Emile Durkheim

The Person

Emile Durkheim was the first French academic sociologist. Hislife was dominated throughout by his academic career, even thoughhe was intensely and passionately involved in the affairs ofFrench society at large. In his well-established status hediffered from the men dealt with so far, and his life may seemuneventful when compared with theirs. Undoubtedly their personalidiosyncrasies had a share in determining their erratic course.But in addition, they were all devoted to a calling that had notyet found recognition in the university. In their attempts todefend the claim to legitimacy of the new science of sociology,they faced enormous obstacles, which contributed in large measureto their personal difficulties.

Emile Durkheim, as well as the theorists who will be dealtwith in subsequent chapters, faced a different set ofcircumstances. They were all academic men but were stillconsidered by their colleagues as intruders representing adiscipline that had little claim to legitimate status. As aresult, theirs was by no means an easy course. Nevertheless, theyfought from within the halls of academe rather than from outside,and so their lives tended to be less embattled than those oftheir predecessors.

Emile Durkheim was born at Epinal in the eastern Frenchprovince of Lorraine on April 15, 1858. Son of a rabbi anddescending from a long line of rabbis, he decided quite earlythat he would follow the family tradition and become a rabbihimself. He studied Hebrew, the Old Testament, and the Talmud,while at the same time following the regular course ofinstruction in secular schools.

Shortly after his traditional Jewish confirmation at the ageof thirteen, Durkheim, under the influence of a Catholic womanteacher, had a shortlived mystical experience that led to aninterest in Catholicism. But soon afterwards he turned away fromall religious involvement, though emphatically not from interestin religious phenomena, and became an agnostic.

Durkheim was a brilliant student at the College d'Epinaland was awarded a variety of honors and prizes. His ambitionsthus aroused, he transferred to one of the great French highschools, the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Here heprepared himself for the arduous admission examinations thatwould open the doors to the prestigious Ecole NormaleSuperieure, the traditional training ground for theintellectual elite of France.

After two unsuccessful attempts to pass the rigorous entranceexaminations, Durkheim was finally admitted in 1879. At the EcoleNormale he met with a number of young men who would soon makea major mark on the intellectual life of France. Henri Bergson,who was to become the philosopher of vitalism, and Jean Jaures,the future socialist leader, had entered the year before. Thephilosophers Rauh and Blondel were admitted two years afterDurkheim. Pierre Janet, the psychologist, and Goblot, thephilosopher, were in the same class as Durkheim. The EcoleNormale, which had been created by the First Republic, wasnow having a renaissance and was training some of the leadingintellectual and political figures of the Third Republic.

Although admission to the Ecole Normale was anachievement in a young man's life, Durkheim, once admitted, seemsnot to have been happy at the Ecole. He was an intenselyearnest, studious, and dedicated young man, soon nicknamed"the metaphysician" by his peers. Athirst for guidingmoral doctrines and earnest scientific instruction, Durkheim wasdissatisfied with the literary and esthetic emphasis that stillpredominated at the school. He rebelled against a course ofstudies in which the reading of Greek verse and Latin proseseemed more important than acquaintance with the newerphilosophical doctrines or the recent findings of the sciences.He felt that the school made far too many concessions to thespirit of dilettantism and tended to reward elegant dabbling andthe quest for "novelty" and "originality" ofexpression rather than solid and systematic learning.

Although he acquired some close friends at the school, amongwhom Jean Jaures was the most outstanding, his earnestness anddedication make him in the eyes of the other students an aloofand remote figure, perhaps even somewhat of a prig. Hisprofessors, in their turn, repaid him for his apparentdissatisfaction with much of their teaching by placing him almostat the bottom of the list of successful agregationcandidates when he graduated in 1882.

All this does not mean that Durkheim was uninfluenced by histhree years at the Ecole Normale. Later on, he spokealmost sentimentally about these years and, if many of hisprofessors irked and annoyed him, there were a few others to whomhe was deeply in debt. Among these were the great historianFustel de Coulanges, author of the Ancient City who becamedirector of the school while Durkheim attended it, and thephilosopher Emile Boutroux. He later dedicated his Latin thesisto the memory of Fustel de Coulanges, and his French thesis, TheDivision of Labor, to Boutroux. What he admired in Fustel deCoulanges and learned from him was the use of critical andrigorous method in historical research. To Boutroux he owed anapproach to the philosophy of science that stressed the basicdiscontinuities between different levels of phenomena andemphasized the novel aspects that emerged as one moved from onelevel of analysis to another. This approach was later to become amajor mark of Durkheim's sociology.


From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 143-144.


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