Adam Smith (1723—1790)
Adam Smith is often identified as the father of modern capitalism. While accurate to some extent, this description is both overly simplistic and dangerously misleading. On the one hand, it is true that very few individual books have had as much impact as his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. His accounts of the division of labor and free trade, self-interest in exchange, the limits on government intervention, price, and the general structure of the market, all signify the moment when economics transitions to the "modern." On the other hand, The Wealth of Nations, as it is most often called, is not a book on economics. Its subject is "political economy," a much more expansive mixture of philosophy, political science, history, economics, anthropology, and sociology. The role of the free market and the laissez-faire structures that support it are but two components of a larger theory of human interaction and social history.
Smith was not an economist; he was a philosopher. His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, sought to describe the natural principles that govern morality and the ways in which human beings come to know them. How these two books fit together is both one of the most controversial subjects in Smith scholarship and the key to understanding his arguments about the market and human activity in general. Historically, this process is made more difficult by the so-called "Adam Smith Problem," a position put forth by small numbers of committed scholars since the late nineteenth century that Smith's two books are incompatible. The argument suggests that Smith's work on ethics, which supposedly assumed altruistic human motivation, contradicts his political economy, which allegedly assumed egoism. However, most contemporary Smith scholars reject this claim as well as the description of Smith's account of human motivation it presupposes.
Smith never uses the term "capitalism;" it does not enter into widespread use until the late nineteenth century. Instead, he uses "commercial society," a phrase that emphasizes his belief that the economic is only one component of the human condition. And while, for Smith, a nation's economic "stage" helps define its social and political structures, he is also clear that the moral character of a people is the ultimate measure of their humanity. To investigate Smith's work, therefore, is to ask many of the great questions that we all struggle with today, including those that emphasize the relationship of morality and economics. Smith asks why individuals should be moral. He offers models for how people should treat themselves and others. He argues that scientific method can lead to moral discovery, and he presents a blueprint for a just society that concerns itself with its least well-off members, not just those with economic success. Adam Smith's philosophy bears little resemblance to the libertarian caricature put forth by proponents of laissez faire markets who describe humans solely as homo economicus. For Smith, the market is a mechanism of morality and social support.
Table of Contents
- Life and Influences
- Early Life and Influences
- Smith's Writings
- The Theory of Moral Sentiments
- The Impartial Spectator
- Virtues, Duty, and Justice
- An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
- Wealth and Trade
- History and Labor
- Political Economy
- References and Further Reading
- Work by Smith
- Companion Volumes to the Glasgow Edition
- Introductions and Works for a General Audience
- Recommended Books for Specialists
1. Life and Influences
a. Early Life and Influences
Adam Smith was born in June, 1723, in Kirkcaldy, a port town on the eastern shore of Scotland; the exact date is unknown. His father, the Comptroller and Collector of Customs, died while Smith's mother was pregnant but left the family with adequate resources for their financial well being. Young Adam was educated in a local parish (district) school. In 1737, at the age of thirteen he was sent to Glasgow College after which he attended Baliol College at Oxford University. His positive experiences at school in Kirkcaldy and at Glasgow, combined with his negative reaction to the professors at Oxford, would remain a strong influence on his philosophy.
In particular, Smith held his teacher Francis Hutcheson in high esteem. One of the early leaders of the philosophical movement now called the Scottish Enlightenment, Hutcheson was a proponent of moral sense theory, the position that human beings make moral judgments using their sentiments rather than their "rational" capacities. According to Hutcheson, a sense of unity among human beings allows for the possibility of other-oriented actions even though individuals are often motivated by self-interest. The moral sense, which is a form of benevolence, elicits a feeling of approval in those witnessing moral acts. Hutcheson opposed ethical egoism, the notion that individuals ought to be motivated by their own interests ultimately, even when they cooperate with others on a common project.
The term "moral sense" was first coined by Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, whose work Smith read and who became a focal point in the Scots' discussion, although he himself was not Scottish. Although Shaftesbury did not offer a formal moral sense theory as Hutcheson did, he describes personal moral deliberation as a "soliloquy," a process of self-division and self-examination similar in form to Hamlet's remarks on suicide. This model of moral reasoning plays an important role in Smith's books.
The Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, or the literati, as they called themselves, were a close-knit group who socialized together and who read, critiqued, and debated each other's work. They met regularly in social clubs (often at pubs) to discuss politics and philosophy. Shortly after graduating from Oxford, Smith presented public lectures on moral philosophy in Edinburgh, and then, with the assistance of the literati, he secured his first position as the Chair of Logic at Glasgow University. His closest friendship in the group—and probably his most important non-familial relationship throughout his life—was with David Hume, an older philosopher whose work Smith was chastised for reading while at Oxford.
Hume was believed to be an atheist, and his work brought into question some of the core beliefs in moral philosophy. In particular, and even more so than Hutcheson, Hume's own version of moral sense theory challenged the assumption that reason was the key human faculty in moral behavior. He famously asserted that reason is and ought to be slave to the passions, which means that even if the intellect can inform individuals as to what is morally correct, agents will only act if their sentiments incline them to do so. An old proverb tells us that you can lead a horse to water but that you can't make it drink. Hume analogously argues that while you might be able to teach people what it means to be moral, only their passions, not their rational capacities, can actually inspire them to be ethical. This position has roots in Aristotle's distinction between moral and intellectual virtue.
Smith, while never explicitly arguing for Hume's position, nonetheless seems to assume much of it. And while he does not offer a strict moral sense theory, he does adopt Hume's assertion that moral behavior is, at core, the human capacity of sympathy, the faculty that, in Hume's account, allows us to approve of others' characters, to "forget our own interest in our judgments," and to consider those whom "we meet with in society and conversation" who "are not placed in the same situation, and have not the same interest with ourselves" (Hume: Treatise, book 3.3.3).
b. Smith's Writings
Smith echoes these words throughout A Theory of Moral Sentiments. In this book, he embraces Hume's conception of sympathy, but rejects his skepticism and adds, as we shall see, a new theory of conscience to the mix. However, focusing on Hume's observations also allow us to see certain other themes that Smith shares with his Scottish Enlightenment cohort: in particular, their commitment to empiricism. As with most of the other Scottish philosophers, Hume and Smith held that knowledge is acquired through the senses rather than through innate ideas, continuing the legacy of John Locke more so than René Descartes. For Hume, this epistemology would bring into question the connection between cause and effect—our senses, he argued, could only tell us that certain events followed one another in time, but not that they were causally related. For Smith, this meant a whole host of different problems. He asks, for example, how a person can know another's sentiments and motivations, as well as how members can use the market to make "rational" decisions about the propriety of their economic activity.
