Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Differing Interpretations of la Conscience Collective and "The Individual" in Turkey: ÉMile Durkheim and the Intellectual Origins of the Republic

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Differing Interpretations of la Conscience Collective and "The Individual" in Turkey: ÉMile Durkheim and the Intellectual Origins of the Republic

Article excerpt

A significant amount of work tracing the intellectual origins of the Turkish republic has been published as the republic approaches its centenary in 2023.1 With the belief that the complex nature of contemporary Turkish politics entails revisiting its founding philosophy and early republican thought, such work has successfully depicted the evolution of Turkey's political and economic mentalities, its political culture, and its Western and Islamic sources of identity. Despite Turkey's rapid neoliberalization in recent decades, however, little attention has been paid to how the individual as a political, economic, and moral actor has been conceptualized, or to its relationship with nationalism in the Turkish context.2

A prominent representative of early republican liberal thought, Ahmet Agaoglu, published widely on the role of the individual and nationalism in the 1920s and '30s. His writings therefore offer a useful starting point for our understanding of the complex relationship between nationalism and the idea of the individual. A close reading of Agaoglu also offers new perspectives on Emile Durkheim's ideological impact on Turkish political thought. Agaoglu drew heavily from Durkheim's sociology in propounding his idea of the individual. This is to say that, even though the French writer's influence on Turkey has long been analyzed only with reference to the nationalist ideology of Ziya Gökalp,3 his theories served also as a reference point for the emergence of a version of liberal thought in the Turkish context. In this essay, I will discuss how Dürkheim influenced the emergence of modern Turkish nationalism and conceptions of the individual in Turkey through a comparative analysis of the works of these two writers.

Gökalp and Agaoglu were two of the leading intellectuals in the late Ottoman Empire and early republican Turkey. They sat on the committees that penned the first party principles of the vanguard Republican People's Party (RPP) and that drafted the first constitution of the republic. They wrote and published extensively to influence the founding philosophy of the republic in the early 1920s, yet their writings have often been positioned far apart on the ideological spectrum.4 Gökalp is popularly known today as a pioneer of nationalism5 who laid out a communitarian and statist philosophy, drawing from Durkheim's theories. Agaoglu, on the other hand, has been named an opponent of Gökalp's communitarian ideas;6 he has frequently been described as an anti-statist and a liberal individualist.7

When we map out the key terms Agaoglu used, trace the origins of his thought, and place under scrutiny his intentions as a writer and what he was actually doing in writing his texts in the 1920s and '30s, we see deep Durkheimian elements in his thought and recognize that he was in fact an early representative of communitarian liberalism, perhaps the first in Turkey. There were great similarities between the later works of Gökalp and Agaoglu; for example, they both wanted social control over the actions of individuals, in the belief that the individual was socially produced. They were also both nationalists and positivists of some type. That being said, the minute differences in their political thought present some of the subtle features of nationalism and liberalism in early republican Turkey.

I will argue here that Agaoglu saw a liberal philosophy in Durkheim's sociology and was inspired by it while reformulating his liberal ideology in the increasingly anti-liberal atmosphere of the interwar period. His insistent emphasis on the symbiotic development, and importance, of the state, society, and the individual-more specifically, his descriptions of the expanding role of the state, the sacredness of individual and social morality, and the historical evolution of societies from simple to complex structures-appear to have been drawn, explicitly or implicitly, from Durkheim's work. Given this, Agaoglu's long misinterpreted notion of individualism is best understood through a comparative textual analysis. …

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