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.)

Émile Durkheim Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Allen, N. J., W. S. F. Pickering, and W. Watts Miller, eds. On Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Routledge, 1998. An examination of Durkheim’s social and political thought.

Fenton, Steve, et al. Durkheim and Modern Sociology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Examines Durkheim’s influence on modern sociology in various areas, including the division of labor, social conflict and deviance, state authority, education, and religion.

Giddens, Anthony. Émile Durkheim. New York: Viking Press, 1979. A concise and informative introduction to the life and writings of Durkheim.

Lehmann, Jennifer M. Durkheim and Women. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. Discusses Durkheim’s viewpoints of women and their role in social conditions.

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. One of the leading authorities of Durkheim’s thought presents the reader with an account of his life and influence.

Nielsen, Donald A. Three Faces of God: Society, Religion, and the Categories of Totality in the Philosophy of Émile Durkheim. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. A very readable presentation of the influences in Durkheim’s thought.

Pearce, Frank. The Radical Durkheim. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. A radical stance on Durkheim, this text is exemplary of the various ways in which he can be interpreted.

Schmaus, Warren. Durkheim’s Philosophy of Science and the Sociology of Knowledge: Creating an Intellectual Niche. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Through a revolutionary interpretation of Durkheim’s major works, Schmaus argues that Durkheim, in his empirical observations, demonstrated how a philosophy of science can bring about a new science.

Walford, Geoffrey, and W. S. F. Pickering, eds. Durkheim and the Modern Education. New York: Routledge, 1998. A selection of revised papers highlighting Durkheim’s views on education.

Watts, William Miller. Durkheim, Morals, and Modernity. Buffalo, N.Y.: McGill-Queens University Press, 1996. Examines Durkheim’s ethics, arguing that a failure to understand them has led to a misunderstanding of his sociology of the modern world.

Émile Durkheim Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Émile Durkheim (door-kehm), who was born in 1858 in Épinal, a mountain town in eastern France, shares with his predecessor and fellow countryman Auguste Comte an internationally recognized reputation as cofounder of the modern field of sociology. Moreover, in the broader social scientific field, his name has traditionally ranked alongside those of Karl Marx and Max Weber.

He was the son of Moise Durkheim, who was rabbi of Épinal and chief rabbi of the départements of the Haute Marne and the Vosges. Despite the family’s hope that their son would continue a long tradition of rabbinical service, the young Durkheim left the local rabbinical school and began studies at the public Collège d’Épinal. He was an outstanding student, earning two baccalauréats (in letters in 1874 and in sciences in 1875). Restraints were imposed by his father’s bad health, however, and Durkheim was kept from progressing directly to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. After failing the entrance exams twice, he was finally admitted in 1879.

The experience of studying at the École Normale Supérieure allowed Durkheim intellectual interaction with several fellow students who would make their names in science, literature, and politics (Henri-Louis Bergson and Jean Jaurès among them). One of the main personal developments to come out of these years was Durkheim’s total rejection of his own Jewish background specifically and of religion as an influential factor in social evolution generally. Eventually he went much further than his mentors, who themselves taught that preconceived ideas were “the most common evil” of modern society. Durkheim would criticize one of his teachers, Fustel de Coulanges, for studying religion as a primary determinant of social organization. Durkheim’s nascent conception of what social scientific method should incorporate called for the opposite: explaining subjective phenomena such as religion in the light of observable elements of social organization.

As Durkheim emerged into his own following his studies at the École Normale Supérieure, he continued to acknowledge his debt...

(The entire section is 883 words.)

Émile Durkheim Biography

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Durkheim was one of the founders of modern sociology, a discipline that he demonstrated was not reducible to psychology or biology. His concept of society as a moral construct had a great impact on anthropology, history, religion, law, and political theory.

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 the famous...

(The entire section is 2109 words.)

Émile Durkheim Biography

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Émile Durkheim expressed anxiety about the impact of modern society on the ethical basis of society. He argued that the advance of science and technology was not necessarily progressive; indeed, it resulted in creating a condition of “anomie” that was characterized by ethical and social isolation. Anomie resulted in a disconnected, rootless society in which ethical structures collapsed or were rendered meaningless. Durkheim’s experiences as a youth during the Franco-Prussian War and the high expectations of his parents contributed to his naturally somber personality and his rather pessimistic sense of “reality.” In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim identified the...

(The entire section is 470 words.)