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Conrete Thinking

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Are you convinced by Levi-Strauss's thesis that people in societies without writing think differently (that is, have a different mode of thought) than we do?

Savannah Fetterolf

I would have to say that I do not completely agree with Levi-Strass’ thesis that people in societies without writing think differently than those in societies with writing. All languages spoken today have a highly developed vocabulary and are incredibly descriptive nature. Therefore, I tend to disagree with Levi-Strauss’ discussion of how people without writing tend to have a great deal of knowledge about the environment that they live in versus the “modern” peoples familiarity with technology. To me, this comparison is completely situational. The people in these different societies live within frameworks that value different types of knowledge. This argument, therefore, has no real tie to whether or not the society employs a writing system. I believe that both people with and without writing are equally capable of discussing the world around them and share the desire to describe the facets of life that cannot be explained by a tangible answer. People, therefore, do not process information differently, but tend to value different information based upon the nature of the society that they are members of.


The major difference that I recognize between a society with a written version of their spoken language and a society that does not have writing is how they maintain their history. In societies without a writing system, members transmit history via oral tradition, meaning that they tend to place a high value on accurate memorization and the exact regurgitation of information. The historical tradition in societies with writing systems is maintained through cataloging data in organized annals, which are preserved and shared with future generations.


Sara Ray

In some ways I am convinced by Levi-Strauss' statement but I also believe that he makes a very broad statement that is hard to substantiate totally, especially without direct evidence. What I'm convinced by is that societies without writing absolutely must encode things, especially memories, very differently than societies with writing. If we think about how much of our personal identity relies on writing it really is a lot. I know I don't have to remember everything and that, some things, I don't really even need to learn because I don't need to pass them on. I know my geneology generally, but would have to rely on my parents' extensive genological records if someone really wanted to know where I was from. Societies without writing have to be able to encode all of this knowledge in a way that is perpetually accessible to them as individuals, since a communal writing form doesn't exist.

Ultimately, to live without writing, people must fundamentally view their experiences with a different attention to detail and a different way of categorizing things into memory. I think about it this way: think of the difference between studying for a class for which you have notes versus one for which you don't. For us, a society with writing, it is often a LOT harder to study for a class where there are no notes, no books, only a recollection of lecture. We aren't really groomed to experience reality in that fashion. We do much better when we can access a written record of the past and our memory is jogged from there.

I think it is a little presumptive of Levi-Strauss to say that the societies without written language are the ones that are more focused on the environment. It seems a little simplistic and as though it undermines the relevance of Levi-Strauss crediting "primitive" people with disinterested thinking about the world.


emma roberts

I think Lévi-Strauss’s idea that societies without written language think differently about the world is very interesting. He points out, “People who are without writing have a fantastically precise knowledge of their environment and all their resources” and I definitely find this to be true (pg 19). I believe that due to our system of writing, we tend to rely less on our memory for certain situations – for example, medicinal plants, which we do not need to memorize because we can write their uses and physical characteristics down in reference books. Although I am not completely convinced by his arguments (the one about Venus, for example) and it seems that he picks and chooses what he wishes to emphasize, I do think his statement has some merit. On page 18 he writes, “we use less and we use more of our mental capacity than we did in the past”. Because he qualifies it as “less and more”, I believe this could very well be true, because certain types of information we are able to write down while other types of information we do not write down but must remember and use on a day to day basis (a foreign language, for example).


Joey Perry

I do not agree that people in societies without writing have a different mode of thought than we do. Societies without written languages tend to have extremely elaborate oral narratives, rich in description, that are passed down from generation to generation. They also tend to have wide arrays of traditional songs to go along with the narratives. Both of these constructs correlate to our society’s books and media culture. The one main difference that I can see is that while our society has a wider range of songs and stories to choose from, we do not memorize them whereas exclusively oral societies strive to memorize their songs and stories in order to pass them down to future generations and keep their oral traditions alive. For this reason, memories would be stressed differently between the two societies, with oral societies necessitating the ability to memorize things by rote whereas written societies tend not to develop memorizational capacities, relying instead on the ability to look things up on paper, as needed. In other words, the manner in which these constructs are learned and passed down are different in oral versus written societies but I do not believe that the modes of thought between the different societies are different, with the exception of memories.