At the core of the Scottish project is the attempt to articulate the laws governing human behavior. Smith and his contemporary Adam Ferguson are sometimes credited with being the founders of sociology because they, along with the other literati, believed that human activities were governed by discoverable principles in the same way that Newton argued that motion was explainable through principles. Newton, in fact, was a tremendous influence on the Scots' methodology. In an unpublished essay on the history of astronomy, Smith writes that Newton's system, had "gained the general and complete approbation of mankind," and that it ought to be considered "the greatest discovery that ever was made by man." What made it so important? Smith describes it as "the discovery of an immense chain of the most important and sublime truths, all closely connected together, by one capital fact, of the reality of which we have daily experience" (EPS, Astronomy IV.76).
While Smith held the chair of logic at Glasgow University, he lectured more on rhetoric than on traditional Aristotelian forms of reasoning. There is a collection of student lecture notes that recount Smith's discussions of style, narrative, and moral propriety in rhetorical contexts. These notes, in combination with his essay on astronomy, offer an account of explanation that Smith himself regarded as essentially Newtonian. According to Smith, a theory must first be believable; it must soothe anxiety by avoiding any gaps in its account. Again, relying upon a basically Aristotelian model, Smith tells us that the desire to learn, and the theories that result, stems from a series of emotions: surprise at events inspires anxieties that cause one to wonder about the process. This leads to understanding and admiration of the acts and principles of nature. By showing that the principles governing the heavens also govern the Earth, Newton set a new standard for explanation. A theory must direct the mind with its narrative in a way that both corresponds with experience and offers theoretical accounts that enhance understanding and allow for prediction. The account must fit together systematically without holes or missing information; this last element—avoiding any gaps in the theory—is, perhaps, the most central element for Smith, and this model of philosophical explanation unifies both his moral theories and his political economy.
As a young philosopher, Smith experimented with different topics, and there is a collection of writing fragments to compliment his lecture notes and early essays. These include brief explorations of "Ancient Logics," metaphysics, the senses, physics, aesthetics, the work of Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and other assorted topics. Smith's Scottish Enlightenment contemporaries shared an interest in all of these issues.
While the works offer a glimpse into Smith's meditations, they are by no means definitive; few of them were ever authorized for publication. Smith was a meticulous writer and, in his own words, "a slow a very slow workman, who do and undo everything I write at least half a dozen of times before I can be tolerably pleased with it" (Corr. 311). As a result, he ordered sixteen volumes of unpublished writing burnt upon his death because, presumably, he did not feel they were adequate for public consumption. Smith scholars lament this loss because it obfuscates the blueprint of his system, and there have been several attempts of late to reconstruct the design of Smith's corpus, again with the intent of arguing for a particular relationship between his major works.
After holding the chair of logic at Glasgow for only one year (1751–1752), Smith was appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy, the position originally held by Hutcheson. He wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759, while holding this position and, presumably, while testing out many of his discussions in the classroom. While he spoke very warmly of this period of his life, and while he took a deep interest in teaching and mentoring young minds, Smith resigned in 1764 to tutor the Duke of Buccleuch and accompany him on his travels.
It was not uncommon for professional teachers to accept positions as private tutors. The salary and pensions were often lucrative, and it allowed more flexibility than a busy lecturing schedule might afford. In Smith's case, this position took him to France where he spent two years engaged with the philosophes—a tight-knit group of French philosophers analogous to Smith's own literati—in conversations that would make their way into The Wealth of Nations. How influential the philosophes were in the creation of Smith's political economy is a matter of controversy. Some scholars suggest that Smith's attitudes were formed as a result of their persuasion while others suggest that Smith's ideas were solidified much earlier than his trip abroad. Whatever the case, this shows that Smith's interests were aligned, not just with the Scottish philosophers, but with their European counterparts. Smith's writing was well-received in part because it was so timely. He was asking the deep questions of the time; his answers would change the world.
After his travels, Smith returned to his home town of Kirkcaldy to complete The Wealth of Nations. It was first published in 1776 and was praised both by his friends and the general public. In a letter written much later, he referred to it as the "very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain" (Corr. 208). The Theory of Moral Sentiments went through six editions in Smith's lifetime, two of which contained major substantive changes and The Wealth of Nations saw four different editions with more minor alterations. Smith indicated that he thought The Theory of Moral Sentiments was a better book, and his on-going attention to its details and adjustments to its theory bear out, at least, that he was more committed to refining it. Eventually, Smith moved to Edinburgh with his mother and was appointed commissioner of customs in 1778; he did not publish anything substantive for the remainder of his life. Adam Smith died on July 17, 1790.
After his death, The Wealth of Nations continued to grow in stature and The Theory of Moral Sentiments began to fade into the background. In the more than two centuries since his death, his published work has been supplemented by the discoveries of his early writing fragments, the student-authored lectures notes on his course in rhetoric and belles-letters, student-authored lecture notes on jurisprudence, and an early draft of part of TheWealth of Nations, the date of which is estimated to be about 1763. The latter two discoveries help shed light on the formulation of his most famous work and supply fodder for both sides of the debate regarding the influence of the philosophes on Smith's political economy.
As stated above, Smith is sometimes credited with being one of the progenitors of modern sociology, and his lectures on rhetoric have also been called the blueprint for the invention of the modern discipline of English; this largely has to do with their influence on his student Hugh Blair, whose own lectures on rhetoric were instrumental in the formation of that discipline. The Theory of Moral Sentiments played an important role in 19th century sentimentalist literature and was also cited by Mary Wollstonecraft to bolster her argument in A Vindication of the Rights of Women: Smith's moral theories experienced a revival in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Secondary sources on Smith flooded the marketplace and interest in Smith's work as a whole has reached an entirely new audience.
