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This project owes its inception to an invitation from the British Centre for Durkheimian Studies in Oxford to participate in a conference on Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in 1995. It was the paper that I presented there that first got me thinking about the social functions of the categories. I am especially grateful to Bill Pickering for his encouragement and continued interest in my work, as well as to Nick Allen and Willie Watts Miller, his coeditors for the proceedings volume that resulted from that conference. Throughout this and three other book projects with Bill in which I have been involved as either an author or a coeditor, I have had the opportunity to try out some of the ideas in this volume. Bill is one of the kindest, most generous people in academics with whom I have ever worked.
I am also deeply indebted to the Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science, which hosted me during my sabbatical year in 1996–7, as well as to my family for allowing me to take them away from their comfortable home in Oak Park, Illinois, to live in Pittsburgh for a year. I would also like to thank the Illinois Institute of Technology for granting me this sabbatical year. I was able to conduct much of the research for this book and some of the initial writing during my stay in Pittsburgh.
The Introduction of Kantian Philosophy into France
Kant first came to the attention of the French as a moral philosopher during their Revolution. Many regarded him as a supporter of Republican ideals and a proponent of skepticism and atheism (Boas 1925: 165ff.; Vallois 1924: 34). The critical philosophy was only slowly introduced into France due to the difficulty of Kant's work and the fact that few French philosophers read German. Imbued with the French spirit of clarity and precision, many were simply discouraged by the obscurity of Kantian terminology from even trying to read Kant's works. The first French translation of the Critique of Pure Reason, by C.-J. Tissot, did not appear until 1835. F. G. Born's Latin translation of this work was published in 1796 and was quickly followed by his translations of the Critique of Practical Reason, the Critique of Judgment, the Prolegomena, and other important books, constituting a four-volume Latin edition of Kant's works. However, this Latin edition was not widely cited by French philosophers at the time (Vallois 1924: 42–8).
For their knowledge of Kant's philosophy, the French at first relied on essays published in French by the Berlin Academy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, written by Christian Gottlieb Selle (1748–1800), Johann Jakob Engel (1741–1802), Louis-Frédéric Ancillon (1744–1814), and his son Jean-Pierre-Frédéric Ancillon (1767–1837).
This book offers a reassessment of the work of Emile Durkheim in the context of a French philosophical tradition that had seriously misinterpreted Kant by interpreting his theory of the categories as psychological faculties. Durkheim's sociological theory of the categories, as revealed by Warren Schmaus, is an attempt to provide an alternative way of understanding Kant. For Durkheim the categories are necessary conditions for human society. The concepts of causality, space and time underpin the moral rules and obligations that make society possible. A particularly interesting feature of this book is its transcendence of the distinction between intellectual and social history by placing Durkheim's work in the context of the French educational establishment of the Third Republic. It does this by subjecting student notes and philosophy textbooks to the same sort of critical analysis typically applied only to the classics of philosophy.
In the preceding chapters I have shown that in arguing for the social causes and functions of the categories, Durkheim was responding to the way that the Kantian categories were understood in the eclectic spiritualist tradition. Kant's logically necessary conditions of experience were understood as psychologically necessary conditions, which led to the subjectivist reading of the critical philosophy according to which it was unable to explain or justify the application of the categories to our experience of the external world. The eclectic spiritualists then sought an epistemological grounding of the categories in an empirical apperception of the mind's activity, rather than in Kant's transcendental deduction of the categories, in which the transcendental apperception of the unity of consciousness plays a central role. Among the early eclectic spiritualists, the theory of the categories was thus thought to belong to a foundational introspective psychology.
During the late nineteenth century in France, however, psychology increasingly came to be seen as an empirical, hypothetico-deductive science. Durkheim's purpose was to show that a theory of the categories should rightfully belong to an empirical sociology instead. To make sense of his arguments, however, we have had to introduce a distinction between the categories and their collective representations. With this distinction in mind, we can then extract two different theses from his sociology of knowledge: (1) that there is a set of categories that is found in all human cultures because they are necessary to the moral rules and obligations that hold individuals together in a society; and (2) that a person's ways of thinking and communicating about these concepts are acquired from his or her culture.
The history of philosophical theories of the categories is nearly coextensive with the history of philosophy itself. Even if I were able to, I would not want to tell all of this history, but only those parts of it that are relevant to making sense of the sociological theories of the categories that arose in France at the turn of the twentieth century. As I mentioned in Chapter 1 and will explain more fully in the following chapters, Durkheim's theory of the categories was proposed in response to a French academic philosophical tradition in which theories of the origins and causes of the categories played a fundamental role. To appreciate Durkheim's arguments for reestablishing philosophy on the basis of a sociological theory of the categories, we need to understand this tradition. But to understand the tradition that Durkheim was rejecting, it would help first to survey briefly the prior history of philosophical accounts of the categories.
