Durkheim sets out to show what sociologie, or la science sociale, in fact is. He hopes to set down a series of inter-related questions that will constitute the specificity of this young science. The spirit will not be that of a professor simply explaining to his students a received truth, but rather of teaching mixed with research, where the students collaborate in a collective attempt to understand. The point here must be to contrast French with German universities. There are in fact many places in the text at which one can detect a certain national tension; to which we will return.
Most previous attempts to think scientifically about society have foundered at their very outset by assuming that society is a made thing. Durkheim says that Hobbes and Rousseau both, although the first makes it an individual and the second a collective enterprise, none the less see society as the conscious creation of man. I think one might perhaps argue with this characterization. I think the point here was really to attack a certain kind of utopianism that perhaps still hung, like a faintly bad smell, around French sociology. There is the broadly 19th century view of the Enlightenment (Rousseau) as an agent of Revolution, and Durkheim wants to distance himself from this. Then there are later socialists, like Fourier and Saint-Simon, with whom the science of society might be associated. Comte, after all, himself sprung from Saint-Simonianism.
Durkheim credits the economists with being the first to attempt to treat society scientifically: as a naturally occurring phenomenon that must, therefore, be subject to certain laws. This was a great step forward, but for the political economists, society is an abstraction that is not, itself, an object for scientific study. For economists, there are only individuals—and even then, these individuals, Durkheim says, are themselves in fact abstractions, without any concrete existence.
Durkheim makes his point through an analogy. In the past, ‘society’ was thought to be a machine, like a watch. The various parts and materials had been brought together specially for a purpose (for instance, to secure peace), and were not inherently related to one another except by dint of this bringing-together (the social contract). One might, Durkheim suggests, on the other hand, think of society as an organism. Just like any other naturally occurring phenomenon, then, society has its special laws. One might object that this contrasting analogy is highly politicized. Watches and machines obey natural laws just as much as dogs and other animals; it’s just that in Durkheim’s time no one could take apart a dog and make it again in a different way. The economists at least admit that society is not a made thing, but having taken the watch apart, they are not themselves able to arrive at the idea of society as an organism, having a reality greater than the sum of its parts.
Durkheim brushes aside, here, a perennial philosophical debate: is there such a thing as free-will? He allows that this is an interesting metaphysical question, but insists that it is only an interesting metaphysical question. He speaks of causality rather than determinism. That causality is a basic principle of the world is presented as the single best-established result of scientific investigation. It would perhaps be more honest to say that a firm belief in causality is not so much the result as the premise, and condition of possibility for modern science. Durkheim’s way of thinking about causality and the special laws of the organism remind me strongly of Claude Bernard. Bernard (or perhaps an intervening factor) might well be the source for Durkheim’s brushing-away of the free-will question—just as Bernard rejected the vitalist thesis that would have made it illegitimate to study living things, Durkheim rejects the idealist (spiritualist?) thesis that would say human free-will renders impossible the scientific study of society.
August Comte is the father of sociology. His great contribution was to make just the leap that the political economists failed to make. For him, sociology contained all the other positive sciences, because society itself contained these facts and was therefore more complex than any of them. But Comte, says Durkheim, was unable to distinguish between societies. For him, there was only l’Humanité, radically set apart from the natural world with an internal development all of its own, which, moreover, was always the same. There are three stages of civilization, and all societies go through them in the same way. Thus, in the end, Comte’s sociology reduces, for Durkheim, to a philosophy of history.
Herbert Spencer, who marked the next great step in sociological thinking, in the end succumbs to the same error. He admits that each society is its own individual organism, but then he applies a single rule of evolution to every single society he investigates. His empirical reach is impressive, but in the end he sees the same thing everywhere he looks. He, too, is really only applying a philosophy to society.
Durkheim then turns to something of a panoramic view of contemporary sociology. Alfred Espinas (who plays something of a role in Pierre Rosanvallon’s The demands of liberty) is credited with founding genuinely scientific sociology. That is, he is the first, in fact, to derive rules from empirical observation, rather than apply a philosophical system to selected data. Strong words. It’s good that Espinas gets this position, because without it, the French would look very thin on the sociological ground. Nearly all of the scholars Durkheim singles out in the following pages are German.
An interesting mise en abyme then occurs. Durkheim, discussing the various subdivisions of sociology, and the merit of division in general, says, “une science est, elle aussi, une sorte d’organisme” (101). That is, a science is like a society in that it develops both as a whole and in its constitutive parts by becoming more complex and subdivided.
Durkheim sets out the following non-exhaustive list of the broad fields of application that are, he says, already plainly to be found in sociology. First is social psychology, which on his telling is quite broad, including customs and traditions—we might today say culture. Second is sociology as a science of morals. This is recognized as related to the first, but its specificity is insisted upon. Third is law, which is itself in a sense only an ‘imperious’ application of collective moral sentiments. Lastly, there is economic science. Durkheim says that this is in a sense already close to genuine scientificity, but must first give up its supposed autonomy. I think the same point would be made by saying that Durkheim wants economics to give up its false naturalism and admit that economic behavior is embedded within a complex socio-cultural environment. Durkheim mentions two possible subfields, defined by subject, for sociology that aren’t yet even close to constituting themselves: the army, and diplomacy. I found this striking because the first seems to me a very natural subject for the kind of investigation of collectivity that Durkheim is proposing, while the second seems completely different. What did Durkheim mean by diplomacy?
