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- 1 [Émile Durkheim, De la division du travail social. Thèse présentée à la Faculté des Lettres de Pari (...)
- 2 [Cf., sur ce point capital de la recension, George P. Adams, « The Interpretation of Religion in Ro (...)
The distinguished French sociologist, É. Durkheim, offers in this work an elaborate and painstaking analysis of the role which religion plays in human societies. Durkheim is already well known as the editor of L’Année sociologique and as the author of Les règles de la méthode sociologique, De la division du travail social, and Le suicide, and as the leader of a brilliant group of sociologists whose influence has been increasingly felt beyond the borders of their own country. La vie religieuse is of profound interest to the philosopher, theologian, sociologist, and anthropologist. The author offers us an interpretation of religion, and he supports and illustrates that interpretation by an elaborate and penetrating analysis of Australian totemism. The noteworthy aspect of this most recent book of Durkheim is not that the author studies the social aspect and function of religious ideas and ritual, but that he undertakes in a radical and thoroughgoing fashion to derive every enduring and significant aspect of religion from man’s social experience. Until you can see the way  in which religious ideas and rites are thrown off by mechanism of social contact, by the life of men in groups, you have no proper understanding of what anything religious means. This is what Durkheim in substance says. And, incidentally, once you understand these processes of man’s social life, you will comprehend not only religion but the fundamental categories of his thinking as well. But that is another story.
Before coming to his own definition of religion, Durkheim clears the way by a criticism of some of the more common definitions of religion. It is entirely inadequate to define religion in terms of the supernatural and the mysterious ; the idea of the supernatural is but a late-comer in the history of religion. It is foreign to primitive peoples as well as to the lower levels of culture. Nor is the idea of divinity, of the gods or of God, anymore satisfactory as an earmark of religion. There is no such idea in authentic Buddhism, and even in the theistic religions there are many rites which have nothing to do with a god. How then shall we define the essence of religion ? Durkheim’s answer consists of two parts. First, religion centres around a distinction between common things and sacred things. This distinction differs from that between the supernatural and the natural in that both the sacred and the profane fall’s within man’s experience. But magic, as well as religion, makes use of the distinction between common things and sacred things. Another constituent of religion must be found which distinguishes it from magic. Religion is always an affair of a church, of a social community; magic is individual and anti-social. “There is no church of magic” (p. 44). This idea of a church is no incidental concomitant of religion ; it enters into the very essence and definition of religion. The most important thing you can observe about religion is the way in which it both cements and also gives utterance to the collective life of some group. Combining these two essential elements of religion, Durkheim gives us the following definition (p. 47): “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them”.
With this preliminary definition Durkheim next offers a trenchant criticism of two traditional conceptions of religion, animism and naturism. He contends that dreams cannot possibly account for the idea of the soul, that the phenomenon of death does not explain the transformation of a soul into a spirit, that neither the cult of the souls of the dead nor religious anthropomorphism at large is  primitive. Moreover, and more important, animism cannot be an adequate interpretation of religion, for it reduces religion to nothing more than a system of hallucinations. The author’s words are worth quoting:
- 6 « Leading Conception of the Elementary Religion. I. – Animism », Durkheim 1915, Book 1, chap. 2, p. (...)
“It is inadmissible that systems of ideas like religions, which have held so considerable a place in history, and [to] which, in all times men have come to receive the energy which they must have to live, should be made up of a tissue of illusions. Today we are beginning to realize that law, morals, and even scientific thought itself were born of religion, were for a long time confounded with it, and have remained penetrated with its spirit. How could a vain fantasy have been able to fashion the human consciousness so strongly and so durably ?” (p. 69)
- 7 [« Totemic Beliefs. The Cosmological System of Totemism and the Idea of Class », Durkheim 1915, Boo (...)
- 8 [« The Notion of the Totemic Principle, or Mana, and the Idea of Force », Durkheim 1915, Book 2, ch (...)
- 9 [« Origin of the Idea of the Totemic Principle or Mana », Durkheim 1915, Book 2, chap. 7, p. 212]
- 10 [« Piacular Rites and the Ambiguity of the Notion of Sacredness », Durkheim 1915, Book 3, chap. 5, (...)