There are two noteworthy characteristics of the latest wave of interest in Smith. The first is that scholars are interested in how The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations interconnect, not simply in his moral and economic theories as distinct from one another. The second is that it is philosophers and not economists who are primarily interested in Smith's writings. They therefore pay special attention to where Smith might fit in within the already established philosophical canon: How does Smith's work build on Hume's? How does it relate to that of his contemporary Immanuel Kant? (It is known that Kant read The Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example.) To what extent is a sentiment-based moral theory defensible? And, what can one learn about the Scots and eighteenth-century philosophy in general from reading Smith in a historical context? These are but a few of the questions with which Smith's readers now concern themselves.
2. The Theory of Moral Sentiments
Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith were unified by their opposition to arguments put forth by Bernard Mandeville. A Dutch-born philosopher who relocated to England, Mandeville argued that benevolence does no social good whatsoever. His book, The Fable of the Bees: Private Vices, Public Benefits, tells the whole story. Bad behavior has positive social impact. Without vice, we would have, for example, no police, locksmiths, or other such professionals. Without indulgence, there would be only minimal consumer spending. Virtue, on the other hand, he argued, has no positive economic benefit and is therefore not to be encouraged.
But Mandeville took this a step further, arguing, as did Thomas Hobbes, that moral virtue derives from personal benefit, that humans are essentially selfish, and that all people are in competition with one another. Hobbes was a moral relativist, arguing that "good" is just a synonym for "that which people desire." Mandeville's relativism, if it can be called that, is less extreme. While he argues that virtue is the intentional act for the good of others with the objective of achieving that good, he casts doubt on whether or not anyone could actually achieve this standard. Smith seems to treat both philosophers as if they argue for the same conclusion; both offer counterpoints to Shaftesbury's approach. Tellingly, Mandeville writes wistfully of Shaftesbury's positive accounts of human motivation, remarking they are "a high Compliment to Human-kind," adding, however, "what Pity it is that they are not true" (Fable, I, 324).
Smith was so opposed to Hobbes's and Mandeville's positions that the very first sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with their rejection:
However selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though they derive nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. (TMS I.i.1.1)
While it is often assumed that people are selfish, Smith argues that experience suggests otherwise. People derive pleasure from seeing the happiness of others because, by design, others concern us. With this initial comment, Smith outlines the central themes of his moral philosophy: human beings are social, we care about others and their circumstances bring us pleasure or pain. It is only through our senses, through "seeing," that we acquire knowledge of their sentiments. Smith's first sentence associates egoism with supposition or presumption, but scientific "principles" of human activity are associated with evidence: Newtonianism and empiricism in action.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) is a beautifully written book, clear and engaging. With few exceptions, the sentences are easy to follow, and it is written in a lively manner that speaks of its rehearsal in the classroom. Smith has a particular flair for examples, both literary and from day-to-day life, and his use of "we" throughout brings the reader into direct dialogue with Smith. The book feels like an accurate description of human emotions and experience—there are times when it feels phenomenological, although Smith would not have understood this word. He uses repetition to great benefit, reminding his readers of the central points in his theories while he slowly builds their complexity. At only 342 pages (all references are to the Glasgow Editions of his work), the book encompasses a tremendous range of themes. Disguised as a work of moral psychology—as a theory of moral sentiments alone—it is also a book about social organization, identity construction, normative standards, and the science of human behavior as a whole.
Smith tells us that the two questions of moral philosophy are "Wherein does virtue consist?" and "By what power or faculty in the mind is it, that this character, whatever it be, is recommended to us?" (TMS VII.i.2) In other words, we are to ask what goodness is and how we are to be good. The Theory of Moral Sentiments follows this plan, although Smith tackles the second question first, focusing on moral psychology long before he addresses the normative question of moral standards. For Smith, the core of moral learning and deliberation—the key to the development of identity itself—is social unity, and social unity is enabled through sympathy.
The term "sympathy" is Hume's, but Smith's friend gives little indication as to how it was supposed to work or as to its limits. In contrast, Smith addresses the problem head on, devoting the first sixty-six pages of TMS to illuminating its workings and most of the next two hundred elaborating on its nuances. The last part of the book (part VII, "Of Systems of Moral Philosophy") is the most distanced from this topic, addressing the history of ethics but, again, only for slightly less than sixty pages. It is noteworthy that while modern writers almost always place the "literature review" in the beginning of their books, Smith feels that a historical discussion of ethics is only possible after the work on moral psychology is complete. This is likely because Smith wanted to establish the principles of human behavior first so that he could evaluate moral theory in the light of what had been posited.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments is, not surprisingly, both Aristotelian and Newtonian. It is also Stoic in its account of nature and self-command. The first sentence quoted above is a first principle—individuals are not egoistic—and all the rest of the book follows from this assertion. And, as with all first principles, while Smith "assumes" the possibility of other-oriented behavior, the rest of the book both derives from its truth and contributes to its believability. Smith's examples, anecdotes, and hypotheticals are all quite believable, and if one is to accept these as accurate depictions of the human experience, then one must also accept his starting point. Human beings care for others, and altruism, or beneficence as he calls it, is possible.
What is sympathy, then? This is a matter of controversy. Scholars have regarded it as a faculty, a power, a process, and a feeling. What it is not, however, is a moral sense in the most literal meaning of the term. Sympathy is not a sixth capacity that can be grouped with the five senses. Smith, while influenced by Hutcheson, is openly critical of his teacher. He argues that moral sense without judgment is impossible (TMS VII.3.3.8-9), and sympathy is that which allows us to make judgments about ourselves and others. Sympathy is the foundation for moral deliberation, Smith argues, and Hutcheson's system has no room for it.
For Smith, sympathy is more akin to modern empathy, the ability to relate to someone else's emotions because we have experienced similar feelings. While contemporary "sympathy" refers only to feeling bad for a person's suffering, Smith uses it to denote "fellow-feeling with any passion whatever" (TMS I.i.1.5). It is how a "spectator... changes places in fancy with... the person principally concerned" (TMS I.i.1.3-5).
