Levi-Strauss“To accept as a theme for discussion a category that one believes to be false always entails the risk, simply by the attention that is paid to it, of entertaining some illusion about its reality. In order to come to grips with an imprecise obstacle one emphasizes contours where all one really wants is to demonstrate their insubstantiality, for in attacking an ill-founded theory the critic begins by paying it a kind of respect.”

РClaude L̩vi-Strauss (1962), Totemism; translation Rodney Needham

14 Responses to “Totemism”

  1. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

    I’m going to be nit-picky here.

    (i) Categories are not false. They are not the sort of thing that can be either true or false. A category is either empty, or not. Propositions, or statements, or sentences can be either true or false.

    (ii) What sort of reality, or lack thereof, does a category have? Given that the mention of its reality follows the statement that speaks of categories being false, I presume that perhaps what is intended is that there are no “real” objects to which the name of the category refers, i.e., that are members of the category. If the claim is rather that there is no category at all because there are no objects that would be members of the category, then I would say that the claim that there is no category at all is true in a sense, but misleading. It depends on what sort of ontological status categories have to begin with. For categories are not physical objects, of course, they are abstracta. Of course, if they are indeed abstracta, then it would seem that a category does not need any members at all in order for it to “exist”, in whatever sense abstracta exist. But, if all one means by saying that there is no category is that there do not exist any objects that could be categorized as such – e.g., unicorns – well, then one’s words slightly obscure what one means, but fine, then in a sense, there is no category.

    (iii) If the problem is with an ill-defined category, well, no one said categories have to be well-defined. Of course there are vague categories, but they are still categories. Just because we run into problems with determining for each and every object whether or not it is a member of a category does not somehow erase the category.

    (iv) Frankly, I find the last sentence to be almost useless and uninteresting. What exactly is the point? Because it almost sounds like an attempt to justify why one isn’t going to bother trying to refute some other theory. If the problem with some other theory is that it is just plain incoherent, well, then demonstrating that does a fairly good job of criticizing it. And I don’t think it necessarily pays it some “respect” because one has found it worth attacking. It may be the case that, because of one’s situated place in history, there is some theory or view that seems to be all the rage, but one finds it incredibly wrong and incoherent. The fact that it dominates so many minds is reason enough to attack it, and that has nothing to do with having “respect” for the theory, but rather, respect for what one believes to be the truth.

    1. Jelte says:

      Well, perhaps someone (you? it could be you!) should buy me the original French edition which I have thus far failed to get my opposable thumbs on. It may turn out that much of your objections should be levelled at ol’ Rodney rather than poor ol’ Lévi-S.

    2. Jelte says:

      Translation aside.

      I read L-S’ criticism to be directed at the erection of categories of weak ontological standing (what he his translator calls their ’substantiality’, which I quite like). I don’t read him as having a gripe with the ill-definability [your (iii)] of insubstantial categories.

      -> In fact, some of the most insubstantial categories that have crossed my path are exactly some of the more definable ones! <- With regards to [your (iv)], yes I can see that an accusation of carelessness may justifiably be levelled. I read Rodney|L-S’ ‘ill-founded theory’ differently from you, I think, though. Perhaps the ‘theory’ referred to is any that makes (implicit of explicit) unjustified use of the proposition: ‘X is a substantial category’. Perhaps L-S’ point is that any mention of X implicitly adds weight to X’s ontological status?

      1. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

        [Gripe: I really wish WordPress were set up so that one could respond to particular comments.]

        “some of the most insubstantial categories that have crossed my path are exactly some of the more definable ones!”

        (i)’ Tell me what the use of “insubstantial” is intended to mean here, because when we are talking about ideas or concepts or theories or categories or anything of this nature, the word is being used in a slightly metaphorical sense, not a literal sense. If it were a literal sense, all categories are insubstantial, unless one thinks abstracta have a special kind of substance all their own, an immaterial substance; but I certainly don’t think that’s what’s intended. So just what is the word supposed to be expressing about a certain category of categories that L-S doesn’t particularly like?

