What Can we Learn from Louis Dumont?
By most conventional accounts, the chief contemporary presence of the study of religion begun by Durkheim and his immediate circle is Claude Lévi-Strauss. But while in the study of myth, ritual, totemism, or symbolism, Lévi-Strauss’ name comes readily enough to mind, little else bearing directly on the study of religion can be attributed to the father of modern structuralism. Far more directly involved in the study of religion, but oddly enough far less appreciated despite being so, is the French structuralist Louis Dumont (1911-1998). Going even further beyond just the study of religion, historian Mark Lilla claims that “after Lévi-Strauss surely the most important anthropologist in postwar France was Louis Dumont” (Lilla 1999, 41). Despite what many may imagine, as far as structural studies of religion are concerned, true pride of place should probably be yielded to Dumont as someone generally overshadowed by Lévi-Strauss’ brilliant reputation. As suggested by the recent critique of Lévi-Strauss by Maurice Godelier, at best, Levi-Strauss occupies an ambiguous position in religious studies (Godelier 1999, 21f). Given Lévi-Strauss’ denial of scientific status to the Durkheimian category of sacred, “religious anthropology ... will lose its autonomy and its specific character” (Lévi-Strauss 1963, 104). Indeed, Lévi-Strauss charted a course through his career that withdrew more and more from the study of religion even though his first substantial academic appointment was explicitly in the study of religion at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. This career in upper reaches of the French academic world began by Lévi-Strauss succeeding the religious phenomenologist, Maurice Leenhardt, in the so-called “Marcel Mauss Chair” in the Religious Sciences (Fifth) Section of the Paris École Pratique des Hautes Etudes.