(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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Moral Facts

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

“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...

(The entire section is 782 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.”


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.