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1Durkheim’s Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse is a study of “la religion la plus primitive et la plus simple qui soit actuellement connue” (1912, 1). This work, on the religious nature of man (Ibid., 2), has, as its travelling companion, an ambitious argument for the sociology of knowledge. This begins in the Introduction (section 2) where an earlier article (“Sociologie religieuse et théorie de la connaissance,” 1909) serves both as an outline of this and as an introduction to his study of primitive religion. Its arguments are marked both by a philosophical sophistication and by ambition for the sociology of knowledge. How well is this philosophical complexity and sociological ambition supported by its ethnographic basis in Durkheim’s reading of the totemic material? Does the structure of Les Formes suffer a perilous imbalance as a result, if his ambitions are not well founded? His aim is that the sociological study of religion will “renew problems” which until now have only been “debated among philosophers.” This is the question of the notions which “dominate all of our intellectual life” (1912, 12).

2These are what “philosophers since Aristotle have called categories of the understanding (les catégories de l’entendement)” (Ibid.). Durkheim’s aim is to solve the philosophical problem of the categories with the sociological methods based on the religion of totemic society. But why does Durkheim think that the ethnography of a primitive society can solve the problems of philosophy? I will suggest that this question can only be answered by acknowledging his view of philosophy and history. I will return to this question at the end of this article. But a further and pressing question springs to mind. The categories concern knowledge for Durkheim; he is clear that objective and universal knowledge is guaranteed by the categories. On the other hand, religion concerns belief and ritual. But how can the latter establish former? That is, what is the relation between religion and knowledge such that the study of religion will solve central questions within epistemology?

Religion and knowledge

3Durkheim insists that categories – “[les] notions de temps, d’espace, de genre, de nombre, de cause, de substance, de personnalité, etc.”– are born in and of religion; they are “un produit de la pensée religieuse” (Ibid., 13). “Quand on analyse méthodiquement les croyances religieuses primitives, on rencontre naturellement sur son chemin les principales d’entre ces catégories” (Ibid.). Firstly, what is the significance of religion in relation to the categories? He answers this by bringing forward the conclusion of the book: “Les représentations religieuses sont des représentations collectives qui expriment des réalités collectives” (Ibid.). Thus it is the logic of representation and its collective and social nature which will serve as part of the theoretical answer to this question. Secondly, there must be a connection between knowledge and action, for religion concerns beliefs and rites. “Les rites sont des manières d’agir qui ne prennent naissance qu’au sein des groupes assemblés et qui sont destinés à susciter, à entretenir ou à refaire certains états mentaux de ces groupes” (Ibid.). So religion is epistemologically significant not just for its representational nature but also because it exemplifies the significance of action, understood here as ritual.

4So exactly how is Durkheim going to answer a profound philosophical question in terms of a primitive religion? A closer examination of the case he makes for the study of religion can help answer this. The truth of religion for Durkheim, unlike for William James (Ibid., 596), is institutional and historical. Primitive religion, together with later more advanced forms of religion, are both human institutions. And institutions have a basis in reality (“elles tiennent au réel,” Ibid., 3). At the basis of all cults there are necessarily “un nombre de représentations fondamentales et d’attitudes rituelles” which everywhere have the same “objective signification” and which fulfill the same functions. This will reveal “les formes les plus essentielles de la pensée et de la pratique religieuse” (Ibid., 6 and 11). Durkheim, in contrast to James, held that the earlier, that is the most primitive, are more telling (Ibid., 4 and 8). The rational and the historical method in the explanation of religion is to go back to the most simple form and then to show how it develops. “C’était un principe cartésien que, dans la chaîne des vérités scientifiques, le premier anneau joue un rôle prépondérant” (Ibid., 5). But in the place of a logical concept constructed by the mind alone, there must be “une réalité concrète” (Ibid.) which only historical and ethnographic observation can reveal. This same method must apply to philosophy. Here also there is a human, historical truth, and as with religion, the earlier and the later are linked. Later philosophical accounts of what is real and rational are historically related to earlier forms of thought, which will reveal much that later epistemological complexities conceal. So Durkheim is reminding the philosophers, just as he reminded the theologians of the advanced religions, of their shared human and historical beginnings.

5Religion contributes to the formation of the human mind (Ibid., 12). But how? Although Durkheim will directly answer this later (Book ii, chapter 7, section 6), in the Introduction he holds that religion has “another side,” as cosmology. “Les premiers systèmes de représentations” are of religious origin. This means that religion contributed to the formation of certain ideas, not merely the enrichment of existing ones. And this affected not just the “matter” of knowledge but the “form” (Ibid., 12). This is an important statement, and the question of form will be central to my argument. This together with his conception of judgement are central to Durkheim’s claims for the sociology of knowledge. Yet, despite Durkheim insisting that categories are “à la racine de nos jugements” (Ibid.), his account of judgement, together with important aspects of his theoretical logic, have been neglected in major commentaries on his work, including the most recent work on the categories (Rawls, 2004). But, before I can pursue this, we must firstly look at Durkheim’s account of the categories, what they are and, secondly, what he claims to be the most adequate explanation of them.

