From Varieties to Elementary Forms: Emile Durkheim on Religious Life

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<ul><li><p> of Classical Sociology</p><p> online version of this article can be found at:</p><p> DOI: 10.1177/1468795X030032001</p><p> 2003 3: 99Journal of Classical SociologySue Stedman JONES</p><p>From Varieties to Elementary Forms: Emile Durkheim on Religious Life </p><p>Published by:</p><p></p><p> can be found at:Journal of Classical SociologyAdditional services and information for </p><p> Alerts: </p><p> </p><p> </p><p> </p><p> </p><p> What is This? </p><p>- Jul 1, 2003Version of Record &gt;&gt; </p><p> at CAMBRIDGE UNIV LIBRARY on October 15, 2014jcs.sagepub.comDownloaded from at CAMBRIDGE UNIV LIBRARY on October 15, 2014jcs.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p></p></li><li><p>From Varieties to Elementary FormsWilliam James and Emile Durkheim on Religious Life</p><p>SUE STEDMAN JONES London</p><p>ABSTRACT This article traces the relation between the thought of William Jamesand that of Emile Durkheim with regard to religious experience. It shows thecomplexity of Durkheims relationship to pragmatism and his response to it bothas an admirer and as a critic of James, and centres on a close examination ofJamess Varieties of Religious Experience and how aspects of this are woven intothe development of Durkheims argument in The Elementary Forms of ReligiousLife. The focus of the article is on the logic of Durkheims view of religious realityand how James influenced this. It traces the common philosophical ancestor ofboth James and Durkheim and raises question about the appropriate method-ology for the study of religion.</p><p>KEYWORDS action, belief, pragmatism, rationalism, religious experience,representation</p><p>William Jamess Varieties of Religious Experience (1935 [1902]) (hereafter calledVarieties) and Emile Durkheims The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1995[1912]) (hereafter called Elementary Forms) are classic, indeed, foundational,studies of religion. Both thinkers were innovators (Hughes, 1974 [1958]: 284);whilst one focuses on the psychology and philosophy of religious experience, theapproach of the other uses history and sociology, and stresses the understandingof religion through the ethnography of early institutions. Even though James washeld as the father of the American psychology of religion, he did not found aschool; his nomadic style of mind, together with his magnificent tentativeness,did not support theoretical work as an accumulated scientific corpus with an eyeon future research (Dittes, 1973: 315, 293). Durkheim, however, spoke as theleader of the French school of sociology, establishing theoretical guidelines forresearch. Do they not thus constitute polar opposites in their approach to</p><p>Journal of Classical SociologyCopyright 2003 SAGE Publications London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi Vol 3(2): 99121 [1468795X(200307)3:2;99121;033694]</p><p> at CAMBRIDGE UNIV LIBRARY on October 15, 2014jcs.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p>www.sagepublications.com</p></li><li><p>religious life, and, as such, must they not be starkly contrasted, rather thancompared? Whilst the one stresses the authority of inner personal experience, theother stresses communal and ritual action and the importance of the group toreligious life. Although both equally important, these constitute quite distinct anddifferent claims. But this sharp contrast must be modified if we give closerattention to both Jamess and Durkheims account of the nature of religiousexperience and to the logic of human reality.</p><p>It will become clear that in significant ways, Durkheim was responding topragmatism the most negative aspect of this is seen in his lectures of 1913,Pragmatism and Sociology (1955). But attack is not Durkheims only approach. Itwill be clear that his Elementary Forms is not only partly an attack on James, butalso a response to him, and makes a significant use of some of his central ideas.Jamess work was translated into French by the Durkheimian F. Abauzit in 1906and was a resounding success. James, who enjoyed huge prestige on the Europeancontinent, had a great influence after the turn of the 20th century and shared acult of admiration with Bergson (Hughes, 1974 [1958]: 112). Indeed thepublication of Varieties and particularly his Pragmatism (1928 [1907]) contrib-uted to turning the tide against continental rationalism for, as Hughes shows,James made things seem simple, direct and unequivocal on the intellectualhorizon, because now there was no need to break ones head over kantianmetaphysics and teutonic hair splitting (1974 [1958]: 112).