essay on the summary of elementary forms of the religious life by emile durkheim  

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nandusocio | College Teacher | (Level 1) Honors

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According to the animistic theory, the idea of the human soul was first suggested by the contrast between the mental representations experienced while asleep (dreams) and those of normal experience. The primitive man grants equal status to both, and is thus led to postulate a "second self" within himself, one resembling the first, but made of an ethereal matter and capable of traveling great distances in short periods of time. The transformation of this soul into a spirit is achieved with death, which, to the primitive mind, is not unlike a prolonged sleep; and with the destruction of the body comes the idea of spirits detached from any organism and wandering about freely in space. Henceforth, spirits are assumed to involve themselves, for good or ill, in the affairs of men, and all human events varying slightly from the ordinary are attributed to their influence. As their power grows, men increasingly consider it wise to conciliate their favor or appease them when they are irritated, whence come prayers, offerings, sacrifices -- in short, the entire apparatus of religious worship. Reasoning wholly by analogy, the primitive mind also attributes "second selves" to all non-human objects -- plants, animals, rivers, trees, stars, etc. -- which thus account for the phenomena of the physical world; and in this way, the ancestor cult gives rise to the cult of nature. In the end, Durkheim concluded, "men find themselves the prisoners of this imaginary world of which they are, however, the authors and models."


In sharp contrast to animism, the naturistic theory insisted that religion ultimately rests upon a real experience -- that of the principal phenomena of nature (the infinity of time, space, force, etc.) -- which is sufficient to directly arouse religious ideas in the mind. But religion itself begins only when these natural forces cease being represented in the mind in an abstract form, and are transformed into personal, conscious spirits or gods, to whom the cult of nature may be addressed; and this transformation is (allegedly) achieved by language.

Whether from dreams or from physical nature, therefore, animism and naturism both attempt to construct the idea of the sacred out of the facts of our common, individual experience; and for Durkheim, whose argument again parallels Kant's attack on empiricist ethics, such an enterprise is simply impossible: "A fact of common experience," he insisted, "cannot give us the idea of something whose characteristic is to be outside the world of common experience." Durkheim's largely negative assessment of rival theories of religious origins thus led to his first positive conclusion: "Since neither man nor nature have of themselves a sacred character

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