Durkheim’s account of the categories: philosophical accounts and sociological method

6If Durkheim can show that only sociology can explain the categories, then he will have established a strong claim for the sociology of knowledge. But can he? In addition to the ambition of his argument, there are presentational difficulties: he begins his analysis of the categories in the Introduction, but it is only in the Conclusion, some 600 pages later, where the arguments are directly resumed, and indeed in some cases developed. So the categories are “les cadres solides qui enserrent la pensée.” “[I]nséparables du fonctionnement normal de l’esprit […], elles sont comme l’ossature de l’intelligence” (Ibid., 13). Durkheim argues that we cannot think without them, that is we can only think objects as spatial, temporal and as numerable. In the Conclusion he stresses their stability and impersonality, and their function of enveloping all other concepts. They express the fundamental condition of understanding between minds; they are “les cadres permanents de la vie mentale.” The relations they express exist implicitly “dans les consciences individuelles” (Ibid., 627-628). The latter are personal, but the idea of a class, for example, that is, a total framework, requires the group which provides impersonality. To add to the complexity of his sociological enterprise, Durkheim accepts the account of categories given by the apriorists as opposed to the empiricists (Ibid., 19-21). So the categories have a universality and necessity. Indeed he espouses a theory of apriority, understood as irreducibility and maintains the irreducibility of reason to individual experience (Ibid., 23).

7This account of the categories is drawn from the philosophical tradition. His list (Ibid.,13) draws examples drawn from a wide range of philosophers. So Aristotle held substance and “genre (genus)” to be categories, followed in this by scholasticism and Kant. The categories of number and personality, however, come from Charles Renouvier (1875) [1] and Octave Hamelin (1925) [2]. Durkheim, nevertheless, opposes the philosophical tradition in terms of explanation. The excluded section 3 of the 1909 article clarifies his position. Categories are “la pièce maîtresse de la spéculation philosophique” and the science of mind is central to this (Durkheim, 1909, 186-187). Yet he argues that the categories are “a result of history” and a “collective work.” We must know “quelles elles sont, de quoi elles sont faites” (Ibid., 187). Thus the dialectical and ideological method of philosophy must be replaced. The philosophical tradition held that the categories must be understood in terms of the mind – either in terms of innate ideas or the faculties of mind and particularly of reason. But this is precisely what Durkheim questions. He rejected the doctrine of innateness (Durkheim and Mauss, 1903, 395), and he rejects the explanation of the power of reason as “inhérent à la nature de l’intelligence humaine” (1912, 20). Against “les récents disciples de Kant” for whom the categories “preform” the real, for Durkheim they “resume” it (1909, 187). The necessity of thinking according to the categories is not imposed by “une sorte de vertu interne” (1912, 23). Logical conformity is the authority of society “se communiquant à certaines manières de penser qui sont comme les conditions indispensables de toute action commune” (Ibid., 24).

8So the categories, whilst being “de savants instruments de pensée,” are constructed “avec des éléments sociaux.” They are not first and unanalysable facts; they change with time and place, thus it is not sufficient to interrogate our conscience “pour savoir de quoi [elles] sont faites.” It is to history we must turn. “Toute une partie de l’histoire de l’humanité y est comme résumée” (Ibid., 26-27). Categories are made by human groups over the centuries where the best of their intellectual capital is accumulated. In this Durkheim can be said to offer us a kind of labour theory of epistemology: the categories are tools “laborieusement forgés” over time (Ibid., 27). So, against the philosophical tradition, he offers social constructionism and locates the categories not only within human action and history, but also within social being (Ibid., 23) and the collective consciousness (Ibid., 633 sq.). But who pointed him on this road of challenging such philosophical authorities and thus to attack reason and the sole authority of the mind? Renouvier (his “educator”) pointed the way through his arguments with and against Kant. Against Kant, Renouvier argued that a higher rational principle of reason is not involved. Yet with Kant he held that the categories were central to judgement and thus to the whole structure of representation. But, to discover their nature, it is not sufficient to consult the table of judgements as Aristotle and Kant did. Rather is the whole “tableau humain” which must be consulted, since the categories (“le squelette de la représentation”) are the result of “travaux collectifs et prolongés” (Renouvier, 1912 a [1875], 2, 203).

9So Durkheim follows this pointer and hopes to offer an explanation through the sociology of knowledge, focusing on history and action. His sociology of knowledge will show the social origin of some notions, from time and space, examined in the Introduction, to totality (“totalité,” “tout”) which he considers in the Conclusion. I will briefly show the seven stages of this as it develops through Les Formes élémentaires.

The stages of the arguments for the sociology of knowledge

10The analysis of the notions of time and space is the first stage. Time would be unthinkable without the “objective signs” formed by measurement and division within our representation of it. Time is understood not as personal inner time, but as “un cadre abstrait et impersonnel” which envelopes humanity (Ibid., 14). Duration is laid out for the mind all and where all possible events are situated through reference points which are fixed and determined by movements of concentration or dispersion and collective organization (Ibid., 631). The calendar, with its divisions, marks the periodicity and the rhythms of collective life (Ibid., 15). So it is differentiation and affective divisions which makes time and indeed space thinkable. Thus categories “traduisent avant tout des états de la collectivité : elles dépendent de la manière dont celle-ci est constituée et organisée, de sa morphologie, de ses institutions religieuses, morales, économiques” (Ibid., 22).