        “Perhaps the ‘theory’ referred to is any that makes (implicit of explicit) use of the proposition: ‘X is a substantial category’.”

        (ii)’ An ill-founded theory is any that claims something to be a substantial category? Really? This leaves me utterly confused as to what on earth would be intellectually desirable here. Are we striving for insubstantial categories? I hope not! But that also seems to me to be exactly what L-S wants to avoid.

        (iii)’ Let me try an analysis of just what on earth L-S, via RN, is saying here.

        First sentence: I’ll take L-S to mean by “false category” an empty category. Two reasons: (R1) Principle of charity: it is what makes the most sense. (R2) His last phrase, “entertaining some illusion about its reality”: it seems clear to me that he is referring to the kind of situation in which one entertains the idea that some certain thing or type of thing exists, when in fact, it does not. Empty categories are precisely the sorts of categories for which there do not exist any things that are of that category (or type). It would follow that the sentence claims that, taking seriously for discussion some category one believes to be empty always has the effect of giving the illusion or impression that something must be a member of that category.

        Now, there is one ambiguity in that sentence that would radically alter its meaning, and I actually tried to retain that ambiguity in that last sentence. It is the little word “its” in “its reality”. What’s reality? Does L-S mean the reality of the category itself? Or, the reality of what must be referred to when we speak of the category? It makes a huge difference which he means, because the latter would suggest the same kind of issue that frustrates any linguistically-minded philosopher when they are confronted with the question of how to deal with fictional entities. If unicorns don’t exist, well, then what the hell am I talking about when I talk about unicorns? Because I can talk about them: Unicorns have horns. And in fact, a lot of people would say that that is, in some sense, true. But how can it be true if it doesn’t refer to anything at all? I can also talk about what happens in my dreams, or what happens in fictional novels or films, etc. We must realize that there is a subtle difference between speaking of a category itself, and speaking of the things that would be or are members of that category. However, there seems to be some kind of relationship between a category and its members, but if a category has no members, then what are we to make of this?

        It could be the case, although I might also be reading too much of my own background knowledge into him, that L-S is actually bringing out this very issue, and emphasizing precisely that there is a subtlety most people often miss, which leads them to start to think that any legitimate category of which we can speak must refer to something. [Frege struggled with this, actually, but it was his own fault: his theory of meaning couldn’t make sense of terms that lacked a reference, because he made reference a requirement for meaning. What we learn, of course, is that meaningfulness does not require reference, because such a view leads to all sorts of problems. Frege’s solution was to say that every term that seemed to lack an existing referent actually referred to the null set. Sometimes geniuses even come up with really bad ideas.]

        First half of second sentence: Taken all the way up to the word “insubstantiality”. What is the “imprecise obstacle”? We went from speaking of “false” or empty categories, as something part of a discussion in which one would seemingly argue against the view in favor of such categories as describing some part of reality, to something that is now called “imprecise”. How does a lack of precision relate to what was said in the first sentence? Or perhaps more directly, how does a lack of precision have anything to do with “false” or empty categories? Is the obstacle L-S is talking about the categories themselves? Or, is the obstacle instead the very tricky and very subtle issue of having to deal with and make sense of empty categories without falling into the trap of thinking they must have members? Again, whether he means the latter really requires reading quite a bit into L-S that I, in my current position, am entirely unjustified in reading into him. I have not read his previous work, nor do I know what his own philosophical background is like. So, frankly, I really have no idea which he could mean is the obstacle.

        But whatever the obstacle is, which he claims is imprecise, in order to argue against it, it seems that one must make it precise in some way first. Perhaps, if some idea is to be the target of my attack, well then I must have a clear understanding of what the target is in order to attack it. But, as L-S claims, all one really wanted to do was the demonstrate the insubstantiality of it.

