ÉMILE DURKHEIM (1858—1917)

Emile Durkheim
Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist who rose to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along with Karl Marx and Max Weber, he is credited as being one of the principal founders of modern sociology. Chief among his claims is that society is a sui generis reality, or a reality unique to itself and irreducible to its composing parts. It is created when individual consciences interact and fuse together to create a synthetic reality that is completely new and greater than the sum of its parts. This reality can only be understood in sociological terms, and cannot be reduced to biological or psychological explanations. The fact that social life has this quality would form the foundation of another of Durkheim’s claims, that human societies could be studied scientifically. For this purpose he developed a new methodology, which focuses on what Durkheim calls “social facts,” or elements of collective life that exist independently of and are able to exert an influence on the individual.
Using this method, Durkheim published influential works on a number of topics. In these works he analyzes different social institutions and the roles they play in society, and as a result his work is often associated with the theoretical framework of structural functionalism. Durkheim is most well known as the author of On the Division of Social LaborThe Rules of Sociological MethodSuicide, and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. However, Durkheim also published a voluminous number of articles and reviews, and has had several of his lecture courses published posthumously.
When Durkheim began writing, sociology was not recognized as an independent field of study. As part of the CAMPAIGN to change this he went to great lengths to separate sociology from all other disciplines, especially philosophy. In consequence, while Durkheim’s influence in the social sciences has been extensive, his relationship with philosophy remains ambiguous. Nevertheless, Durkheim maintained that sociology and philosophy are in many ways complementary, going so far as to say that sociology has an advantage over philosophy, since his sociological method provides the means to study philosophical questions empirically, rather than metaphysically or theoretically. As a result, Durkheim often used sociology to approach topics that have traditionally been reserved for philosophical investigation.
For the purposes of this article, Durkheim’s strictly sociological thought will be set aside to allow his contributions to philosophy to take prominence. These fall largely in the realms of the philosophy of religion, social theory, hermeneutics, the philosophy of language, morality, meta-ethics, and epistemology. Durkheim’s deconstruction of the self, as well as his analysis of the crisis brought on by modernity and his projections about the future of Western civilization, also deserve significant consideration. SOURCE

Table of Contents

  1. Biography
    1. Life
    2. Intellectual Development and Influences
    3. Reception of Durkheim’s Thought
  2. The Sociological Method: Society and the Study of Social Facts
    1. Durkheim’s Social Realism
  3. The Sociology of Knowledge: Durkheim and the Logos
    1. Représentations Collectives
    2. Durkheim’s Philosophy of Language
    3. The Categories
    4. The Classification of Knowledge
    5. Cultural Relativism versus Scientific Truth
    6. Conclusion
  4. Durkheim’s Philosophy of Religion
  5. Durkheim on Morality
  6. Social Change and Modernity in the West
    1. Causes of Social Change
    2. The Division of Labor and the Emergence of Modernity in Europe
    3. The Death of the Gods
    4. The New Religion of the West: The Cult of the Individual
  7. The Individual and Society
  8. References and Further Reading
    1. Selection of Durkheim’s Works in French
    2. Selection of Durkheim’s Works in English
    3. Secondary Sources