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David Émile Durkheim, Father of Mind

Commonly credited as the father of modern sociology, David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) drew on the philosophies of Karl Marx and Auguste Compte to create his own. In turn, his philosophy inspired Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Michel Foucault, among many others, including Alexander Tristan Riley, W.S.F. Pickering, and William Watts Miller, whose edited collection Durkheim, the Durkheimians, and the Arts will be published this month. Below, Riley shares what brought him to the study of Durkheim, a prediction of the collection’s reception, and what he would ask the philosopher if given the chance. 

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Berghahn Books: What drew you to the study of David Émile Durkheim?

 

Alexander Tristan Riley: I had only read a little Durkheim by the time I made it to graduate school, and frankly, given what I thought I knew about him at that point, I probably would not have read much more than I was required to in order to finish a Ph.D. in sociology (which is a startlingly small amount!), since he did not seem a particularly compelling thinker to me then. I admit this judgment was due more to my ignorance, and to the really awful state of much of the secondary literature on Durkheim that existed at the time (it largely presented him, incorrectly, as a caricature that no one with any critical faculties could admire) and that I had used as a justification for not reading more of him, than to the actual substance of Durkheim’s work. At some point during my graduate study, though, I discovered that a bunch of thinkers I was much more interested in at the time, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, Michel Leiris, and Jean Baudrillard, were indebted, often deeply and in some cases seemingly secretly, to Durkheim. This made me think there must be something in this guy I had not seen yet, if writers who fascinated me had been fascinated by him, so I then started reading not only Durkheim but younger thinkers associated with his journal l’Année sociologique who showed up as citations in the books of Caillois, Baudrillard, etc. In this way, I came to read a great deal of the work of Marcel Mauss, Henri Hubert, and Robert Hertz. I thought then that I had discovered something of a more or less unexplored trajectory in 20th Century French intellectual history, and I made my dissertation and my first book (Godless Intellectuals?: The Intellectual Pursuit of the Sacred Reinvented, Berghahn, 2010) of the work I did exploring it.

 

BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?

 

ATR: It seems I change my mind fairly substantially about Durkheim with some regularity. For a while, I’m convinced that he is right about just about everything, then I decide for some reason that he’s actually wrong about at least some important things though perhaps still trustworthy on others, and then I arrive at the position that he has to be jettisoned altogether or at best relegated to the list of things you read only to get a sense of the history of social thought but not to actually learn how things really work. And then something happens, perhaps I read someone else saying something about Durkheim that strikes me, and I go back and reread Durkheim and I find new value in it and the cycle starts all over! I think this is as good a mark as any of a great thinker: the work is deep enough to allow it to substantially change meanings as you come back to it over a period of time in which you, the reader, are yourself changing intellectually and personally.

 

BB: Looking back on the process from proposal to publication, what aspect of compiling an edited collection did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?

 

ATR: I am one of those people who generally avoids collaborative projects just because I am so quarrelsome and difficult to deal with that I have found it nearly impossible to find others with whom I am in accord about enough to put our collective name to something, but this book was a special opportunity to put together a very wide-ranging collection of superb work on a topic with no real responsibility whatsoever for agreement among the various contributions. So I jumped at that opportunity when Willie [Watts Miller] and Bill [Pickering] asked me to get involved in this project that they had been planning for some time. I have thoroughly enjoyed just about every aspect of the work on this book.

 

BB: Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

 

ATR: I am absolutely sure of it. I imagine some of the chapters are controversial to the authors of other chapters of the same book! This is the wonderful thing about a volume like this one: you can put between two covers the work of a bunch of really smart people who have thought hard about something for a long time and come to very different positions on it and just present it to the reader and let him make his own way through, as he wishes. I think the whole thing holds together simply by virtue of the range of positions and skill in exposition of the individuals involved. In the introduction, I tried as hard as I could to avoid any editorializing, although I certainly have my own stance among those represented in the book, and just tried to introduce each chapter from inside the perspective of the author. It’s not hard to do, I found, simply because all the contributors to the volume are such good writers and in such control of the source material that they make arguments that are compelling to me as I read them, even if at the end of some chapters I have to stop and remind myself ‘But, remember, you don’t agree with that, do you!?’

 

BB: If you could ask your subject one question, and one question only, what would it be?

 

ATR: The subject of my chapter in the book is not Durkheim, but Michel Leiris, so I’ll answer this question with respect to both.

 

I’d ask Leiris (the assumption being that it is the present, that is, he is dead—he died in 1990–but somehow still able to answer my question!): “When and how did it occur to you that your writing, and perhaps all writing, was an attempt to escape death? And in what way, if any, was your attempt successful?”

 

I’d ask Durkheim (and in this case the presupposition is that he’s not been dead for nearly a century but is aware of developments in the human sciences in the time since his death): “What do you think of neuroscientific and evolutionary biological efforts to understand some of the central topics you studied in your lifetime, namely, religion and morality? How would you revise The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in that light if you were to work up a 2013 edition of your book?”

 

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Alexander Tristan Riley is Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University. With the aid of the late Philippe Besnard, he edited the war correspondence of Robert Hertz, Un ethnologue dans les tranchées. He is the author of Godless Intellectuals?: The Intellectual Pursuit of the Sacred Reinvented (Berghahn Books, 2010) and currently he is contemplating a book on literary autobiography, cultural sociology, and the writing of Michel Leiris.

William Watts Miller is editor of Durkheimian Studies/Etudes Durkheimiennes and a member of the board of the British Centre for Durkheimian Studies. He has published extensively in the field, collaborated in translations, and is a member of the team producing a new critical edition of Durkheim’s Complete Works. His most recent book is A Durkheimian Quest: Solidarity and the Sacred (Berghahn Books, 2012).

W.S.F. Pickering taught sociology in Canada from 1958 to 1966 and then at Newcastle-upon-Tyne until he retired in 1987. Although his original interest was in the sociology of religion, he later turned to the work of Durkheim. In 1975 he published Durkheim on Religion (Routledge) and in 1984 Durkheim’s Sociology of Religion: Themes and Theories (Routledge). He has also contributed to and helped produce other books on Durkheim and his followers. In 1991, he helped found the British Centre of Durkheimian Studies, of which he is the General Secretary.