Warren Schmaus on Durkheim's Sens lectures

André Lalande's notes taken in Durkheim's philosophy class at the Lycée de Sens during the academic year 1883-84 have the potential to change our understanding of Durkheim. In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim said that sociology would renew philosophy. These lectures make very clear to us the conception of philosophy that Durkheim thought needed to be renovated. They reveal Durkheim as a young scholar at the beginning of his career emerging from the eclectic, spiritualist tradition of Victor Cousin and his followers, which dominated academic philosophy in France at that time. Like the spiritualists, Durkheim regarded psychology as the philosophical discipline that provided a foundation for logic, ethics, and metaphysics. He also shared many of their views on meaning, the problem of universals, and moral principles, and subscribed to their interpretations of major philosophers like Kant.

Especially surprising, in the light of the seemingly atheist implications of his subsequent sociology of religion, is Durkheim's support for some of the very traditional metaphysical and moral arguments for God's existence and the immortality of the soul.

Where Durkheim appears to have been a more progressive thinker was with regard to his views on philosophical method. Whereas for many of the Cousinians, psychology proceeded through the method of introspection, for Durkheim it was an empirical, experimental science. He argued, much as he would later in the Rules of Sociological Method, that each science must have its own unique object of study. He then defined psychology as the science of mental states. The experimental method of hypothesis and test was needed to get beyond the mere internal observation of such states and to discover the laws that governed them.

According to Durkheim, not only psychology but all the branches of philosophy, including logic, ethics, and metaphysics, were experimental sciences.

Many of Durkheim's views in the philosophy of science are surprisingly modern. Sounding much like Hempel or Popper would later, Durkheim argued that there is no logic or method of discovery in science, that our knowledge could not grow without bold new hypotheses, that logic and method are useful only for testing hypotheses, that scientific knowledge is forever fallible, and so on. In lecture 26, he argued that logic alone allows us only to draw out the consequences of the ideas that we already have and not to discover anything new. For Durkheim, discovery proceeds through the invention of hypotheses, which requires the force of genius. In his lectures on psychology, he associated genius with what he termed the "creative imagination."

His account of the role of imagination in the formation of scientific hypotheses should put to rest once and for all the view that he was an utterly naive inductivist who thought we could simply generalize laws from an unbiased study of the facts.

Even the historian, he added, must reconstruct the past through the creative use of hypotheses.

In his concluding lecture on ethics, lecture 68, he continued to maintain that ethics was an experimental science.However, we do not find him actually testing hypotheses in his lectures on ethics. The empirical character of his ethics amounts to little more than his claim, in lecture 56, to have drawn from experience the fact that we are morally responsible agents. In fact, he rejected the empiricist ethics of the utilitarians, having argued that it fails to issue in universal moral principles. He endorsed instead the Kantian view that morality is grounded in the principle that one should always treat others as ends in themselves and never as means. This rejection of empiricism in ethics is surprising, given Durkheim's later attempts to ground ethics in an empirical sociology. However, he also criticized Kant for not being sufficiently empirical, arguing that Kant produced an imaginary ethics and not one of real human beings.

Outside the field of ethics, Durkheim's reading of Kant is even less sympathetic. His discussion of Kant's theory of knowledge is not grounded in a careful study of Kant's texts and appears to be strongly colored by the spiritualist tradition. For example, in lecture 23 Durkheim discussed Kant's position that the principles of rationality apply only to a world of phenomena that we have constructed. Durkheim interpreted this position as implying that these principles are merely subjective. This is a highly contentious interpretation of Kant, but nevertheless represents a standard criticism of him among the spiritualists. For Kant, the forms of sensibility, the categories of the understanding, and the principles that followed from them are constitutive of objects -- and thus of experience -- in the first place. That is, such principles as that substances are permanent in time and that every event has a cause are part of our very conception of what it is for something to be an object. To consider the world of appearances or phenomena as merely subjective is to suggest that one is identifying the "objective" with something outside the mind's experience or with the noumenal world. To make this latter identification, however, would be either to misunderstand or to beg the question againstKant.

Durkheim's account of Kant's theory of knowledge also sheds some light on his later theory in the Elementary Forms of the social causes of categories such as space, time, cause, and genus. Durkheim's sociology of knowledge has puzzled many readers, since it is not clear how the categories could be derived from social life and thus from experience if they make experience possible in the first place. In fact, in lecture 20 Durkheim makes a similar argument against Spencer's theory of the categories, which would seem to indicate that this critique of Durkheim may be based on a misinterpretation. I would suggest that in Durkheim's sociological theory of the categories, he is not responding to Kant so much as to the spiritualists. In the same lecture in which he criticized Spencer, Durkheim reported that Maine de Biran had attempted to derive the categories from inner experience. Cousin, on the other hand, insisted that the principles of reason are a priori. But how, Durkheim queried, could these principles be a priori if the concepts or categories contained in them are not? He then adopted a compromise position, drawing a distinction between categories as abstract, general principles of reason and as concrete representations made possible by our experience. This distinction may then help us to understand his claim in the Elementary Forms that the individual has a sense of time, place, resemblance, and regular succession that is independent of the categories. Here Durkheim, like many nineteenth century philosophers, was equating a priori principles with innate psychological capacities. The categories, on the other hand, were identified in the Elementary Forms with their collective representations, much as they had been identified in the Sens lectures with their concrete individual representations. In other words, he later came to hold that social life gave rise to the concrete representations of abstract principles of reason that he distinguished from these principles very early in his career.