11Durkheim’s second argument concerns the concepts of “genre” and “espèce” (Book ii, chapter 3, section 2). These are important theoretical tools through out his work. Yet, as will become clear, he reads the totemic material through them. His analysis follows his historical cartesianism. Since the notion of genus “s’est formée dans l’humanité” (Ibid., 205), Durkheim examines its beginning stages. Totemism, he claims, is a cosmological system which embraces “l’universalité des choses” (Ibid., 200). It shows that it is the divisions and subdivisions of the tribe into phratries and clans which form the first classifications. Social organization influences classification: “elles ont pris pour cadres les cadres mêmes de la société. Ce sont les phratries qui ont servi de genres, et les clans d’espèces. C’est parce que les hommes étaient groupés qu’ils ont pu grouper les choses” (Ibid., 206). The unity and the hierarchy of the first systems of classifications follow the solidarity of the tribe and its organic whole, together with its relations of dominance and subordination. “C’est la société qui a fourni le canevas sur lequel a travaillé la pensée logique” (Ibid., 211).

12The third argument concerns the parallel development of logical and social evolution (Book ii, chapter 7, section 6). Totemism reveals the origin of a “curious trait” of human mentality which has played a considerable role in the history of thought. He contrasts the distinctions of scientific culture with the “indistinctions” common to mythological thinking. In the latter, classification by distinct kinds is impossible because all is mixed up. Religion is the exceptionally powerful cause which intervened to transfigure the sensible given through its “grande effervescence mentale” (Ibid., 339). Totemism shows the development of the idea of essence and of a common principle of different beings through the necessity for a name or an emblem. This great intellectual step led to the first explanation of the world and is proof that logical understanding is a function of society. All explanation shares the same logic, for “expliquer, c’est rattacher les choses les unes aux autres” (Ibid.); it is to show functional relations between things. It is “the mind” and not sensation which discovers these internal relations between things.

13The fourth argument concerns the idea of the soul and personality (Book ii, chapter 8). These beliefs are central to all religions and are nothing other than the totemic principle incarnated in each individual (Ibid., 355), just as immortality is “the perpetuity of the life of the group” (Ibid., 384). The idea of the person is made of two elements: the organism and society. The organism is the material substratum for “le monde des représentations dans lequel se déroule la vie sociale” (Ibid., 389) [3].

14Durkheim’s fifth argument concerns force and causality (Books ii and iii). His analysis of the principle of causality requires the earlier argument about the origin of the modern idea of force in religion and the powers of rites (Ibid., 35). This impersonal force is found among the beliefs of totemic societies of North America and Melanesia. This “vague puissance,” which is said to be found in all things, lies at the basis of religious thought (Ibid., 284-285). Behind this are the energies which are not only central to the communal passions of society, but also to the effervescence of revolutionary or creative periods, the perpetual sustenance of “our moral being,” and to the sacred and the profane (Ibid., 301-304). This is an argument about power, yet it extends to one about communication, sign and symbolism (Ibid., 329-331). So the totem is representative of the collective force (Ibid., 316). In Book iii (chapter 3, section 3) Durkheim develops this into a sociological account of the principle of causality, based on an analysis of the mimetic rites, the intichiuma, of the Arunta. This is an example of sympathetic magic which involves, firstly, the principle of solidarity, that which affects the part affects the whole, and, secondly, the principle that like produces like. Whilst the first involves a “contagious communication,” in the second there is “production and creation” (Ibid., 508-509). This is the frame for Durkheim’s analysis of causality. This ritual action is, in effect, “a statement (un enoncé)” and one of the most primitive statements ever made: “toute une conception de la relation causale est impliquée dans le pouvoir qui est ainsi atttribué au semblable de produire son semblable; et cette conception domine la pensée primitive” (Ibid., 518). Power is the key to the argument, for the causal relation implies “l’idée d’efficacité, de pouvoir producteur, de force active” (Ibid., 519). The idea of causality centres on force and power. The idea of force is firstly given through inner experience: “[elle] est […] grosse d’éléments spirituels qui ne peuvent avoir été empruntés qu’à notre vie psychique” (Ibid., 520). And, secondly, it is developed through co-operation. So power, understood as “puissance” and as “pouvoir,” is central to Durkheim’s analysis. To this must be added the ideas of domination and, correlatively, dependence and subordination (Ibid., 522). Further he argues that the necessity of this imperatival rule of thought represents both social authority and the successful implementation of ritual action (Ibid., 527).

15The sixth argument concerns the conceptual (Conclusion, section 3). The link between logic and religion is found in the concept. Since logical thought is made of concepts, if society can be seen to have a role in the genesis of concepts, then it can be seen to have a role in the genesis of logical thought (Ibid., 617). The relative permanence of the concept shows it to be an “impersonal representation.” It is pivotal to the “intellectual commerce” of community which is an “exchange of concepts.” The concept of the ideal, together with religions role in its development, is also an important argument here. It is central to the themes of justice and truth (Ibid., 600 sq.). The world of stable ideals, which is the “lieu commun” of intelligences, is the necessary historical framework for the development of logical thought and the framework for truth (Ibid., 622-623).

