International Encyclopaedia
of the Histories of Anthropology

A philosopher and historian of philosophy, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) was one of the most famous and controversial figures in the history of French ethnology. A reformist socialist and supporter of Dreyfus, he was close to Jean Jaurès and one of the founders of the newspaper L’Humanité. The publication, in 1903, of La morale et la science des mœurs signalled the support of philosophy for Durkheimian sociology. Professor at the Sorbonne, he dominated the French academic world for more than twenty years. Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910) inaugurated the cycle of six books he devoted to the various ways of feeling and thinking of “primitive” societies until 1938, including La mentalité primitive, published in 1922, which was a resounding success and imposed Lévy-Bruhl as the mentor of French ethnology in the interwar years. Through their rich ethnographic references and literary quality, his body of work popularized the theoretical challenge of studying “primitive” societies and legitimized ethnology as a science. It sought to establish the ideals of the “prelogical” and “primitive” mentalities on the one hand, and “logical” and “scientific” on the other, which would constitute the two poles of the human spirit, without excluding or exclusively characterizing the members of “primitive” societies against those of modern Western societies. His academic and political interpersonal networks enabled him to achieve the creation of the Institute of Ethnology of the University of Paris in August 1925 by the Ministry of Colonies, of which he was president alongside Marcel Mauss and Paul Rivet, secretaries general. After 1945, his thinking, often caricatured, became very discredited.

Keywords: Philosophy | French Ethnology | 20th century | France | Durkheimian School