</p><p>Durkheim, as we know, said that the only label he would accept was that ofrationalist (1982a [1895]: 33). Pragmatism attacked the old rationalism, and inthis Durkheim was partly in agreement and partly in disagreement; this is clearin his Pragmatism and Sociology (1955). Part of his attack on pragmatism in theselectures was against what he castigates as its anti-intellectualist impulses throughits attack on pure speculation and theoretical thought, particularlythrough Jamess ambition of unstarching (deraidir) the concept of truth, whichDurkheim insists must stay rigid (1955: 137). Whilst he insists that there is anabyss between his rationalism and the mystical empiricism of pragmatism,Durkheims relation with pragmatism is more complicated. I will not dwell onthe links I can maintain with pragmatism (1975b [1913]: 39). It is closer thanmight be suggested by his disagreements with James over the nature of truth. It isclear that Durkheim had wide acquaintance with the works of Dewey, Schiller andPeirce, although he regards James as the real father of pragmatism (1955: 36). Itis also clear from the Elementary Forms that Durkheim had read not only JamessVarieties but also his Principles of Psychology (1988 [1890]) (1995 [1912]: 618).</p><p>But what was distinctive about Jamess Varieties that it was and continuesto be acknowledged as a masterpiece? Certainly one of its features is thecontemporary spirit of its approach secularism, pluralism, existentialism, and itssearch for authenticity (Dittes, 1973: 295).</p><p>JOURNAL OF CLASSICAL SOCIOLOGY VOL 3(2)100 at CAMBRIDGE UNIV LIBRARY on October 15, 2014jcs.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p></p></li><li><p>William Jamess View of Religious ExperienceJamess Varieties was originally given as the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religionat Edinburgh University in 19012. It is a descriptive survey of religiouspropensities (1935 [1902]: 2). His accounts of The Religion of HealthyMindedness, with its description of the religiously optimistic first born and ofThe Sick Soul as the second born, that is, those who come to faith throughtorment and despair, together with his account of The Divided Self, ofConversion, Saintliness and Mysticism, are justly memorable. These chaptersof his books divided according to the titles of the original lectures are centralfeatures of the religious life. Religious feelings and impulses and not institutionsare its subject, and James uses human documents that reveal subjective phe-nomena, recorded in literature by articulate and fully self conscious men, in worksof piety and autobiography. (He should here have included women, since StTheresa features strongly in his work.) He uses personal confession as his meansto get to the essence of religious experience (1935 [1902]: 3).</p><p>To determine the nature of religious propensities, James argues that thequestion of their philosophical significance is of a logically different type fromthose that concern their nature . . . constitution, origin and history. The latterare types of existential judgement, whilst questions about importance, meaningand significance are value judgements, or, as he calls them, spiritual judgements(1935 [1902]: 4). The former, he insists, are insufficient for determining thelatter, and stresses that he will not use the existential approach to discreditthe religious life. Thus he will not undermine, however isolated and rarelyfelt, the sense of inner authority and illumination of certain religious states(1935 [1902]: 16), or engage in undoing spiritual value by establishing lowlyorigins (1935 [1902]: 10). In particular, he rejects medical materialism, whichwould account for St Pauls vision on the road to Damascus as a lesion on theoccipital cortex, or treat St Theresa as an hysteric (1935 [1902]: 13). The value ofsuch experiences can only be ascertained by spiritual judgements that concern theimmediate luminousness that is the philosophical reasonableness and moralhelpfulness of these unique experiences (1935 [1902]: 18). Nevertheless, Jamesuses an empirical criterion which he opposes to dogmatic philosophy as tothe significance of religion, and this is the way in which it works on the whole(1935 [1902]: 18). He cites St Theresas renewal of strength (1935 [1902]: 21)and Tolstoys overcoming of melancholy and his renewed will to live; the value ofreligion is known by its fruits. This is a pragmatic evaluation of religion; its valueis not determined by origins but lies in its effects in practice.</p><p>James claims to talk neither as a theologian nor as an anthropologist, butas a psychologist (1935 [1902]: 2). His Varieties was written later than hisPrinciples of Psychology (1988 [1890]), and, in significant ways, relies on this. Hisview of psychology as the science of mental life (1988 [1890]: 1) includes,</p><p>STEDMAN JONES FROM VARIETIES TO ELEMENTARY FORMS 101 at CAMBRIDGE UNIV LIBRARY on October 15, 2014jcs.