French, b: 1857, Paris, d: 1939, Paris. Cat: Sociologist; philosopher of the social sciences. Educ: University of Paris and the École Normale Supérieure; received his doctorate in 1884. Infls: Comte, Durkheim and Théodule Ribot. Appts: 1885–95, Professor of Philosophy, Lycée Louis-le-Grand; 1885–1908, various posts at the Sorbonne; 1917, elected to the Académie des Sciences Morales.
Lévy-Bruhl maintained that ethics was a science, the methodology of which was empirical and descriptive. The descriptions of and explanations in terms of ethical ideas provided by this science were not primarily at the level of the individual, but at that of social groups.
Most of Lévy-Bruhl’s work was centred on the study of data about primitive societies provided by anthropologists. Amongst the tools he used in his investigation was the concept of collective representations, derived from the work of Durkheim. He described them as being ‘common to the members of a given social group…transmitted from one generation to another’ and ‘present[ing] themselves in aspects which cannot be accounted for by considering individuals merely as such’, and gave natural languages as an example. The collective representations of any society form the framework of its thoughts and beliefs, and the worldview yielded by the representations of primitive societies was one in which everything was controlled by mystical powers.
Lévy-Bruhl’s views about collective representations led on to another concept crucial to his analysis: that of prelogical thought. He maintained that the structure of thought of primitive societies was different in some but not all respects from that found in civilized societies. If it were the case that the thought-processes of primitive peoples were totally different from our own, then we would find primitive societies totally incomprehensible. He was concerned to point out that, by the use of the term ‘prelogical’, he meant neither ‘alogical’ nor a type of thought which subsequently gave way to the logic of civilized society. Instead, the thought-patterns of primitive peoples operated according to a different logic from that of civilized cultures, one main feature being indifference to self-contradiction and to consistency. Thus the members of a primitive society may well regard themselves as being literally identical with the sacred animal or bird which is symbolic of their culture.
The concept of causality held by primitive peoples is not to be regarded as a more simplistic version of that operative within civilized cultures. Instead of a natural or physical order in which events are interconnected and explicable, primitive peoples believe that causality is due to the occult powers with which anything unusual may be endowed. This belief is not affected by experience and is, according to Lévy-Bruhl, one example of what he calls ‘the law of participation’, which in turn forms a part of the collective representations of primitive cultures. According to this law, anything can be both itself and something other than itself, thus showing the indifference to self-contradiction which is a feature of prelogical thought; and it can both transfer and retain intact its mystic powers and influences.
Lévy-Bruhl can be criticized on several counts. He regards rigorous logical thought as a feature only of technologically advanced Western cultures, and thus has difficulty in explaining the high degree of sophistication often found in the practices of non-Western societies. He fails to take account of the continuities between what he refers to as ‘primitive’ and ‘civilized’ societies, and he has placed an exaggerated estimation on the rational features of the social life of the latter.