Sociology and Philosophy

by Émile Durkheim

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Émile Durkheim’s Sociology and Philosophy contains the essays “Représentations individuelles et représentations collectives” (“Individual and Collective Representations”), “La Détermination du fait moral” (“The Determination of Moral Facts”), and “Jugements de valeur et jugements de réalité” (“Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality”). The immediate motive for writing “Individual and Collective Representations” in 1898 was to head off an attack Durkheim knew was coming from Gabriel Tarde, a criminologist, statistician, and sociologist who headed the French Ministry of Justice. Tarde was a fierce opponent of the exponents of biologism in sociology—thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Albert Espinas—and he founded his own school of interpsychology, a theory that reduced all social behavior to statistically measurable imitations of beliefs and desires. The 1906 essay “The Determination of Moral Facts” represents Durkheim’s effort to provide a structure for a sociology of morality according to rules he had formulated earlier. The essay deploys a favorite rhetorical strategy of Durkheim, setting up dualisms, in this instance between the moral and the sacred. In the 1911 essay “Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality,” Durkheim struggles to link sociology with a concern for ideals.

Individual and Collective Representations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Durkheim begins “Individual and Collective Representations” by attacking proponents of the psychophysiological school, such as Thomas Huxley, who maintained that mental processes were simple epiphenomena of the brain—in other words, that the mind has no nonphysical properties and names only the poorly understood workings of the brain. Durkheim turns the epiphenomenalists’ own metaphor against them. To claim, as they do, that the mind is a “light which accompanies, but does not constitute, those [cerebral] processes” is mistaken, Durkheim says, because this light is itself “a reality which testifies to its presence by its peculiar effects.” The act of understanding one’s own behavior contributes in itself to one’s freedom from a mere “system of reflexes.”

Much of Durkheim’s argument against epiphenomenalism is directed against psychologist William James’s account of memory as “a purely physical phenomenon” that follows familiar pathways in the brain. If James is right, Durkheim asserts, and memory is “solely a property of the tissues,” then it is hard to understand how a representation—a “sensation, image, or idea”—could be revived because “ideas cannot be linked unless the corresponding points in the cerebral mass are materially linked.” Thus, for Durkheim, memory is a “specifically mental phenomenon.” Moreover, splitting mental life into “myriads of organic elements” makes incomprehensible the unity and continuity the mind reveals. Durkheim’s explanation of the ontological status of representations is blurry, for it is not necessary, he says, to think of them as having a separate existence, but only to understand them as phenomena “endowed with reality.”

The last section of “Individual and Collective Representations” pleads first for agreement that collective representations are “produced” by the interactions of individual minds but do not “derive” from them. They even “surpass” them. The relationship between individual and collective representations is completely analogous to that between the brain’s neural processes and the individual’s mental life. This argument is simple to grasp if not necessarily easy to agree to, but it is only anterior to the main point Durkheim has been driving at all along:While one might perhaps contest the statement that all social facts without exception impose themselves from without upon the individual, the doubt does not seem possible as regards religious beliefs and practices, the rules of morality and the innumerable precepts of law—that is to say, all the most characteristic manifestations of collective life. All are expressly obligatory, and this obligation is the proof that these ways of acting and thinking are not the work of the...

(This entire section contains 537 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

individual but come from a moral power above him, that which the mystic calls God or which can be more scientifically conceived. The same law is found at work in the two fields.

Later, speaking of the mysterious actions that produce both individual and collective representations, Durkheim concedes that “It is for metaphysics to find the concepts which will render this heterogeneity in an acceptable form.” Durkheim names this indefinable property of individual representations “spirituality,” and the larger property of collective representations “hyperspirituality.” In his last word on the subject of spirituality, Durkheim concludes unhelpfully, “Despite its metaphysical appearance, this word designates nothing more than a body of natural facts which are explained by natural causes.”

Moral Facts

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

“The Determination of Moral Facts” identifies obligation and desirability as the two essential characteristics of moral acts, which history reveals are never identified with individuals acting in their own interest but instead are always devoted to the good of society, “with the condition that society be always considered as being qualitatively different from the individual beings that compose it.” Moral rules differ from others in that they are synthetic, not analytic. That is, getting sick from violating commonsense rules of hygiene is understood by analyzing the behavior involved: The punishment is inherent in the violation. However, no consequence is necessarily entailed by violation of a moral rule; the blame—the “sanction,” as Durkheim calls it—is synthetic in that it accrues from violating a preestablished rule. Sanctions can also proceed from conformity to moral rules, in which case the consequences are favorable. In all instances, the sanctions derive not from the act itself but from the violation or the observance of the preestablished rules, none of which are absolute in all places for all times but are constructed by each society in keeping with its own needs.

These rules are related to sacredness, which also implies obligations, or duty, and a desire to seek the good for its own sake. Neither duty nor desirability has priority over the other, and neither can be derived from the other. The obligatory nature of moral rules derives from their moral authority, and Durkheim stresses the parallels between the moral and the sacred with the apparent intention of rooting the moral in the religious. Morality and religion have always been closely associated. Thus, “there must, then, be morality in religion and elements of the religious in morality.”

Just as collective representations are more than the sum of individual representations, collective morality is more than the sum of the morals of individuals: “We arrive then at the conclusion that if a morality, or system of obligations and duties, exists, society is a moral being qualitatively different from the individuals it comprises and from the aggregation from which it derives.” Durkheim notes how similar this argument is to Kant’s argument for the existence of God. Kant said that morality was unintelligible without God; Durkheim fixes morality in society because “otherwise morality has no object and society no roots.” Durkheim professes to be indifferent to the question of which is the source of morality, God or society: “I see in the Divinity only society transfigured and symbolically expressed.”

However, the individual’s role in moral activity must not be overlooked, for although society “transcends” the individual, it is also “immanent” in each person. Society’s moral force produces civilization, “the assembly of all the things to which we attach the highest price,” and everyone is human only to the extent that we share the “ideas, beliefs, and precepts” of our civilization. This “sui generis force” that we all “shelter under” is “an intelligent and moral force capable, consequently, of neutralizing the blind and amoral forces of nature.” However, there is no universal moral force governing all societies, for each society has its own appropriate morality, and any other would be “fatal.” Moreover, each society has its ideal type of individual whom all members “realize is the keystone of the whole social system and gives it its unity.”

“The Determination of Moral Facts” was originally presented as a seminar, and appended to it are several of Durkheim’s most cogent answers to questions raised by his listeners. For example, he judges it impossible that morality and religion will ever be separated but explains his own position. He will not accept the utilitarians’ view of morality as merely a useful set of guidelines but neither will he go along with the theologians in hypostatizing a “transcendent Being.” Instead, he will frame the source of morality in rational language that remains faithful to its nature. To another questioner, he insists on the moral authority of the collective, and he compares people’s awe in the face of the collective’s moral authority to the awe felt by believers on their knees before their God. One must respect society even with its “pettiness,” he says, concluding with a remark that gives a new slant to most theodicies: “If we were only able to love and respect that which is ideally perfect, supposing the word to have any definite meaning, God Himself could not be the object of such a feeling, since the world derives from Him and the world is full of imperfection and ugliness.” Sort of a corollary to this observation is the point that each person is immoral to a degree because nobody can perfectly embody the “communal moral conscience.”


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Durkheim makes a simple distinction in “Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality.” Judgments are simple statements of preference that describe the state of the subject (for example, “I like hunting”), whereas judgments of value attribute worth to something and correspond to some objective reality. These objective values derive not from “a mean type found in the majority of individuals” in a given society because the average person is mediocre, but from the effect an object has on the collective subject, society. The moral authority of society constrains individuals in their judgments and even “ridicules those whose aesthetic inspiration is different,” making society both a legislator and a “creator and guardian” of civilization’s goods.

Value resides not in the thing, Durkheim says, but in the relationship between things and ideals. These ideals, though, are not transcendent and universal but specific to different societies, arising from each culture’s respect for human dignity. Durkheim emphasizes that whereas there are different types of value, they are all, including the economic, “species of the same genus.” Finally, Durkheim arrives at the relationship between value judgments and judgments of reality, asserting that because ideals are themselves real, though of a “different order,” the two kinds of judgments do not differ “in nature.” This reasoning brings Durkheim to the point he was working toward all along: The “injustice” of the accusation that sociology has “a fetish for fact and a systematic indifference to the ideal.”


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Additional Reading

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.

Bierstedt, Robert. Émile Durkheim. New York: Dell, 1966. A clear introduction to the major themes surrounding Émile Durkheim’s work.

Fenton, Steve, et al. Durkheim and Modern Sociology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. This text 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.

Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim: His Life and Work. New York: Harper and 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. In this magnificent account of the links between philosophy of science and scientific practice, Schmaus explains the relationship between Durkheim’s philosophy and his sociology. 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.

Wolff, Kurt H., ed. Essays on Sociology and Philosophy, with Appraisals of Durkheim’s Life and Thought. New York: Harper, 1964. A collection of essays that explores the intellectual contexts of Durkheim’s thought.


Critical Essays