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p></p></li><li><p>beside the functions of the brain and brain activity, the study of habit, theconscious self, attention, imagination and memory, the will, emotions, and beliefand its relation to the perception of reality. It covers much that would be classifiedas epistemology or theory of mind in 20th-century philosophy. Significantly, itincludes a kind of phenomenalism what we might now call a phenomenology of conscious experience. This underwrites the testimony of religious conscious-ness that is the theoretical backbone of Jamess Varieties.</p><p>James opposes any form of behaviourist reductionism of consciousness.He does not support the reduction of the mind to the brain as in 20th-centurybehaviourist psychology. Consciousness, for James, although correlated with thebrain, is not a brain process per se (Flannagan, 1997: 22). His rejection ofepiphenomenalism (that mental states are simply the by-product of physicalconditions) in his Principles is echoed by his rejection of medical materialism inVarieties. Both are necessary for allowing for the testimony of consciousness andthe authenticity of its personal experience in religion. James holds that thoughtsand feelings exist and are vehicles of knowledge (1988 [1890]: xiii). In hisanalysis of the stream of thought (which later became the stream of conscious-ness), he treats thought as cognitive: It possesses the function of knowing (1988[1890]: 176). He distinguishes between two fundamental kinds of knowledge(1988 [1890]: 144) what Bertrand Russell would later call knowledge byacquaintance and knowledge by description (1963 [191011]: 152). It is clearthat religious experience is a kind of knowledge by acquaintance. This furtherstrengthens the logical background to Jamess claim about the truth of religiousexperience, which for him is shown in mystical experience.</p><p>James defines religion as the feelings, acts and experiences of individualmen in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation towhatever they may consider the divine (1935 [1902]: 31). He argues that thedivine should not be taken too narrowly, for many religions do not have a God; hecites Buddhism, together with contemporary transcendental idealism and Emer-sonianism, which lets God evaporate into abstract ideality, into the spiritualstructure of the universe (1935 [1902]: 32).</p><p>A belief in the reality of the unseen is implied in all religion. Kant, saysJames, acknowledged this strange phenomenon of the mind believing with all itsstrength in the real presence of a set of things of no one of which it can form anynotion whatsoever (1935 [1902]: 55). Religious beliefs are thus over-beliefs(1935 [1902]: 513). Despite the lack of definite description there is a sentimentof reality that is attached to these objects of belief. Religious experience testifiesto something larger than ourselves (1935 [1902]: 525). Kants ideas of moraltheology, although for James an uncouth part of his philosophy, indicate what iscentral to religion: that the sentiment of reality can indeed attach itself sostrongly to our object of belief that our whole life is polarized through andthrough . . . by its sense of the existence of the thing believed in (1935 [1902]:55). The determinability of our mind by abstractions that are polarizing and</p><p>JOURNAL OF CLASSICAL SOCIOLOGY VOL 3(2)102 at CAMBRIDGE UNIV LIBRARY on October 15, 2014jcs.sagepub.comDownloaded from </p><p></p></li><li><p>magnetizing is one of the cardinal facts of our human constitution. . . . We seekthem, hold them, bless them . . . and beings they are, beings as real in the realmthey inhabit as the changing things of sense are in the realm of space (1935[1902]: 567).</p><p>So, in its relation to divinity, </p><p>. . . there is in human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objectivepresence, a perception of what men call something there more deep andmore general than any of the special and particular senses by which thecurrent psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.</p><p>(1935 [1902]: 58)</p><p>This reality feeling is tied to human ontological imagination, which is crucial inpicturing beings that determine our vital attitude (1935 [1902]: 72).</p><p>It is in terms of this general sense of the divine that James begins his searchfor the definition of the godlike. Gods are conceived to be first things in the wayof being and power (1935 [1902]: 34). They are an ideal power (1935 [1902]:524). The way in which we stand to the divine shows what, for James, is a centralfeature of religion: our attitude to the deity is primal and enveloping. Religionis mans total reaction to life, and to get at these total reactions one has to gobehind the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of thewhole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence (1935 [1902]: 35). Thisdiscussion of mysticism is for Dittes (19...</p></li></ul>