Study Guide

Sociology and Philosophy

by Émile Durkheim

Sociology and Philosophy Essay - Critical Essays

Legacy and Criticisms

Durkheim is always named with Max Weber as one of the founders of sociology, and the concerns of these three essays are central to his whole project. In studying sociology, one studies the whole universe, the many aspects of which “converge in society” to create new and richer syntheses. “In a word, society is nature arrived at a higher point in its development, concentrating all its energies to surpass, as it were, itself.” Sociology, then, has the noblest goals, and these three essays—even when making the most arbitrary proclamations—often impress with their perception and manner of formulation. However, their core of sociological science remains evasive, always blurred by Durkheim’s postulation of some entity that he maintains is not metaphysical even though he “see[s] in the Divinity only society transfigured and symbolically expressed.”

Scholars have viewed the attack on epiphenomenalism in “Individual and Collective Representations” as weak and uninformed, lacking a convincing account of the mind-body relationship. Exactly a hundred years after Durkheim’s dismissal in 1898 of William James’s remarks on memory, neuroscientists at Harvard and Stanford used magnetic resonance imaging to focus on the prefrontal lobes and the parahippocampal cortex as crucial to good memory, basically negating Durkheim’s thought. In “The Determination of Moral Facts,” Durkheim admits to being criticized for a theory of morality that subjugated the individual to a collective social morality, a charge that he answers by posing a slippery distinction between appearance and ideal. Finally, in “Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality,” his aim of putting value judgments on a firm scientific foundation by merging them with personal preferences via the claim that “all judgment brings ideals into play” is a sleight-of-hand trick that does not work in the view of most scholars. To say that value judgments represent the relations of things to ideals is unexceptionable, but it is hard to get from that claim to the position that statements such as “I prefer beer to wine” are concerned with ideals.