BOOK REVIEW: Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

Published by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in 1912, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life examines religion as a social phenomenon. Durkheim’s core argument is that religious representations are “collective representations which express collective realities.” (22) Durkheim seeks to prove this by analyzing the essential, principal, or what Durkheim describes as ‘elementary’ forms of a primitive religion. He chooses to study the ‘archaic’, primitive religion totemism in Australia based on the premise that all religions possess certain elements in common. Durkheim argues that there are no false religions, but there exists religions that are more complex than others. Drawing from an evolutionary understanding of societies and religion, Durkheim believes that primitive religions could then shed light upon more ‘advanced’ religions. In this way, Durkheim’s project takes sociology as a positivist science to understand the religious nature of man.[1]

Durkheim situates his intellectual project within the philosophical debate between empiricists (categories constructed out of human experiences and sensations) and apriorists (categories exist logically prior to experience and are inherent within human intellect or divine reason). Durkheim draws from both doctrines and focuses instead on the social origin of knowledge and categories. “There are two beings in him: an individual being which has its foundation in the organism and the circle of whose activities is therefore strictly limited, and a social being which represents the highest reality in the intellectual and moral order that we can know by observation–I mean society.” (29) Durkheim advances this concept of the social through his definition of religion. According to Durkheim, religion consisted of two aspects: the classification of things profane and sacred and the collective moral community of the Church. Durkheim defines the idea of profane and sacred as mutually dependent in its exclusionary, pollutant properties: “The sacred thing is par excellence that which the profane should not touch, and cannot touch with impunity.” (55)

This analytical lens of the social processes and classification of profane and sacred carries throughout the book as Durkheim analyzes totemic beliefs and the idea of the soul.
Durkheim demonstrates how these two aspects are inherent within totemism of the clan. In the totemic ranking of the sacred, the totem ranks the highest, next are the animals or plants that the clan bears in name, and then lastly the members of the clan themselves. As Durkheim explains, totemism is intimately connected to social organization and social identity. In his chapter on the idea of the soul, Durkheim explains that totemism was elaborated through the “body of the tribe which was to some degree conscious of its unity.” (333) Durkheim concludes his work by reiterating how a study of a primitive religion has shed light upon the following core principles: the division of things into sacred and profane; the notion of souls, spirits, mythical personalities; national and international divinity; the negative cult with ascetic practices; rites of oblation and communion; and imitative, commemorative, and expiatory rites. He argues that these fundamentals can in fact be extended to understand other religions.

Durkheim’s intellectual project heightens the role of the social within philosophical inquiry. Rather than just an extension or abstraction of the individual, society takes certain common actions in which it is “conscious” of itself and realizes its position. (405) In other words, the “idea which it (society) forms of itself” must also be analyzed.

[1] In Book I, Durkheim posits that a reality exists underneath the symbolic– a core essence that perseveres throughout all religions and “translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social.” (14)

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