Sociology and Philosophy Analysis
by Émile Durkheim

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 2,095 words.)