Émile Durkheim (18581917)
A. Mentors/training/intellectual tradition
David Émile Durkheim was born into a Jewish family with a strong rabbinic service,
however while a teenager abandoned the religious practice. [ER 2527]
After leaving his home in Épinal, Lorraine for Paris, Durkheim attended one of the
classical colléges in preparation for École Normale Supériuere, the elite institution
who staffed the nationwide system of rigorously secular staterun lycées, where
Durkheim taught philosophy for several years. [ER 2527]
During 18851886, he took a short study tour of German universities. [ER 2527]
In 1887 he joined the faculty of the University of Bordeaux in a position created for
him in social science and pedagogy, where he remained for 15 years. [ER 2527]
Near the end of his life, Durkheim succeeded Ferdinand Buisson in the chair of the
Science of Education at the Sorbonne. [ER 2527]
Durkheim was greatly influenced by the “scientific” history of Gabriel Monod, and
even more perhaps by the historian of Roman religion and domestic rituals, Numa
Denis Fustel de Coulanges. [ER 2527]
The philosophical influences include the neoKantian Émile Boutroux with his
notions about the independence of different levels of being, such as the social over the
psychological. [ER 2527]
The “eclectic” tradition of philosophy and social thought of Alfred Espinas,
Durkheim credited Espinas with being the source of his sense of autonomous reality
of social realm over the realms of biology and personal psychology. [ER 2527]
Another neoKantian Charles Renouvier which influenced Durkheim’s reading of
Immanuel Kant, as well as his passion for a science of morality. Renouvier’s political
liberalism, especially his affirmation of the sacredness of the indivual human person,
ran parallel to Durkehim’s inclinations towards a “religion of humanity.” [ER 2527]
His close friendship with neoHegelian Renouvierian, Octave Hamelin, influenced a
lifelong form of humanistic liberalism. [ER 2527]
Repeatedly one hears it said that the three men who contributed more than any others
to sociology in the nineteenth century were Durkheim, Weber, and Marx. [DoR 3]
His contributions to sociology would also extend to religious studies.
B. Principal geographical and historical concerns
His earlier works such as The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of
Sociological Method (1895), and Suicide (1897) focused on modern Western society.
His later work, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) focused on
indigenous tribal societies. [ER 2527]
Primarily concerned with explaining his society, through attempting to understand
“primitive” societies with the hopes in finding underlying connections between the
two. C. Principal thematic concerns
Society and God are one in the same.
Sacred space vs. profane space.
Symbolism, sentimentality, and the construction of identities.
Individual and collective forms of consciousness.
Durkheim was primarily interested in the interplay between ideologies of society and
the individual as opposed to a materialist or economic Marxist approach to society.
D. Attitude toward modern culture
Durkheim challenged notions of progression during nineteenthcentury, in that he
showed underlying connections of the human condition between “primitive” societies
and “modern” ones. In a sense we cannot choose our religion, as it is the result of our
His work reexamines secular societies as intrinsically religious, even though it may
not appear to be so in the traditional sense. II. Method/Mode of Operation
Australian aboriginal societies
Melanesian and Polynesian tribal societies
Native American societ