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How Durkheim is Repeatedly Misinterpreted: A Conversation Starter

2013 February 1
by Mike McCallion

I critique Vasquez’s interpretation of Emile Durkheim in his chapter “Grappling with the Legacy of Modernity: Implications for the Sociology of Religion,” in Religion on the Edge: De-Centering and Re-Centering the Sociology of Religion (2013, Oxford University Press).  Vasquez, of course, is not the only sociologist that misinterprets Durkheim, and I base this evaluation not on any great epiphany of my own but on the work of Anne Warfield Rawls – my professor long ago (Anne is the daughter of the philosopher John Rawls).  Her continuing work on Durkheim has not only been an inspiration but it has helped me think clear headedly about Durkheim’s work (see in particular her 2004 book Epistemology and Practice: Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Cambridge University Press).  I also appreciate Vasquez’s work, especially his recent book More Than Belief (2010, Oxford University Press) and the chapter I mentioned above, but, nevertheless, he gets Durkheim wrong.  My purpose below then is to simply provide the reader with several quotes from Rawls’ book that debunks the notion that Durkheim had an idealist turn and, secondly, to start a further conversation about Durkheim’s work.

In his chapter, Vasquez writes on page 33 the following: “Durkheim’s ultimately idealist turn, and in particular his view of religion as being essentially ‘mental operations’ acting upon ‘moral life,’ was picked up and magnified by Parsons in his synthesis with Weberian’s verstehende Soziologie.”  Vasquez, in one sentence, captures what Rawls has been trying to disabuse sociologists of for pretty much her entire career – that Durkheim is an idealist — he is NOT.  Indeed, her 2004 book was written specifically for that purpose, and, I must admit, it was only after reading her book myself that I understood the need for an entire book to clarify Durkheim’s arguments.  Part of the reason for this book length argument is Talcott Parsons, in that, most sociologists only read Parson’s, bypassing Durkheim’s original work.  They have taken Parson’s interpretation as definitive, especially his interpretation of Durkheim as an idealist.  But Rawls also blames Durkheim himself for misinterpretations because of how he structured The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (FORMS), especially in placing Book Two on “Beliefs” before Book Three on “Ritual.”  Ritual gives rise to belief not the other way around, and so his argument might have been clearer if Books Two and Three were reversed.

One of the more calamitous interpretations of Durkheim, according to Rawls, is that he had an idealist turn, but this is simply wrongheaded.  Durkheim’s FORMS argues just the opposite according to Rawls:

FORMS “offers a theory of mutual intelligibility achieved through orders of practice, a position that his earlier writings on social order assumed, but did not explain, and as such is the crowning achievement of Durkheim’s sociology.  The book, generally treated either as a work on primitive religion, or a sociology of knowledge, and elaborately and consistently misunderstood since the beginning, constitutes, in fact, Durkheim’s attempt to set his earlier works on a firm epistemological footing.  This he achieves by elaborating a theory of practice, as the basis for mutual intelligibility, which would establish a unique epistemological basis for sociology and the study of moral relations” (p. 1).

She goes on to write:

It is the function of religious practice in establishing essential shared sentiments and ideas that Durkheim argues is a necessary foundation for social life, not religious beliefs.

Even more to the point, Rawls writes:

In arguing that religion played an essential role in establishing a shared knowledge base, Durkheim was rejecting existing approaches to the problem of knowledge, replacing explanations that began with the individual with his own socially based argument that knowledge is created by the shared experience of enacted practices.  His argument privileges enacted social practice over beliefs and ideas, an innovation that avoids dilemmas inherent in philosophical approaches to knowledge and morality that are based on individualism, and the privileging of beliefs and ideas over practices; both dominant tendencies in western thought (p. 3).

And more to the point, including Parsons’ misunderstanding of Durkheim, Rawls writes:

According to Durkheim the shared emotional experience of moral forces was the real origin of the categories of understanding.  Not beginning with the social would therefore, necessarily cause problems for an epistemological argument because it would leave out the origin of knowledge: the thing allegedly being examined.  However, it was equally problematic to focus on social beliefs and values as a source of knowledge, as many followers of Durkheim, including Parsons and Levi-Strauss, did.  The social facts that needed to be examined were practices, not beliefs or narratives.  These, Durkheim argued were only retrospective constructions that obscured, without preserving, the underlying social facts.  Durkheim argued that it was only during certain ritual activities or practices, performed within assembled groups, that social experience could eclipse individual perception in the manner required for the development of rational categories of thought.

Finally, Durkheim is partly to blame for misunderstandings because of his “Introduction” and “Conclusion,” as Rawls makes clear:

The Introduction and Conclusion present their own difficulties.  The introduction is an earlier elucidation of the argument, which appeared in 1909, as ‘Sociologie religieuse et theorie de la connaissance,’ and leaves epistemological and sociology of knowledge issues relatively, although not entirely, undistinguished (Lukes, 1973:408).  The conclusion presents another difficulty.  It takes up the sociology of knowledge after the epistemological argument has been completed and assumes that the reader has an understanding of the argument.  The Conclusion does not summarize the overall position.  The epistemological argument itself appears only in the central chapters, which have been generally ignored in this regard, leading scholars to infer the epistemology from the Introduction and Conclusion where it is only vaguely sketched.  Thus, the careful relationship worked out in the central chapters, between specific practices and the corresponding categories of the understanding they produce, is missed with the result that Durkheim is interpreted instead as having focused on symbolic belief systems.  Because the epistemological significance of the central chapters has been missed,   the epistemological argument has never been recognized as such.  Even the best treatments of Durkheim’s theory of knowledge, David Bloor (1982) and Jeffrey      Alexander (1988) being notable in this regard, treat it as an argument about the sociology of knowledge and not an argument, in the classical sense, about the nature of mind and the origin of human reason.  Yet, it is clear from a close reading of the central chapters that Durkheim articulated an epistemology in the classical sense.  The sociology of knowledge is a distinct secondary argument           which is meant to rest on this foundation (p.23-24).

I hope this has piqued your interest about Durkheim and about the work of Anne Warfield Rawls.  And I hope you will think twice before claiming Durkheim as an idealist.

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