- Second review of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Émile Durkheim. Trans. Joseph Ward Swain
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670 ] Second review of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Émile Durkheim. Trans. Joseph Ward Swain London: Allen & Unwin, 1916. Pp. xi + 456.1 The Monist, 28 (Jan 1918) 158-59 This book must be valued from three different points of view. It contains reinterpretations of the principal social phenomena of primitive peoples; it contains a theory of the genesis of knowledge with doubtful philosophic implications; and it contains what we may assume for the present to be M. Durkheim’s definitive pronouncement on the nature and the future of religion .AllofthesestrandsofargumentareboundtogetherbyM.Durkheim’s well-known theory of the group-consciousness, but this theory itself must be assigned different values in these three developments. It is in the more purely anthropological aspect that this book is most successful. Here M. Durkheim’s views must be judged in comparison with those of the older interpreters such as Tylor, Müller, Lang, Frazer, Jevons, Robertson Smith, Mannhardt.2 As in most works of the sort, the author is most convincing when he sticks closest to the facts, when he is least metaphysical , and when he is engaged in refuting his predecessors. In fact, he is most convincing when he is showing us what the phenomena of primitive religiondonotmean.M.Durkheimconfineshisobservationalmostentirely to Australia, and his theory of Australian totemism is distinctly the best that has yet been evolved. Why? Because he is able to show that totemism is not animal worship, that it is not derivative from ancestor worship, or from the “nature cult”; the totem is not a name; the group totem is not, as Frazer holds, a development from the conception totem.3 M. Durkheim’s theory is the best because it is the nearest to being no theory at all. And when he comes to state it in positive terms, he finds almost as much difficulty as his predecessors in avoiding intellectualization. His “groupconsciousness ” is a contribution. But is it capable of articulate expression? The totem, he says, is the “flag . . . by which each clan distinguishes itself from the others” . This is just what some of the earlier theorists have said. It is a “collective representation.”4 It has for the group-consciousness a significance quite different from the significance which that animal or plant has [ 671 Second review: Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for the individual consciousness. We are not sure that this means anything more than that it is incapable of explanation. Totem is the origin of the idea of force. “Religious force is nothing other than the collective and anonymous force of the clan. . . . If religious force, in so far as it is conceived as incorporated in the totemic emblem, appears to be outside of the individuals and to be endowed with a sort of transcendence over them, it, like the clan of which it is the symbol, can be realized only in and through them; in this sense, it is immanent in them and they necessarily represent it as such” . M. Durkheim has given reason to believe that the examination of the individualconsciousnessisinadequatetoexplainsocialphenomena.Hedoes not convince us that his social psychology is anything but an admission of the inexplicable, that the “group-consciousness” and the “collective representation ” are more than a definition of the limits of individual psychology. We should have liked to discuss the theory of the “origin of the categories ” at length;5 although the exposition of this theory is much slighter than its place in the analytical table of contents would lead us to expect. It is open to the same charge of negativity, and leaves epistemology, we think, precisely where it was before. The theory of the nature of religion is stated in the conclusion. We have only space to draw attention to one difficulty. On page 416 we read that the “real function of religion is not to make us think, to enrich our knowledge, nor to add to the conceptions which we owe to science others of another origin and another character, but . . . to make us act.” On page 428 we find that a religion “is not merely a system of practices, but also a system of ideas whose object is to explain the world.” The whole book is intensely interesting. The translation is good, but of less literary finish than the original. η Notes 1. TSE’s first review of this book appeared in the Westminster Gazette on 19 Aug 1916 (420). 2. TSE expands the list of older anthropologists cataloged in his earlier review, adding...