Durkheim and Mauss array themselves at the outset of the work against “Logicians” and “Psychologists,” both of which, they argue, treat the process of classifying things, events, and facts about the world as at worst innate and at best individually constituted; that is, they assume that there is one essentially uniform way of ordering the world that is common to all people. In contrast, Durkheim and Mauss mobilize the anthropologist’s ubiquitous argumentative weapon: the historical and crosscultural variability of nearly any human phenomenon. Indeed, they contend, that which is commonly understood as classification is of rather recent origin, having its true birth in the thought of Aristotle. This historical origin of logical classification presupposes an extended prehistory, during which humanity (or at least one part of it) gradually removed itself from its original “state of indistinction.”
Durkheim and Mauss document this indistinction, or “mental confusion,” which, they argue, is in places and at times so extreme that “the individual himself loses his personality.” Human consciousness, in its primitive state, is a continuous and unregulated flow of representations bleeding into one another. The phenomenon of totemism—the belief in a relation of consubstantiality between members of a social group and a category of things (for example, bears, eagles, and lightning)—is a vestigial product of this sort of thought. The primitive inability to distinguish aspects of the world is taken as evidence that in the beginning, at least, humanity lacked the capacity to classify and that, consequently, such a capacity must be acquired from somewhere.
If it is not the human mind which provides this model, as a priori philosophers such as Immanuel Kant would have it, then perhaps the groupings and relations of things are inherent in the things themselves; perhaps, as David Hume and the empiricists claimed, it is nature itself which indicates how things should be perceived. Durkheim and Mauss reject this option as well, arguing that the inherent resemblances of things are not sufficient to determine the complex schemata by which they are apprehended. Having rejected both of these solutions, Durkheim and Mauss resolve the situation by, as Steven Lukes, Durkheim’s biographer, has put it, “restating the old epistemological questions in sociological terms.”
The sociological thesis is boldly stated at the outset of the first chapter on Australian (aboriginal) classification. The Australian tribes are generally divided into two major, complementary sections called moieties, and each moiety is composed of two marriage classes (within which marriage is proscribed) composed of a number of clans, or groups of people of common descent. “The classification of things,” Durkheim and Mauss argue, “reproduces this classification of men.” Among the tribes of the Bellinger River, for example, all nature is divided into two classes corresponding to male and female. Such schemes are often overlaid by another corresponding to the four marriage classes; thus, one group will be associated with a certain set of natural species and things (for example, opossum, kangaroo, dog), another group with a different set (for example, emu, bandicoot, black duck). On the basis of such examples, Durkheim and Mauss draw the analogy between moiety and genus on the one hand, and marriage class and species on the other.
Yet it soon becomes clear that...
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Because Primitive Classification was initially published in a French academic journal and was not translated into English until 1963, its impact outside Continental sociology has been relatively mild in comparison to that of Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, of which it is commonly considered a precursor. The latter work, a much longer and more completely thought-out treatment of many of the same topics addressed in Primitive Classification, is easily one of the most important works of all time in the social sciences.
Yet Primitive Classification did have an impact on French sociology. It represented an important step in the development of the Durkheimian school, signifying as it did a shift in emphasis toward the study of both religion and thought in sociology. As such, it inspired writers such as Lucien Levy-Bruhl, author of Les Fonctions mentales dans les societes inferieures (1910; How Natives Think, 1926), to treat such topics in depth. Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, published two years later, was in part a response to and criticism of Levy-Bruhl. A reading of all three works provides an interesting study of the development of (and change in) Durkheim’s thought, for Durkheim and Mauss’s work is much closer to Levy-Bruhl than a reading of only The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life would suggest.
The influence of Durkheim and Mauss’s work has perhaps been greatest on the field of anthropology, especially in France and Great Britain, although once again it is overshadowed by Durkheim’s later work. Much of the work of the great British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard arose from the dispute between Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl. Other anthropologists such as Mary Douglas and Claude Levi-Strauss can also be said to owe a great intellectual debt to the collective work of both Durkheim and Mauss in general, and their collaboration on Primitive Classification in particular. The book has clearly shaped the work of at least two disciplines and continues to be read for both the light it sheds on the intellectual development of two of history’s greatest sociologists and the insights it offers into the perennial mystery of human thought.