16Durkheim’s seventh and final argument concerns categories and the “conscience collective,” and is found in the very last section of Les Formes. Since categories are concepts, their social origin becomes clear. The stability and impersonality of categories is clear sign of their nature as collective representations. They express the “fundamental conditions of agreement between minds” and as such can only have been “elaborated by society.” This is their first degree of sociality. But they are social in the second degree for the things they express are social: they are “different aspects of social being” (Ibid., 627-628). But here Durkheim extends the definition of the categories: “les catégories ont […] pour fonction de dominer et d’envelopper tous les autres concepts: ce sont les cadres permanents de la vie mentale” (Ibid., 628). The idea of relation, which was introduced earlier as central to explanation (Ibid., 339-340), is now developed as a crucial aspect of the nature of categories – for these “express relations.” These are implicit in the “conscience individuelle” and can only become conscious through and by society (Ibid., 628 and 632). These “personal relations” become impersonal in the concept of totality. So now Durkheim introduces totality, which lies at the basis of all classification, and is the abstract form of society. It is the “classe suprême” (Ibid., 630). “[L]a raison impersonnelle n’est qu’un autre nom donné à la pensée collective” (Ibid., 636). The world “qu’exprime le système total des concepts” is identified with that which society itself expresses. And now he further claims that this requires a “subject” which thinks, since classification requires self consciousness (Ibid., 630 and 633). This is the “conscience collective” which, as the highest form of psychic life, as the “conscience de consciences,” alone can see things in their “permanent essential characteristics.” It sees higher and further: it alone can furnish the “cadres” to the mind which apply to the totality of beings. In so doing it translates “manners of being” which are found in all “degrees of the real” (Ibid., 633-634).

The sociology of knowledge and its philosophical logic

17So Durkheim uses a whole array of positions to prove his case. But how does the sociology of knowledge relate to the account of the categories which he gave? I suggest that the philosophical underpinning of both is an account of representation. In the preface to the second edition (1901) of Les Règles de la méthode sociologique, he insisted that “social life consists entirely in representations” (1947 [1895], xi). And in Les Formes he says categories are “essentially collective representations” (1912, 22). In the excluded section of the 1909 article he elucidates the connection between representations and the categories. “Parmi nos représentations, il en est quelques-unes qui […] jouent un rôle prépondérant : ce sont les catégories” (1909, 187). Categories are “preponderant representations.” They play a role in the representational logic of the social for him. But how is this to be understood? Recognition of his representational epistemology has been undermined through his use of that word “thing (chose).” Its most famous location is earlier in Les Règles (1947 [1895], 15 sq.) but it is found here in Les Formes, for categories “are social things (sont choses sociales)” (1912, 627). This word makes his epistemology sound like a form of materialism: yet he explicitly rejects that together with historical materialism (Ibid., 605). He rejects epiphenomenalism for both individual and collective consciousness, “car rien n’existe que par la représentation” (Ibid., 493, n. 1).

18I have argued that representation is not a reflection of things, but a critical and communicative mental power: “thing” indicates reality in a representational world. It demonstrates Durkheim’s debt to Renouvier (Stedman Jones, 2001, 141 sq.). Representation is not an entity as Warren Schmaus (2004, 139) insists; rather it is a dynamic force which relates to action. As Durkheim said in his first book, “Une représentation n’est pas […] une ombre inerte projetée en nous par les choses ; mais c’est une force qui soulève autour d’elle tout un tourbillon de phénomènes organiques et psychiques” (1902 [1893], 64). This account of the nature of representation and its power and its relation to action is crucial to understanding how religion can develop the categories of thought.

19Further it is through the logic of representation that he rejects empiricism (1912, 340), together with its account of the categories (Ibid., 19 sq.). His account is empirical, since he attempts to ground it in observed realities, but it is not empiricist. Representation is central to Durkheim’s critical rationalism. We need to understand why he uses the word “psychique” as he does. We have seen above that this is the reflexive foundation for force. For Renouvier, the “psychique” refers to a scientific approach to the study of mind as conscious representations or consciences (1912 b [1875], 1, ii). So then in summary we can say that for Durkheim neither empirical or sensory facts, nor a material base, nor the individual mind and its rational faculties, nor the supra-rational in divine reason count as satisfactory explanations in epistemology. He focuses on the middle ground of collective representations which must bear full explanatory weight. This is a communicative sphere, where the flow of communication passes “du dehors au dedans” (1898, 27).

The most important argument for the sociology of knowledge?

20Which of his arguments for the sociology of knowledge is the most significant and successful? According to both Ann Rawls (2004) and Schmaus (2004) the argument for causality is the most important. Causality is the centrepiece of Les Formes for Rawls (2004, 230) and proof of her interpretation that the categories for Durkheim are direct expressions of emotional states. Schmaus holds that the idea of willed effort, stemming from the French spiritualist tradition, is central to causality. The problem for Schmaus is that Durkheim explicitly rejects volition as central to force (1912, 520) and the problem for Rawls is that causality concerns power and not feeling per se (Stedman Jones, 2006). But the problem for both is that causality is not the most important category for Durkheim. Rather, totality is “la catégorie par excellence” (1912, 629).

