Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work (1858-1917)

[Excerpt from Robert Alun Jones. Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986. Pp. 12-23.]

David Emile Durkheim was born on April 15, 1858 in Epinal, capital town of the department of Vosges, in Lorraine. His mother, Mélanie, was a merchant's daughter, and his father, Moïse, had been rabbi of Epinal since the 1830s, and was also Chief Rabbi of the Vosges and Haute-Marne. Emile, whose grandfather and great-grandfather had also been rabbis, thus appeared destined for the rabbinate, and a part of his early education was spent in a rabbinical school. This early ambition was dismissed while he was still a schoolboy, and soon after his arrival in Paris, Durkheim would break with Judaism altogether. But he always remained the product of close-knit, orthodox Jewish family, as well as that long-established Jewish community of Alsace-Lorraine that had been occupied by Prussian troops in 1870, and suffered the consequent anti-Semitism of the French citizenry. Later, Durkheim would argue that the hostility of Christianity toward Judaism had created an unusual sense of solidarity among the Jews.

An outstanding student at the Collège d'Epinal, Durkheim skipped two years, easily obtaining his baccalauréats in Letters (1874) and Sciences (1875), and distinguishing himself in the Concours Général. Intent now on becoming a teacher, Durkheim left Epinal for Paris to prepare for admission to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. Installed at a pension for non-resident students, however, he became utterly miserable: his father's illness left him anxious over his family's financial security; he was an utter provincial alone in Paris; and his intellectual predilections, already scientific rather than literary, were ill-fitted to the study of Latin and rhetoric essential for admission to the Ecole. After failing in his first two attempts at the entrance examination (in 1877 and 1878), Durkheim was at last admitted near the end of 1879.

Durkheim's generation at the Ecole was a particularly brilliant one, including not only the socialist Jean Jaurès, who became Durkheim's life-long friend, but also the philosophers Henri Bergson, Bustave Belot, Edmond Goblot, Felix Rauh, and Maurice Blondel, the psychologist Pierre Janet, the linguist Ferdinand Brunot, the historians Henri Berr and Camille Jullian, and the geographer Lucien Gallois. Despite constant fears of failure, which plagued him throughout his life, Durkheim became an active participant in the high-minded political and philosophical debates that characterized the Ecole; and, like Jaurès, he was soon a staunch advocate of the republican cause, with special admiration for Léon Gambetta, the brilliant orator and "spiritual embodiment" of the Third Republic, and the more moderate Jules Ferry, whose anti-clerical educational reforms would soon lead to a national system of free, compulsory, secular education.

Durkheim's concerns were less political than academic, however, and while he continued to criticise the literary rather than scientific emphasis of the Ecole, he discovered three scholars of a more congenial spirit - the philosophers Charles Renouvier and Emile Boutroux, and the historian Numas-Denis Fustel de Coulanges.

Though ill through much of 1881-82, Durkheim successfully passed his agrégation (the competitive examination required for admission to the teaching staff of state secondary schools, or lycées), and began teaching philosophy in 1882.

In 1882, the Faculty of Letters at Bordeaux had established France's first course in pedagogy for prospective school teachers, and in 1884 the state had begun to support it as part of its drive for a new system of secular, republican education. The course was first taught by Alfred Espinas, whose Les Sociétés animales(1877) Durkheim greatly admired, but who was soon elevated to Dean of the Faculty. Durkheim's articles on Germany philosophy and social science had by now caught the attention of Louis Liard, then Director of Higher Education in France. A devoted republican and Renouvierist, Liard both resented the German pre-eminence in social science and was intrigued by Durkheim's suggestions for the reconstruction of a secular, scientific French morality. At the instigation of Espinas and Liard, therefore, Durkheim was appointed in 1887 as "Chargéd'un Cours de Science Sociale et de Pédagogie" at Bordeaux. The "Science Sociale" was a concession to Durkheim, and it was under this guise that sociology now officially entered the French university system.

This appointment of a young social scientist to the predominantly humanist Faculty of Letters at Bordeaux was not without opposition, and Durkheim exacerbated this by emphasizing the value of sociology to the more traditional humanist disciplines of philosophy, history and law. He thus aroused (justifiable) fears of "sociological imperialism" and unjustifiable (though understandable) fears that his particular explanations of legal and moral institutions through reference to purely social causes undermined free will and individual moral agency. These fears long excluded Durkheim from the powerful Paris professorship to which he aspired. Nonetheless, he gained the support and even allegiance of at least some of his Bordeaux colleagues - the legal scholar Léon Duguit; the Roman historian Camille Jullian; the rationalist, neo-Kantian philosopher Octave Hamelin; and Georges Rodier, an expert on Aristotle. With Hamelin and Rodier, in particular, Durkheim formed a celebrated "trio" of rationalist opposition to those forms of mysticism and intuitionism which were increasingly denounced under the epithet "bergsonisme."