Each of these subfields, Durkheim says, could be approached in two basic ways. He illustrates this by analogy to a basic division in medical science (also mentioned in Bernard): that of form and function, or morphology and physiology. Durkheim comes down solidly on the side of function. In the organism that is modern society, he says, the actual institutions are generally able to perform various functions, and the function performed by any given institution might change rapidly. It is therefore the functions, rather than the institutions which perform them, that are primary. I have always been made uneasy by what I have understood to be Durkheim’s functionalism, and here it is explained. I am still uneasy. It is possible to speak of the functions of an actual organism, because we are authorized to assume that, qua organism, it has a limited set of non-complex goals: eating, breathing, and so on—which we might themselves reduce, as Claude Bernard does, to sustaining the artificial milieu that the organism itself constitutes. It is to this end that we explain the regulation of various levels of chemicals, or of heat. Is it legitimate to make an analogy to society in this way? (ignoring, for the moment, the problem of delimiting each society, which I suppose needn’t be in principle different from the problem of delimiting different organisms). I do not think that we can, as Spencer does, assume that societies are organisms in the sense that they are born, grow, live, and die. Despite Marx’s attraction, as well, to the image of social metabolism, I do not think that we can say that societies eat and excrete. Perhaps Durkheim elsewhere explains himself differently, and more.
The remainder of the essay is taken up by an overview of the various sorts of students Durkheim feels would benefit from studying his sociology. In the first place, his wants to speak to students of philosophy. Philosophy as a discipline, he says, is already far on the way to dividing itself into two distinct disciplines: psychology and morals. Psychology is turning increasingly toward experimental science—it is Durkheim’s ambition that sociology should constitute a science of morals. A genuinely scientific study of morality is also, he says, the only way to overcome the oft-remarked upon dichotomy between science and morality. We might point out that, in the form of the free-will/determinism conceptual bind, Durkheim has already simply refused to discuss the relation of morals (presumably depended on some conception of human freedom) to science. I wonder if there isn’t a little slight of hand here. At any rate, this division of philosophy into psychology and morals is described as the division of labor in studying facts about individual consciousness and “la conscience de la société,” which is a naturally sociological object of study.
Durkheim next suggests that students of history would benefit greatly from the study of sociology. I think it is fair to say that the battle for disciplinary supremacy within the French academy between historians and sociologists begins here, later t be carried on between the various iterations of the Annales school and Durkheim’s inheritors.
With less imperialist intent, Durkheim also argues that law students should come out of their hermeneutic bubbles and allow sociology to speak to them of the function of law in society, and in particular of the nature of the various major juridical institutions (the family, the state).
Last but not least, sociology has a general pedagogical mission. Here is expressed in a bald form what I take to be Durkheim’s basic worldview and project. I quote at length:
Nous vivons dans un pays qui ne reconnaît d’autre maître que l’opinion. Pour que ce maître ne devienne pas un despote inintelligent, il est nécessaire de l’éclairer, et comment, sinon par la science? Sous l’influence de causes qu’il serait trop long d’analyser ici, l’esprit de collectivité s’est affaibli chez nous. Chacun de nous a de son moi un sentiment tellement exorbitant qu’il n’aperçoit plus les limites qui l’enserrent de toutes parts. Se faisant illusion sur sa propre puissance, il aspire à se suffire à soi-même. C’est pourquoi nous mettons tout notre mérite à nous distinguer le plus possible les uns des autres, et à suivre chacun notre mouvement propre. Il faut réagir et de toutes nos forces contre cette tendance dispersive. Il faut que notre société reprenne conscience de son unité organique; que l’individu sente cette masse sociale qui l’enveloppe et le pénètre, qu’il la sente toujours présente et agissante, et que ce sentiment règle toujours sa conduite; car ce n’est pas assez qu’il ne s’en inspire que de temps en temps dans des circonstances particulièrement critiques (109).
Or, much more succinctly, Durkheim wants to teach the over-inflated modern self that, “il n’est pas un empire au sein d’un autre empire, mais l’organe d’un organisme, et lui montrera tout ce qu’il y a de beau à s’acquitter consciencieusement de son rôle d’organe” (110).
As by temperament a liberal-reformist, I can only approve of Durkheim’s general project. Yet his language makes my collar feel a little tight. The ‘professor’ in Conrad’s Secret Agent would often feel, quite concretely, the massive weight of the people around him, their numbers and the power the numbers gave them over him. This isn’t so structured an appreciation of the social bond as Durkheim wants, but it seems, somehow, a more plausible response to modern society than actively appreciating and taking joy in one's role as a functioning organ within a larger social organism.