In short, sympathy works as follows: individuals witness the actions and reactions of others. When doing so, this spectator attempts to enter into the situation he or she observes and imagines what it is like to be the actor—the person being watched. (Smith uses actor and agent interchangeably.) Then, the spectator imagines what he or she would do as the actor. If the sentiments match up, if the imagined reaction is analogous to the observed reaction, then the spectator sympathizes with the original person. If the reactions are significantly different, then the spectator does not sympathize with the person. In this context, then, sympathy is a form of moral approval and lack of sympathy indicates disapproval.
Sympathy is rarely exact. Smith is explicit that the imagined sentiments are always less intense than the original, but they are nonetheless close enough to signify agreement. And, most important, mutual sympathy is pleasurable. By nature's design, people want to share fellow-feeling with one another and will therefore temper their actions so as to find common ground. This is further indication of the social nature of human beings; for Smith, isolation and moral disagreement is to be avoided. It is also the mechanism that moderates behavior. Behavior modulation is how individuals learn to act with moral propriety and within social norms. According to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, mutual sympathy is the foundation for reward and punishment.
Smith is insistent, though, that sympathy is not inspired by simply witnessing the emotions of others even though it "may seem to be transfused from one man to another, instantaneously, and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them in the person principally concerned" (TMS I.i.1.6). Rather, the spectator gathers information about the cause of the emotions and about the person being watched. Only then does he or she ask, given the particular situation and the facts of this particular agent's life, whether the sentiments are appropriate. As Smith writes:
When I condole with you for the loss of your only son, in order to enter into your grief I do not consider what I, a person of such a character and profession, should suffer, if I had a son, and if that son was unfortunately to die: but I consider what I should suffer if I was really you, and I not only change circumstance with you, but I change persons and characters. My grief, therefore, is entirely upon your own account, and not in the least upon my own. (TMS VI.iii.I.4)
We can see here why the imagination is so important to Smith. Only through this faculty can a person enter into the perspective of another, and only through careful observation and consideration can someone learn all the necessary information relevant to judge moral action. We can also see why sympathy is, for Smith, not an egoistic faculty:
In order to produce this concord, as nature teaches the spectators to assume the circumstances of the person principally concerned, so she teaches this last in some measure to assume those of the spectators. As they are continually placing themselves in his situation, and thence conceiving emotions similar to what he feels; so he is as constantly placing himself in theirs, and thence conceiving some degree of that coolness about his own fortune, with which he is sensible that they will view it. As they are constantly considering what they themselves would feel, if they actually were the sufferers, so he is as constantly led to imagine in what manner he would be affected if he was only one of the spectators of his own situation. As their sympathy makes them look at it, in some measure, with his eyes, so his sympathy makes him look at it, in some measure, with theirs, especially when in their presence and acting under their observation: and as the reflected passion, which he thus conceives, is much weaker than the original one, it necessarily abates the violence of what he felt before he came into their presence, before he began to recollect in what manner they would be affected by it, and to view his situation in this candid and impartial light. (TMS I.i.4.8)
Contrary to the description put forth by the Adam Smith Problem, sympathy cannot be either altruistic or egoistic because the agents are too intertwined. One is constantly making the leap from one point of view to another, and happiness and pleasure are dependant on joint perspectives. Individuals are only moral, and they only find their own happiness, from a shared standpoint. Egoism and altruism melt together for Smith to become a more nuanced and more social type of motivation that incorporates both self-interest and concern for others at the same time.
Typical of Smith, the lengthy paragraph cited above leads to at least two further qualifications. The first is that, as Smith puts it, "we expect less sympathy from a common acquaintance than from a friend... we expect still less sympathy from an assembly of strangers" (TMS I.1.4.10). Because sympathy requires information about events and people, the more distance we have from those around us, the more difficult it is for us to sympathize with their more passionate emotions (and vice versa). Thus, Smith argues, we are to be "more tranquil" in front of acquaintances and strangers; it is unseemly to be openly emotional around those who don't know us. This will lead, eventually, to Smith's discussion of duty in part III—his account of why we act morally towards those with whom we have no connection whatsoever.
The second qualification is more complex and revolves around the last phrase in the paragraph: that one must observe actions in a "candid and impartial light." If movement toward social norms were the only component to sympathy, Smith's theory would be a recipe for homogeneity alone. All sentiments would be modulated to an identical pitch and society would thereafter condemn only difference. Smith recognizes, therefore, that there must be instances in which individuals reject community judgment. They do so via the creation of an imagined impartial spectator.
b. The Impartial Spectator
Using the imagination, individuals who wish to judge their own actions create not just analogous emotions but an entire imaginary person who acts as observer and judge:
When I endeavour to examine my own conduct, when I endeavour to pass sentence upon it, and either to approve or condemn it, it is evident that, in all such cases, I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavour to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion. The first is the judge; the second the person judged of. But that the judge should, in every respect, be the same with the person judged of, is as impossible, as that the cause should, in every respect, be the same with the effect. (TMS III.1.6)
The impartial spectator is the anthropomorphization of the calm and disinterested self that can be recovered with self control and self reflection. In today's world, someone might advise us to "take a deep breath and step back" from a given situation in order to reflect on our actions more dispassionately. Smith is suggesting the same, although he is describing it in more detail and in conjunction with the larger ethical theory that helps us find conclusions once we do so. Individuals who wish to judge their own actions imaginatively split themselves into two different people and use this bifurcation as a substitute for community observation.
