Analysing Durkheim’s Theories on Categories of Understanding

Durkheim Essay

Question 1

The essential ideas that dominate all our intellectual life, according to Durkheim, are the categories of understanding ideas of time, space,class or genus, number, cause, substance, personality, and so on (8). They are universal in character and are the solid frame which encloses all thought. They are contingent and steady; they cannot free themselves without destroying themselves. Other ideas cannot be separated from this framework of the intelligence. The categories of human thought are never fixed in definite form; they are ceaselessly made, unmade, and remade (14), and they are naturally found and are of religious origin (9). At the same time, the social explanation of the categories is more complicated as they have social causes andexpress social things; that is, the fundamental conditions of understanding between minds (441).They are derived from the human experience of the patterns, rhythms, and forces of collective life (441).

The categories are all social in origin: the category of time, as Durkheim states, A calendar expresses the rhythm of the collective activities while ensuring regularities (10). The category of space was derived from the spatial distribution of social groups and geographical use of space. To distribute things in terms of space and time, there must be a possibility of placing them in different locations or different dates. All these distinctions evidently come from the fact that different affective values have been attributed to various regions. These distinctions and affective values should be equally universal of social origin (11). The category of causality is derived from peoples inward experience of social forces and moral obligation. The category of genus is derived from a clearly defined group of things that exist in internal relationships and is formed by logical human associations; whereas the collections of units formed by material things have no internal unity (148).

The ways in which individuals understand the world and society through the categories can vary in important ways. The categories are the naturally existed through mutual interactions of individuals; they are independent and impose themselves onto the individuals mind (15). Durkheim sees the categories ascollective representations, which are the product of an immense cooperation that extends through both space and time. He indicates that to make them, a multitude of different minds have associated, intermixed, and combined their ideas and feelings; long generations have accumulated their experience and knowledge (15). Hence, human thought is not a primitive fact but a historical product, it is the ideal limit we constantly approach but never be able to reach (445).

Question 2

The categories and concepts are logical structures to helps individuals to have a homogenous understanding of the world and how it operates, human society would not function well without them. The categories are not merely a partial or complete symbolization of our life, they contain both the existence of ourselves and humanity. They are not constructed or functioned because of particular individuals but emerge from objectivity by men within the same civilization. This is sufficient enough to show that such organization is collective (10). They are the impression of something already experienced that implies no classification (444), whereas society is a self-conscious organization that is nothing other than a classification. And the relations of categories exist implicitly in individual consciousnesses (441). A conceptual representation of time and space is not needed if it is only for the satisfaction of a persons various organic needs. Just like a human being does not need the category of genus to identify the resemblance of things or the category of causality in order to prey and hide from enemies (444). Concepts, orgeneralized ideas, is distinguished from sensations by two essential characteristics. One is that they are relatively stable and repetitive, the other is that they are impersonal and communicable (435). Concepts are the products of the collective mind, they are collective representations which are immune to environmental conditions (436).

Collective representation ensures objectivity because it is collective. It is able to maintain and generalize itself because it has sufficient reason, that the men who accept it validify it through their own experiences. Therefore, Durkheim takes it as an axiom that religious beliefs contain their own truth which must be discovered (439). Collective representations are categories with cultural variables. They impel members of a society to think and communicate about spatial, temporal, or causal relations, therefore foster important social functions. Social life would not be possible if people did not agree on certain conceptions of time, space, causality, and classification. Convocation to activities such as feasts, hunts, and battles require an established system with fixed dates and time. The cooperation of the individuals is only possible when the same causal relation between means and ends is admitted by them. In order to avoid collisions, each particular group has a particular space assigned, and space is divided, differentiated, arranged, and that these divisions and arrangements be known to everybody (444). Thus, social time, social space, social classes and causality should be the basis of the corresponding categories, since it is in their social forms that they were first conceived with any degree of clarity by human consciousness (445).

