For Durkheim, religion was in the first place a social phenomenon; he had little patience for discussions that focused a la William James on individual “religious experience.” But Durkheim’s aversion to subjectivism was also a judgment concerning religion’s originary function. If in the Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (see Chronicle 195), he criticized Max Müller’s “naturism,” in an earlier essay, “Concerning the Definition of Religious Phenomena,” published in L’Année sociologique (II) in 1899 (in Durkheim and Religion, ed. W. S. F. Pickering, London: Routledge, 1975), he rejects the definition of religion in Müller’s Introduction to the Science of Religion as “a mental faculty or disposition which . . . enables man to apprehend the Infinite under different names and under varying disguises” (p. 76). On the contrary, Durkheim asserts, “[f]ar from seeing the supernatural everywhere, primitive man sees it nowhere.” The universe is wholly explicable to the “completely uncultivated mind” because it makes no distinction between its “inner states” and external nature. Only a scientific age can have a conception of a “natural order” to which the “Infinite” or supernatural may be opposed.

This reasoning displays the superiority of Durkheim’s conception of the social, functional nature of religion to question-begging explanations on the model of Müller’s Infinite. At the same time, there is a curious contradiction in its articulation. In the first part of the essay, where it is a matter of refuting the Infinite, the “primitive” is said to inhabit an intellectual universe without objective contours, much like that described by Lévy-Bruhl in La mentalité primitive: “As his understanding is not yet formed, . . . it is with his imagination that he views the world. . . . The inner states which [the imagination] is fashioning . . . are made up of such insubstantial, plastic material, their contours are so blurred and wavering, that they are easily modified according to the whim of the subject” (Pickering, p. 78).

Yet, later in the essay, the primitive is seen to participate in the familiar binary “division of things into sacred and profane, which is fundamental to all religious organization” (p. 90). Since this division, as Durkheim later explains, provides a basis for further classification, notably the division of the tribe into totemic clans: “these systemic classifications are the first we meet with in history, and . . . they have taken the forms of society as their framework.” (Elementary Forms, p. 169), Durkheim now seems to have rejected Lévy-Bruhl for Lévi-Strauss‘s La pensée sauvage.

The coherence of Durkheim’s construction can be salvaged only if we follow his logic to its ultimate conclusion and make the sacred-profane distinction the foundation not merely of conceptual and classificatory thought but of all representation and of language itself. We may then take a more charitable view of the Infinite than Durkheim without betraying his insistence on the functional core of even the most superficially irrational religious practices. The Infinite, after all, is nothing but the sacred understood as the source of the “vertical” world of the sign that transcends the finite world of prehuman appetite.


Durkheim’s theory of religion was not well received in his own time outside the circle of his disciples, a situation that is little changed today. An important contributory factor to this disfavor is his reliance on not altogether trustworthy second-hand data.  But the heart of the problem is Durkheim’s use of an empirical model of “elementary” religion, a choice which derives in turn from his desire to found a positive sociology rather than a minimal anthropology of religion. (Durkheim was hostile to the idea of seeking the origin of religion: “Like every human institution, religion did not commence anywhere. Therefore, all speculations of this sort are justly discredited; they can only consist in subjective and arbitrary constructions which are subject to no sort of control”;Elementary Forms, p. 20.) By insisting that his model of Australian totemism was exemplary of “elementary” religion and thus of religion tout court, Durkheim became vulnerable to a far more devastating criticism than the questioning of his data: he made his sociological model of religion dependent on a model of human social evolution that obligatorily passes through the stage of totemism as he describes it.

There is an unacknowledged quality of Australian totemism, beyond its “primitive” nature, that explains Durkheim’s attraction to it: the “elementary” society must be compact and egalitarian so as to make the totem the center of the circular structure of the (originary) human scene. The egalitarian presence of the clan around the sacred totemic center transforms the worldly into the transcendental. This scenic self-presence of “society” in religious ritual is indispensable to the emergence of “concepts” or “representations,” if not of language as such. For Durkheim derives all conceptual thought from religion. Causality, for example, is first understood not in everyday experience, where there is nothing but a series of events, but through the encounter with sacred forces acting in the collective context of ritual:

Let us bear in mind how the law of causality, which the imitative rites put into practice, was born. Being filled with one single preoccupation, the group assembles: if the species whose name it bears does not reproduce, it is a matter of concern to the whole clan. The common sentiment thus animating all the members is outwardly expressed by certain gestures . . . and after the ceremony has been performed, it happens that the desired result seems obtained. So an association arises between the idea of this result and that of the gestures preceding it . . . But since a social interest of the greatest importance is at stake, society cannot allow things to follow their own course . . . So it demands that this ceremony . . . be repeated every time that it is necessary . . . it imposes [the ritual gestures] as an obligation. Now they imply a certain definite state of mind which, in return, participates in this same obligatory character. To prescribe that one must imitate an animal or plant to make them reproduce, is equivalent to stating it as an axiom which is above all doubt, that like produces like. Opinion cannot allow men to deny this principle in theory without also allowing them to violate it in their conduct. So society imposes it . . . and thus the ritual precept is doubled by a logical precept which is only the intellectual aspect of the former. The authority of each is derived from the same source: society. (Elementary Forms 3.3.3, p. 410-11)

For Durkheim, we pass from the prehuman level of “association” to the logical principle of causality by order of society (“society imposes it”). But this “imposition” can only be a verifiable fact where the society as a whole is present to itself in action. In the Conclusion, this point is made explicit:

[S]ociety cannot make its influence felt unless it is in action, and it is not in action unless the individuals who compose it are assembled together and act in common. It is by common action that it takes consciousness of itself and realizes its position . . . Then it is action which dominates the religious life, because of the mere fact that it is society which is its source. (p. 465-66)

The social cohesion that Durkheim thought he had found in totemic ritual is that of the originary hypothesis. By grounding his religious sociology on a minimal hypothesis rather than on empirical data contested in both accuracy and significance (is totemism really the center of Arunta religion?), Durkheim would evacuate the criticism leveled at his already outdated linear historicism.


Durkheim thinks it is possible to work with concepts like “society” and “representation” positively or nominalistically, while at the same time insisting that the conceptual itself emerges, with infinite “realism,” within religious ritual. While seeking an empirical guarantee for the religious origin of concepts, he vigorously denies that concepts can be grounded in empirical reality.

The religious realization of the social, evident among the Australians, can no longer be grasped in the modern world, where “we are going through a stage of transition and moral mediocrity” (p. 475). But the contrast between modern secular and primitive religious societies obscures the key methodological point that, in the absolute concentration that Durkheim requires of it, the social cannot be encountered empirically anywhere. The social as the source of the world of representation is conceivable only as the minimally, hypothetically human. The fact that the Arunta appear to exemplify some of Durkheim’s ideas about the originary function of the social does not relieve him of the need to provide a model of its genesis along with that of the common representations it exists to enforce.

No doubt Durkheim would have been unwilling to abandon the empirical basis that he considered indispensable to the foundation of a science. But, precisely, the fundamental anthropology that he is practicing is not scientific in the usual sense of the word. It was not for nothing that W. E. H. Stanner (Pickering, p. 300) called Durkheim “the arch-hedgehog.” However loftily he dismisses the “speculative” question of the minimal constitution of society and representation, Durkheim’s sociology of religion is really Generative Anthropology avant la lettre.