Throughout this Bordeaux period (1887-1902), Durkheim primary responsibility was to lecture on the theory, history, and practice of education. Each Saturday morning, however, he also taught a public lecture course on social science, devoted to specialized studies of particular social phenomena, including social solidarity, family and kinship, incest, totemism, suicide, crime, religion, socialism, and law.

In 1898, Durkheim founded the Année sociologique, the first social science hournal in France. In fact, Durkheim's intellectual virtuosity up to 1900 had implicitly contradicted one of his central arguments, namely that in modern societies, work (including intellectual work) should become more specialized, though remaining part of an organic whole. In 1896, therefore, putting aside his work on the history of socialism, Durkheim devoted himself to establishing a massive program of journalistic collaboration based upon a complex division of intellectual labor. Supported by a brilliant group of young scholars (mostly philosophers), the Année was to provide an annual survey of the strictly sociological literature, to provide additional information on studies in other specialized fields, and to publish original monographs in sociology.

As Director of Primary Education at the Ministry of Public Instruction from 1879 to 1896, Ferdinand Buisson had been the man most responsible for implementing Jules Ferry's educational reforms. Subsequently appointed to the chair in the Science of Education at the Sorbonne, Buisson was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1902, and the chair became vacant. The successful resolution of the Dreyfus Affair had left both sociology and socialism with a more respectable public image; and Durkheim, while arguing that his competence in education was limited, and that his candidacy would thus give the appearance of using any expedient to insinuate himself in Paris, nonetheless allowed his name to go forward. After seeking letters from Boutroux, Buisson, and Victor Brochard, the Council of the Faculty of Letters at the Sorbonne appointed Durkheim chargéd'un course by a large majority. Four years later Durkheim was made professeur by a unanimous vote and assumed Buisson's chair, which was to be renamed "Science of Education and Sociology" in 1913.

Durkheim arrived in Paris with a reputation as a powerful intellect pursuing an aggressively scientific approach to all problems (everything else was mysticism, dilettantism, and irrationalism). His "science of morality" offended philosophers, his "science of religion" offended Catholics, and his appointment to the Sorbonne (which, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, appeared not above extra-academic considerations) offended those on the political Right. The appointment also gave Durkheim enormous power. His lecture courses were the only required courses at the Sorbonne, obligatory for all students seeking degrees in philosophy, history, literature, and languages; in addition, he was responsible for the education of successive generations of French school teachers, in whom he instilled all the ferbour of his secular, rationalist morality. As an administrator, he sat on the Council of the University as well as on many other councils and committees throughout the University and the Ministry of Public Instruction, and though largely averse to politics, he numbered many powerful politicians among his personal friends. Not surprisingly, Durkheim's enemies complained of his power, accusing him of "managing" appointments and creating chairs of sociology in provincial universities in order to extend his influence. Frequently described as a "secular pope," Durkheim was viewed by critics as an agent of government anti-clericalism, and charged with seeking "a unique and pernicious domination over the minds of the young."

On August 3, 1914, Germany launched its invasion of Belgium and northern France. All went as in the summer of 1870 until the surprising Russians attacked East Prussia, forcing Moltke to withdraw troops for use on the eastern front. The French Army under Joffre regrouped with support from the British, and at the battle of the Marne, fought from September 5 to 12, forced the Germans to retreat, and thus altered the entire character of the war.

Durkheim's response was one of optimism and enthusiasm. Despite poor health already induced by overwork, he devoted himself to the cause of national defense, organizing a committee for the publication of studies and documents on the war, to be sent to neutral countries in the effort to undermine German propaganda. Several patriotic pamphlets were written by Durkheim himself, and sent to his fellow-countrymen in the effort to maintain the national pride. But for the most part, Durkheim was unaffected by the war hysteria, and, though always a patriot, was never a nationalist. Indeed, by 1916, he was concerned lest a German military defeat be turned to the advantage of the conservative, "clerical" party in France; and on at least two occasions, as a native of Alsace-Lorraine and as a Jew with a German name, Durkheim suffered aspersions of disloyalty motivated by the most vulgar kind of anti-Semitism.

The greatest blow, however, was yet to come, Durkheim was utterly devoted to his son André, a linguist who had gained his agrégation just before the War, and was among the most brilliant of the younger Année circle. Sent to the Bulgarian front late in 1915, Andréwas declared missing in January, and in April, 1916, was confirmed dead.

Durkheim was devastated by his son's death, withdrawing into a "ferocious silence" and forbidding friends to even mention his son's name in his presence. Burying himself all the more in the war effort, he collapsed from a stroke after speaking passionately at one of his innumerable committee meetings. After resting for several months, relieved by America's entry into the war, he recovered sufficiently to again take up his work on La Morale; but on November 15, 1917, he died at the age of 59.

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