True Miracles

I’m re-reading Durkheim’s Elementary Forms* for a class I’m teaching, and this quote caught my attention:

The idea that societies are subject to necessary laws and constitute a realm of nature has deeply penetrated only a few minds. It follows that true miracles are thought possible in society. There is, for example, the accepted notion that a legislator can create an institution out of nothing and transform one social system into another, by fiat – just as the believers of so many religious accept that the divine will made the world out of nothing or can arbitrarily mutate some beings into others. As regards social things, we still have the mind-set of primitives.

While there is something quaint about the idea that there are fixed laws governing societies analogous to those which govern nature, there is simultaneously something very prescient about these words – words which anticipated both the modernist follies so well described by James Scott, as well as the imperialist follies of today’s neoconservatives. Nearly one hundred years after it was written our understanding of the institutions we live in still seems so primitive.

*I’ve not read the Karen Fields translation before, and so far I’m very happy with it. I’ve read that it is much more reliable the the previous one, but my French isn’t good enough too say one way or another.

6 thoughts on “True Miracles

  1. Durkheim picked this notion up from Auguste Comte, who originally developed the notion of social law as a critique of the radical follies of the French Revolution. His positive philosophy announced that revolutionaries could not tinker with social systems just as they pleased, without things going massively wrong.

    It’s ironic that Comte’s “positivism,” which is now stereotyped as a modernist quest for “just the facts, ma’am,” was concerned centrally with the way facts are created by theory: “If it is true that every theory must be based upon observed facts, it is equally true that facts cannot be observed without the guidance of some theory. Without such guidance, our facts would be desultory and fruitless; we could not retain them: for the most part we could not even perceive them.”

    And although he believed that the “primitive” mind-set remarked on later by by Durkheim needed to be overcome,it had nevertheless provided a practical antellectual preparation for positive knowledge: “Such inquiries offered the powerful charm of unlimited empire over the external world—a world destined wholly for our use, and involved in every way with our existence. The theological philosophy, presenting this view, administered exactly the stimulus necessary to incite the human mind to the irksome labor without which it could make no progress.”

  2. Great quotes, thank you. Gregory is that last one (“Such inquiries…”) also Durkheim?

    Physics was still the model here, thus, ‘laws’. Now that biology dominates the sciences he might have left it a ‘natural processes’ Leaving aside the genetic reductionists and evo pschos, biology is concerned not so much with physical laws and empirical trends. It is the social scientists who introduced deterministic evolution into the picture; even Darwin would have been embarrased. Durkheim was a strong believer in the inevitable ‘modernization’ of society, and of course, thought it was a good thing.

  3. Thanks Gregory. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Comte, not having had much motivation to do so. You’ve piqued my interest. And I’m also quite interested in what I assume is your own book?

  4. “I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Comte:”
    Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it! :-/

    If you’d like to take a look at Durkheim in his 19th century context I’d recommend this book, which I’d like to read but haven’t yet:

    There is also a recent thesis by Daniela Barberis which might prove usefull as well — just google her.

  5. This made me revisit the preface to Douglas’s “Implicit Meanings”:,M1

    “Around the beginning of this century Durkheim demonstrated the social factors controlling thought. He demonstrated it for one portion of humanity only, those tribes who members were united by mechanical solidarity. Somehow he managed to be satisfied that his critique did not apply to modern industrial man or the findings of science… If Durkheim did not push his thoughts on the social determination of knowledge to their full and radical conclusion, the barrier that inhibited him may well have been the same that has stopped others from carrying his programme through. It seems that he cherished two unquestioned assumptions that blocked him. One was that he really believed that primitives were different from us. A week’s fieldwork would have brought correction… His other assumption allowed him to reserve part of our knowledge from his own sociological theory. This was his belief in objective scientific truth, itself the product of our own kind of society, with its scope for individual diversity of thought…”

    Douglas goes onto to argue that ‘objectivity’ or ‘science’ operate within Durkheim’s discursive universe according to rules he himself established for how ‘the sacred’ secures social truths.

  6. Ron–all quotes from Comte.

    Rex, how can you not love someone who develops his own religion–complete with rituals and catechism–based on Science? The dude was the L. Ron Hubbard of the age, but without the sly humor or space aliens.

    Comte is useful for teaching about nineteenth century social evolutionary anthropology because he coined the term “The Comparative Method” and outlined its principles and uses far more succinctly than Tylor, Morgan, or Spencer.

    Kerim, thanks for the opportunity to plug the book. The first and last chapters of “Putting Islam to Work” look at how these non-Darwinian evolutionary frameworks, along with Durkheim’s proto-structural-functionalism, influenced educational thought in England and Egypt in the late nineteenth century. A more focused examination of the role of social science ideology in the development of contemporary Middle Eastern religious and educational institutions can be found in my chapter, “When Theory is Data: Coming to Terms with ‘Culture’ as a Way of Life,” in Melissa J. Brown’s forthcoming book “Explaining Culture Scientifically” (U Washington Press 2008).

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