21For Rawls, Durkheim’s epistemology develops out of practice directly, bypassing the conceptual. “Categories are not concepts, but direct expression of social experience” (2004, 89). Durkheim, on the contrary, insists that categories are concepts (1912, 19 and 627). Indeed categories are forms of concepts; they are supreme concepts for Durkheim. And language “expresses conceptual organization” (Ibid., 619). Even more telling against Rawls, is Durkheim’s argument that the conceptual is involved in the very idea of action and thus of practice. So in Pragmatisme et Sociologie (1955 [1913-1914], 65) he argues that effective action needs a clear concept which gives a veridical account of reality. I suggest that it is only by acknowledging the conceptual and with it the role of judgement that we can make sense of his claim about the categories in general and about the pre-eminence of totality in particular. The conceptual and judgement are central to the representational nature of social reality for Durkheim. This is shown in his 1911 article “Jugements de valeur et jugements de réalité.” It is clear that judgement is central to all human approaches to reality for Durkheim. When, for example, I affirm that “I prefer beer to wine,” I am making a judgement. This is central to all evaluations as well as all “affirmations” and “communications of convictions” as well as all statements about the world (1911, 119) [4]. In this Durkheim stands in the rationalist tradition. Judgement is central to representation for Kant as it is for Renouvier, who says that judgement “composes an order of representations” (1912 b [1875], 1, 115). Yet Durkheim’s account of judgement is mentioned by neither Rawls nor Schmaus. But this must affect the interpretation of Durkheim’s account and their interpretation in particular, for causality is a judgement for him (1912, 524) [5].

Judgement and the form of social experience

22Durkheim’s use of judgement is neglected also by Steven Lukes, who nevertheless accuses him of not accounting for the faculties which all perception of society requires (1975 [1973], 447). Yet Durkheim acknowledges the force of the Kantian point that experience requires cognitive presuppositions (1912, 20); indeed the whole of his argument is to show how society forms and develops these presuppositions. The point is, however, he doesn’t believe that the requirements of this presuppositional logic are answered by the idea of a faculty of mind. In Le Suicide we find him challenging the very idea of faculty of mind and arguing that this must be replaced with a functional state of consciousness. “L’ancienne théorie des facultés ne compte plus guère de défenseurs. On ne voit plus dans les différents modes de l’activité consciente des forces séparées qui ne se rejoignent et ne retrouvent leur unité qu’au sein d’une substance métaphysique, mais des fonctions solidaires” (1897, 25). Indeed he argues that representations do not have “their own existence”; they derive from and express externally the general state of the “conscious centres” of the “psychic functions” (Ibid.). I suggest that his account of conscience represents this functional state of consciousness. Indeed this is more fundamental than representation for it is necessary for representation to be possible: representation requires conscience (1898, 25). We can see in Les Formes that conscience is a reflexive condition for both “genre” and “force” and for the “conscience collective” (1912, 206, 599 and 633). All experience requires this functional consciousness. It lies behind judgement. So in general we can say that for Durkheim society forms and marks judgement, but it does not create it; rather it develops and extends it. This will be clear in relation to “genre.”

23So, I suggest that it is through judgement that we can make sense of Durkheim’s central argument for the sociology of knowledge. Central to this is the claim that the form of society imprints itself on the form of mind. Durkheim’s account of judgement and form put him in the Kantian tradition, contrary to the interpretation of Rawls. Of course, against Kant, Durkheim claims that it is social life which imprints itself on the mind. And this is not merely a question of emotional state (as Rawls claims). These are present, but this argument requires that there is a passage from social action and social organization to “les notions fondamentales de l’esprit” (Ibid., 206). This passage from social life to mind is effected through representation. This imprinting is passed from one type of representation to another: from those which come from society to individual representations. The former have authority. And their nature is complex. Collective representations, just like categories, are complex (Ibid., 22 and 27). And complexity is a product of synthesis (1947 [1895], xvi). Representations are combined to make up this complexity. Religion is central to the formation of this complexity and this involves belief (1912, 65).

24So belief is central to the synthesis of collective representations. But what is the logic behind this? He argues that “relation sui generis” is central to all combination (1898, 8-9). Social life, particularly through ritual action, establishes connections. Here “[t]out se passe en représentations” (1912, 536). In ritual action things are connected, joined together. In so doing, action stimulates relation as a fundamental force of the mind. We have seen that relation is a central act of mind and is central to all explanation for Durkheim (Ibid., 339). And we have seen that judgement, whether of value or of reality, expresses a relation between two terms (1911, 139). This is central to the formation of propositions and, linguistically, to the formation of statements. So we have seen he talks of about ritual action as the most primitive concrete “enoncé” of the principle of causality (1912, 518). Religious action thus establishes connections and thereby stimulates and forms the mind.

25Following this analysis, I suggest that the second argument, that which concerns “genre,” is one of the most important. For in general terms, if we cannot say what kind of thing we are talking about, then coherent thought is impossible. “Genre” concerns this. This why, for Durkheim, the very possibility of classification is tied up with it: what he says about it goes for “the very idea of category itself” (Ibid., 206). This too is in line with the philosophical tradition. For Aristotle genus is central to all predication and thus to the categories. For Kant, genus is central to concepts and their ordering. Renouvier similarly holds that there is a logical connection between judgement and “genre.” He claims that “genre” is central to all qualitative judgements, that is to all propositions about reality which establish what kind of thing we are talking about. The proposition “man is an animal” is an example of this. The logical moments of the law of quality as it governs representation are “différence, genre and espèce” (Renouvier, 1912 a [1875], 1, 279).

26So, like Aristotle, Kant and Renouvier, Durkheim holds that judgement is central to our knowledge of the world: but, unlike them, he holds that the form of judgement is influenced by the form of society. But how does he establish this? The idea of framework (“cadre”) is central to his analysis of “genre.” He argues that the “cadres” of the phratries form the “cadres” of classifications, and thus the framework of logical thought (Durkheim, 1912, 206). “Le genre, c’est le cadre extérieur dont les objets perçus comme semblables forment […] le contenu” (Ibid., 208). The content cannot provide the form, for its images are “vagues et flottantes.” In contrast, the cadre is “une forme définie,” with definite contours which applies to “un nombre déterminé de choses, perçues ou non, actuelles ou possibles” (Ibid., 209). So form is central to the idea of “genre.” It is interesting to note that Durkheim admits that the individual consciousness perceives resemblances and indeed that all classifications presuppose this. However, the logical symbol “genre,” which has a wide field of extension, is distinct from this. His argument is that only “the spectacle of collective life,” that is “men in association,” can provide the model for the construction of this instrument of thought (Ibid., 209). And in turn this provides the model for the internal unity necessary for both a logical grouping and its power of extension.

27So, human groupings are models for logical groupings. But how? Here I suggest that the idea of relation answers this for it is connected with the concept of form. The significance of relation for Durkheim is neglected by major commentators, but, as we have seen, it is a central act of mind. It is central to explanation and to the nature of the categories for the categories express relations (Ibid., 339). These “existent, d’une manière implicite, dans les consciences individuelles” (Ibid., 628) and it is the group which grants their development and extension. We have seen that the idea of form is central to the argument about genre, and that Durkheim understood form as framework. So form and framework are connected.

28The idea of form and its connection to judgement has a philosophical ancestry – with Kant for example [6]. But Durkheim, unlike Kant, does not treat form as anticipating experience apriori in the rational understanding. He needs to be able to claim that social experience marks the mind in terms of form. The Kantian position would not allow this. That is, Durkheim requires that form emerges largely from the relations of human collective experience. But what definition of form allows this? Again the influence of Renouvier is crucial. “J’entends ici par forme ce qu’une relation a de général et par quoi elle embrasse un nombre indéfini de relations d’ailleurs distinctes” (1912 a [1875], 1, 118). On this definition form is a relation. This allows society to contribute the form of thought because, according to Durkheim, it is the sphere of the most general relations. As such, it can imprint form on the personal and particular spheres. And it does this through communication [7].This is reinforced by his argument about time, which, as I mentioned before, is an impersonal framework thinkable through signs of differentiation only. Society establishes this, for the “reference points” which are necessary for temporal classification are borrowed from social life (1912, 15).

29We can now analyse the significance of totality for Durkheim. Totality is in the sphere of the most general relations and thus is centrally involved in the questions of form. The totality of relations in society imprints themselves on the “conscience particulière” which, of course, is the necessary condition of society (1947 [1895], 103). It does this above all through the communicative exchange of the representational nature of reality. The dynamic sphere of collective representations is central to the communication of these relations. The latter are imprinted on judgement through the exchange of concepts and feelings which are central to collective representations. The logic of representation, which goes from external relations to the inner sphere of personal relations, underwrites this exchange. So, being formed within this communicative reality, “la conscience collective […] peut fournir à l’esprit des cadres qui s’appliquent à la totalité des êtres et qui permettent de les penser” (1912, 633-634).

Religious action and the development of the mind

30Earlier I asked how religion can help with the development of the human mind. In his thèse Durkheim gives us a clues as to how religion develops the mind. Religion, he said, does something remarkable in “la vie psychique” (1902 [1893], 327). Religion – “cette forme éminente de la conscience commune” – “absorbe primitivement toutes les fonctions représentatives avec les fonctions pratiques.” (Ibid., 269-270). It is through the close historical association of these two functions of the mind, the practical and the representative, that we get the transformational potential of ritual action. So, in this historical stage, the practical functions can affect and develop the intellectual ones because they are more closely connected than later in history. Durkheim has argued that the development of the mental life is precisely through “greater sociability” (Ibid., 338). Religion is central to this; so in ritual action we see the force of association, for this provides the forum for the passionate pursuit of collective ends. It is in accomplished ceremony that the desired result of action is seen as realized (1912, 525). Here an association is established, common for all, between that which precedes and that which follows. And this is central to establishing the very pre-conditions for judgement.