Here we see the legacy of Shaftesbury's soliloquy. An actor who wishes to gauge his or her own behavior has to divide him or herself in the way that Shaftesbury describes, in the way that Hamlet becomes both poet and philosopher. We are passionate about our own actions, and self-deception, according to Smith, is "the source of half the disorders of human life" (TMS III.4.6). Self-division gives individuals the ability to see themselves candidly and impartially and leads us to better self-knowledge. We strive to see ourselves the way others see us, but we do so while retaining access to the privileged personal information that others might not have. The community helps us see past our own biases, but when the community is limited by its own institutionalized bias or simply by lack of information, the impartial spectator can override this and allow an agent to find propriety in the face of a deformed moral system. In the contemporary world, racism and sexism are examples of insidious biases that prevent the community from "seeing" pain and injustice. Smith too can be read as recognizing these prejudices, although he would not have recognized either the terms or the complicated discourses about them that have evolved since he wrote two and a half centuries ago. For example, he cites slavery as an instance of the injustice and ignorance of a community. He writes:
There is not a Negro from the coast of Africa who does not, in this respect, possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of conceiving. Fortune never exerted more cruelly her empire over mankind, than when she subjected those nations of heroes to the refuse of the jails of Europe, to wretches who possess the virtues neither of the countries which they come from, nor of those which they go to, and whose levity, brutality, and baseness, so justly expose them to the contempt of the vanquished. (TMS V.2.9)
Despite its corrective potential, impartiality has its limits. Smith does not imagine the impartial spectator to see from an Archimedean or God's eye point of view. Because the impartial spectator does not really exist—because it is created by an individual person's imagination—it is always subject to the limits of a person's knowledge. This means that judgment will always be imperfect and those moral mistakes that are so profoundly interwoven into society or a person's experience are the hardest to overcome. Change is slow and society is far from perfect. "Custom," as he calls it, interferes with social judgment on both the collective and the individual level. There are two points, according to Smith, when we judge our own actions, before and after we act. As he writes, "Our views are apt to be very partial in both cases; but they are apt to be most partial when it is of most importance that they should be otherwise" (TMS 111.4.2). Neither of these points is independent of social influence.
Knowledge is imperfect and individuals do the best they can. But all individuals are limited both by their own experiences and the natural inadequacies of the human mind. Smith's suggestion, then, is to have faith in the unfolding of nature, and in the principles that govern human activity—moral, social, economic, or otherwise. With this in mind, however, he cautions people against choosing the beauty of systems over the interest of people. Abstract philosophies and abstruse religions are not to take precedent over the evidence provided by experience, Smith argues. Additionally, social engineering is doomed to fail. Smith argues that one cannot move people around the way one moves pieces on a chess board. Each person has his or her "own principle of motion... different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon" them (TMS VI.ii.2.18).
Smith's caution against the love of systems is a component of Smith's argument for limited government: "Harmony of minds," Smith argues, is not possible without "free communication of settlements and opinion," or, as we would call it today, freedom of expression (TMS VII.iv.27). It also offers a direct connection to Smith's most famous phrase "the invisible hand." In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he uses the invisible hand to describe the conditions that allow for economic justice. This natural aesthetic love of systems leads people to manipulate the system of commerce, but this interferes with nature's plan:
The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. (TMS IV.1.10)
In this passage, Smith argues that "the capacity of [the rich person's] stomach bars no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant" (TMS IV.1.10). Thus, because the rich only select "the best" and because they can only consume so much, there ought to be enough resources for everyone in the world, as if an invisible hand has divided the earth equally amongst all its inhabitants.
As an economic argument, this might have been more convincing in Smith's time, before refrigeration, the industrial revolution, modern banking practices, and mass accumulation of capital; for a more thorough defense (from Smith's point of view) see the discussion of The Wealth of Nations. However, its relevance to the history of economics is based upon his recognition of the role of unintended consequences, the presumption that economic growth helps all members of the society, and the recognition of the independence of the free market as a natural force. At present, we can focus on Smith's warnings about the power of aesthetic attraction. The Newtonian approach, Smith argues—the search for a coherent narrative without gaps that addresses surprise, wonder, and admiration—can lead people astray if they prioritize beauty over the evidence. This love of the beautiful can also deform moral judgments because it causes the masses to over-value the rich, to think the wealthy are happy with their "baubles and trinkets," and thus to pursue extreme wealth at the cost of moral goodness: "To attain to this envied situation, the candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue; for unhappily, the road which leads to the one and that which leads to the other, lie sometimes in very opposite directions" (TMS I.iii.8). Smith is very critical not only of the rich, but of the moral value society places on them. Only their wealth makes them different, and this love of wealth, and of beauty in general, can distort moral judgment and deform the impartial spectator.
The impartial spectator is a theory of conscience. It provides individuals with the opportunity to assent to their own standards of judgment, which, hopefully, are in general agreement with the standards of the society that houses them. Difference, as Smith discusses in both of his books, is the product of education, economic class, gender, what we would now call ethnic background, individual experience, and natural abilities; but Smith argues that the last of these, natural abilities, constitute the least of the factors. In his Lectures on Jurisprudence, for example, he argues that there is no "original difference" between individuals (LJ(A) vi.47-48), and in The Wealth of Nations, he writes that "The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of.... The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom and education" (WN I.ii.4). Society and education, hopefully, help to bridge these gaps, and help to cultivate a unified community where people are encouraged to sympathize with others.
Here is the overlap in Smith's two operative questions. First, one encounters his account of moral psychology. (How does one come to know virtue?) Now one comes face to face with the identification of moral standards themselves. (Of what does virtue consist?) Smith may look like a relativist at times: individuals modulate their sentiments to their community standards, and agreement of individual imaginations may falsely seem to be the final arbiter of what is morally appropriate behavior. With this in mind, there are certainly readers who will argue that Smith, despite his rejection of Hobbes and Mandeville, ends up offering no universally binding moral principles. This, however, forgets Smith's Newtonian approach: observation leads to the discovery of natural principles that can be repeatedly tested and verified. Furthermore, many scholars argue that Smith was strongly influenced by the classical Stoics. In addition to inheriting their concern with the modulation of emotions and the repression of emotions in public, he also likely thought that moral laws are written into nature's design in just the same way that Newton's laws of motion are. As a result, some Smith scholars (but certainly not all) argue that Smith is a moral realist, that sympathy is a method of discovery rather than invention, and that what is to be discovered is correct independent of the opinions of those who either know or are ignorant of the rules.
