Malinowski reviews Durkheim

Malinowski, Bronisław Kasper 1913b. Review of Les Formes Élémentaires de la Vie Religieuse by Émile Durkheim. Folklore 24(4): 525-531.

It is superfluous to draw the attention of students to the importance of Prof. Durkheim's new work, for the appearance of a large volume from the pen of the leader of the French sociological school is a scientific event. The group of savants connected with l' Année Sociologique has achieved remarkabele success in dealing with problems in primitive religion, and we have to thank it especially for the essays of MM. Hubert and Mauss on Sacrifice and Magic, and the articles of M. Durkheim on the Definition of Religious Phenomena, Classifications in Primitive Thought, and Totemism, and of M. Hertz on Funerary Rites. (Malinowski 1913b: 525)

Well, my attention did need to be drawn to this work for me to find some much-needed answers ta questions about phatic communion, particularly the "communion" in phatic communion.

To Prof. Durkheim the religious is the social par excellence. The distinctive characters of social and religious phenomena practically coincide. The social is defined, in Règles de la méthode sociologique, by its "exteriority to individual minds," by its "coercive action" upon individual minds; the religious, which is also "external" to individual minds, by its "obligatoriness." It is obvious, therefore, that the present volume is of special importance, being the systematic and final expression of the best organized sociological school extant on a subject specially important to, and specially well-mastered by, this school. (Malinowski 1913b: 252)

"If the idea of society were extinguished in individual minds and the beliefs, traditions and aspirations of the group were no longer felt and shared by the individuals, society would die. We can say of it what we just said of the divinity: it is real only in so far as it has a place in human consciousness, and this place is whatever one may give it." (Durkheim 1915: 347)

There is yet another reason why this book should particularly arouse the interest of the sociologist. It is Prof. Durkheim's first attempt to treat a "problem of origins" of such a fundamental and general social phenomenon as religion. In his methodological work, Règles de la méthode sociologique, he has strenuously insisted upon the treatment of social phenomena "as things," upon the necessity of excluding all forms of psychological explanations from sociology. This postulate undoubtedly appears to many a rule rather artificial and barren in its practical applications, - and especially to British anthropologists, who prefer psychological explanations of origins; and this volume enables us to judge as to the success of his method. (Malinowski 1913b: 525-526)

The difference I see most vividly here is Durkheim's discussion of sentiments as opposed to Malinowski's own discussion of emotions. The difficult thing here is to differentiate emotion and sentiment clearly enough, for which task I may have to turn to some earlier psychological authorities (Thomas Day?).

The book has several aspects and aims. It attempts to state the essential and fundamental elements of religion, being thus a revision of the author's former definition of the religious; it investigates the origin of religion; it gives a theory of totemism; and it is designed as a substantial contribution to philosophy. (Malinowski 1913b: 526)

Not only that but it ties various other aspects - such as sociality, recreation and aesthetics - to religion. I'm actually very fond of this argument because religion is indeed the first and fundamental source of aesthetic products (icons, sculptures, frescos, music, etc.).

All these problems M. Durkheim seeks to solve by an analysis of the beliefs of practically one single tribe, the Arunta. His keen eye detects in the facts we owe to Messrs. Spencer and Gillen much that is not patent to a less acute mind, and his reseaches through their two volumes, completed by the records made by Mr. Stehlow, yield him an abundant crop of theoretical results. Nevertheless, to base most far-reaching conclusions upon practically a single instance seems open to very serious objections. It is extremely dangerous to accept any people as "the absolutely primitive type of mankind," or as "the best example of elementary forms of social organization and creed," and to forego the verification of conclusions by other available instances. For example, when M. Durkheim, in trying to determine the fundamental aspect of religion, finds it in an universal and absolute bipartition of men, things, and ideas into "sacré et profane," (pp. 50 et seq.), he may refer to a well-known passage by the Australian ethnographers, and, in fact, a sharp division of all things into religious and non-religious seems to be a very marked feature of the social life of Central Australian natives. But is it universal? I feel by no means persuaded. In reading the detailed monograph by Dr. and Mrs Seligmann about the Veddas, no such devision is suggested as existing among that extremely primitive people. Again, it would be difficult to maintain the existence of such a separation amongst the Melanesian peoples of whom we have very copious records. This may be due to a gap in our information, but, anyhow, it is not admissible to base a system upon a mere assumption, instead of on certain knowledge. (Malinowski 1913b: 526)

Here Malinowski appears to be arguing against the strict separation between the sacred and profane, which may go to explain why he chose a religious term (communion) for a secular activity, even arguing against the role of moral and religious sentiments therein.