31We have seen that, for Durkheim, causality is a judgement and judgement expresses a relation between two terms. Ritual action is central to the establishment of this because it connects the precedent and the consequent. And it is the pursuit of collective ends which enables this. Religion is the supreme institution for establishing this for it is the fount of ritual action. As we have seen, for Durkheim at this moment in history the representative and practical functions are closely associated. Indeed the “representative” is a character of rites (1912, 537). Thus the stimulus from action (the practical) passes through to thought (the representative). I have argued that the judgement of causality concerns not merely feelings (Rawls) or inner willed effort (Schmaus), but is a judgement. This expresses a relation between two terms which, through the group’s activity, becomes a form of experience. Indeed “cadre” is central to the very meaning of the category of causality for Durkheim (Ibid., 526). So in his analysis of ritual Durkheim argues that that which follows in ritual ceremony is seen as a successful result. This is reinforced through repeated action which is central to a cult (Ibid., 596). This becomes the basis for the primitive “énoncé” of causality. And later in history, with the growth of the intellectual division of labour and the increasing power of abstraction, this develops into a more formal sense of scientific causality.

In conclusion – philosophy and history in Les Formes élémentaires

32This brings me finally to the question I raised at the beginning. I asked how an ancient primitive cult could solve one of the most tenacious philosophical problems of a much later time and which were formulated under quite different social and historical conditions. Is there not a different intellectual division of labour here? And is not Durkheim’s own comparative method by type being stretched too far? Ancient Greece, the neo-Platonists, the Stoics, Buddhist philosophy, the schoolmen of the Middle Ages and Kant in xviiith Century Germany are thinkers who come from very different types of society yet who all were concerned with the question of the categories. As we have seen, however much Durkheim challenges the philosophical tradition in terms of history, society and method, he accepts certain characterizations of the categories from it. He reads the ethnographic material through “genre,” for example, which was developed within the philosophical tradition.

33And indeed in keeping with this tradition, he accepts a deep sense of category. They are central to both questions of knowledge and of being (1912, 12; 23). So, like Aristotle, for Durkheim the categories concern reality – being – and our knowledge of it. And like Kant, for Durkheim also they are part of the rational understanding which science requires. Post-Kantian 19th Century thought, which was a significant backdrop to the thinking of both Max Weber and Durkheim, viewed the categories as fundamental to knowledge and science [8]. Our contemporary relativism views classificatory schemes as socially and historically relative. Of course Durkheim supports the social and historical diversity of classificatory schemes. But there is a core of universalism and of rationalism in his thinking. This centres on relation: “Les relations fondamentales qui existent entre les choses – celles-là justement que les catégories ont pour fonction d’exprimer – ne sauraient donc être essentiellement dissemblables suivant les règnes” (1912, 25-26). Even previously he is concerned with the logical faculties of knowledge and how they are “constituted in humanity” (Durkheim and Mauss, 1903, 395). In Les Formes he is also concerned with the “fundamental categories of thought” (1912, 598). Indeed reason is nothing other than “l’ensemble des catégories fondamentales” (Ibid., 19). These I suggest are the universal core of classificatory schemes, which are all specific and historically different forms of “genre,” relation, force, etc.

34However, how can he consistently read the ethnographic material through concepts drawn from philosophy? Part of the answer to this question lies in Durkheim’s distinct view of philosophy. He does not treat it as a mere ideology or as folk narrative as Rawls suggests. In De la Division du travail social he argues that its historical appearance requires the separation of the representative and practical functions. “Les premières ne se dissocient des secondes que quand la philosophie apparaît. Or, elle n’est possible que quand la religion a perdu un peu de son empire” (1902 [1893], 270). So it is within “la vie représentative” that philosophy appears. Philosophy is a new way of representing things, which “clashes (heurte)” with public opinion (Ibid.). In Les Formes, Durkheim argues that it took centuries for the conception of truth, as “distinct from sensible appearances,” to develop. It was with the Greeks, in the Occident, that the clear consciousness of this appeared, and which Plato translated into “magnificent language.” The Greeks, and Plato in particular, were the first to philosophically express this “sentiment obscur” (1912, 623). I suggest that here Durkheim is pointing to the unconscious in relation to thought. Indeed a few pages before he argued: “les grandes choses du passé […] sont entrées dans l’usage commun au point de nous devenir inconscientes” (Ibid., 610).

35Thus philosophy is translating a deeply felt and unconscious human and historical truth. It is thus not creating this but translating humanities collective thought (Ibid., 623). So what philosophers term reason is actually human thinking and this has a historical development. “La pensée vraiment et proprement humaine n’est pas une donnée primitive ; c’est un produit de l’histoire” (Ibid., 635). Durkheim’s historical vision of philosophy tends to be overlooked –together with his statement that he is dealing with the “history of thought” (Ibid., 336). This history of thought is treated in quite global, almost Hegelian terms; he has a developmental and interconnected view of the historical process. But he does not fill in any of the stages after its earliest moment. Yet this is not a Eurocentric history of ideas: Durkheim shows that the totemism of ancient societies is a force to be reckoned with, since it is foundational to the historical development of society and thus to the nature of thought.


