The anthropologist, philosopher, and sociologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl is known for his controversial understanding of the minds of indigenous people. His highly influential writings led to a new method of analyzing illogical thought patterns as well as new ideas regarding primitive religion and mythology.
Lévy-Bruhl’s early work focused on French, German, Jacobean, and Comtean philosophy, whereas his later work shifted toward the mental functions and emotions of indigenous people. Lévy-Bruhl’s theories were based on his own research as well as on accounts gathered by other ethnographers, missionaries, and travelers. He was concerned with what he called the study of “primitive mentality.” This work was Lévy-Bruhl’s reaction to Émile Durkheim’s ideas, which were extremely popular in France at the time.
In Lévy-Bruhl’s Les Fonctions Mentale dans les Sociétés Inférieures (How Natives Think), published in 1910, he stated that indigenous people’s thought processes were different from those of modern humans. He believed that their way of thinking lacked logic because they were unable to think abstractly. Instead, Lévy-Bruhl argued, indigenous people’s minds focused on the supernatural. Therefore, he believed that indigenous methods of thinking reflected their beliefs in magic instead of focusing on the reality of human relationships and experiences. Lévy-Bruhl continued to develop these theories in La Mentalité Primitive (Primitive Mentality), published in 1923, and L’Âme Primitive (The “Soul” of the Primitive), published in 1928. His later work, Carnets (Notebooks), published posthumously in 1949, suggested a shift away from his earlier statements that primitive people were illogical. In this book, Lévy-Bruhl wrote about two different thought processes: one based on the natural and the other based on the supernatural.
In 1978, Lévy-Bruhl earned his degree in philosophy from the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Before enrolling at the University of Paris to work on his Ph.D., Lévy-Bruhl taught philosophy at the University of Poitiers and the University of Amiens. He finished his doctorate in 1884 but continued teaching until he was hired as titular professor of the history of modern philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1899. In 1904, Lévy-Bruhl became the chair of the history of modern philosophy department. He also served as editor of the Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Etranger (Philosophical Review of France and Abroad). He continued to work at the Sorbonne until 1927. In 1925, Lévy-Bruhl assisted Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet in the founding of the Institute d’Etnologie at the University of Paris.
- Cazeneuve, J. (1972). Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (P. Rivière, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.
- Lévy-Bruhl, L. (1926). How natives think. London: George Allen & Unwin.
- Lévy-Bruhl, L. (1931). Primitive mentality. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.