Émile Durkheim Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Along with his contemporary Max Weber, Durkheim was one of the founders of modern sociology. He demonstrated that the discipline was not reducible to psychology or biology and received the first sociology professorship in France. His notion of society as a moral construct has had a great impact on anthropology, history, religion, law, and political theory and, during his own lifetime, had considerable influence on republicans and socialists of the Third Republic.

Early Life

Émile Durkheim was born April 15, 1858, to a family of rabbinical scholars living in the Vosges region of France. Although he broke with his Judaic heritage by becoming an agnostic, the ordered and respectable nature of his home life would have a lasting effect upon his attitudes and interests. After studying at the Collège d’Épinal and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, he entered in 1879 the famous École Normale Supérieure, receiving instruction from the philosopher Émile Boutroux and the historian Fustel de Coulanges. Although his mental brilliance and serious demeanor earned for him the nickname “The Metaphysician,” Durkheim did not do well at the École Normale, whose academic standards he thought were marred by literary dilettantism, and he finished second to last among successful graduates in 1882. Over the next five years, he taught at lycées in Sens, Saint-Quentin, and Troyes, except for 1885-1886, which he spent in Germany, visiting there the psychophysical laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt. In 1887, he married Louise Dreyfus; the couple eventually had two children, Marie and André. The same year he was appointed to teach a social science course created especially for him at the University of Bordeaux, nine years later being promoted to the first sociology chair in France.

Among the early influences on Durkheim’s thinking were the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Charles Renouvier, both concerned with establishing objective grounds for morality, and the English anthropologist of religion Robertson Smith. Work and contact with Alfred Espinas led to the development of the important Durkheimian notion of collective representations, the common ideas and symbols of a community. In this, Durkheim was also influenced by Auguste Comte’s notion of a social consensus, and he especially identified with his predecessor’s efforts to establish an autonomous science of sociology. In his second dissertation, Quid secundatus politicae scientiae instituendae contulerit, written in Latin and published in 1892, he recognized Montesquieu as being the first to attempt an understanding of society in terms of universal laws. With the addition of an essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the work appeared in English as Montesquieu and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology (1960). Durkheim’s eloquent and forceful defense of this thesis before hostile examiners did much to advance his reputation as a spokesman for sociology.

Life’s Work

For Durkheim, the primal union that created society also created religion; the totem represented not only god but also the clan. No religion was “false” inasmuch as all served a social function. Public rituals reaffirmed the identification between the state and its religious origins, wrapping social authority in an inviolable aura of sanctity that served to make antisocial aggressions unthinkable. While Durkheim was interested in the ethical foundation of society from the earliest stages of his career, it was only in teaching a course on religion in 1895 that the subject per se became a principal focus of his work, most extensively addressed in his last book, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912; The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1915).

Another well-known aspect of Durkheimian sociology, closely related to his ideas about the religious foundations of society, is the concept of the conscience collective, a term having a dual meaning inasmuch as conscience can be translated as both consciousness and conscience. Durkheim recognized that the social order was ultimately dependent upon an implicit system of values shared by members of a society. These values were developed intellectually in a society’s culture and were internalized emotionally in the personality of its members.

Durkheim developed these concepts against both empirical utilitarianism, the belief that social union arose in the pursuit of mutual interests, scientifically recorded, and German idealism, the philosophy that the universe could be understood through subjective consciousness, known intuitively. In the first case, he attacked a long tradition stretching from Thomas Hobbes to Herbert Spencer, which under the banner of “science” insisted that man was a self-interested animal motivated solely by his wants. In the second case, he criticized the lack of empiricism in the idealists’ notion of a transindividual consciousness. Collective representations were “social facts” that could be studied empirically in cultural, religious, and legal practices, and thus the social system was as much a reality determining collective human experience and being subject to scientific observation...

(The entire section is 2149 words.)