Our history should start with Aristotle. Not only did Aristotle dominate philosophical thinking about the categories until Kant, but Durkheim and Mauss themselves suggested that this is where we ought to begin. As we saw in Chapter 1, Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life traced the concept of the categories back to Aristotle: “There exist, at the root of our judgments, a certain number of essential notions that dominate all of our intellectual life; these are those that the philosophers, since Aristotle, call the categories of the understanding” (1912a: 12–13, t. 1995: 8).
Academics sometimes trace their intellectual lineage in genealogical terms. If Cousin were to be called one of Durkheim's intellectual grandfathers, it would be because of the lineage that passes from Cousin to Durkheim through Paul Janet, who was one of the members of Durkheim's dissertation committee. Although Janet was far too young to have studied with Cousin before Cousin left teaching for administration, Janet maintained a personal relationship with Cousin for twenty-two years, beginning in 1844 when he served a year as his secretary (Janet 1885: 483–4). Janet, who held the chair in the history of philosophy at the Faculté des Lettres, was the leading representative of the eclectic spiritualist school of thought during Durkheim's early academic career (Brooks 1998: 39). He was on the committee that drafted the 1880 philosophy programme or syllabus for the lycées. His textbook, the Traité élémentaire de philosophie à l'usage des classes, covers the prescribed topics and questions in that syllabus. It was widely adopted in the lycées, went through many editions, and was even translated into Spanish. In what follows, I will be drawing my account of Janet's philosophy from this text.
Durkheim appears to have used Janet's text when he taught philosophy at the Lycée de Sens in the academic year 1883–4, the class in which André Lalande took the recently discovered notes. The other main lycée philosophy text that Durkheim knew was Élie Rabier's Leçons de Philosophie.
It should be clear by now that Durkheim's sociology of knowledge was developed in reaction to and borrowed heavily from the eclectic spiritualist tradition in philosophy. One of the elements Durkheim adopted from this tradition can be seen in the argument by which he introduced his sociological theory of the categories in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912a). As we have seen, French thinkers beginning with Cousin presented their theories of the categories by offering first an eliminative argument criticizing all previous empiricist and a priorist accounts of them. They maintained that the empiricists could not account for the universality and necessity of the categories and that their Kantian rationalist opponents could not explain or justify the way in which the categories are imposed on our experience of the external world. Durkheim added to this eliminative argument that the Kantians could not account for the cultural variability of the categories, either. But in making this change, he thus appeared to have imposed rather conflicting demands on a theory of the categories, requiring that it explain both their universality and their variability. In order to remove this conflict, I have distinguished the categories from their collective or cultural representations and argued that it is only the cultural representations of the categories that are variable. That is, each culture has the same set of categories, including space, time, and causality, but has developed different systems of representations for thinking and communicating about them.
Durkheim suggested that the sociological study of religious phenomena would bring new life to the discussion of problems that previously only philosophers debated (1912a: 12, t. 1995: 8). This suggestion indicates that he perceived the eclectic spiritualist tradition as moribund. Of course, this philosophical tradition had already begun to change considerably if we take Paul Janet as representative of the generation of eclectic spiritualists that followed Cousin. The positions Durkheim took in his philosophy lectures at the Lycée de Sens (1884a) reflect this changing tradition. On the one hand, like Cousin, he regarded psychology as the philosophical discipline that provided a foundation for logic, ethics, and metaphysics. On the other hand, however, his views on scientific method and the role of representative ideas in philosophy mirror the later eclectic spiritualism of Janet. Also, Durkheim's interpretations of major figures in the history of philosophy such as Kant reveal an eclectic spiritualist influence.
The philosophical views expressed in Lalande's recently discovered notes from Durkheim's philosophy course at the Lycée de Sens suggest a new way to interpret Durkheim's career. In the Sens lectures, he was already seeking to replace the introspective psychology of his spiritualist predecessors with an empirical, hypothetico-deductive psychology as the foundation for the other three philosophical sciences. Although Durkheim shared with the spiritualists the goal of making philosophy scientific, conceptions of scientific method among French academic philosophers had shifted.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) proposed that the most basic categories of thought, including space, time, class, and causality, are social in character. Their thesis — that language and experience are structured by categories that are social in character — had a profound impact on twentieth-century thought, especially in the social sciences. Among sociologists and anthropologists in particular, it was a major source of inspiration for the popular and heady doctrine that people construct culturally specific perceptual realities through the use of culturally variable sets of categories. For these social scientists, the term “category” took on a very different signification than the original meanings we find in either Aristotle or Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). They treated the categories as belonging to some sort of conceptual scheme or framework through which we perceive the world, rather than as Aristotle's highest predicables or Kant's concepts that are logically presupposed by experience. To understand how this change in the conception of a category came about, we have to consider how Kant was interpreted in the nineteenth-century philosophical tradition from which Durkheim's sociological theory of the categories emerged. That is the purpose of this book.
In arguing for the social causes and origins of the categories, Durkheim was responding to the way in which Kant's philosophy was understood in the Third Republic.