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Thursday, December 8, 2011


Emile Durkheim was born in 1858. It is useful, I think, to place him chronologically in context with the other great figures of the classical period of Sociology – Marx, Weber, and Mannheim. Karl Marx was born in 1818, and he published his great work, Capital [volume I], in 1867, when Durkheim was nine years old. Weber was born in 1864 and lived until 1920, after the end of the Great War. Mannheim was the youngest of these giants, born in 1893 and living until 1947, after the end of the Second World War.

As I explained at some length in my tutorial on The Study of Society, prior to the nineteenth century the standard contrast in Western thought was between Natural Philosophy, or the study of the laws governing bodies in space and time, and Moral Philosophy, or the study of human affairs, explanatory as well as normative. Some thinkers, such as the ancient Atomists and also modern materialists like Thomas Hobbes, sought to explain the behavior of human beings by appeal to the laws governing bodies in space and time. Others, such as Rene Descartes, drew a sharp distinction between the two realms, denying that such a reduction of the psychological or human to the physical was possible. This latter tradition can be traced all the way back to the famous passage in Plato’s Phaedo in which Socrates contrasts a physicalistic explanation of why he is sitting in prison awaiting execution with a moral or purposive explanation that appeals to the norms and purposes guiding his decision not to escape and flee.

In neither tradition was there room for, or acknowledgement of, the existence of, a separate and autonomous realm of the social that could not be reduced either to the physical or to the psychological. The discovery of the social, if I may put it that way, is a distinctive accomplishment of nineteenth century thought. Now, obviously, intelligent observers of la comedie humaine have been making shrewd and insightful observations about social phenomena for at least as long as the written record exists. One need only recall Plato’s brilliant typology in The Republic of the various fallings-away from the ideal state – Plutocracy, Timocracy, Democracy, and Ochlocracy. But Plato, like all those who followed him, traced these differing forms of social organization to the psychological characteristics of the persons who dominated them.

A first major step in the direction of the identification of the autonomy of the social was taken by Adam Smith when he compared the customary or natural prices that rule in the marketplace to centers of gravity drawing to them the fluctuating market prices influenced by the vagaries of supply and demand. But it was only in the writings of Georg Hegel [much as I hate to admit it] that we find the revolutionary idea of society as an organic unity exhibiting characteristics and forms that are not immediately reducible to, or traceable to, the psychological characteristics of individuals.

This idea underlies a good deal of Marx’s discussion of social relations of production as well as his extraordinary analysis of mystification in Chapter One of Capital. But there was considerable resistance from nineteenth century thinkers to the novel claims of the social, and this resistance cast doubt on the autonomy and legitimacy of Sociology, the new academic kid on the block, as it were.

Durkheim, the first great Sociologist, fully understood the philosophical presuppositions of the new discipline. In the work before us, Suicide, published in 1897, he undertakes to meet the objections head on and present an elaborate empirical justification of the thesis that there is a realm of social phenomena that cannot be reduced either to the psychological or to the physical.

Durkheim states the central methodological or ontological problem of Sociology clearly and uncompromisingly in the Preface to the book. “Sociological method as we practice it rests wholly on the basic principle that social facts must be studied as things, that is, as realities external to the individual. There is no principle for which we have received more criticism, but none is more fundamental. Indubitably for sociology to be possible, it must above all have an object all its own. It must take cognizance of a reality which is not in the domain of other sciences. But if no reality exists outside of individual consciousness, it wholly lacks any material of its own. In that case, the only possible subject of observation is the mental states of the individual, since nothing else exists.”

He repeats this point with emphasis later in the same paragraph. “[T]here can be no sociology unless societies exist, and … societies cannot exist if there are only individuals.”

Durkheim proposes to establish the existence of society as an independently existing entity, and thereby to legitimate Sociology as a discipline, by studying the incidence of suicide.

Why on earth suicide?

There were two reasons for the choice. The first was practical. The systematic collection of statistical data for entire countries more or less began in the modern era with the work of the Intendants of the ancient regime in France. The Intendants were Royal servants responsible for collecting information about agricultural and other aspects of French society and promoting progressive economic policies in the countryside, frequently over the opposition of the traditionalist landed aristocracy. By the middle of the nineteenth century, central governments throughout Europe were regularly collecting and publishing all manner of data, most particularly vital statistics of births and deaths, including the incidence of disease, of crimes such as murder, and of suicide. By the end of the century, when Durkheim was writing, it was possible to access a wide range of vital statistics classified and sub-classified by age, sex, region, religion, and even time of day. So, in the time-honored manner of all students of the natural and the human, Durkheim chose suicide as a subject of investigation because he could.

Durkheim’s second reason is a good deal more interesting. Suicide, he pointed out, is a quintessentially private and individual act. It is an act that directly involves only one person. Even murder involves at least two people, the murderer and the victim. On the face of it, there does not seem to be any direct connection between one act of suicide and another [though, as we shall see, that is not quite true.] If investigation should reveal patterns of great statistical regularity in the incidence of suicide, that would suggest that forces are at work that cannot in any obvious way be explained by appeal solely to the psychological states and processes of individuals.