John Curran

I'm committed, on some level, to the proposition that people in societies with writing exercise different kinds of thinking in than those without. But I would not credit L-S's arguments in this book for bringing me under this conviction.

Admittedly, I'm speaking on uncertain, even speculative, grounds: I haven't yet met anyone from a non-literate society (though I know several non-literate people in our society, most of them children).

The significance of writing for L-S is that it differentiates 'primitive' from civilized societies. The mythical or magical mode of thought which characterizes the former is totalizing ("that if , then you cannot"). Modern (="hot") societies such as our own are different: associated with writing is a scientific mode of thought, in which the universe is understood by dividing it into manageable parts.

If we recognize, however, that thinking within our own society can be both mythical/magical and scientific – that individuals often do operate according to both modes of thought – then I’m not sure what the writing distinction delivers. There is this idea out there (Goody 1977) – and I subscribe to it – that the adoption of writing changes thought: Writing allows for decontextualization, communication over time and space, thinking at higher levels of abstraction, conceptual reordering, etc.

Levi-Strauss doesn’t discuss the mechanisms that make the literacy difference matter.


Allison Moss (re: John's post)

I think what John bringing up children as examples of nonliterate individuals is really interesting. I don't know of many people who would disagree that as children learn to read and write they gain the capacity to think critically, yet expanding this idea to a nonliterate society evokes (for me) memories of unilinear evolution and Morgan's stages. However, I'd agree with John that writing allows for decontextualization and communication over time and space, etc. I guess its just interesting that the small example John used caused me to draw a connection to a theory I don't even agree with.


Alexandra Gagne

I believe that writing does not govern the thought processes, and am not convinced by Levi-Strauss' arguement. I would agree in some ways with his general idea.


In some cultures, certain experiences, ideas, and types of knowledge are emphasized more than others. L-S uses the example of the environment and resources- those societies in which knowledge of the land is crucial to survival are cultures in which everyone knows certain things about their environment. On the other hand, I, as someone who is greatly disconnected from nature, do not know what plants are poisonous.


L-S interprets this to mean that it is the societies without writing who have greater knowledge in other areas because they lack writing. I do not think that writing factors into this idea. The context of a culture is what determines the most valuable knowledge.


His thesis is valuable in so much as I believe societies emphasize appropriate knowledge- but this does not mean that their mode of thought is inherently different. Instead, it just means that what they think about and specialize in is different. L-S even says, in a somewhat contradictory fashion, that "the human mind is everywhere one and the same and that it has the same capacities" (p. 19).


Therefore, it is not writing or even mode of thought that differs in "primitive" societies. It is the culture needs and values which choose the most appropriate knowledge for that society.



I agree with what Savannah said: “People, therefore, do not process information differently, but tend to value different information based upon the nature of the society that they are members of.” I believe that fundamentally the way people process information is the same but it is the cultural difference and emphasize in different aspect that differentiates the writing and non-writing societies. The society without writing has great importance in retaining the information by memorizing whereas society with writing relies on written information. It is somewhat true that “People who are without writing have a fantastically precise knowledge of their environment and all their resources” (19). People with writing do not have knowledge of the environment because they value written information more than memory. Writing society relies on documents. We always have to cite sources (mainly from a written document) when we hand in a paper. We doubt of the information if it did not have written evidence. The non-writing communities wouldn’t doubt on oral information as much as we would. Thus, how people value the information is what differentiates the society and not the process of thinking.


