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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1421

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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 not all Australian systems are so clear-cut. Thus Durkheim and Mauss proceed to explain the variations from this central theme in a second chapter on “other” Australian systems. First they argue that many such systems which do not on the surface appear to correspond to the more “regular,” or typical, ones can actually be shown to derive from or presuppose the existence of the typical scheme; some process of change has simply altered their apparent form. This discussion of the possibility of decay, or alteration, hints at a radical redefinition of the authors’ position, a redefinition which is never really pursued, namely that the changes in social morphology which have produced the deviant classificatory forms are actually “due in part to the classifications themselves.” Durkheim and Mauss here suggest that the epiphenomenon of mental representations may actually exist in a mutually determining relationship with their “cause” (social groupings and relations).

This form of argumentation—explaining away variation by recourse to hypothetical historical changes—can produce befuddlement as well as theoretical insight. In the chapter on the Zuni and Sioux, for example, Durkheim and Mauss discover discrepancies among accounts of Zuni distribution of game in different categories but claim in a footnote that these can be “easily explained” by changes in the “orientation of the clans,” although no such explanation is given. Where explanations are attempted, the degree of apparent manipulation is alarming, and it is never clear to what extent the authors’ claims are statements of fact or historical reconstructions based upon sociological principles. In documenting the supposed transition among the Zuni from the classification by clans (a vestige of the more primitive Australian type) to a classification by “quarters” (that is, the four spatial quadrants of north, south, east, and west), the authors argue that the new schema was too clearly opposed to the “facts”; thus, the Zuni were forced to alter their classifications in order to correspond in a satisfactory manner with the objective world. This process is claimed as fact but remains merely an ingenious hypothesis.

If this hypothesis seems once again to lead Durkheim and Mauss away from the initial thesis of the exact correspondence between social organization and classification, the final ethnographic chapter on the Chinese “system” doubtlessly does so in an even more extreme fashion. Indeed, they claim at the very outset that this system has been independent of any particular social formation for as long as it has been known. The Chinese system is said to comprise a multiplicity of layered schemata—such as a classification by the four cardinal points, which are subdivided into eight sections corresponding to eight powers, over which is superimposed a classification by a set of five elements (which, by the way, is said to be reducible to the former, if only some elements are eliminated and others merged).

Far from being determined by Chinese social organization, this system in fact exists in the reverse relationship with society; the classificatory system is said to regulate the social conduct of members of Chinese society (through a divinatory calendrical cycle). It is possible for the system to become liberated from the determining influence of social morphology because its complexity allows it to “grasp reality closely enough to provide a fairly useful guide to action.” The process of adapting to the “facts” of the objective world which was at work among the Zuni has here to a certain extent freed Chinese thought, through reflection on its “clearly primitive” base, from the simplicity and powerlessness of primitive thought.

It is here that a distinction finally emerges which has underpinned the argument all along: the distinction between the religious nature of primitive classifications and the scientific, or technical, classifications characteristic of rational, logical thought. The movement from the former to the latter corresponds (at least implicitly in Durkheim and Mauss’s thought) with an increasing freedom from social determination and an increasing capacity to explain the world adequately (which implies a capacity to direct action rather than merely reflect it).

The two types of classification are, however, connected; both are speculative attempts to understand the world, and the latter has evolved from the former. It is in their conclusion that Durkheim and Mauss offer an explanation for exactly how it is that primitive classifications are modeled on social relations and, at the same time, an explanation of the nature of the evolution from primitive to scientific. These explanations lie in the role of sentiment in both social organization and thought. Social relationships are said to be based upon sentiments of affinity between groups or individuals, and it is these same sentiments which humans employ in their attempts to understand the world. It is a condition, however, which primarily affects “primitives”; for them, a species is not only a species but also an object of “a certain sentimental attitude.” The movement from primitive to scientific thus consists in the gradual removal of this emotional element from cognition and a resulting clarity, or delineation, in man’s thought about the world. Ultimately, emotion arises in Durkheim and Mauss’s work as the enemy of scientific—that is, individual and reflective rather than social and automatic—thought. Vestiges of such prescientific thought patterns may remain, but it is their gradual disappearance which has characterized the evolution of human classification.


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