French Ministry of Culture to honor Sahlins for contributions

Marshall Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Anthropology and a world-renowned ethnographer and historian of Polynesia, is receiving important recognitions in Europe this fall for his work.

Sahlins, who has taught in France and had six of his books published there, has been named a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters), by the French Ministry of Culture. He is also receiving honorary doctorates from the Sorbonne and the London School of Economics.

The Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award honors people who have contributed to the enrichment of French culture.

“I think I am the Jerry Lewis of French anthropology. The French love me, and the Americans can’t understand why,” Sahlins said.

His book The Western Illusion of Human Nature, in French translation, was chosen as aLivre d’Ete by the newspaper Le Monde in 2010. His book Stone Age Economics has been in print in France since 1976 as Age de Pierre, Age de Abondance.

Another of his books, Culture and Practical Reason (Au Coeur des Sociétes), has long been in print in France and won the 1977 Gordon J. Laing Prize awarded by the University of Chicago Press. More recently, his book Culture in Practice was adapted as La Decouverte du Vrai Sauvage.

Sahlins taught in France from 1968 to 1969, and was a member of famed anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Laboratoire at the College de France during that period.        

He was the only American to participate by invitation in the ceremonies honoring Lévi-Strauss’s 100th birthday in 2009, including a conference in his honor organized by Quai Branly Museum in Paris. The museum, which is devoted to indigenous art of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, nominated Sahlins for the knighthood.

The Sorbonne will be holding a daylong conference Monday, Nov. 14 on Sahlins’ work, featuring talks from sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers. Sahlins will receive his Chevalier award at a ceremony following the conference and an honorary degree (Docteur Honoris Causa) from the Sorbonne on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

The London School of Economics will present an honorary doctorate to Sahlins on Wednesday, Dec. 14.

Sahlins received an AB from the University of Michigan in 1951, an AM from Michigan in 1952 and a PhD in anthropology from Columbia in 1954. He joined the UChicago faculty in 1973 after teaching at Columbia and Michigan.

He has served in visiting professorships at universities around the world and received numerous honors for his work, including a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a fellow of the British Academy.

“Longevity,” he reflected, “is a good career move.”