Emile Durkheim was the first French academic sociologist. His life
was dominated throughout by his academic career, even though he
was intensely and passionately involved in the affairs of French
society at large. In his well-established status he differed from
the men dealt with so far, and his life may seem uneventful when
compared with theirs. Undoubtedly their personal idiosyncrasies
had a share in determining their erratic course. But in addition,
they were all devoted to a calling that had not yet found recognition
in the university. In their attempts to defend the claim to legitimacy
of the new science of sociology, they faced enormous obstacles,
which contributed in large measure to their personal difficulties.
Durkheim, as well as the theorists who will be dealt with in subsequent
chapters, faced a different set of circumstances. They were all
academic men but were still considered by their colleagues as intruders
representing a discipline that had little claim to legitimate status.
As a result, theirs was by no means an easy course. Nevertheless,
they fought from within the halls of academe rather than from outside,
and so their lives tended to be less embattled than those of their
Durkheim was born at Epinal in the eastern French province of Lorraine
on April 15, 1858. Son of a rabbi and descending from a long line
of rabbis, he decided quite early that he would follow the family
tradition and become a rabbi himself. He studied Hebrew, the Old
Testament, and the Talmud, while at the same time following the
regular course of instruction in secular schools.
after his traditional Jewish confirmation at the age of thirteen,
Durkheim, under the influence of a Catholic woman teacher, had a
shortlived mystical experience that led to an interest in Catholicism.
But soon afterwards he turned away from all religious involvement,
though emphatically not from interest in religious phenomena, and
became an agnostic.
was a brilliant student at the College d'Epinal and was awarded
a variety of honors and prizes. His ambitions thus aroused, he transferred
to one of the great French high schools, the Lycee Louis-le-Grand
in Paris. Here he prepared himself for the arduous admission examinations
that would open the doors to the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure,
the traditional training ground for the intellectual elite of France.
two unsuccessful attempts to pass the rigorous entrance examinations,
Durkheim was finally admitted in 1879. At the Ecole Normale he met
with a number of young men who would soon make a major mark on the
intellectual life of France. Henri Bergson, who was to become the
philosopher of vitalism, and Jean Jaures, the future socialist leader,
had entered the year before. The philosophers Rauh and Blondel were
admitted two years after Durkheim. Pierre Janet, the psychologist,
and Goblot, the philosopher, were in the same class as Durkheim.
The Ecole Normale, which had been created by the First Republic,
was now having a renaissance and was training some of the leading
intellectual and political figures of the Third Republic.
admission to the Ecole Normale was an achievement in a young man's
life, Durkheim, once admitted, seems not to have been happy at the
Ecole. He was an intensely earnest, studious, and dedicated young
man, soon nicknamed "the metaphysician" by his peers.
Athirst for guiding moral doctrines and earnest scientific instruction,
Durkheim was dissatisfied with the literary and esthetic emphasis
that still predominated at the school. He rebelled against a course
of studies in which the reading of Greek verse and Latin prose seemed
more important than acquaintance with the newer philosophical doctrines
or the recent findings of the sciences. He felt that the school
made far too many concessions to the spirit of dilettantism and
tended to reward elegant dabbling and the quest for "novelty"
and "originality" of expression rather than solid and
he acquired some close friends at the school, among whom Jean Jaures
was the most outstanding, his earnestness and dedication make him
in the eyes of the other students an aloof and remote figure, perhaps
even somewhat of a prig. His professors, in their turn, repaid him
for his apparent dissatisfaction with much of their teaching by
placing him almost at the bottom of the list of successful agregation
candidates when he graduated in 1882.
this does not mean that Durkheim was uninfluenced by his three years
at the Ecole Normale. Later on, he spoke almost sentimentally about
these years and, if many of his professors irked and annoyed him,
there were a few others to whom he was deeply in debt. Among these
were the great historian Fustel de Coulanges, author of the Ancient
City who became director of the school while Durkheim attended it,
and the philosopher Emile Boutroux. He later dedicated his Latin
thesis to the memory of Fustel de Coulanges, and his French thesis,
The Division of Labor, to Boutroux. What he admired in Fustel de
Coulanges and learned from him was the use of critical and rigorous
method in historical research. To Boutroux he owed an approach to
the philosophy of science that stressed the basic discontinuities
between different levels of phenomena and emphasized the novel aspects
that emerged as one moved from one level of analysis to another.
This approach was later to become a major mark of Durkheim's sociology.