion.

Part 2: Politics and Post-Structuralism

Part 3: Gender and Lévi-Strauss’s legacy

Donovan Schaefer: Out of all the thinkers you work on, how did you come to write a book about Claude Lévi-Strauss and religion?

Paul-François Tremlett: I’m interested in social theory generally and sociological and anthropological theories of religion more specifically, so when the opportunity came to write the book I jumped at it. I could hardly call myself a structuralist or a disciple of Lévi-Strauss but, nevertheless, his work has always fascinated me.

DOS: You point out early in the book that Lévi-Strauss is a figure rarely brought into theoretical conversations in Religious Studies. It occurred to me that even though—as an undergrad—I had read anthropologists and many theorists who are interesting primarily for their role in the history of our scholarly categories but are far from fashionable today, Lévi-Strauss was missing. Why is it that scholars in religion generally aren’t interested in Lévi-Strauss?

PFT: I encountered Lévi-Strauss as an undergraduate studying theory in anthropology, but I had also specialized in Southeast Asia and structuralism was pretty influential, in the 1960s and 1970s, in ethnographies of the region. However, it is by and large correct to say—with one or two notable exceptions such as Hans Penner and Seth Kunin—that Lévi-Strauss’ oeuvre is missing from sustained reflection by scholars in Religious Studies. I can think of a number of introductions to theory in RS which either miss it out completely or deal with it in cursory and even misleading fashion. I don’t want to speculate on why, but it is certainly a problem. In my view, structuralism provides a critical window onto the social theory of the twentieth century—I could hardly overstate its importance. Leaving aside Saussure and Jakobson and the linguistic turn more generally, if one doesn’t know Lévi-Strauss what does one make of Derrida, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, Freud, Bourdieu, let alone the complex legacies of anthropology? Moreover, Lévi-Strauss was not some narrow specialist; his writings engage a vast range of sources from Malinowski to Norbert Wiener’s work in cybernetics and information theory. A sound grounding in theory is, I would say, impossible without some familiarity with Lévi-Strauss’ work.

DOS: In the final chapter of this book you lay out a systematic comparison between what you call the “phenomenology of religion” and “structuralism” as an approach to religion.  You write that the differences are subtle and have something to do with the roles of the scholar—her prerogative and the foundation of her authority—implicit in each.  I’m interested in the similarities and differences between what gets called structuralism (and I’m including the anthropologists Victor Turner and Mary Douglas here) in the US and the Perennialist school, within which I include Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, and Karen Armstrong.  How would you mark the similarities and differences between these different lineages?

PFT: Phenomenology in RS has come in for a lot of stick in recent years, including from me. However, the point I wanted to make at the end of Lévi-Strauss on Religion was that the critique of phenomenology as not being scientific enough or as being some kind of theology in disguise misses the point (see Fitzgerald 2000; Flood 1999; McCutcheon 1997; Segal 1989).  The methodological appeals made by phenomenology are entirely in keeping with the traditions of the human sciences and humanities: delineating a clear class of facts for analysis (the sui generis move), securing the objectivity of the analyst vis-à-vis that class of facts (the claim to epoché) and, at the same time, guaranteeing the privileged access of the analyst to those facts (verstehen). There is nothing anti-scientific or theological about these appeals. However, involved with these are other appeals—in the case of Eliade we might delineate them as ‘romantic’—and the problem lies in trying to figure out the relationships between these different kinds of appeal. Whether we are interested in structuralism or phenomenology, it is vital that we analyze their respective claims to legitimacy and situate them historically so that we can follow the traditions and conversations that they have set in motion.

DOS: The book is subtitled “The Structuring Mindand your own more recent work has started to look more at the cognitive science of religion.  Do you recognize that link?  Is there anything in Lévi-Strauss’s work—or the structuralist tradition more generally—that could be put into conversation with contemporary research in cognitive science and religion? 

PFT: The sub-title The Structuring Mind was meant, in a sense, to capture Lévi-Strauss’ debt to Kant. For both, the mind played a constitutive role in how human beings apprehend and engage with the world. Since writing the book I have been thinking about cognitive approaches to religion—from Tylor and Lévy-Bruhl to Lévi-Strauss and Boyer, but also people like Varela and Ingold—and this has fed into my teaching but also led me to start thinking about whether and to what end Lévi-Strauss’ work might be brought into conversation with contemporary cognitive theory. I think Lévi-Strauss’ work—his engagements with linguistics, anthropology, philosophy and cybernetics—offers a useful point of orientation in debates about cognitive theory and the anthropology of religion. Indeed, I would argue that Lévi-Strauss’ cognitivism is far more nuanced and subtle than that of Pascal Boyer for example, who seems to begin from the premise that religion is irrational and the mind is a fixed device.

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