  • [1]
    For Renouvier “la loi du nombre” is : “unité, pluralité, totalité” (1912 a [1875], 1, 162 sq.). And “la loi de personnalité” is : “soi, non-soi, conscience” (Ibid., 177 sq.).
  • [2]
    O. Hamelin was Durkheim’s close friend and colleague. His Essai sur les éléments principaux de la représentation was some twenty years in the making. Hamelin holds “nombre” as one the elements of representation. Its logical moments are the same as Renouvier’s: “unité, pluralité, totalité” (1925 [1907], 31 sq.). And “personnalité” covers: “moi, non-moi, conscience” (Ibid., 265 sq.).
  • [3]
    I will not deal with this in greater detail since it is not central to my argument.
  • [4]
    We see also in Durkheim’s Lycée de Sens Lectures. He calls judgement a complex operation of mind and shows that it is central to classification: “a judgement is the operation by which the mind affirms that one idea (called an attribute or predicate) somehow relates to another idea (called a subject)” (Durkheim, 2004 [1883-1884], 135).
  • [5]
    Durkheim’s definition of causality follows Renouvier closely. Durkheim says: “La cause, c’est la force avant qu’elle n’ait manifesté le pouvoir qui est en elle ; l’effet, c’est le même pouvoir, mais actualisé” (1912, 519). For Renouvier causality must be understood in terms of force. And force has two faces: “puissance” and “pouvoir” (1912 a [1875], 55). Cause and effect can be understood in term of the logic of the realisation of power within the structure of becoming (Ibid., 57). The problem for Durkheim is that his sociological explanation only works with this definition of causality. If this is not an adequate definition, then his account suffers as a result.
  • [6]
    The concept of form is central to the critical philosophy. Space and time are forms of intuition. And form is central to his account of the categories as forms of understanding, which are the a priori condition of knowledge.
  • [7]
    Elsewhere Durkheim suggests that consciousness is marked by distinctions which are etched on the “psychic continuum” and that these are “our work” (1898, 17).
  • [8]
    We see this, for example, with Emil Lask’s La Logique de la philosophie (2002 [1911]).

This paper explores issues that arise from Durkheim’s theory of the categories in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life focusing on his view of judgment as central to all human experience, together with his account of form and of relation, and stressing the communicative importance he assigns to the representations –a key aspect of his œuvre neglected by recent interpretations. It will be suggested that only by examining Durkheim’s earlier works can we fully make sense of the relationship between religion and knowledge he establishes, i. e. why he refers to the beliefs and practices of totemic societies to provide a sociological answer to one of the most debated philosophical question. It will be also advocated that his intellectual background must be taken into account in evaluating his theoretical positions.


  • categories
  • cause
  • Durkheim
  • religion
  • Renouvier
  • representations
  • totality

Références bibliographiques

  • Durkheim É., 1897, Le Suicide. Étude de sociologie, Paris, Alcan.
  • Durkheim É., 1898, “Représentations individuelles et représentations collectives,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 6, 273-302. [Reprinted 1-48 in É. Durkheim, 1951 [1924].]
  • Durkheim É., 1902 [1893], De la Division du travail social, Paris, Alcan.
  • Durkheim É., 1909, “Sociologie religieuse et théorie de la connaissance,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 17, 733-758. [Third section (754-758), reprinted 184-88 in É. Durkheim, 1975, 1.]
  • Durkheim É., 1911, “Jugements de valeur et jugements de réalité,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 19, 4, 437-453. [Reprinted 117-141 in É. Durkheim, 1951 [1924].]
  • Durkheim É., 1912, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. Le système totémique en Australie, Paris, Alcan.
  • Durkheim É., 1947 [1895], Les Règles de la méthode sociologique, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.
  • Durkheim É., 1951 [1924], Sociologie et Philosophie, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.
  • Durkheim É., 1955 [1913-1914], Pragmatisme et Sociologie, Paris, Vrin.
  • Durkheim É., 1969, Journal sociologique, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.
  • Durkheim É., 1975, Textes, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 3 vol.
  • OnlineDurkheim É., 2004 [1883-1884], Durkheim’s Philosophy Lectures. Notes from the Lycée de Sens Course, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Durkheim É., Mauss M., 1903, “De quelques formes primitives de la classification,” L’Année sociologique, 6, 1-72. [Reprinted 395-461 in É. Durkheim, 1969.]
  • Hamelin O., 1925 [1907], Essai sur les éléments principaux de la représentation, Paris, Alcan.
  • Lask E., 2002 [1911], La Logique de la philosophie et la doctrine des catégories. Études sur la forme logique et sa souveraineté, Paris, Vrin.
  • Lukes S., 1975 [1973], Émile Durkheim. His Life and Work, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
  • Renouvier Ch., 1912 a [1875], Traité de logique générale et de logique formelle, Paris, Colin, 2 vol.
  • Renouvier Ch., 1912 b [1875], Traité de psychologie rationnelle d’après les principes du criticisme, Paris, Colin, 2 vol.
  • Rawls A. W., 2004, Epistemology and Practice. Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Schmaus W., 2004, Rethinking Durkheim and His Tradition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  • Stedman Jones S., 2001, Durkheim Reconsidered, Cambridge, Polity Press.
  • OnlineStedman Jones S., 2006, “Action and the Question of the Categories: a Critique of Rawls,” Durkheimian Studies/Études durkheimiennes, 12, 37-67.
Susan Stedman Jones
Anthropologue et philosophe, membre du British Centre for Durkheimian Studies de l’université d’Oxford (Royaume-Uni)
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