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Monday, October 05, 2009

Book Review: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life by Emile Durkheim


Emile Durkheim, sociologist








The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
by Emile Durkheim
p. 1912
Oxford University Press, USA; 
abridged edition edition (June 15, 2008)


       Is there any shame in reading an abridged version of this book?  Dear lord, I hope not.  You could probably condense the take-away from this book in two sentence:  Society creates religion, communication creates society.  Durkheim was one of the earliest articulators of the principles of "social constructivism," or as morons like to say, "cultural relativism."  
     I would frankly recommend this particular edition of Elementary Forms of Religious Life BECAUSE it's abridged.  Every time I saw the ellipsis [...] indicating that there had been an editing of Durkheim's torturous prose I breathed a tiny sigh of relief.
       That Elementary Forms of Religious Life continues to be relevant today is more a testament to the philosophical introduction and conclusion that place Durkheim squarely in the tradition of Kantian idealist philosophy (actually, squarely opposed to it.)  I find Durkheim's argument that Society can only be analyzed in terms of the relationship between people to be compelling.  I find Durkheims subsidiary claim that such analysis ought to be composed in scientific terms to be much, much, much less compelling.
      Let's face, it the very category of "social sciences" is a  joke because you can't perform scientific experiments with society very well.  Oh, you can do studies proving the obvious ("Fat people watch more tv.")("Poor children are more likely to commit crimes.") till the cows come home but more often then not you will either be stating the obvious, or just wrong.  Durkheim is also methodologically incompetent, choosing to base his observations about indigenous life solely on books that other people wrote.  Durkheim wrote an entire book about the religious life of indigenous Australians, but he appears to have never conversed with one.
    Durkheim probably bears of much of the blame as anyone for the current state of social "science."  Elementary Forms is just as interesting today for the epistemology of early twentieth century social science as it is for anything else, since his observations regarding the underlying human relationships of society have been well and truly observed and expanded upon for the last fifty years.
      In terms of his argument, Durkheim likes to lead with an observation made by a so-called specialist,  then he likes to establish a dichotomy/opposition and then he will describe both sides, and draw conclusions based on his categories and observations.  What he does not do is challenge the technical authorities that he cites, or challenge the idea that religion might not be describable in simple dialectic categories or challenged the idea that you can describe all of world religion based on Australian indigenous religious practices.  In fact, at times you get the distinct impression that he wants to say something about Christianity and/or Judaism but he is scared to challenge Christianity directly.
     Like Max Weber, the other great early 20th century European sociologist/philosopher, Durkheim is seeking to bring some kind of "scientific" rigor to philosophical/historical type observations of society.  It's a move that is grounded in the exponential increase in the need for university professors during that time.  It's easy to see how young professors expounding scientific SOUNDING theories about society behaved would have been attractive to those hiring professors and students alike.  The 20th century was all about "scientific certainty" and later on, about opposing scientific certainty.   Swinging like a pendulum, mirroring the larger recurring philosophical debate between metaphysics and epistemology.  
    Here, in Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim actually kind of starts swinging the pendulum, towards the scientific certainty side but at the same time you can see how truly shaky that argument was, right at the beginning.  Time has done his position no favors, but he did outline the debate early on.  That's why this book is more relevant for someone reading about 20th century philosophy then someone seeking to become a sociologist in the 21st century.

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