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Émile Durkheim’s project for a secular, scientific understanding of religion was bound up with a belief in evolution. Yet in a remark much discussed by commentators, he said that in 1895 his approach to religion had been transformed by a ‘revelation’. However, he said this in a letter over a decade later (Durkheim 1907a: 404), and, apart from the issue of a recollection’s accuracy so long afterwards, it is problematic in two main ways. It is very brief and leaves open the question, not only of what was revealed but also of how it was revealed and if it really arose out of thin air, in a wholly ungrounded moment of insight.
In investigating these matters, it is not enough just to focus on his work around 1895. It is essential to look at things from the perspective of his work around 1907, the year of the appearance of the first known draft of what he eventually published in 1912 as Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. But it is also important to note an intervening intellectual crisis, rooted in developments in 1898 and 1899. Accordingly, in asking about Durkheim’s revelation, my discussion starts with how his approach had changed by the time of these developments, compared with what it had been in his doctoral thesis of 1893, De la division du travail social.
Durkheim’s first main publications on religion after his ‘revelation’ began to appear in the new journal he had founded, the Année sociologique. One was an essay on the origins of the prohibition of incest (Durkheim 1898a), followed the next year with an essay on the definition of religious phenomena (Durkheim 1899b)…


What was the nature of the ‘revelation’ and of the appreciation of William Robertson Smith that, in 1907, Émile Durkheim dated to 1895? This article tracks new developments in his thought after 1895, including an emphasis on creative effervescence. But there was also continuity, involving a search for origins that used the ethnology of a living culture to identify early human socioreligious life with totemism in Australia. It is this continuity, at the core of his thought after 1895, which helps to bring out the nature of his ‘revelation’ and of his homage to Robertson Smith. It also highlights a problem with his start from an already complex Australian world, yet without a suitable evolutionary perspective available to him. However, a modern re-reading can reinstate Durkheim’s interest in origins, in a story of hominin/human evolution over millions of years.


  • Australian ethnology
  • creative effervescence
  • Émile Durkheim
  • evolution
  • revelation
  • totemism
  • William Robertson Smith
William Watts Miller
William Watts Miller was for many years editor of Durkheimian Studies / Études durkheimiennes and a close colleague of the late Bill Pickering, founder of the British Centre for Durkheimian Studies, the University of Oxford. Email:
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