Durkheim's Metaphysics

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The concluding chapter of Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life reveals an underlying metaphysics comparable to that of supernatural religion, with Society replacing God. [1] Here we attempt to summarise that chapter, pointing to the metaphysics in footnotes.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to detect any coherent plan in Durkheim's discussion, either overall or within each paragraph, making the task of summarising difficult. Hopefully, any faults here will be of omission rather than of misrepresentation.

Particular conclusion

Durkheim begins with a single page particular conclusion in which he claims to have demonstrated that totemism displays the beliefs and practices of religions generally. On the one hand, it has sacred and profane, soul, spirit, mythological and divine figures; on the other hand, it has prohibitions, asceticism and all the various kinds of rituals. Additionally, the sociological explanations of these sorts of phenomena as they appear in totemism can be applied to religions generally.

The general conclusion which follows is far more extensive, running to nearly 30 pages. In it, the writer looks at various fundamental issues regarding his sociological understanding of religion.

Religious practice

To start with, Durkheim considers from various angles religious practice, which he has made the basis of religion overall. It is the practice of religion that helps believers with their lives, not religious beliefs. Again, it is through religious practice that people come together and experience themselves as a society. Indeed, almost all social institutions have their basis in religious life. [2] Consequently, there is far more to religious ritual than appears at first sight.

Religious ideals

A sociological explanation of human ideals is now offered: how can an imperfect society possibly generate the idealism found in religion? The explanation is in terms of the effervescence experienced in religious gatherings. This suggests to participants the existence of a higher reality, understood not only as sacred but also as ideal. [3]

Further issues

In one of his few specific references to his notion of collective consciousness, Durkheim emphasises that it is more than the sum of the individual consciousnesses that produce it, meaning that he is not offering merely some version of historical materialism. [4]

The writer also argues that his view of religion is capable of taking into account on the one hand personal religion and on the other hand universalistic religion. For even a religion as basic as totemism incorporates both. On the one hand, each individual totemist has a personal version of the clan's religion, involving an individual soul, individual ancestors etc. On the other hand, no clan's totemism exists in isolation: it always shares features in common with the versions of neighbouring clans.

Religious thinking

Durkheim goes on to offer a perspective on the progressive development of human thinking in which religious thinking will always have a part. Scientific thinking has gradually replaced religious thinking in providing us with ways of understanding nature, man and society, but there will always be areas which science has not yet colonised and in which speculative, religious thinking is still appropriate. Religion must be compatible with science, but it will always be needed to motivate people into action, something that science can never do.

The second half of the conclusion is devoted largely to the consideration of concepts: how they have been generated by society, particularly the most fundamental ones of all, such as time and space.

Concepts and perceptions

First of all, Durkheim warns that concepts should not be confused with perceptions. Our perceptions are personal, created by ourselves and for ever changing, whereas the concepts we use are impersonal, in the sense of being shared; they are created communally and are resistant to change.

Collective representations

Durkheim refers to concepts as collective representations. They incorporate the collective experience of society and therefore enrich the individual. Without them, logical thinking would not be possible.

There are two ways in which concepts are generated, collectively and individually. The vast majority of our concepts have been created communally, [5] but we also have scientific concepts, created by individuals. Both types are subjected to rigorous testing: collectively generated concepts are constantly tested against reality by individual experience, while individually generated concepts are tested by scientific testing. The latter we accept on the basis of our faith in science, which is akin to religious faith.

If concepts express society, then conceptual, i.e. logical thinking must be as old as society.

Fundamental concepts

Durkheim now comes to categories, by which he means fundamental concepts such as he had listed at the start of the book: time, space, number, cause, substance, personality etc. He argues that individuals can from their own personal experience have only very limited notions of time, space etc. Only society can have given rise to time, space, etc as totalities. Thus, individuals' personal experience of space is of it as centred on themselves, whereas the notion of space as a whole, oriented on common reference points, must be social in origin.

Indeed, society needs categories like space in order to function. For example, living in society involves an organisation of the space involved which corresponds to social organisation.

