This Day in Jewish History / ‘Apostle to Friends, Secular Pope to Enemies’ Is Born

Emile Durkheim lost faith in religion but believed in a scientific approach to philosophy, thus created the discipline of sociology

David B. Green
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Place de la Sorbonne in Paris.
Place de la Sorbonne in Paris.Credit: Wikipedia
David B. Green

April 15, 1858, is the birthdate of Emile Durkheim, the “father” of the academic discipline of sociology, as well as a pioneer in the establishment of the social sciences in general in his native France. He was an agnostic Jew who was intensely interested in the role played by religion in holding cultures together, and a disinterested observer of society who cared very much about the moral cohesion of the French nation.

David Emile Durkheim was born in Epinal, a town in the Lorraine region of France. His father, Moise Durkheim, was a rabbi, as had been Moise’s father and grandfather before him. David’s mother, Melanie, supplemented the meager income that her husband’s salary brought in by doing embroidery work.

Durkheim’s early education was traditional, and he seemed destined to enter the rabbinate too. But he lost his religious faith and adopted a secular lifestyle, after a brief dalliance with Roman Catholicism.

This did not mean, however, that Durkheim (who dropped the name “David”) lost interest in the religious life: In fact, much of his academic career was devoted to understanding the role that ritual and religious community play in society. One of his best-known books was the 1912 “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life,” in which Durkheim compared the way that religion manifested itself in both aboriginal and modern European societies.

Scientific approach to philosophical issues

After schooling at the College d’Epinal, and at Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, Durkheim was accepted into the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1879, on his third attempt. He was disappointed by the emphasis on philosophy and other humanities, and was rewarded with mediocre grades.

Already at this young age of 21, Durkheim, influenced by the controversial social scientist Auguste Comte, was seeking a more scientific and objective approach to philosophical and social issues.

Emile Durkheim's grave.Credit: Wikipedia

After completing his aggregation certification, which enabled him to teach, in 1882, he spent several years teaching at the high school level in Paris. During that period he also found time to travel to Germany, where he learned more about the empirical social sciences being developed there. In 1886 he wrote a doctoral dissertation that also served as the first draft of his 1893 book “The Division of Labor in Society.”

Durkheim was offered a teaching job at the University of Bordeaux. He developed the university’s first social science course, which became a requirement for all students, and as a consultant to the education ministry, he also played an important role in introducing the social sciences into the national high school curriculum.

In 1887, Durkheim married Louise Dreyfus, from Alsace. They had two children, Marie and Andre.

Secular pope?

Cover of French original of Emile Durkheim's 'The Division of Labor in Society.'Credit: Wikipedia

The period of the Third Republic was one of political turbulence, with proponents of liberalism and secularism pitted against nationalistic, often Catholic, monarchists. These tensions came to a head in the case of army captain Alfred Dreyfus. Durkheim, who was identified with the former camp, was actively involved in the campaign to exonerate Dreyfus.

Although Durkheim cared deeply about the moral underpinnings of society, and respected the role played by religion, he was a rationalist who didn’t hesitate to express his belief that religion was man-made. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, as influential as he was, he also had many enemies. In the words of Durkheim scholar Steven Lukes, “To friends he was a prophet and an apostle, but to enemies he was a secular pope.”

Durkheim believed that all social phenomena – not only religious practices but also, for example, suicide, the subject of his 1897 book of that name – could be studied objectively and quantitatively. He expatiated his basic theories in the 1895 book “The Rules of Sociological Method,” and in 1898 he established the country’s first journal of social sciences, L’Année Sociologique. In 1902, Durkheim, by now nationally recognized for his work, received an appointment to the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris.

Emile Durkheim.Credit: Wikipedia

In 1915, Durkheim’s son, Andre, was killed in battle in World War I. Andre had studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure like his father, and was destined for a career as a sociological linguist. His death was a blow from which his father could not recover. Emile suffered a stroke in October 1916, and died a year later, on November 15, 1917, at the age of 59.

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