Public Involvement

His scholarly work in the Paris period, though extensive, by no means exhausted Durkheim's energies. He played a major role in the general intellectual life of France, as well as in the university. He was an active defender of Dreyfus during the heyday of the affair and attained eminence as a left-of-center publicist and spokesman. Durkheim also became a key figure in the reorganization of the university system. He served on innumerable university committees, advised the Ministry of Education, helped to introduce sociology into school curricula, and in general did yeoman's work to make sociology the cornerstone of civic education. In these years he came nearest to realizing his youthful ambition of building a scientific sociology that would be applied to moral re-education in the Third Republic and at the same time to the development of a secular morality.

When the war came, Durkheim felt obliged to aid his beleaguered fatherland. He became the secretary of the Committee for the Publication of Studies and Documents on the War, and published several pamphlets in which he attacked pan-Germanism and more particularly the nationalistic writings of Treitschke.

Just before Christmas, 1915, Durkheim was notified that his son Andre had died in a Bulgarian hospital from his war wounds. Andre had followed his father to the Ecole Normale and had begun a most promising career as a sociological linguist. He had been the pride and hope of a father who had seen him as his destined successor in the front rank of the social sciences. His death was a blow from which Durkheim did not recover. He still managed to write down the first paragraphs of a treatise on ethics on which he had one preparatory work for a long time, but his energy was spent. He died on November 15, 1917, at the age of fifty-nine.

Emile Durkheim, the agnostic son of devoted Jews, had managed during his career to combine scientific detachment with intense moral involvement. He was passionately devoted to the disinterested quest for truth and knowledge, and yet he was also a figure not unlike the Old Testament prophets, who castigated their fellows for the errors of their ways and exhorted them to come together in a common service to moral unity and communal justice. Although a Frenchman first and foremost, he did not waver from his allegiance to a cosmopolitan liberal civilization in which the pursuit of science was meant to serve the enlightenment and guidance of the whole of humanity. A man made of whole cloth, he still managed to play a variety of roles in a distinctive intellectual and historical context.


From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 148-149.


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