M. Durkheim proceeds to show ho wit comes about that society is a real substance, the materia prima, of the human conception of divinity: "une société a tout ce qu'il faut pour éveiller dans les ésprits, par la seule action qu'elle exerce sur eux, la sensation du divin; car elle est à ses membres ce qu'un dieu est à ses fidèles" (Ibid.). Again, "parce qu'elle a une nature qui lui est propre, différente de notre nature d'individu, elle poursuit des fins qui lui sont également spéciales; mais, comme elle ne peut les atteindre que par notre intérmediaire, elle réclame impérieusement notre concours" (Ibid.). Let us note that here society is conceived to be the logical subject of the statement; an active being endowed with will, aims, and desires. If we are not to take it as a figure of speech (and Mr. Durkheim decidedly does not give it as such), we must label it an entirely metaphysical conception. Society conceived as a collective being, endowed with all properties of individual consciousness, will be rejected even by those sociologists who accept a "collective consciousness" in the sense of a sum of conscious states (as it is accepted, for example, by Messrs. McDougall, Ellwood, Davis, and, partly, by Simmel and Wundt). But, a few pages further, we read a statement which seems to allow for another interpretation. Speaking of "manières d'agir auxquelles la société est assez fortement attachée pour les imposur à ses membres," he says, "Les représentations qui les experiment en chacun de nous ont donc un intensité à laquielle des états de conscience purement privés ne sauraient atteindre; car elles sont fortes des innombrables représentations individuelles qui ont servi à former chacune d'elles. C'est la société qui parle par la bouche de ceux qui les affirment en notre presénce" (p. 297). Here we stand before a dilemma: either this phrase means that "social ideas" possess a specific character, because the individual who conceives them has the consciousness of being backed up by society in his opinion, in which case the statement is perfectly empirical; or the statement implies the conception of a non-empirical action of society upon the individual consciousness, in which case it conveys no scientific meaning. (Malinowski 1913b: 527)

Contra Lotman's isomorphism between individual and society. The reference to Simmel and Wundt is relevant, though I cannot yet follow up on these leads. Malinowski's own translation here is characteristic: instead of "sentiment" he speaks of "opinion".

The writer expresses himself again on the subject, from the genetic point of view, - "En un mot, quand une chose est l'objet d'un état de l'opinion, la représentation qu'en a chaque individu tient de ses origines, des conditions dans lesquelles elle a pris naissance, une puissance d'action que sentent ceux-là mêmes qui ne s'y soumettent pas" (p. 297). Here the author stands in front of the real problem. What are these specific social conditions in which arise "social consciousness," and consequently religious ideas? His answer is that these conditions are realized whenever society is actually gathered, in all big social gatherings. - "Au sein d'une assemblé qu'échauffe une passion commune, nous devenons susceptibles de sentiments et d'actes dont nous sommes incapables quand nous sommes réduits a nos seules forces, et quand l'assemblée est dissoute, quant, nous retrouvant seul avec nous-mêmes, nous retombons à notre niveou ordinaire, nous pouvons mesurer alors toute la hauteur dont nous avions été soulevé au-dessus de nous-même" (p. 299). (Malinowski 1913b: 528-529)

This latter passage I have re-typed from the English translation: "There are occasions when this strengthening and vivifying action of society is especially apparent. In the midst of an assembly animated by a common passion, we become susceptible of acts and sentiments of which we are incapable when reduced to our own forces; and when the assembly is dissolved and when, finding ourselves alone again, we fall back to our ordinary level, we are then able to measure the height to which we have been raised above ourselves." (Durkheim 1915: 209-210) - It is basically an elaboration of Spencer's view of the role of sentiments in social unions; Durkheim namely holds that the individual returns to his impulsive self when removed from the social union. Malinowski's qualm seems to be that "these specific social conditions" are not well defined. I'm on the right tracks.