Consistent with this interpretation, Smith emphasizes what he terms the general rules of morality:
...they are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of. We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions; because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, is formed, by finding from experience, that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of. To the man who first saw an inhuman murder, committed from avarice, envy, or unjust resentment, and upon one too that loved and trusted the murderer, who beheld the last agonies of the dying person, who heard him, with his expiring breath, complain more of the perfidy and ingratitude of his false friend, than of the violence which had been done to him, there could be no occasion, in order to conceive how horrible such an action was, that he should reflect, that one of the most sacred rules of conduct was what prohibited the taking away the life of an innocent person, that this was a plain violation of that rule, and consequently a very blamable action. His detestation of this crime, it is evident, would arise instantaneously and antecedent to his having formed to himself any such general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, which he might afterwards form, would be founded upon the detestation which he felt necessarily arise in his own breast, at the thought of this, and every other particular action of the same kind. (TMS III.4.8)
According to Smith, our sentiments give rise to approval or condemnation of a moral act. These can be modified over time with additional information. Eventually, though, spectators, see patterns in the condemnation. They see, for example, that murder is always wrong, and therefore derive a sense that this is a general rule. They begin, then, to act on the principle rather than on the sentiment. They do not murder, not simply because they detest murder, but because murder is wrong in itself. This, again, is Aristotelian in that it recognizes the interaction between intellectual and moral virtue. It also shares commonalities with the Kantian deontology that became so influential several decades after the publication of TMS. Like Kant, Smith's agents begin to act on principle rather than emotion. Unlike Kant, however, reason in itself does not justify or validate the principle, experience does.
Smith does several things in the last excerpt. First, he embraces the Newtonian process of scientific experimentation and explanation. Moral rules are akin to the laws of physics; they can be discovered. Second, Smith anticipates Karl Popper's twentieth-century claim that scientific truths are established through a process of falsification: we cannot prove what is true, Popper argued. Instead, we discover what is false and rule it out.
c. Virtues, Duty, and Justice
Smith emphasizes a number of virtues along with duty and justice. Self-command, he argues "is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principle lustre" (TMS VI.iii.11). This should not be surprising since, for Smith, it is only through self-command that agents can modulate their sentiments to the pitch required either by the community or the impartial spectator. Self-command is necessary because "the disposition to anger, hatred, envy, malice, [and] revenge... drive men from one another," while "humanity, kindness, natural affection, friendship, [and] esteem... tend to unite men in society" (TMS VI.iii.15). One can see, then, the normative content of Smith's virtues—those sentiments that are to be cultivated and those that are to be minimized. According to Smith, humans have a natural love for society and can develop neither moral nor aesthetic standards in isolation.
Individuals have a natural desire not only be to be loved, but to be worthy of love: "He desires not only praise, but praiseworthiness,... he dreads not only blame, but blame-worthiness" (TMS III.2.2). This speaks first to the power of the impartial spectator who is a guide to worth when no spectators are around. It also speaks to Smith's conception of duty, in that it sets a standard of right action independent of what communities set forth. Individuals "derive no satisfaction" from unworthy praise (TMS III.2.5), and doing so is an indication of the perversion of vanity than can be corrected by seeing ourselves the way others would, if they knew the whole story.
It should not be surprising that Smith addresses God amidst his discussion of duty:
The all-wise Author of Nature has, in this manner, taught man to respect the sentiments and judgments of his brethren; to be more or less pleased when they approve of his conduct, and to be more or less hurt when they disapprove of it. He has made man, if I may say so, the immediate judge of mankind; and has, in this respect, as in many others, created him after his own image, and appointed him his vicegerent upon earth, to superintend the behaviour of his brethren. They are taught by nature, to acknowledge that power and jurisdiction which has thus been conferred upon him, to be more or less humbled and mortified when they have incurred his censure, and to be more or less elated when they have obtained his applause. (TMS III.2.31)
Here Smith makes several points. First, like many of the Scots, as well as Thomas Jefferson and many of the American founders, Smith was a deist. While there is controversy amongst scholars about the extent to which God is necessary to Smith's theory, it is likely that he believed that God designed the universe and its rules, and then stepped back as it unfolded. Smith's God is not an interventionist God and, despite some readers suggesting the contrary, the invisible hand is not an indication of God's involvement in creation. It is, instead, just the unfolding of sociological and economic principles. Second, because God is detached from the system, Smith argues that human beings are God's regents on earth. It is up to them to be the judges of their own behavior. Individuals are necessarily most concerned with themselves first, and are therefore best self-governed. Only then can they judge others via the moral system Smith describes. While it is true that, as Smith puts it, the general rules are "justly regarded as the laws of the deity" (TMS III.v), this seems to be a point of motivation, not of metaphysical assertion. If individuals understand the general rules as stemming from God, then they will follow them with more certainty and conviction. "The terrors of religion should thus enforce the natural sense of duty" (TMS III.5.7), Smith writes, because it inspires people to follow the general rules even if they are inclined not to do so, and because this support makes religion compatible with social and political life. Religious fanaticism, as Smith points out in The Wealth of Nations, is one of the great causes of factionalism—the great enemy of political society.
For Smith, the most precise virtue is justice. It is "the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice" of society (TMS III.ii.4). It is, as he describes it, "a negative virtue" and the minimal condition for participation in the community. Obeying the rules of justice, therefore, result in little praise, but breaking them inspires great condemnation:
There is, no doubt, a propriety in the practice of justice, and it merits, upon that account, all the approbation which is due to propriety. But as it does no real positive good, it is entitled to very little gratitude. Mere justice is, upon most occasions, but a negative virtue, and only hinders us from hurting our neighbour. The man who barely abstains from violating either the person, or the estate, or the reputation of his neighbours, has surely very little positive merit. He fulfils, however, all the rules of what is peculiarly called justice, and does every thing which his equals can with propriety force him to do, or which they can punish him for not doing. We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing. (TMS II.ii.1.9)
Smith's account of justice assumes that individual rights and safety are core concerns. He writes:
The most sacred laws of justice, therefore, those whose violation seems to call loudest for vengeance and punishment, are the laws which guard the life and person of our neighbour; the next are those which guard his property and possessions; and last of all come those which guard what are called his personal rights, or what is due to him from the promises of others. (TMS II.ii.2.3)
His discussion of justice is supplemented in The Wealth of Nations and would have likely been added to in his proposed work on "the general principles of law and government" that he never completed. His lectures on jurisprudence give one a hint as to what might have been in that work, but one must assume that the manuscript was part of the collection of works burnt upon his death. (It is not even known what was actually destroyed, let alone what the works argued.) It is frustrating for Smith's readers to have such gaps in his theory, and Smith scholars have debated the possible content of his other work and the way it relates to his first book. It is clear, though, that The Theory of Moral Sentiments is only one part of Smith's larger system, and one truly understands it only in light of his other writing. It is therefore necessary to switch the discussion from his work on moral philosophy to his political economy. As will be evident, this break is not a radical one. The two books are entirely compatible with one another and reading one supplements reading the other; both contain moral claims and both make assertions classified as political economy. While their emphases are different much of the time—they are two different books after all—their basic points are more than just harmonious. They depend upon one another for justification.
3. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
a. Wealth and Trade
The Wealth of Nations (WN) was published in March of 1776, four months before the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. It is a much larger book than The Theory of Moral Sentiments—not counting appendices and indices, it runs 947 pages. To the first time reader, therefore, it may seem more daunting than Smith's earlier work, but in many ways, it is actually a simpler read. As he grew older, Smith's writing style became more efficient and less flowery, but his authorial voice remained conversational. His terms are more strictly defined in WN than in TMS, and he clearly identifies those positions he supports and rejects. His economic discussions are not as layered as his comments on morality, so the interpretive issues are often less complex. The logic of the book is transparent: its organizational scheme is self-explanatory, and its conclusions are meticulously supported with both philosophical argument and economic data. There are many who challenge its assertions, of course, but it is hard to deny that Smith's positions in WN are defensible even if, in the end, some may conclude that he is wrong.
The text is divided into five "books" published in one, two, or three bound volumes depending on the edition. The first books outline the importance of the division of labor and of self-interest. The second discusses the role of stock and capital. The third provides an historical account of the rise of wealth from primitive times up until commercial society. The fourth discusses the economic growth that derives from the interaction between urban and rural sectors of a commercial society. The fifth and final book presents the role of the sovereign in a market economy, emphasizing the nature and limits of governmental powers and the means by which political institutions are to be paid for. Smith, along with his Scottish Enlightenment contemporaries, juxtaposes different time periods in order to find normative guidance. As TMS does, The Wealth of Nations contains a philosophy of history that trusts nature to reveal its logic and purpose.
This is a remarkable scope, even for a book of its size. Smith's achievement, however, is not simply the multitude of his discussions, but how he makes it all fit together. His most impressive accomplishment in The Wealth of Nations is the presentation of a system of political economy. Smith makes seemingly disparate elements interdependent and consistent. He manages to take his Newtonian approach and create a narrative of both power and beauty, addressing the philosophical along with the economic, describing human behavior and history, and prescribing the best action for economic and political betterment. And, he does so building on a first principle that was at least as controversial as the sentence that began The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He begins the introduction by asserting:
The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or in what is purchased with that produce from other nations. (WN intro.1)
The dominant economic theory of Smith's time was mercantilism. It held that the wealth of a nation was to be assessed by the amount of money and goods within its borders at any given time. Smith calls this "stock." Mercantilists sought to restrict trade because this increased the assets within the borders which, in turn, were thought to increase wealth. Smith opposed this, and the sentence cited above shifted the definition of national wealth to a different standard: labor.
The main point of The Wealth of Nations is to offer an alternative to mercantilism. Labor brings wealth, Smith argues. The more one labors the more one earns. This supplies individuals and the community with their necessities, and, with enough money, it offers the means to make life more convenient and sometimes to pursue additional revenue. Free trade, Smith argues, rather than diminishing the wealth of the nation, increases it because it provides more occasion for labor and therefore more occasion to create more wealth. Limited trade keeps the amount of wealth within the borders relatively constant, but the more trade a country engages in, the wider the market becomes and the more potential there is for additional labor and, in turn, additional wealth. This point leads Smith to divide stock into two parts, that which is used for immediate consumption—the assets that allow a person to acquire necessities—and that which is used to earn additional revenue. This latter sum he calls "capital" (WN II.1.2), and the term "capitalism" (which, again, Smith does not use) is derived from its use in a commercial system: capital is specifically earmarked for reinvestment and is therefore a major economic engine.
This is, of course, a philosophical point as much as an economic one: Smith asks his readers to reconsider the meaning of wealth itself. Is wealth the money and assets that one has at any given time, or is it these things combined with the potential to have more, to adjust to circumstances, and to cultivate the skills to increase such potential? Smith thinks it is the latter. Smith is also concerned specifically with the distinction between necessities and conveniences. His overarching concern in The Wealth of Nations is the creation of "universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people" (WN I.i.10). In other words, Smith believes that a commercial system betters the lives for the worst off in society; all individuals should have the necessities needed to live reasonably well. He is less concerned with "conveniences" and "luxuries;" he does not argue for an economically egalitarian system. Instead, he argues for a commercial system that increases both the general wealth and the particular wealth of the poorest members. He writes:
Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society? The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain. Servants, labourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged. (WN I.viii.36)
Smith argues that the key to the betterment of the masses is an increase in labor, productivity, and workforce. There are two main factors that influence this: "the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied," and "the proportion between the number of those who are employed in useful labour, and that of those who are not" (WN intro.3).
Smith repeats the phrase "skill, dexterity and judgment" in the first paragraph of the body of the book, using it to segue into a discussion of manufacture. Famously, he uses the division of labor to illustrate the efficiency of workers working on complementary specific and narrow tasks. Considering the pin-maker, he suggests that a person who was required to make pins by him or herself could hardly make one pin per day, but if the process were divided into a different task for different people—"one man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another"—then the factory could make approximately forty-eight thousand pins per day (WN I.i.3).
The increase in efficiency is also an increase in skill and dexterity, and brings with it a clarion call for the importance of specialization in the market. The more focused a worker is on a particular task the more likely they are to create innovation. He offers the following example:
In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication, to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour. (WN I.i.8)
This example of a boy looking to ease his work day, illustrates two separate points. The first is the discussion at hand, the importance of specialization. In a commercial society, Smith argues, narrow employment becomes the norm: "Each individual becomes more expert in his own peculiar branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased by it" (WN I.i.9). However, the more important point—certainly the more revolutionary one—is the role of self-interest in economic life. A free market harnesses personal desires for the betterment not of individuals but of the community.
