Emile Durkheim, 1858-1917: A Collection of Essays, with Translations and a Bibliography

By Emile Durkheim; Kurt H. Wolff | Go to book overview

SOCIOLOGY 1

EMILE DURKHEIM

To set forth the role which belongs to France in the establishment and development of sociology is almost tantamount to writing the history of this science; for it was born among us, and, although there is no country today where it is not being cultivated, it nevertheless remains an essentially French science.

Because societies consist of people, it has long been held that they derive their character completely from the human will. As evidence, it has been pointed out that societies are nothing but what the people want them to be, and that they have no character other than that which people confer upon them by an act of their will. On the basis of this assumption, it is out of the question to make societies a subject matter of science. And, indeed, as long as societies were considered indefinitely plastic and without determinate characteristics, there was no way to describe them, analyze them, seek the causes and conditions upon which they depend, and so on. The only problem that could arise in respect to them was to discover which form would be best for a given society. In order to have a true science of social facts, it was necessary to gain the insight that societies are realities comparable to those which constitute the other realms of scientific investigation, the insight that societies have a character which we cannot change arbitrarily, and are governed by laws which necessarily derive from this character. In other words, sociology could not emerge until the idea of determinism, which had been securely established in the physical and natural sciences, was finally extended to the social order.

This extension occurred in the eighteenth century under the influence of the philosophy of the Encyclopédie. For the Encyclopedists, science is one because the world is one. Determinism, therefore, could not be permitted to be any less true in the social realm than in the other realms of nature. It is this feeling which inspired Montesquieu and Condorcet. Yet, although these thinkers cleared the way for sociology, they had a rather vague idea of the laws of social life. It was only at

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