Collective consciousness

Durkheim now returns to issues he has considered early in the concluding chapter. First,

Collective consciousness is the highest form of psychic life [p 445],

because it is

a consciousness of consciousnesses [p 445],

above transient, superficial and limited individual consciousness. It is not perfect, but it has always been capable of improvement.

Impersonal rationality

Second, logical thinking has developed more and more from the personal and subjective on account of a new form of social life, international life. Internationalisation has demanded a more impersonal rationality, detached from immediate social reality.

The personal and the impersonal

Third, the writer points out that Kant had understood that thinking rationally and behaving morally are two sides of the same coin. Both are about individuals lifting themselves above the purely personal and into the impersonal. But that had still left unexplained an opposition had come about between the personal and the impersonal, between the material and the ideal.

However, the existence of these two apparently contradictory tendencies is comprehensible once we associate the impersonal with the collective. The superior impersonal rationality has arisen because we are social beings.


Society has to be seen as the creator of

the highest forms of the human mind [p 447].

The vocation of sociology is to show that what lies above the individual is not some reality beyond observation, but society, not a being, but

a system of active forces [p 448].

The existence of society can explain man's distinctive attributes: no unobservable reality need be postulated. [6]


Note that a key feature of Durkheim's metaphysics does not come up in the conclusion. That is his assumption, following the Judeo-Christian model, of non-inherence: the idea that the world and human beings are not inherently sacred. For a bit more on this, go on this site to Non-inherence.


1 Durkheim's Metaphysics

The monumental standard English language survey of Durkheim, Steven Lukes: Emile Durkheim, His Life and Work (1973) has an index entry on metaphysics on p 671. A subentry on metaphysics attributed to Durkheim has 5 page references. Pursuing these, we find the following:

  • Durkheim was already being nicknamed the Metaphysician as a student and that the important French philosopher, Henri Bergson, regarded him as such.
  • The charge of metaphysics was a significant feature of the initial criticisms levelled against Durkheim's The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). Various critics are named.
  • Durkheim's dualism of society and the individual was labelled as metaphysical by a critic following Durkheim's reading of a paper on religion and human nature in 1913.

In addition, Lukes himself at one point describes an argument found in the start of The Elementary Forms as rather metaphysical [p 437]. He quotes Malinowski applying the term metaphysical to one alternative interpretation of Durkheim's view of society [p 523: see also p 524] and van Gennep applying the term to Durkheim [p 526].

Lukes suggests in his Introduction [pp 34-35] that in discussing society as a reality, Durkheim came in a sense to reify, even deify it . He quotes Ginsberg as saying that Durkheim attributed to society

powers and qualities as mysterious and baffling as any assigned to the gods by the religions of this world (M Ginsberg: On the Diversity of Morals (1955))

and in a footnote draws attention to a remark of Evans-Pritchard:

it was Durkheim and not the savage who made society into a god (E E Evans-Pritchard: Nuer Religion (1956) [p 313])

This discussion by Lukes comes in a subsection of his Introduction called Durkheim's Style [pp 34-36], where Lukes has claimed initially that Durkheim's style misleads the reader through being polemical and metaphorical, so

misrepresenting his own ideas [p 34].

But surely we have to take what Durkheim says at face value rather than provide him with a get out to rescue his respectability in this matter. Where does it all end when we excuse authorities on the grounds that they don't actually mean what they say.

Mary Douglas: Implicit Meanings, 2nd Edition (1975) refers on p xiii to Lukes's book twice as a biography and to him as biographer. Those whose only prior knowledge of Lukes's book are these references should be aware that they are true only in the sense that Lukes's book is an intellectual biography (and much, much more). For example, you would search in vain for any details of his death, other than the date, around a year after he had suffered a stroke. It is doubtful that, in spite of its title, Lukes's book contains more than one or two per cent of biographical information as that term would usually be understood.

Douglas's suggestion in her Purity and Danger (1966), [p 20], that Durkheim had freely drawn upon Gustave Le Bon on crowd psychology is rejected by Lukes in a footnote on p 462. In another footnote, on p 449, he mentions what he calls her Durkheimian work, Natural Symbols (1970).