It is interesting to contrast this question with that which exercised the Classical Political Economists. They began from an observed regularity – Smith’s “natural prices” or “centers of gravity” – and then sought to explain that observed regularity by a Labor Theory of Natural Price [or “Labor Theory of Value” as the 18th century put it.] But as Smith himself understood, the observed regularity of natural prices emerges out of “the higgling and jiggling of the marketplace,” which is to say it is a consequence of wide-ranging interactions between economic actors. Although the adequate explanation of the resulting regularities is a challenging task, as Ricardo and Marx discovered, the existence of those regularities is not surprising, since they emerge from a system of economy-wide interactions.

By contrast, if it should turn out that the uniquely private and individual act of suicide is subject to regularities fully as reliable as those in the marketplace, that would seem to argue for the operation of social forces not reducible to, or explicable in terms of, individual motivations.

Tomorrow, we shall discover what Durkheim learned when he looked at the vital statistics of suicide, and how he explained what he found.


Don Schneier said...

Spinoza argued that if self-preservation is the exclusive fundamental principle of the individual, then suicide, strictly speaking, is impossible.

formerly a wage slave said...

For what it's worth: I'll be interested to hear what further thoughts you have in this tutorial..... I think that I myself as a citizen of the USA, born, raised and educated in that country, spent a good deal of my life not believing in society---prior to Thatcher's famous pronouncement. Indeed, that confusion persisted through my graduate school days. And, to be a bit more contentious, it is my impression that there are significant bits of professional philosophy where ethical issues--questions about individuals---manage to replace the real questions, which are social. I am curious whether you would agree--and I say that with full awareness that I might need to get more specific....and, as well, with the awareness that in the realm of political philosophy, I am pretty ignorant......

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am not completely sure I know what you are asking. I have tried, in my tutorials on Marx and the study of society, as well as in some of my published writings, to make clear my sympathy with the analysis of mystification, although I always think of myself as trying to make sense of the notion from fundamentally a methodologically individualist perspective. [See also my essay on Elster, posted on] When I have written a bit more about Durkheim, see whether you can make your question more precise, and I will certainly try to answer it.

formerly a wage slave said...

Sorry, I'll just need to check out what you've written. I had something in mind, and by saying that I don't mean to be evasive; I just need to work it out in more detail before I bother you with it again. In the meantime, thanks for your response. I'll just have to take a careful look at what you've written/blogged. (Incidentally, my life is rather crowded with family duties as I am living with my elderly parents and am responsible for them. That means that quiet times when I can actually read and think are rare. So, any kind of serious working out of anything is not going to happen quickly. But, even your brief reference to
methodological individualism does help me somewhat. So, thanks for your patience, and (as always) I must say that I am glad that you are blogging even if I can't count myself as a faithful reader.

wallyverr said...

I haven't read any Durkheim for more than three decades (Weber was always my favorite of the Early Fathers of sociology), and I'm hoping that this mini-tutorial will prompt a re-visit. But I think that what Formerly is referring to may be some of the ideas treated in the article "Society, Concepts of" in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

This article looks at three different approaches, citing modern references but all having roots in one or more of the sociological classics. Game theory & methodological individualism is only one approach. A second is "society as a system of communication", going back to Durkheim and George Herbert Mead. The third approach, focussing on social groups, goes back to Simmel and even Rousseau.

The articles references include more modern treatments, e.g. a Durkheimian book by the anthropologist Mary Douglas called "How Institutions Think" (a title guaranteed to make any Weberian grind their teeth), the philosopher Margaret Gilbert's "On Social Facts" making use of "we" as a "plural subject", and Elster's "Cement of Society" as game-theory individualism.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you for the comment and the information. That is more than I am readily familiar with [although I have had my say about Elster's approach]. Whatever you think of one or another of these approaches, the old classics seem to me to raise more interesting questions than recent writings. In general, by the way, I find anthropologists to have more interesting ideas these days than sociologists.

Matias Vernengo said...

I'm probably too much of an economist (I'm sorry to say), but I think that in the works of William, Petty, Richard Cantillon and Fran├žois Quesnay, which precede and anticipate some aspects of classical political economy (Smith/Ricardo/Marx), there is a clear idea of social division of labor and of a surplus, which allows for accumulation. In that sense, one can think of the pioneers of the surplus approach as preceding Hegel, and being as important as the latter, in influencing Marx's view.

Matias Vernengo said...

And discovering the social as autonomous, I forgot to add.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Professor Vernengo, I agree completely. In my lengthy tutorials on Marx and Ricardo, I tried all too briefly to do some sort of justice to the predecessors of Smith and Ricardo and Marx [and of course Marx does elaborate homage to them in the Theories of Surplus Value]. Forgive me for moving too quickly in trying to set up the problematic of Durkheim. I make the very bad mistake of assuming that folks who come to my blog have read everything I have ever written [!!!].

Unknown said...

See my papers on Durkheimian theory at:

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