Question 3

The fundamental categories of thought have their roots in religion. Religion representations are representations of collective life with its principal purpose of exerting moral influence (433). If the categories have a religious origin, they should participate in accordance with all religious facts. The rites are generated from the activities of the assembled groups, which are meant to evoke, maintain or recreate certain mental states of those groups (9). The purpose of observing religious rites is not for their physical effects, but to sustain the vitality of the mythic beliefs common to the group, therefore men can stay faithful to the past and maintain the groups moral identity (374). However, the fact that basic categories are socially constructed does not lead to the conclusion that they are devoid of objective value. On the contrary, the from them shows that their root lies in the nature of things (18).

Collective life stimulates religious thought; a religion is brought about through moments of collective effervescence, which refers to moments in societal life when the group of individuals convenes to perform a religious ritual (424). During these moments, the group communicates and participates in collectively shared thought and action, which forms a unified group of individuals. During such an assembled process of close interaction with one another, a state of electricity The vital energies become hyper-excited, the passion more intense, the sensations more powerful, is created and released through individuals mutual interaction, leading participants to an intensive degree of psychic activity or delirium (424). To explain collective effervescence, men attribute the extraordinary powers and virtues to an ideal world, which is beyond the real world of mens profane life, outside the common processes of nature (424).

Even when collective representations contain subjective elements, they have to be gradually refined if they want to be close to things (445). Collective representation becomes conscious of itself only by being attached to some material object. The sacred things serve as a physical reminder of societys presence (231). The power of religion is objectified or visualized through the collectivity force that projects on it. It participates in the nature of this object and the object participates in its nature. Thus, it is social requirements that have fused together notions that appear distinct at first, and social life has promoted this fusion through the great mental effervescence it produces (238). Collective effervescence becomes an essential element of religion and produces the imaginary conceptions of sacred beings (65); religious rituals must be repeated in order to reaffirm the collective unity and the continued existence of a society. In this way, society can exert pressure on people to act and think alike (371).

Question 4

Durkheim argues that in order for certain social functions to be carried out in society, categories such as space, time, causality, and class would be found in all cultures. But Durkheims argument is based on the available resources he had access to. There may be concepts that formed categories in the past that are no longer exist at present, thus there should be indefinite categories of thought with the spectrum extends both backward and forward. Durkheim describes the category of time is an endless canvas on which all duration is spread out before the minds eye and on which all possible events are located in relation to points of reference that are fixed and specified (10). He is right to point out that the categories are like an endless canvas as there are still many categories remain unknown. Nonetheless, he did not address the fact that the basic categories can have temporality and different units. Individuals understanding of these categories can vary based on the further division of these categories, therefore leads to a looser association with logical thoughts that are commonly agreed upon. This goes back to the question of chicken or egghow people are able to be aware of these categorizations if there were not pre-constructed categories?

In addition, Durkheim states that the categories are conceived by collective representations of social realities, but there is not necessarily a causal relationship between the categories and social structure. In some cases, social realities or collective thoughts are developed independently of the fixed categories. For example, the feudal, patriarchal division of class and gender arose from Confucianism has remained constant in Chinas society throughout history and has coexisted with the contemporary capitalist version of class and gender. Besides, social structure can be consequences of historical events that has less to do with the basic classifications. Social structure may appear to be external to our consciousnesses thereby shapes our experience of the world. According to Durkheim, The fundamental relations that exist between thingsjust that which it is the function of the categories to express cannot be essentially dissimilar in the different realms (21). Durkheim suggests that since society is a part of nature and nature does not contradict itself, social affairs emerged from categories are a genuine reflection of the physical world. However, it remains uncertain if the social realities that these collective representations correspond actually reflect the realities of nature. Nature may not have a reverse causal relationship with society, rather there seems to be a medium in between. This passive relation with nature makes Durkheims argument ambiguous.


  • Emile Durkheim. 1995.Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Karen Fields. New York, NY: The Free Press.

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