Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work
One of the more curious features of sociology is the number of times that it has been founded. In the late nineteenth century both Max Weber in Germany and Emile Durkheim in France behaved as founding fathers of the new science, without taking any interest whatever in each other’s work. In 1914 when the barbarism of bourgeois civilization erupted in World War I, each identified his own nation as being enlisted in the cause of civilization and his nation’s opponents as being enlisted in that of barbarism.
This philistine political nationalism was related to the nationally isolated character of their academic work. Both Weber and Durkheim believed that although the science that they were founding dealt with the character of the distinctively modern social order—with the resemblances and differences between that social order and the societies and cultures of alien times and places—the motives that inspired them to understand modernity arose from a particular and partisan preoccupation with the destinies of Germany and of France.
One of the many merits of Steven Lukes’s new, extensive intellectual biography of Durkheim is that it provides much material that helps to answer the question of how far Durkheim’s analysis of social life has an independent and continuing interest, and how far it reflects the particular circumstances of the French Third Republic in the years between 1880 and 1914. On this as on every other aspect of Durkheim’s career Lukes’s study is encyclopedically informative, and pleasurably lucid.
It enables us to understand how original Durkheim’s thought is in relation to the ideas of his immediate predecessors. In 1880 the climate of French secular thought had been mainly formed by Comtean positivists. When foreign thinkers were influential, as in Durkheim’s case Spencer and Wundt were, they were usually at best limited to framing new answers and solutions to positivist questions and problems. Durkheim not only opened up new theoretical perspectives. He had a passionate interest in the particularized detail of social life which rescued him to some degree from the incurably generalizing tendency of French positivism. Dr. Lukes thus offers us an intellectual portrait not only of Durkheim but of his age. If he rarely goes beyond the immediate critical questions arising from Durkheim’s writings, it is surely because the task he set himself, that of clarifying Durkheim’s thought and career, was necessary before deeper questions could be raised.
Durkheim’s work had three main themes. The first was that “society is not a mere sum of individuals; rather the system formed by their association represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics….” There are specifically social facts which have only sociological explanations. The suicide rate of a given society is to be explained not by the motives and reasons of the people who killed themselves, or by any other psychological factor, but by the degree of anomie, of the breakdown of socially established norms, in the community. This view is to be contrasted with that of those social scientists who have followed Weber in seeing the life of society as “solely the resultants and modes of organization of the particular acts of individual persons….”
Durkheim is thus able to envisage society as an independent power set over and apart from individuals, an external power which constrains and limits their internal egoistic drives. For him, the peculiar problems of modern society arise from its individualism, from the extent to which aggressive, competitive individualism has been released from social constraints by changes in the economic life of society and more particularly by changes in the forms of the division of labor as work, capital, and labor become more specialized, and people become part of functional groups. Yet Durkheim believed that the consciousness of interdependence, which arises from these forms, creates the basis for new, peculiarly modern forms of social solidarity. But why, in view of Durkheim’s emphasis on the power of the social as against the individual, should consciousness matter so much?
Part of the answer is to be found in Durkheim’s second main thesis, that “essentially social life is made up of representations.” Collective representations are “the way in which the group conceives itself in its relations with the objects which affect it.” That is to say, a society consists in a shared family of concepts and beliefs—those embodied in its myths and legends as well as in social and kinship relations and even in theoretical inquiry—which constitute a collective order independent of and prior to any particular person’s acquisition of those concepts and beliefs. In premodern society, Durkheim argued, the religious consciousness, and more particularly the distinction between the sacred and the profane, embodies the true collectivity. The sacred is nothing other than the form under which men comprehend the social order—“sacred things are simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects.” The profane is the realm of private existence and egoistic passions.
Of course not only religious concepts are involved in the collective conceptual structure. Categories such as substance, causality, and unity, which Kant saw as constituting the structure of the human mind and which provide the means to organize our sense-experiences into intelligible forms, are in Durkheim’s view socially established collective representations. To accept the concepts that we do is to accept the authority of our own social order.