Durkheim's understanding of Kant on free will also bears the mark of the spiritualist tradition. According to Durkheim, Kant imprisoned the will within the noumenal world. However, one could with at least equal justice argue instead that Kant imprisoned causality within the phenomenal world. For Kant, the relation between will and action is not causal in the sense of being a temporal, before-and-after relationship. Causal, temporal relations apply only to the phenomenal realm, the realm of objects constituted by the understanding and the sensibility.

The will, for Kant, stands outside of the phenomenal realm and thus outside of experience, spatial and temporal relationships, and the categories of the understanding. Biran, on the other hand, had tried to ground the concept of causality in our introspective experience of the power of the will over the body.

He argued that it is possible to have direct experience of the will as causally efficacious and not merely indirect experience of the actions that result from the will. Cousin went so far as to use Biran's arguments as a basis from which to defend a traditional notion of a substantial soul with causal powers.

Hence, one would not expect to find a sympathetic account in the spiritualists' texts of Kant's notion that the will is outside experience. Although Durkheim did not accept Cousin's notion of a substantial soul, he nevertheless agreed with the spiritualists in arguing that the self is directly known by consciousness and is not a constructed notion, as Kant suggested in the transcendental dialectic. Similarly, in a discussion of Spinoza, Durkheim rejected the position that we experience only our actions and not their causes.

Durkheim's views in the Sens lectures on causality and the will illuminate his subsequent conception of sociological explanation. For Kant, the relationship between the will and the action is not a temporal, causal relationship, but rather one that has to do with the reasons for the action. To explain an action in terms of its reasons is to say that the action makes sense in the light of these reasons, or, in other words, it is to give the meaning of the action for the agent. The explanations of actions in terms of their meanings and how such explanation could be different than causal explanations, however, were topics to which Durkheim perhaps did not give sufficient attention. His rejection of psychological explanations from sociology is expressed in terms of psychological and social causes, not reasons. He simply dismissed explanations in terms of the reasons for actions as appeals to final causes. One could argue that Durkheim's philosophical training in the spiritualist tradition did not either prepare him or predispose him to consider interpretive explanations more seriously. That is, since he was taught to think of the will as causing action, he did not stop to consider the possibility that the relation between the action and its grounds is not a time relation but a logical relation. To the extent that many other early French social scientists shared a similar philosophical training, it may be no accident that interpretative or Verstehen sociology developed and took hold in Germany rather than in France.

In addition, the Sens lectures reveal Durkheim working with a very traditional conception of linguistic meaning linked to the notion of representative ideas. Like Locke, Durkheim identified the meanings of general terms with general ideas held in the mind and formed by abstraction from particular ideas.

Durkheim regarded these general ideas as real entities existing in the minds of those who hold these concepts. He adopted this doctrine, which he understood to be Abelard's conceptualist philosophy, in order to avoid the extremes of either the nominalist or the Platonic realist solution to the problem of universals. Like this medieval philosopher, Durkheim could accept neither that general terms were mere names that we give to classes of things nor that these terms corresponded to independent entities. In lecture 43, he took from Arnauld's seventeenth-century "Port-Royal Logic" the analysis of the meaning of general terms into their comprehension and their extension. The comprehension of a term is the collection of all the characteristics shared by the individuals that comprise the extension of the term; that is, it is the characteristics that distinguish that "represented idea" from every other idea. The extension is simply the collection of individuals that share these characteristics. Of course, later in his career Durkheim would come to identify the meanings of general concepts with collective rather than individual representations. However, this was merely to introduce a distinction between two sorts of representative ideas. The role that representative ideas played in Durkheim's theory of meaning raises doubts that he ever held anything like Wittgenstein's nominalist notions of meaning-as-use, as some interpreters have suggested.

The metaphysical views Durkheim endorsed in lectures 70 through 72 may also shed light on his subsequent sociological theorizing. Durkheim endorsed a "spiritualist realism," which, unlike idealism, does not deny the existence of the external world, but, unlike materialism, denies that the external world consists of matter. For the spiritualist philosophy, which he traced back to Leibniz and also associated with vitalism, reality consists in forces or spirits analogous to ourselves, but with perhaps with less consciousness. Nothing exists except either as a spirit or as an object of representation. What we call matter, along with its three-dimensional extension and motion as well as its color and other more obviously mind-dependent qualities, is only an ensemble of appearances. Thus, unlike Cartesian dualism, spiritualism is a monist realism that is not faced with the problem of how two essentially different sorts of substance, mind and matter, are able to interact with each other.

There appear, then, to be two major differences between Durkheim's early spiritualism and his later social realism.

First, he seems to have added social forces to his basic ontology. Second, he came to accept that there are two distinct classes of mental representations, individual and collective, that constitute the subject matters of psychology and sociology, respectively. However, this notion of a collective representation is already suggested by the conceptualist notion of shared mental states. Also, both collective representations and the social forces to which they give rise appear to depend on individual consciousnesses for their existence. Hence, it is not clear to me at least that Durkheim's metaphysical views underwent any fundamental changes.

Whether or not Durkheim's later social realism indicates a fundamental change in his metaphysics, however, it certainly represents a significant change in his thinking. The way I read his career is this: In the Sens lectures, he was already seeking to replace the introspective psychology of his spiritualist predecessors with an empirical, hypothetico-deductive psychology of individual mental states as the foundation for the other three philosophical sciences. His subsequent goal was to replace even this psychology with an empirical sociology, which would proceed by testing hypotheses about shared mental states with historical, statistical, and ethnographic data. Parts of psychology and logic would then be transformed into the sociology of knowledge.

Parts of metaphysics would be replaced by the sociology of religion. Ultimately, Durkheim had hoped to re-establish ethics on a sociological basis as well, a project to which he kept returning throughout his career but that he never completed.

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