        Of what? I suppose whatever the obstacle is, but I am uncertain what the obstacle is supposed to be here.

        But, what is his point in saying that one has to make precise the imprecise obstacle, when all one really wanted was to demonstrate the insubstantiality of it, whatever that means? The way in which he states it makes it sound that making precise the imprecise obstacle is somehow undesirable, since all one wanted to do was to demonstrate its insubstantiality. Now I ask, why? What does he see as wrong with the making precise of the imprecise obstacle? And how does that interfere with demonstrating the insubstantiality of it? Maybe knowing what meaning is intended by “insubstantiality” would allow me to see what is so wrong with the making precise of the imprecise. Does precision make something substantial, so that making something precise makes it substantial, which would end up frustrating one’s goal of demonstrating the insubstantiality of what one made precise?

        Well, I think I’ve probably said more than enough.

        1. Jelte says:

          In response to: CeF: ‘(i)’ Tell me what the use of insubstantial” is intended to mean here’:
          I have not attempted to constrain it any tighter than my ‘categories of weak ontological standing’ above. I also suggested that categories do not derive, err, substantialness just by being well-defined.

          Also, sorry, I should have made it clear that I was talking about unjustified use of proposition X: ‘perhaps the ‘theory’ referred to is any that makes (implicit of explicit) unjustified use of the proposition: ‘X is a substantial category’. Perhaps L-S’ point is that any mention of X implicitly adds weight to X’s ontological status?’

          Does this change your issues (i-iii) above or would you like me to go ahead and have a stab at ‘em as is?

          1. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

            Glad to see the formatting change. Much nicer. Perhaps another thought about formatting: is it possible to make everything wider? It would be nice if it wasn’t all crammed into this little, narrow column.

            It doesn’t change (iii).

            Explain “categories of weak ontological standing”. I’m still wondering, What does this really mean about categories? I mean, once again, are we talking about the existence of the categories themselves? Or that to which they are supposed to refer, their members? And what exactly is the weakness here? Is it a weakness because of a failure on the part of the categories to pick out actually existing objects and “picking out” instead non-existent objects? Or is it a weakness, not because of a failure to pick out existing objects, but what results in a failure to pick out existing objects, because of some inherent vagueness in the category? I know you claimed that it didn’t mean a lack of being well-defined, but I’m considering whether there is any other possible thing for it to mean! If not vagueness and lack of definition and imprecision, all of which might lead to the result that the category fails to pick anything out, then what is the weakness? Weakness of what? And ontological standing of what? And if the ontological standing of something is “weak”, what does that even mean? It only exists to some degree? Or maybe we’re not talking about the actual ontological status, but our justification for believing in the existence of something, so that, when one says, “X has weak ontological standing”, what one means is, “We don’t have good/enough justification for believing that X exists, but we also don’t have certainty that X doesn’t exist.”

            Ultimately, whether you are putting forth this view or not, I’m just trying to figure out exactly what the view is, or might be.

            Can you just imagine how hard of a grader I would be on student papers if I graded them on exactly my terms and my standards? 😉

            1. Jelte says:

              To start with your last point: I do not find your critique overly harsh, for your students I cannot speak.

              Alright, on to your (iii)’! I will try to steer a clear course here.

              I do not think L-S had in mind the ‘falseness of categories’. If that is what I believed, I would not have posted the quote which is generating present discussion. I agree with your (and, incidentally, W. Orman Q.’s) analysis of what has been called ‘false categories’ above. [[Not that there isn’t interesting material down that particular alleyway: do you, in denying existence of the category ‘unicorns’, deny the existence of the category ‘unicorn-ideas’? Do you reserve existence for non-mental entities?]]

              But this is whence I’d like to lay the tracks:
              No, I think L-S really was after what I’ve been unashamedly calling a category’s ontological standing, and he calls ‘substantialness’.

