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Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.2 (2006) 323-324
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Warren Schmaus has offered a compelling and sophisticated reinterpretation of Émile Durkheim's sociology of knowledge in the context of the eclectic spiritualist philosophical tradition dominant during the Third French Republic. More specifically, the primary purpose of the book is to examine how Durkheim's categories of understanding developed out of the way Kant was interpreted by nineteenth-century academic philosophy in France.
The debate between Kantian apriorist and Humean empiricist accounts of the theory of the categories is the main epistemological dilemma for Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). For Durkheim, each of these approaches represented difficulties. While Durkheim agreed with the apriorists that the categories are universal and necessary for understanding, he claimed their innate explanation still does not answer the question. On the other hand, the empiricists neglected the universality and necessity of the categories. As an alternative to these two philosophical schools of thought, Durkheim advocated a sociological approach to the categories of understanding that would put the debate to rest. A laconic chapter on Aristotle and Kant provides an easily accessible introduction [End Page 323] to their philosophy before Schmaus presents his main argument in the middle chapters. Kant's list of twelve categories in Table 1 is particularly helpful (38).
Schmaus makes a convincing argument in the middle chapters of the book, documenting the influence of Victor Cousin, Pierre Maine de Biran, and Paul Janet within the eclectic spiritualist tradition on the inchoate stages of Durkheim's academic career. Interestingly (and perhaps unknown to sociologists), Schmaus points out that Janet served on Durkheim's dissertation committee and that Durkheim used Janet's philosophy textbook, the Traité élémentaire de philosophie à l'usage des classes, when he taught philosophy in 1883/84 at the Lycée de Sens (76). As one illustration of the influence of eclectic spiritualist philosophy on Durkheim's thought, both Janet and Durkheim (although originating with Cousin) used an eliminative methodology by specifying an alternate argument to the empiricist and apriorist accounts of the theory of the categories. A middle chapter focuses on the recently-found lecture notes written by André Lalande, a student in Durkheim's philosophy course at the Lycée de Sens. (As mentioned by Schmaus in an endnote, the notes were discovered by Neil Gross in 1995, then a graduate student in sociology.) Schmaus argues the Sens lectures provide new evidence for the profound importance of the eclectic spiritualist tradition and the re-analysis of the sociological theory of the categories in the early development of Durkheim's thought.
Schmaus devotes the next to last chapter in his book to a discussion of Durkheim's category of causality. (The argument for causality does not appear until near the conclusion of The Elementary Forms, in Book III, Chapter 3, Section iii.) Unlike nineteenth-century French academic philosophers, Durkheim did not conflate the ideas of power or force and the necessary connection between cause and effect. Additionally, Durkheim examined the foundations or origins of each of these ideas. According to Schmaus, Durkheim argued "that the origin of our idea of force must satisfy two conditions: it must come from our internal experience and yet it must be impersonal" (125). These two conditions are met for Durkheim through the social origins of the collectivity. The idea of a necessary connection originates in the moral obligations of members of society to participate in mimetic rites for the reproduction of society itself.
In the conclusion of the book, Schmaus makes a distinction between two different types of collective representation in Durkheim's sociology of knowledge. He suggests separating cultural representations from the notion of shared mental entities identified with collective representations. By making the distinction between cultural and collective representations, Schmaus argues that the difficulties associated with incommensurability are effaced.
My only critique of the book is that the title may be somewhat misleading to...