Durkheim’s third main position is contained in his account of modern society. For from the summary so far given it might appear contradictory to describe a social order as irreligious and individualistic. Yet Durkheim characterizes the society of his own age in just these terms. There is a lack of social force and therefore of moral authority in modern economic and political life; individual appetite has too much sway. The authority of the collective must be restored.
Ought we to conclude from this that Durkheim’s criticism of late nineteenth-century French society should have made him an ally of the nostalgic conservative nationalism of Charles Maurras or Maurice Barrés, a nostalgia which later proved to be one of the sources of French fascism? Durkheim would have repudiated this interpretation of his thought with great indignation. He was strongly sympathetic to, as well as critical of, socialism, and in the Dreyfus affair he left no doubt where he stood.
In fact in an article, “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” written as part of the controversies over the Dreyfus case in 1898, Durkheim makes one of his clearest statements of his own resolution of the apparent contradiction to which I have pointed. Here “individualism” becomes the name, not of the sickness of modern society, but rather of its remedy. Individualism is a set of collective ideas and practices which make the dignity and the equality of individuals the object of that regard which belongs to the sacred. Individualism thus conceived is a social binding force. It involves the recognition that “the individual receives from society even the moral beliefs which deify him.” In the cause of individualism Durkheim argues that we must create new forms of professional association, new kinds of control over the competitive economy, new political institutions. In this way, what was divisive will become a force for reunion.
The reform of the educational curriculum and the training of teachers are of central importance in bringing this about. At Bordeaux where he had his first appointment, Durkheim regularly gave courses on education designed for future teachers. As Lukes writes:
During the years at Bordeaux, this course developed into a clearly structured whole in which the bearing of sociological theory on educational practice was fully brought out. Both education and morality, Durkheim maintained, are social phenomena: both are relative to the needs and social structures of particular societies and both are open to systemic observations. He saw education as “the means by which society perpetually re-creates the conditions of its very existence”: it consists of “a systematic socialization of the young generation.” He thought it possible to distinguish analytically (though not in reality) between all those mental states which are private to the individual and “a system of ideas, sentiments and practices which express in us…the group or different groups of which we are part; these are religious beliefs, moral beliefs and practices, national or occupational traditions, collective opinions of every kind.” The aim of education was to constitute that system within individuals. [P. 111]
At the Sorbonne, courses on the history of educational theory and practice formed part of his teaching in every year except one, from his first appointment in 1902 until his death in 1916 at fifty-nine. His influence on his pupils both in sociology and education formed the minds of more than one succeeding intellectual generation. Mauss, Halbwachs, Hubert, Hertz, and a multitude of others offered Durkheimian analyses of a variety of social phenomena in the Durkheimians’ journal, Année sociologique, and elsewhere. Historians such as Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, jurists such as Lévy and Huvelin, classical scholars such as Louis Gernet and Jane Harrison all acknowledged his influence. When Paul Nizan tried to offer a Marxist account of the ideology of the Third Republic, the work and influence of Durkheim had to be central themes for his analysis.
The ease and rapidity with which Durkheim’s ideas acquired dominance in French educational and academic life suggest that Nizan may have been right in seeing an intimate connection between the social forms of the Third Republic and the content of Durkheim’s sociology. Durkheim according to Nizan devoted himself not only to propagating his work but to “giving that work the…appearance of science. In the name of that appearance, in the name of that science, teachers taught children to respect the French nation, to justify class collaboration, to accept everything, to join in the cult of the Flag and bourgeois Democracy” (p. 357). Durkheim himself by contrast claimed that sociology is not only, like earlier forms of thought, the product of society; by virtue of the scientific character of its methods it can claim a truth and a rationality which rescue it from any taint of relativism. We therefore ought to test Durkheim’s views on just those matters in which the unperceived influence of his own society is most likely to occur. Let me suggest some clues which derive from the surface of Durkheim’s thought, and then move to a slightly deeper analysis.
