A Question and Kant, Durkheim and Causality

So for my current MLA course entitled “Meaning and Motive in the Social Sciences,” we’re reading Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.  Upon reading the opening pages of the book, I was extremely skeptical almost immediately, mostly I think because of the following claim made in the introduction:

“At the root of our judgments, there are certain fundamental notions that dominate our entire intellectual life.  It is these ideas that philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, have called the categories of the understanding: notions of time, space, number, cause, substance, personality.  They correspond to the most universal properties of things… now, when one analyzes primitive religious beliefs methodically, one naturally finds the principal categories among them.  They are born in and from religion: they are a product of religious thought” (p. 8-9 of the Fields translation, emphasis added).

At first, such a statement seemed absurd and really made my Kantian (or at least non-relativist) intuitions jump out.  This made me angry – because it’s that sort of social constructivism that is taken as common sense in some disciplines, and I’ve always just rejected those disciplines almost out of hand for taking such broad assertions as common sense.  However – it should be noted, Durkheim isn’t using religion in any negative sense, like superstition or group delusion.  He means this to be a positive discovery, one that helps us understand the categories and religion in a more interesting and fruitful light.

Anyway, a few hundred pages later, I’m less sure of my anger.  After laying out his principal argument for the origin of religious ritual in what he calls “social effervescence” [really briefly, the idea is that the notion of animating “forces” (which are the logical roots of religious thought and feeling) originates in the hypo-stasis of the signs that form the basis of primitive tribal social life, and the consequent worship of those signs as a result of the exhilaration that attaches itself to the discovery of life in extra-familial groups] he returns to the subject of causality.

Here Durkheim starts sounding positively Kantian:

“external experience cannot possibly give us this idea [of causality].  The senses show us only phenomena that coexist with or follow one another, but nothing they perceive can give us the idea of that constraining and determinative influence that is characteristic of what we call a power or a force… the philosophers of empiricism have seen these different ideas as so many mythological aberrations.  But even supposing that there was nothing but hallucinations in all these, it would still behoove us to say how they came to be.  If external experience has no part in the origin of these ideas and if, on the other hand, it is inadmissable that they should have been given us ready-made, we must assume that they come to us from internal experience.  In fact, the idea of [causal] force is obviously full of spiritual elements that could only have been borrowed from our psychic life… it is not simply an inherent tendency for our thought to unfold in a certain way; it is a norm external and superior to the flow of our representations, which it rules and regulates absolutely.  It is endowed with an authority that binds the intellect and goes beyond the intellect; in other words, the intellect is not its creator.  In this regard, it does no good to substitute hereditary for individual habit.  The nature of habit does not change because it lasts longer than a man’s life: it is only stronger.  An instinct is not a rule” (368-371).

How do we account for causality as a “rule” and not just an “instinct”?

“The rites just studied enable us to discern a source of that authority that until now has been little suspected… the group comes together, dominated by one concern: if the species whose name it bears does not reproduce  the clan is doomed.  In this way, the common feeling that animates all its members is expressed outwardly in the form of definite movements that always recur in the same way in the same circumstances.  And for the reasons set forth, it turns out the desired result seems to be obtained when the ceremony has been conducted.  An association is thereby formed between the idea of this result and that of the actions preceding it.  This association does not vary from one subject to the other.  Because it is the product of a collective experience, it is the same for all who take part in the rite… in this way the ritual precept is reinforced by a logical principle that is none other than the intellectual aspect of the ritual one.  The authority of both derives from the same source: society” (371).

Anyway – my question.  I’m not really asking whether Durkheim’s account of causality is a good one, or even the sort of explanation philosophers demand. But I was struck by the similarity in his framing of the problem as regards what I remember Sellars calling “the naturalistic fallacy” and also Kant’s notion of “the synthetic apriori.”

My question is: is Durkheim’s notion of “the social” something that is consistent with the Kantian account of the categories, or, I guess, how is it different or similar?

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6 Responses to A Question and Kant, Durkheim and Causality

  1. Nates says:

    Interesting connection. Clearly, Durkheim read his Kant! It sounds like D’s version of the categories is operating at a less basic level. It explains why we respond to experience in certain rule-governed ways, whereas Kant is saying that we must already be employing these categories to have experience in the first place.

    My sense is that this was a typical move of 19th Century Kantians: to derive the categories from some empirical necessity (some historical process, the physiological basis of perception, certain social imperatives, and so on). Kant obviously wouldn’t like any of this, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

  2. Josh says:

    I think at first that’s the distinction I was making in my head while reading the Durkheim, but a couple of things made me think otherwise.

    For one, he gestures at something like the distinction between justification and exculpation (I guess that’s McDowell’s language) and the rest of the debate about the naturalistic fallacy… ”

    “it is not simply an inherent tendency for our thought to unfold in a certain way; it is a norm external and superior to the flow of our representations, which it rules and regulates absolutely. It is endowed with an authority that binds the intellect and goes beyond the intellect; in other words, the intellect is not its creator. In this regard, it does no good to substitute hereditary for individual habit.”

    I took this to mean that he was trying (a little anyway) to set aside the socio-biological/evolutionary psychology way of talking about the categories/possible experience. Not that it’s fully developed or coherent, but it seemed less “psychologistic” than the “19th century Kantians” to which you refer.

    And when you write “Kant is saying that we must already be employing these categories to have experience in the first place” – I’m still not sure Durkheim isn’t saying something similar – that all of our experience is premised on “the social,” it is not possible to speak or think about “experience” absent the “social effervescence” that gives rise to its necessity.

  3. Nates says:

    Oh, that is interesting. Maybe it’s closer to a Hegelian taken on Kant, then?

  4. Josh says:

    I suppose, yeah, in the sense that it tries to square the circle of normativity and historicity.

  5. David says:

    Yeah, this is interesting. I’m struck by this passage:

    “it [causality] is not simply an inherent tendency for our thought to unfold in a certain way; it is a norm external and superior to the flow of our representations, which it rules and regulates absolutely. It is endowed with an authority that binds the intellect and goes beyond the intellect; in other words, the intellect is not its creator. In this regard, it does no good to substitute hereditary for individual habit. The nature of habit does not change because it lasts longer than a man’s life: it is only stronger. An instinct is not a rule” (368-371).”

    But how does adverting to ‘SOCIETY’ avoid the same objection? For instance: the nature of habit does not change because it is shared by many human beings or even all human beings: it is only more prevalent. An instinct is not a rule.

    Or something like that. I suppose the answer will have something to do with a construal of ‘society’ as something more than the sum of its individual parts. I’d be interested in hearing more about Durkheim’s characterization of capital-S society….

  6. Josh says:

    Yeah – “society” ends up doing a lot of work. I think I decided ultimately Durkheim was more interested in explaining the phenomenology of the normative “feeling”, and ascribing it to its social history, and less interested in answering the Kantian “how-possible” question. We experience the categories *as* rules because of their social origins. They are not instincts or habits, in the sense that they originate in inter-subjective experience, not just in private experience.

    But your objection is still right; it turns out Durkheim is just not trying to provide that sort of *philosophical* explanation of their normative nature. He might just more have been trying to recast a philosophical problem in sociological/anthropological terms. And so my original suspicion about those disciplines returns. I will say though, that he treats the issue with a bit more respect for its complexity than the average undergraduate anthropology major (or PhD for that matter…) This text is not just more knee-jerk relativism – it actually does the work of actually pursuing an origins story, and one that he alleges at least is universal.

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