The Elementary Forms of Religious “Life” Are Psycho-Biological (Durkheim)


Re-reading The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, I thought I knew what to expect. What I did not expect was the emphasis in Durkheim on “life.” I should have expected it. It’s there in the clear light of day in title of what in Religious Studies is his best known work. Usually, one reads the word “Religious Life” as just a colloquial stand in for society and social life –and nothing more. Is Durkheim a social reductionist. Yes, and no. From Durkheim one expects sociology, and here sociology of religion, not Vitalism, Lebensphilosophie, and other types of wooly speculation from the fin de siècle. Generally, in our text, representations (i.e. images and other religious ideas and mental data) take a back seat to rites as a form of social action. They are epiphenomenal to their material social base. And for the most of the book, this is truly the case, except for a critical moment of deep unhinging in the book’s concluding pages. Durkheim, of course, was a sociologist, not a metaphysician. He was not, however, a strict materialist.

It’s all in the conclusion of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life where Durkheim picks up on the consecration of things putting human subjects into contact with a source of “religious energy” comparable to heat or electricity. What does it mean to call religious technique a “mystical mechanics”? (Elementary, p.422)  What is the substrate of religious life? Writing about “idealization,” Durkheim suggests that is not “real society” with all its flaws. So crude a being as real society could never inspire feelings like love, enthusiasm, self-sacrifice. For that is required the image of a perfect society in which truth and justice reign, not so much a well defined, observable, empirical fact, but rather something along the order of a dream or other fancy. (Keep in mind that in The Division of Labor in Society Durkheim maintained that social solidarity, which is a moral phenomenon, is not strictly observable). For all that, religions is realistic, made in the image of real society, even as it provides a glimpse of reality that has been “enlarged, transformed, idealized.” Stepping away from empirical sociology, Durkheim observes how “persistent idealization is a fundamental feature of religions.” It is from this perspective that one might understand the argument that the sacred is superadded to the real, suggesting the possible conclusion that the sacred is in some sense not simply social, but superadded to the social real. Collective life awakens religious thought as something intense and effervescent, feeding off a swarm of “vital energies” that become “hyper-excited” (Elementary, pp.423-4).

What is weird is the notion that hyper-excited religious “representations” pop off their social basis and take on their own autonomous “life.”

Writing against “historical materialism,” Durkheim rejects the crude Marxist view that religion simply translates social realities into another language. To be sure, social life depends upon that material base. But Durkheim insists that collective consciousness is “no mere epiphenomenon of its morphological base, just as individual consciousness is something other than a mere product of the nervous system.” The particular elementary form of religious representations are rather a “sui generis synthesis” of individual consciousness. Especially in myth and embedded in ritual activity, they are the product of “a whole world of feelings, ideas, and images that follow their own laws once they are born. They mutually attract one another, repel one another, fuse together, subdivide and proliferate; and none of these combinations is directly commanded and necessitated by the state of the underlying [material] reality. Indeed, the life this unleashed enjoys such great independence that it sometimes plays about in forms that have no aim or utility of any kind, but only for the pleasure of affirming itself” (Elementary, p.426).

This is a somewhat shocking passage. It departs from the empirical methodology that defines Durkheim’s study. It stands to bear in mind, however, that the title of Durkheim’s text is not “The Elementary Forms of Religion,” but rather the The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Invoking a subject of biology, the emphasis here is on life itself, positing at this speculative moment the view that the life force of religious representations is incarnated in individual consciousnesses, made in the image feeding off society (Elementary, pp.426-7). As religious representations are ultimately rooted in biological life, in society as a biological form, sacred beings stand apart as living, autonomous, fertile and fecund. At their highest pitch, the life they enjoy is pure play with no social utility. They are for their own sake.

Where is this peculiar line of thought coming from?

At a moment of reflection, these playful thoughts at the end of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life correspond to another speculative moment in Durkheim’s oeuvre. They are already there in The Division of Labor in Society, part of the inspiration for which Durkheim ascribes to “recent philosophical speculation in biology” (p.34). This debt, relatively unremarked upon in the scholarly literature,  speaks to the pervading spirit of the biological sciences undergirding Durkheimian sociology. Indeed, this biologism goes a long way to explain the racism and sexism, the interest in phrenology (skulls and brains), etc. that are such an integral part of chapter 4 of The Division of Labor in Society. Beyond that is the truly strange thing that, as understood by Durkheim, the social division of labor is itself isomorphic to the biology of cell division. Indeed, these philosophical speculations in biology caused Durkheim to muse that the division of labor is a “fact of generality” that goes beyond the scope of economic theory. The division of labor, including the division of labor in religion, applies to the human organism just as well as to societies. The division of labor “becomes almost contemporaneous with the coming of life upon earth.”

Is religion a function of the division of labor in society? Are its roots just as organic? Can we ourselves speculate about Durkheim that, for him, religion, no less than the division of labor, is not merely a social institution based on human intelligence and will. Can we assert that for Durkheim, religion is itself a function of the division of labor? It would then seem that, for Durkheim, religion too is “a general biological phenomenon, the condition for which must seemingly be sought in the essential properties of organized matter,” and that both religion and the division of labor would appear to be “no more than a special form of this general development” (Division of Labor in Society, p.34).

Against strict realism and at the verge of idealism, Durkheim claims that mental representations (we assume this would include religious ones as well) are “not a simple image of reality,” “a motionless shadow projected by us onto things.” They instead feed off an intense “force that stirs up around us a whole whirlwind of organic and psychological phenomena.” With its genesis in collective life, this effervescent life-force is composed of nervous currents that accompanies the formation of ideas flowing within cortical centers, “passing from one plexus to another” and “vibrating within motor centers, where it determines our movements, and within the sensorial centers where it evokes images.” Durkheim understands that vibration is “the stronger the more intense the representation itself, and the more the emotional element in it is developed” (Division of Labor, p.75).

Everyone knows that for Durkheim religion is a social function. Less commonly appreciated is that society is itself understood by him to be a product of the division of labor. But the division of labor is itself not simply a social function. It is also a biological function, and so too is religion. Religious representations are vibrating, animate, elemental, which is why religion or the sacred has to be understood as a function not just of society, but of “life itself.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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