Date(s) - 05/11/2023
12:30 pm - 2:00 pm
The Duke of Battersea
Dmitry Usenco will conclude the talk he started at our October meeting about Émile Durkeim, please see Dmitry’s notes below
“It is impossible to overestimate the pivotal role which the book Les forms elementaries de la vie religiose by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) has played in the field of religious studies since the date of its first publication in 1912. Before Durkheim, religion was mostly approached as a product of individual mind; the idea of the supernatural was largely believed to have been inspired to Naturvölker in their dreams. Durkheim was the first to consistently present religion as a thoroughly social phenomenon, as a gateway through which the individual gets access to the huge fund of ‘collective representations’ that allow that individual to make use their combined power in building up and exercising his/her own spiritual might.
“But while dealing a decisive blow to ‘les animistes’, as Durkheim collectively refers to the above school, I believe he is less fair, perhaps even unfairly dismissive, towards their contemporary opponents whom he, rather misleadingly, calls ‘les naturistes’ and whose most famous representative was the German-born but predominantly British academic and polymath Max Müller (1823-1900). It is true that this scholar never truly managed to break out of the cell of individual psychology. It is also true that his definition of religion is hopelessly Romantic and helplessly Kantian to boot (‘perception of the infinite under such manifestations as are able to influence the moral character of man’). However, this is not what Müller should be remembered for. In fact, he perpetrated his own revolution (albeit a less famous one perhaps) by being the first to consistently claim that religion as an essential attribute of humanity has its origin in language, that nomen and numen are both complementary to and dependent on each other. While Durkheim certainly acknowledges this idea as a sound one, he chooses not to pursue that line of thought, pleading his insufficient competence as a linguist. I am afraid that by doing so he creates some serious difficulties for his own key concepts that he presents further in his book. Among other things, this affects (in my opinion) his trademark distinction between the sacred and the profane. In my talk I will try to show that Durkheim could have avoided a lot of struggle while trying to draw a clearer border between these two collective representations, had he been more attentive to ‘ces questions dont l’examen suppose une competence très special de linguiste’.”