Durkheim believed that the negative features of classical capitalism—unemployment, crises, the generation of poverty—are accidental features of the modern economic order. He looked forward to the correction of these features by wise managerial regulation, just as he looked forward to the correction of the inadequacies of parliamentary democracy by the formation of supplementary kinds of association. That is to say, he did not take seriously the possibility of there being sources and forms of conflict within modern society so fundamental that no institutional reform could cope with them.
Secondly, as Dr. Lukes perceptively observes, the fundamental antitheses with which Durkheim approached every social order—social versus individual, moral rules versus sensual appetites, sacred versus profane, and so on—all in the end amount to the same distinction. What at first appears a rich stock of theoretical ideas turns out to depend on a single theoretical key—the authority of the collective. It is not surprising therefore that Durkheim’s perspective does not allow for the many ways in which a variegated society can still be unified, or the corresponding ways in which conflict or tension can render it a disunity.
What was it that concealed from Durkheim both the intensity and the variety of social division and social conflict? What made his social vision so rigid and so unitary? The answer may lie in the way that his thought remains bound by the categories of the very atomistic individualism that he sees himself transcending. For the essence of individualism is not so much to emphasize the individual rather than the collective—whether methodologically or morally—as to frame all questions according to an ostensible antithesis between the individual and the collective. Those who continue to base their thinking on this false antithesis even if, like Durkheim, they champion the claims of the collective against the individual, remain within the basic categories of individualist thought and practice.
Both the individual and the collective, as they are pictured by individualism, are fictitious abstractions. Durkheim, who prided himself on having advanced far beyond the most sophisticated theories of individualism of the eighteenth century, such as those of Rousseau and Kant, in fact reduces individual psychology to the crudest eighteenth-century egoism. Morality for him is entirely external to the individual, a socially imposed constraint. The fictitious self-seeking, aggrandizing, competitive being who pursues no interest but his own is complemented by a fictitious independent moral power, that of society. The Kantian dichotomy between inclination and reason, Rousseau’s dichotomy between man as man and man as citizen, and Hobbes’s dichotomy between natural man and the artificiality of political life are among the ancestors—indeed among the acknowledged ancestors—of Durkheim’s thought. Durkheim’s philosophical currency remains one of individualism. He remained imprisoned by the very form of thought that he aspired to repudiate.
To point out this continuity is of more than historical interest. For many social scientists who would be disturbed by the accusation that their modes of thought are in important ways a continuation of Hobbes or Rousseau or Kant are happy to agree that they have been strongly influenced by Durkheim—or for that matter by Weber. Moreover, although the individual and the collective, as individualism conceives of them, are fictitious abstractions, it is also true that even as fictions they have a real and continuing social existence. So deeply do the categories of individualism continue to inform our practice as well as our theory that we endow these phantoms with a life of a secondary kind. We see one another as egoistic individuals estranged from a moral collective in many situations, and, seeing and being seen in this way, we often act as if Durkheimian sociology were the truth about society. His theory provides one more dramatic script for the social theaters of an individualist culture.
All the great social theories to date, including those of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and behavioral social science, for example, are in fact false. They overextend categories appropriate only to a particular time and place; they offer us false predictions; they are deceived by the ideological structures of their own society; they formulate generalizations which they propose as laws where laws are inappropriate; they reify abstractions in misleading ways. But nonetheless all these great social theories have the power to incarnate and reincarnate themselves in social life, and by so doing give themselves a semblance of truth which they do not in the end possess. In order not to be deceived by them we have to become fully conscious of what they are saying to us and of why what they are saying has the power over us that it has. Dr. Lukes’s book is a major contribution to this task, both as what will clearly be the standard work on Durkheim for a long time and as an approach to all those urgent contemporary questions which we cannot even formulate without confronting Durkheim’s thought.