              We’ve explored ill-definability – that’s not it. We’ve explored non-existence – that’s not it, either. In a chess-game, one can construct a perfectly definable and existent category “all pieces that have not yet moved, or are taller than a bishop, or are within five squares of an opponent’s King”, but L-S would still have called this (vaguely and confusingly!) a ‘false category’.

              Where he was headed, I posit, was more towards relevancy and unity: towards so-called natural kinds, I suppose. Now I realize these characteristics-of-categories are tricky. I use them ostensively.

              -> I read L-S’ point to be, though, that the introduction of certain categories, even definable existent ones, can actually hinder dialectic. <-

              1. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

                No no no!! [You must imagine me laughing while I pound my fist shouting that.] Denying the existence of unicorns is NOT to deny the existence of the category of unicorns! That was precisely my point! A novel is a fiction, filled with characters and places and events that do not exist. But it does not follow that the novel itself doesn’t exist!

                Now of course, this introduces the question of what it means for something to exist, but unfortunately, existence is one of those things that likes to evade all analysis.

                But, you still have not really addressed my questions. I still have no idea what is being said here.

                Yes, I’m being brash here, but only because I find the discussion so intellectually stimulating.

                You haven’t answered my question about “weak ontological standing”. You haven’t explained why my analysis of the quote is mistaken. I think I gave a pretty good and extensive attempt at analyzing what that quote could possibly mean, but you’ve ignored it, simply asserting that L-S meant something about relevance and unity, which doesn’t at all enlighten me about what on earth is being said. Relevance to what? Unity of what? What role do these ideas play here in what is being said?

                But at least I can understand the claim that you think he was headed towards natural kinds. I don’t think I need to relay the questions that introduces. But what I would like to know is why you think he was headed towards natural kinds.

                And it’s all well and good to claim that the introduction of certain categories can hinder dialectic, but this statement is more like an empty assertion parading around as some profound insight. Of course we can end up obscuring by introducing some certain categories. I can’t imagine anyone who would disagree with this. But it tells me nothing about which categories do this, nor why or what about them that has this effect, nor does it explain how to get around this.

  2. Joanne (jM) says:

    ‘False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.’ (Charles Darwin)

    1. Jelte says:

      That’s a fine quote. But some issues spring to mind:
      (i) What if a false view is firmly entrenched ‘merely’ because it enjoys powerful adherrents? Could such a recalcitrant false view not hinder the opening of Charles’ ‘road to truth’? Example: Newton’s corpuscular theory and constant abusive badgering of Robert Hooke.

      (ii) Much more importantly, I want to say that we need to carefully distinguish here between the exegesis of ‘views’ and ‘theories’ on the one hand, and ‘categorization’ on the other. Again, it is most unfortunate that Rodney qua Claude (them/him)sel(ves/f) failed to do so. I want to

      -> agree with Charles in promoting a diversity of ‘views’/’theories’ AND agree with Claude in dissuading the erection of insubstantial categories <-

  3. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

    The “threads” here seem to be off a little, as comments are repeating, and some of them out of order. One of my responses to you now shows up before your comment to which I was responding. [And you can feel free to delete this comment once you read it and I guess figure out how to fix the order. I’m just drawing your attention to it. :)]

    1. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

      Okay, nevermind. Haha, you must have been in the process of fixing it as I was typing that, because now it shows up okay. Or, my browser is being screwy? Either of those are equally possible. (You know, saying something like “equally possible” irks the logician in me. But the metaphysicist in me wants to argue that not all possibilities are “equal”…Oh the conversations I have with myself in my head…)

      1. Jelte says:

        Yes, ‘equally possible’ is absurd. Please pull yourself together.

        1. Cheryl E. Fitzgerald says:

          Ah, but wait, for here are two possibilities that at least seem to most people to not be equally possible.

          (p) It is possible that I will die as a result of cancer.

          (q) It is possible that I will die as a result of being fatally attacked by algae.


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