The naturism of Max Müller does not offer any more satisfactory account of religion. According to it, religion is permeated with illusions and fallacies, and it is unable to account for the division of things into sacred and profane. Where animism and naturism fail, totemism succeeds. The greater part of La vie religieuse sets forth a theory of totemism, and its significance in generating and sustaining religious rites and beliefs. The following is a summary of Durkheim’s views: Totemism stands for a form of tribal organization in which “the men of the clan and the things which are classified in it form by their union a solid system, all of whose parts are united and vibrate sympathetically” (p. 150). The quality of sacredness – which is one of the two essential attributes of religion – attaches preeminently to the totem. This quality, like a subtle, impersonal force, also pervades the entire totemic group, composed of men and things. And totemism is in truth the religion of “an anonymous and impersonal force” (p. 188). This Mana – for such the anthropologists call it – is the essence and the vital principle which confers sacredness upon whatever comes in contact with it. To see the source of this idea of Mana is then to penetrate to the tap-root of religion. It is here that Durkheim is most bold and most original. The concept of an impersonal Mana, the force at once physical and moral which confers sacredness upon things and thus generates religion, is itself the creation of social pressure, of social contact and experience. Society alone, of all known empirical forces, has the power of “constantly creating sacred things out of ordinary ones” (p. 212). Religion is a symbol for the reality and the might of social forces. Society too is the literal object of religious worship; religion turns out thus to be no myth and no illusion precisely in so far as the collective life of man is no myth and no illusion. From this totemic principles, at once the giver of all the sacredness and the  deposit of social experience, there is derived the idea of the individual soul, the ideas of spirits and gods, in short, all the later religious concepts. The last part of the book studies the principal ritual attitudes involved in religion. Durkheim derives all religious rites from one and the same mental state and need: “In all its forms its object is to raise man above himself, and to make him lead a life superior to that which he would lead if he followed only his own individual whims [:] beliefs express this life in representations ; rites organize it and regulate its working” (p. 414).
In a brief conclusion Durkheim deals with some of the larger topics suggested by is interpretation of religion. It is to be hoped that he will return to these at greater length in a future study. He also here voices his hope for the future of religion in these noteworthy words:
- 11 [« Conclusion », Durkheim 1915, p. 427]
- 12 [« Conclusion », Durkheim 1915, p. 427-428]
- 13 [« Conclusion », Durkheim 1915, p. 427-428]
“If we find a little difficulty today in imagining today what these feasts and ceremonies of the future could consist in, it is because we are going through a stage of transition and moral mediocrity. The great things of the past which filled our fathers with enthusiasm do not excite the same ardor in us, either because they have come into common usage to such an extent that we are unconscious of them, or else because they no longer answer to our actual aspirations; but as yet there is nothing to replace them… A day will come when our societies will know again those hours of creative effervescence, in the course of which new ideas arise and new formulae are found which serve for a while as a guide to humanity ; and when these hours shall have been passed through once, men will spontaneously feel the need of re-living them from time to time in thought, that is to say, of keeping alive their memory by means of celebrations which regularly reproduce their fruits” (p. 427)
To criticize this book with any justice would be to trespass upon most of the live issues in contemporary philosophy so far as they touch the practical interests of men. That Durkheim’s studies as sociologist and anthropologist have led him to see the full measure of religion in the achievements of primitive societies and to be relatively indifferent to the individual pole of human life, is perhaps to be expected. The thoughtful reader is not likely to find all his problems solved. Nevertheless he will be grateful for so comprehensive and masterly an indication of the intimate and still problematic relation between men’s religious life and their social experience.
[Émile Durkheim, De la division du travail social. Thèse présentée à la Faculté des Lettres de Paris, Paris, Félix Alcan, 1893, ix-471 p ; ibid., Les règles de la méthode sociologique, Paris, F. Alcan, « Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine », 1895, viii-186 p. et Le Suicide. Étude de sociologie, Paris, Félix Alcan, 1897, xii-462 p.]
[Cf., sur ce point capital de la recension, George P. Adams, « The Interpretation of Religion in Royce and Durkheim », The Philosophical Review, 25 (3), May, 1916, p. 297-304, notamment p. 300 sq.]
[Orig.] “There is no Church of magic” (souligné par Durkheim). Cf. « Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion », Durkheim 1915, Book 1, chap. 1, p. 44]
« Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion », Durkheim 1915, Book 1, chap. 1, p. 47
[Orig.] “Thus we arrive at the following definition : A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relatives to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden - beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (souligné par Durkheim). Cf. « Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion », Durkheim 1915, Book 1, chap. 1, p. 47
« Leading Conception of the Elementary Religion. I. – Animism », Durkheim 1915, Book 1, chap. 2, p. 69-70
[« Totemic Beliefs. The Cosmological System of Totemism and the Idea of Class », Durkheim 1915, Book 2, chap. 3, p. 150]
[« The Notion of the Totemic Principle, or Mana, and the Idea of Force », Durkheim 1915, Book 2, chap. 6, p. 188]
[« Origin of the Idea of the Totemic Principle or Mana », Durkheim 1915, Book 2, chap. 7, p. 212]
[« Piacular Rites and the Ambiguity of the Notion of Sacredness », Durkheim 1915, Book 3, chap. 5, p. 414]
[« Conclusion », Durkheim 1915, p. 427]
[« Conclusion », Durkheim 1915, p. 427-428]
[« Conclusion », Durkheim 1915, p. 427-428]Haut de page
Pour citer cet article
Adams George Plimpton, « Book Reviews », The Harvard Theological Review (New York), 10 (2), April 1917, p. 201-204.
George Plimpton Adams, « Book Reviews », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], La première réception des Formes (1912-1917) (S. Baciocchi, F. Théron, eds.), II, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2013, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL : http://assr.revues.org/24380 Haut de page