The bricoleur vs the engineer

On “The Savage Mind, chapter one: The Science of the Concrete”

by Claude Levi-Strauss (1962)

The first edition of “The Savage Mind”


In the first chapter of his book “The Savage Mind”, Claude Levi-Strauss distinguishes two different approaches towards acquiring knowledge. He explains how primitive societies used ‘mythical thought’ – or what Levi-Strauss calls ‘science of the concrete’ – to make sense of the world. He explains this science of the concrete as the primitive logic of understanding the environment through smell, taste, texture and interaction with the environment. The idea that the logic of the world reveals itself through a very hand-on subjective approach.

Using mythology as a way of illustrating this science of the concrete, he states that all myths are bases on a limited number of core ingredients, and all that the mythical thinker does is recombine these elements into new variations.

In contrast, modern (western) science has a much more deterministic approach, and tries to explain that which cannot be experiences or sensed, resulting in new knowledge that was not existing before.

Elaborating on this definition of mythical thought, he introduces the concept of ‘bricolage’ (a French term that roughly means ‘tinkering’). The bricoleur uses the tools and materials available to him, and although there may be a vague imagined outcome, the endresult is predominantly shaped by the process, and will therefore “always be removed from the initial aim” (p.21).

On the modern scientist he writes: “The engineer is always trying to make his way out of and go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization while the “bricoleur” by inclination or necessity always remains within them.” (p. 19)

In the last part of the chapter the connection is made to art and the tension between working with the materials (letting the available materials determine the process) or with a model (blueprint, or pre-imagined outcome).

And finally he compares art to mythology, where art is the outcome of objects that are shaped through events, and myths are the outcome of events that are shaped through objects.



Levi-Strauss has an anthropological perspective based very much on linquistics. His writing is extremely dense, and on the face of it, it may seem that he prefers the modern scientist over the inherently limited mythical thinker. The engineer over the bricoleur.

But apart from acknowledging that the “difference is … less absolute than it might appear” (p.19), and “both approaches are equally valid” (p.22), he also also states that “art lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought” (p.22).



Although the name of Levi-Strauss is only mentioned once in Richard Sennets book “The Craftsman”, Sennets thoughts on craftmanship are building on his ideas.

In my research I am exploring the idea that there is a lot of value in integrating the thinking and making when applied to making visual effects for cinema. In this context the term ‘bricoleur’ and its relationship to craftsmanship becomes important.

Although (or maybe because) Levi-Strauss’ writing is somewhat opaque he has influenced a lot of later thinkers and writers on the subject of craftmanship.

“The engineer works by way of concept, and the ‘bricoleur’ by way of signs.” (p.20)

The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, ‘being’ and a ‘becoming’, in producing with his brush an object which does not exist as such and which he is nevertheless able to create on his canvas.” (p.25)

 These quotes show that Levi-Strauss must have had an influence on Richard Sennett, who elaborates on his own ideas on this subject in the book “The Craftsman”.



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