Joey Perry: Response to John, Savannah, Alexandra

John, you were right in stating that children’s obtainment of writing allows for changes in though but I tend to associate that with the cognitive development of children that advances at the same time; in “primitive” societies, I do not feel that is the case. This past fall I lived in illiterate societies while doing service work; the experience makes me agree more with Savannah’s idea that people do not have different thought processes but tend to place the emphasis on different things as a result of their environment. All of the villages I visited, while illiterate, were extremely developed in the arts- both performative and oral. I think this is because in technologically developed societies such as ours, we have more distractions and the ability to watch or listen to others perform whereas in their society, they were obliged to learn how to participate in the arts themselves for a form of amusement. This also goes along with what Alexandra said about knowledge of the environment. In more “primitive” societies, the environment is their livelihood- survival is based on their knowledge of it. I found in the villages that the locals knew the name of every type of insect in the region; vegetation- names, uses, where it could be found and what month it starts to grow; more than you could ever want to know about the livestock; and often were eerily accurate predicting the weather, etc. Perhaps in the past L-S would have been correct to associate literacy with having (or not having) specific types of knowledge, but personally I think it would be wrong to maintain the same assumption today with the so-called flattening of the world, which allows for greater access to outside information. Even in those illiterate villages, someone inevitably had or knew someone who had access to a TV or radio. Also consider the reach of English or different link-languages, depending on where you are, to even the most remote villages. 


Alexandra Gagne- response

When I read this question, I actually never thought of your example of test taking. I immediately thought that people do not think differently based on literacy. But after reading your post, I do see your point. People do approach situations differently based on their test taking "training" if you want to call it that. But I still don't see this as a difference in real thought processes. Your example just shows that culture dictates what is important, what types of knowledge are best suited for that society. So.. I think that the way we think is a definite result of our literacy, but primarily it's a result of what our culture wants as to know. Therefore, I still feel like writing does not influence that ways we think.


Jill Coen

Levi-Strauss (LS) says his "basic hypothesis" is to disprove the notion that "primitive" peoples or "people without writing" are unable to have "disinterested" and "intellectual" thinking. That is, he says that people without writing are "perfectly capable of disinterested thinking" and "they proceed by intellectual means, exactly as a philosopher, or even to some extent a scientist, can and would do" (16). He goes on to reason that no human/culture can "develop all the mental capacities belonging to mankind at once," suggesting that it's only expected that some peoples would look more to sensory thinking than scientific thinking, and vise-versa (19). In other words, there are distinct divides in different modes of thinking.


LS' argument was very compelling. Its not that people with or without writing don't have the CAPACITY for similar modes of thought, and its not that peoples with or without writing have similar modes of thought but produce different results---it seems that writing, just like language, is heavily ingrained and intertwined with fundamental worldview. I think of the Maya--a writing society with a very different type of writing than ours, which when contextualized in Mayan culture and worldview, makes a lot of sense. Mayan glyphs and pictographs were used to tell epic tales of battles, Kings, and myths. The ornate pictures reflected the mystic regard Mayan writers (and their commissioners) had for these life events--and thus reflected the writers'/cultures' unique mode of thought. Therefore, I think that the distinguishing factor in modes of thought is not a binary (writing or not writing), it is a question of the types of language and writing and how they carry with them a culture.


