Sunday, May 10, 2009

Durkheim and analogy

Durkheim begins “Représentations individuelles et représentations collectives” by defending the use of analogy as a tool of scientific analysis. Those who attempt to understand society through analogy with biology are not wrong because they employ analogy, but because they employ it badly. Similarly, those sociologists who look first of all to psychology, that is to the individual, are not necessarily wrong to do so. Durkheim says,

La vie collective, comme la vie mentale de l’individu, est faite de représentations; il est donc présumable ue représentations individuelles et représentations sociales sont, en quelque manière, comparables. Nous allons, en effet, essayet de montrer que les unes et les autres soutiennent la même relation avec leur substrat respectif. Mais ce rapprochement, loin de justifier la conception qui réduit la sociologie à n’être qu’un corollaire de la psychologie individuelle, mettre, au contraire, en reflief l’indépendance relative de ces deux mondes et de ces deux sciences (2).

This somewhat enigmatic explanation given, Durkheim turns to discuss the various materialist theories of psychology that attempt to reduce mental activity to a physical substratum—in the words of the period, to reduce the spiritual to the material. There follows a lengthy discussion of the various logical contradictions and metaphysical traps into which a rigorously materialist psychology must fall. Memory, perception, and the possibility of an unconscious mind are all discussed. William James figures prominently in this discussion, although Bergson (whose Matière et mémoire had appeared in 1896) is not explicitly mentioned. Durkheim concludes that it is impossible to reduce mental activity either to a physical substratum or to pure consciousness. This goes on for 30 pages, until one has nearly forgotten the point of the entire exercise.

The point is, of course, that there is an analogy to be made between psychology and sociology. (It should be said that for Durkheim ‘collective psychology’ is simply sociology—or rather the other way around—so ‘psychology’ can be used simply on its own, because it only ever refers to the individual. This leaves aside, I suppose, the whole range of groups that do not constitute ‘societies’ and must fall under ‘social psychology.’) Durkheim says: “Le rapport qui, dans la conception, unit le substrat social à la vie sociale est de tous points analogue à celui qu’on doit admettre entre le substrat physiologique et la vie psychique des individus” (34). That is, as brains are to minds, so individuals are to society. The analogy, then, is not between phenomena, but in the way that each science is delimited. The two ‘classic’ forms of explanation, called here materialist and idealist, are often (for instance, by Ravaisson in his survey) differentiated as, for the first, explaining the complex by the simple, and the second, the simple by the complex. Put otherwise, materialists explain the whole by its parts, and idealists the part by its whole. Debates in this period often organized themselves around physiology and morphology: does the function determine the organ, or the other way around?

Durkheim’s point here is that, as he says, to explain “le complex par le complex, les faits sociaux par la société” (41). Elements of one kind, to which one set of rules apply when in isolation, when combined give rise to phenomena that cannot be understood according to these rules. Durkheim says, “à mesure que l’association [for instance, of cells in a living being, or individuals into a society] se constitue, elle donne naissance à des phénomènes qui ne dérivent pas directement de la nature des éléments associés” (41-2). The potentially major problem of constituting these levels or systems of rules will be solved empirically. Suggesting, I suppose, that what will later be called ‘epistemological gaps’ in some sense ‘naturally’ occurring.

I mentioned already Bergson’s absence from this essay. It would be interesting to know more about Durkheim’s opinions of Bergson’s earlier writings—Les données immédiates...(1889) and Matiere et memoire (1896)—specifically in regard to the limits and meaning of materialist psychology. Later on, they come to represent two very different aspects of French philosophical/scientific culture, this is why I’d like to know more about the earlier period. Unexpectedly, this essay gives me yet more of a reason to read Emile Boutroux’s famous 1874 De la contingence des lois de la nature (reprinted 1895) supposedly grounding human freedom in these gaps between epistemological levels of determination. For striking contrast, and in order to have a hyper-modern perspective on these questions of materialist psychology, I would want to go back and look through my notes on Zizek’s Parallax View.

No comments: