Debate Magazine

Durkheim’s Social Mystification

By Cris

In a recent post on Durkheim, I observed that he seems to have been mystified by the fact that humans are social and live in groups. Since writing that post, I read Gary Trompf’s “Durkheim on Original and Aboriginal Religion” (2011) (open), in which he discusses Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s considerable influence on Durkheim. In particular, Durkheim took from Rousseau the idea that in the prehistoric past (i.e., “the state of nature”), humans were not social. For Rousseau and Durkheim, society was not “natural phenomenon” and social conventions are artificial, “manifestly contrary to the law of nature” (Trompf at 269, quoting from Durkheim’s Montesqieu and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology).

This squarely states one of the problems I have with Durkheim. While he and Rousseau may wish (for methodological reasons) to imagine a time when humans were not social and did not live in groups, there was no such time. Humans are primates and we have been living in social groups or “societies” for millions of years. In fact, humans are the most social of primates because we have language, which is itself the outcome of millions of years of intense sociality.

While Durkheim may have been mystified by human sociality and society, there is no reason for us to be (or to accept the fantastic argument he makes in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life). It really is not that hard to explain, and we certainly don’t require “religion” (in the form of totemism) to account for it. People are talking primates. With words or symbols, we can fictitiously extend kinship and comradeship to non-kin. In doing so, we extend the bounds of our in-group and form ever larger groups.

Also since writing that last post (which juxtaposed Emile Durkheim with Frans de Waal), I’ve come across an extended interview in which de Waal pimps his new book explains that humans are primates and (except for language) really aren’t all that special or different from other primates. In “The Cosmopolitan Ape,” de Waal also has a number of things to say about religion. Check it out.


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