Questions About Writing Itself

Dave Schatz

The responses that I have read provoke some interesting questions. I think that in order to fully understand the consequences of Levi-Strauss' interpretation, we need a defined position on exactly what a writing system is. One view would say that writing is a standardized expression of language used in a culture. However, we know that not all cultures have a majority of people who may understand the written form of language, so this definition is not so sound in some ways; for we think of writing as something a common majority learns and understands as part of a society, and this is clearly not necessarily the case. Standardization may only be interpretable by certain elite members of society, as was the case for Egypt for instance, ant yet we see their writing system as particularly developed. The question about Mayan pictorials is very interesting. Right before reading it, I was thinking something along those lines, but a little more general. I was wondering about difference between art and a writing system. Both can have sets of implied or direct meanings, and as we know from Levi-Strauss, meaning is quite hard to define. Does writing have to be done with any specific instrument used by the culture to be true writing, or does my usage of a paintbrush used to write a poem automatically qualify me as an artist? What I may be getting at, and I'm not sure, is that writing systems are defined by the society that uses them (sort of a writing relativism, if you will). As Americans, we know what writing qualifies as when we see it, and we know what isn't; this is very context dependent. We don't know what the San people use for expression, we wouldn't know it if we saw it. So, in essence, when Levi-Strauss claims that there are different modes of thinking, I would have to question his premises on discerning people that have writing and people who do not. As John pointed out, he knows people who are illiterate in our societal standards, and would Levi-Strauss say that they thought in a similar mode as the San even though they are viable members of our society? This is a difficult question, but it was prompted by some very interesting responses that I read.


Sara Coburn (re: John's Post)

I have to agree with John and Allison that L-S really does not touch much on the literacy component of langauge. I do think that is would be rather small-minded of anthropologists to assert that those cultures which do not have a writing system are not as capable of thinking abstractly as those with writing systems, however I do think that the literacy factor is a component that perhaps differentiates non-writing system cultures from writing-system cultures. I agree with what John asserted that as children read and develop these literary skills, the capacity for abstraction increases. I do not know whether there have been studies conducted that measure differences in abstraction or mental capacities in cultures with and without writing systems, however I suspect that the outcomes would be different. Cultures without writing systems may depend heavily on certain parts of the brain that involve oral learning, since oral myths and story telling are prevalent in these types of cultures. I would be curious to know what parts of the brain "light" up when children of non-writing system cultures are in school or listening to a story.


Sara Coburn

Ok, I am probably contradicting myself slightly here, but I do agree with Levi-Strauss's thesis that people of non-writing system cultures do thinking differently than we do. I think this because these people must have a different propensity of memory than we do to retain ideas, facts, and important aspects of their culture. I think that while they may not think in the same type of literary abstraction that we do, I do think that they have some form of abstraction in their creative worldview. A culture cannot be called a culture without a system of beliefs and ideas, which require abstract thinking. So perhaps they maintain a different cognitive level of ability to reason and validate their reactions to their environment, and/or create their own worldview through narration of myths. It is probable to assert that cultures with no writing system think with rational and logic according to their own system of thought just as we do.


Lauren Deal

I generally disagree with Levi-Strauss's idea that people without written language think differently than those with it. In many ways I feel that a language's deep structure does truly reflect the way that we think and view the world by providing us with the orienting structures to understand and process our surroundings. These structures exist regardless of whether or not they are written down. I believe that any differences found between peoples with and without written language are most likely superficial.


Tyson Johnson

I think it is difficult for anyone in our society to imagine living in a world without writing. We not only use writing as a means of communication, we use it to mark the important events that occur in our lives and in our world. In many cases and event is not recognized unless it is documented "in writing." However, I do not believe that the primacy of writing in our society drastically changes the way in which we think. When people interact, the majority of their communication occurs on the nonverbal level. Even in written communication people attempt to see past the words that were written to figure out what is really being said. Although I think there is probably evidence to support that people in a society without writing are more adept at remembering events clearly, it seems problematic to say that the existence of writing in our society compromises our ability to commit experiences and observations to memory. With the exception of people who keep personal journals, I know of very few people who keep written records of their lives. Even in our society with its written tradition there is still a great deal of importance placed on remembering events accurately and memorization. Most people make a conscience effort to commit important events (weddings, baptisms, etc.) to memory. Even in court proceedings, where a transcript is kept of every word that was said, people pay very close attention. The existence of writing may change the way we document our shared history, but it does not necessarily change the way we live our daily lives or the way we think about the world.


John Curran (response)

The arguments in the preceding posts have led me to refine my position.  Though I'm still committed to cognitive differences, I’m reminded that there are multiple kinds of literacies; that knowledge of them is not evenly distributed throughout a given population; that writing is a social practice employed for a diversity of ends in many different contexts.


I would reject the implication in Levi-Strauss’s argument that the cognitive effects which accompany the adoption of writing are universal and uniform — that the changes enabled by literacy are always the same, everywhere.  (Ahearn 2001: 47 has persuasively demonstrated this with Nepali women’s love letters.  Schreibner & Cole 1981: 251 take the argument even further, concluding from their study of the Vai, “Our results are in direct conflict with persistent claims that ‘deep psychological differences’ divide literate and non-literate populations.”).


Still, I think significant cognitive differences exist.  It is impossible, for instance, to practice modern science without writing.  Halliday & Martin (1993) argue that “the birth of science” was made possible by the introduction of a particular semiotic mechanism, “grammatical metaphor,” born “from the union of nominalization with recursive modification of the nominal group.”  Nominalization is identified as a key linguistic process of scientific discourse wherein verbs or adjectives are transformed into nouns.  Examples include:

(1)   glass crack growth rate

(2)   the nucleus’ absorption of energy

As if “hold[ing] reality still,” the nominal form construes events, actions, and attributes as trans-temporal phenomena — as “things” in a reality more “fixed and determinate” and less negotiable than if recast in a verb phrase (39).


It seems that highly nominalized language (which is no longer unique to science, but ubiquitous, present in modern discourse everywhere from business reports to travel brochures) creates a reality that is distanced from everyday experience by several layers of abstraction.  There are semiotic and cognitive implications for using these types of constructions.  And I don’t think they have the same presence, or operate with the same effect, in non-literate societies.

     I disagree, then, with Savannah and others who support the point that "people...do not process information differently"; and diverge from their reframing of the issue: that, instead, people "... tend to value different information based upon the nature of the[ir] society."


John Curran (elaboration on response)

What I am thinking of, when I read Levi-Strauss’s passages about a primitive mytho-magical mode of thought, is an example used by Hutchins (1987) to illustrate a different point.  To explain why spirits of the dead are invisible to the living, a Trobriander retells a myth which can be summarized as follows:

(1)   Baroweni threw up soup on Baroweni’s mother.

(2)   Baroweni’s mother became invisible to Baroweni.

(3)   Thus, baloma are invisible to the living.

We arrive at the third proposition by analogical reasoning; propositions (1) and (2) constitute an underlying schema, a mythical precedent, that is instantiated by – and used to explain – conditions experienced in real life (e.g. “anxiety about possible responsibility for the death [of a parent] and projection onto the deceased of the repressed hostility of the survivor toward the deceased.” (288)).


This analogical type of thinking is not absent from anthropology, where science and myth commingle.  (I earlier said that both modes of thought are possible at once.  I should add, to be more clear, that I don’t believe the way we think today is totally divorced from primitive, non-literate societies.)  The patrilineal band, for example, was as much science as myth: an idealization generated from a handful of instances and an empirical imagination, informed also by the (gender-bound) personal experiences of the theory’s creator. 

Can we see strands of myth woven throughout L-S’s ‘scientific’ tale of modern societies’ origin from a primitive state?  The final line of Hutchins’ chapter on the Trobriand myth brought this thought into focus:

In order to assert the literal truth of accounts which, by our present criteria of truth and falsehood, cannot literally be true, the claim of the special nature of that time must be made. (289n7)

It seems to me that this is precisely what L-S is doing in asserting a schism between modern and primitive, hot/cold, non-/literate, etc.  The only way to preserve the truth of his myth is by asserting that we cannot understand the mode of thought which predominated in the past through our current thinking.

    Though I maintain that significant cognitive differences exist (which, I have argued, are related to writing and scientific discourse), I am reluctant to say that these modes of thought are mutually unintelligible.



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