December 2006: Douglas's teacher, Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, was scathing of Durkheim. I have quoted from his critique of the Frenchman's sacred ~ profane dichotomy in Theories of Primitive Religion [1963] and A History of Anthropological Thought [1981]: see Evans-Pritchard. Here I quote from the end of the Durkheim chapter in the latter work:

We have, I fear, to come down decisively against Durkheim and conclude that he may not in any sense be regarded as a scientist - at the best a philosopher, or I would rather say, a metaphysician [p 168]

And again:

So, is the final verdict to be Van Gennep's (1920, p 49), who compares Durkheim's thesis to the best constructions of the Hindu metaphysicians, the Muslim commentators and the Catholic scholastics? Yes. [p 168]

The Van Gennep reference is to L'État actuel du problème totémique. [Back to Article]

2 Economic Institutions

Durkheim has a footnote [p 421] claiming that economic activity is the only type of social activity still not yet connected with religion, but that the connection will be found. It seems ridiculous to consign to a footnote of less than 100 words (in the English translation) a matter of such importance.

Effectively, Durkheim is offering a model of society to the non-believers of his day that is an alternative to the socialist model. He is offering a model with religion as its basis as an alternative to a model with economics as its basis. In that situation, you cannot credibly deal with economics in a short and speculative footnote. [Back to Article]

3 Ideals

In the view of this site, the simplest way to account for our ideals is to say that they come from within us as individuals. They are part of our evolutionary heritage, a development of an instinctive concern for the social group. Religions, however, see ideals as arising outside the individual, as some kind of expression of the supernatural in each of us.

Durkheim has a metaphysics along similar lines to that of religions, with Society standing in for God and with the social or the collective as his higher reality instead of the supernatural. For him too, ideals have to have a source outside the individual. But his hurried explanation that they arise from his higher reality as revealed by effervescence, the same way as the sacred, seems very thin.

Effervescence is of course merely Durkheim's version of primary religious experience, comparable to the personal encounter with the divine discussed by James and to the experience of the numinous discussed by Otto. In Durkheim's version, the individual is lifted to the social rather than to the supernatural, in a group setting of a religious ritual rather than alone.

Consequently, Durkheim is asking us to believe in revelation. His account of how we have acquired ideals through encounters with higher reality is essentially the same as, say, Biblical accounts of us getting our values through the encounters with God of named individuals like Moses. [Back to Article]

4 Collective Consciousness

Durkheim's idea of collective consciousness is not science, but religious metaphyics. Supernatural religion has us humans each receiving life from a spark of the divine consciousness. Durkheim has merely switched things around: he has a higher consciousness receiving life from sparks supplied by us.

We have to see Durkheim's collective consciousness in the same light as other fanciful ideas, such as Jung's collective unconscious and Teilhard de Chardin's cosmic consciousness or whatever.

Whenever we encounter people claiming to have knowledge of some kind of consciousness other than their own personal conscious awareness, whether it be beyond the individual or within the individual - it's usually somehow both at the same time - we are looking at some more or less variation on basic spiritualism. The fact that such people have for the last 100 and more years frequently called their revelations science is neither here nor there. [Back to Article]

5 Collective Representations

Durkheim does not explain the process by which concepts are created collectively, but there surely must be the implication of a collective mind where the process takes place: where else can concepts form than in a mind. This means that the higher reality hovering over us is not only collective consciousness but collective intellect as well, making Durkheim's Society even more like God. [Back to Article]

6 Society

It will not do for Durkheim suddenly to claim in the last paragraph of his book that his Society is not a being, but

a system of active forces.

That is just playing with words. The Society Durkheim has evoked in his Conclusion certainly is a being. It may not have a body, but it has consciousness and mind: like God, in fact.

Indeed, when we consider that, for Durkheim, Society is not only consciousness and mind but also source of the sacred, then that brings it even closer to God. We might, of course, push the matter further still and say that for all practical purposes Durkheim's Society is eternal like God and so on.

Again, for Durkheim to urge at the last minute that his Society is not unobservable is likewise a matter of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. On the contrary, Durkheim's Society most assuredly is unobservable, scientifically at any rate: higher realities always are essentially unobservable except to the believer. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2004