This answer is somewhat disappointing. First of all, we feel a little suspicious of a theory which sees the origins of religion in crowd phenomena. Again, from the point of view of method, we are at a loss. Above we had been dealing (with some difficulties) with a transcendental collective subject, with a "society which was the creator of religious ideas": "Au reste, tant dans le présent que dans l'histoire, nous voyons sans cesse la société créer de toutes pièces des choses sacrées" (p. 304).Then society was the divinity itself, i.e. it was not only creator, but the object of its creation, or at least reflected in this object. But here society is no more the logical and grammatical subject of the metaphysical assertions, but not even the object of these assertions. It only furnishes external canditions, in which ideas about the divine may and must originate. Thus Prof. Durkheim's views present fundamental inconsistencies. Society is the source of religion, the origin of the divine; but is it "origin" in the sense that "the collective subject [...] thinks and creates the religious ideas"? This would be a metaphysical conception deprived of any empirical meaning; or is society itself the "god," as is implied in the statement that the "totemic principle is the clan," thought under the aspect of a totem? That reminds one somewhat of Hegel's Absolute, "thinking itself" under one aspect or another. Or, finally, is society, in its crowd-aspect, nothing more than the atmosphere in which individuals create religious ideas? The last is the only scientifically admissible interpretation of the obscure manner in which M. Durkheim expounds the essence of his theories. (Malinowski 1913b: 529)

Cf. how phatic communion "consists in just this atmosphere of sociability and in the fact of the personal communion of these people" (PC 7.5), bringing "savage and civilized alike into a pleasant atmosphere of polite, social intercourse" (PC 9.4).

Let us see how our author grapples with actual and concrete problems, and which of the three versions of "origins" just mentioned he applies to the actual facts of Australian totemism. He starts with the remark already quoted about the double form of the social life of the Central Australian tribesman. The natives go through two periodically changing phases of dispersion and agglomeration. The latter consist chiefly, indeed, almost exclusively, of religious festivities. This corresponds to the above-mentioned statement that crowd originates religion: "Or, le seul fait de l'agglomération agit comme un excitant exceptionellement puissant. Une fois les individus assemblés, il se dégage de leur rapproachement une sorte d'électricité qui les transporte vite à un degré extraordinaire d'exaltation. [...] On conçoit sans piene que, parvenu à cet état d'exaltation [...] l'homme ne se connaisse plus. Se sentant dominé, entraîné par une sorte de pouvoir extérieur qui le fait penser et agir autrement qu'en temps normal, il a naturellement l'impression de n'être plus lui-même. Il lui semble être devenu un être nouveau: les décorations dont il s'affuble, les sortes de masques dont il se recouvre le visage figurent materiellement cette transformation intérieure, plus encore qu'ils ne contribuent à la déterminer [...] tout se passe, comme s'il était réellement transporté dans un monde spécial, entièrement différent de celui où il vit d'ordinaire. [...] C'est donc dans ces milieux sociaux effervescents et de cette effervescence même que paraît être née l'idée religieuse. Et ce qui tent à confirmer que telle en est bien l'origine, c'est que, en Australie, l'activité proprement religieuse est presque tout entière concentrée dans les moments où se tiennent ces assemblées" (pp. 308, 312, 313). (Malinowski 1913b: 529-530)

"However, it may be objected that even according to this hypothesis, religion remains the object of a certain delirium. What other name can we give to that state when, after a collective effervescence, men believe themselves transported into an entirely different world from the one they have before their eyes?" (Durkheim 1915: 226) - Curiously, Malinowski's argument against this - in the phatic communion passage - seems to be in line with Durkheim's later discussion of mourning, that is, that this collective effervescence is not as real as Durkheim proposes it is.

To sum up, theories concerning one of the most fundamental aspects of religion cannot be safely based on an analysis of a single tribe, as described in practically a single ethnographical work. It should be noted that the really empirical version of this theory of origins is by no means a realization of the "objective" method, in which M. Durkheim enjoins treating social facts as things and avoiding individual psychological interpretations. In his actualy theory he uses throughout individual psychological explanations. It is the modification of the individual consciousness in big gatherings, the "mental effervescence," which is assumed to be the source of "the religious." The sacred and divine are the psychological categories governing ideas originated in religiously inspired crowds. These ideas are collective only in so far as they are general, i.e. common in all members of the crowd. None the less we arrive at understanding their nature by individual analysis, by psychological introspection, and not by treating those phenomena as "things." Finally, to trace back the origins of all religious phenomena to crowd manifestations seems to narrow down extremely both the forms of social influence upon religion, and the sources from which man can draw his religious inspiration. "Mental effervescence" in large gatherings can hardly be accepted as the only source of religion. (Malinowski 1913b: 530-531)

This "modification" can be noticed in his own mentions of "atmosphere", and his repulsion towards "crowd phenomena" must be searched for in Simmel. This is it, I guess. I can now start organizing these ideas and finally write my paper on the origins of phatic communion!


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