Echoing but tempering Mandeville's claim about private vices becoming public benefits, Smith illustrates that personal needs are complementary and not mutually exclusive. Human beings, by nature, have a "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another" (WN I.ii.1). This tendency, which Smith suggests may be one of the "original principles in human nature," is common to all people and drives commercial society forward. In an oft-cited comment, Smith observes,
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (WN I.ii.2)
Philosophically, this is a tectonic shift in moral prescription. Dominant Christian beliefs had assumed that any self-interested action was sinful and shameful; the ideal person was entirely focused on the needs of others. Smith's commercial society assumes something different. It accepts that the person who focuses on his or her own needs actually contributes to the public good and that, as a result, such self-interest should be cultivated.
Smith is not a proponent of what would today be called rampant consumerism. He is critical of the rich in both of his books. Instead, his argument is one that modern advocates of globalization and free trade will find familiar: when individuals purchase a product, they help more people than they attempted to do so through charity. He writes:
Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brick-maker, the brick-layer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the mill-wright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them. Were we to examine, in the same manner, all the different parts of his dress and household furniture, the coarse linen shirt which he wears next his skin, the shoes which cover his feet, the bed which he lies on, and all the different parts which compose it, the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals, the coals which he makes use of for that purpose, dug from the bowels of the earth, and brought to him perhaps by a long sea and a long land carriage, all the other utensils of his kitchen, all the furniture of his table, the knives and forks, the earthen or pewter plates upon which he serves up and divides his victuals, the different hands employed in preparing his bread and his beer, the glass window which lets in the heat and the light, and keeps out the wind and the rain, with all the knowledge and art requisite for preparing that beautiful and happy invention, without which these northern parts of the world could scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation, together with the tools of all the different workmen employed in producing those different conveniencies; if we examine, I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must no doubt appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of an European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages. (WN I.i.11)
The length of this excerpt is part of its argumentative power. Smith is not suggesting, simply, that a single purchase benefits a group of people. Instead, he is arguing that once you take seriously the multitude of people whose income is connected to the purchase of the single coat, it is hard to even grasp the numbers we are considering. A single purchase brings with it a vast network of laborers. Furthermore, he argues, while one may be critical of the inevitable class difference of a commercial society, the differential is almost inconsequential compared to the disparity between the "haves" and "have-nots" in a feudal or even the most primitive societies. (Smith's reference to "a thousand naked savages" is just thoughtless eighteenth century racism and can be chalked-up to the rhetoric of the time. It ought to be disregarded and has no impact on the argument itself.) It is the effect of one minor purchase on the community of economic agents that allows Smith to claim, as he does in TMS, that the goods of the world are divided equally as if by an invisible hand. For Smith, the wealthy can purchase nothing without benefiting the poor.
According to The Wealth of Nations, the power of the woolen coat is the power of the market at work, and its reach extends to national economic policy as well as personal economic behavior. Smith's comments relate to his condemnation of social engineering in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and he uses the same metaphor—the invisible hand—to condemn those mercantilists who think that by manipulating the market, they can improve the lot of individual groups of people.
But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it. (WN IV.2.9)
Smith begins his comments here with a restatement of the main point of The Wealth of Nations: "...the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value." The income of any community is its labor. Smith's remarks about the invisible hand suggest that one can do more damage by trying to manipulate the system than by trusting it to work. This is the moral power of unintended consequences, as TMS's account of the invisible hand makes clear as well.
What Smith relies upon here is not "moral luck" as Bernard Williams will later call it, but, rather, that nature is logical because it operates on principles, and, therefore, certain outcomes can be predicted. Smith recognizes that human beings and their interactions are part of nature and not to be understood separately from it. As in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, social and political behavior follows a natural logic. Now Smith makes the same claim for economic acts. Human society is as natural as the people in it, and, as such, Smith rejects the notion of a social contract in both of his books. There was never a time that humanity lived outside of society, and political development is the product of evolution (not his term) rather than a radical shift in organization. The state of nature is society for Smith and the Scots, and, therefore, the rules that govern the system necessitate certain outcomes.
b. History and Labor
Smith's account of history describes human civilization as moving through four different stages, time periods that contain nations of hunters, nations of shepherds, agricultural nations, and, finally commercial societies (WN V.i.a, see, also, LJ(A) i.27; see also LJ(B) 25, 27, 149, 233). This is progress, Smith insists, and each form of society is superior to the previous one. It is also natural. This is how the system is designed to operate; history has a logic to it. Obviously, this account, in fact all of The Wealth of Nations, was very influential for Karl Marx. It marks the important beginning of what would be called social science—Smith's successor to the Chair of Moral Philosophy, Adam Ferguson, is often identified as the founder of modern sociology—and is representative of the project the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers referred to as "the science of man."
Smith's discussion of history illustrates two other important points. First, he argues that the primary economic tension, and, as a result, the primary economic engine, in any given society can be found in the interaction between "the inhabitants of the town and those of the country" (WN III.i.1). According to Smith, agricultural lands supply the means of sustenance for any given society and urban populations provide the means of manufacture. Urban areas refine and advance the means of production and return some of its produce to rural people. In each of the stages, the town and country have a different relationship with each other, but they always interact.
Here, Smith is indebted to the physiocrats, French economists who believed that agricultural labor was the primary measure of national wealth. Smith accepted their notion that productive labor was a component of the wealth of nations but rejected their notion that only agricultural labor should be counted as value. He argues, instead, that if one group had to be regarded as more important, it would be the country since it provides food for the masses, but that it would be a mistake to regard one's gain as the other's loss or that their relationship is essentially hierarchical: "the gains of both are mutual and reciprocal, and the division of labour is in this, as in all other cases, advantageous to all the different persons employed in the various occupations into which it is subdivided" (WN III.i.1).
Again, there are philosophical issues here. First, is what one is to regard as labor; second is what counts towards economic value. Additionally, Smith is showing how the division of labor works on a large scale; it is not just for pin factories. Rather, different populations can be dedicated to different tasks for everyone's benefit. (This might be an anticipation of David Ricardo's notion of "comparative advantage.") A commercial system is an integrated one and the invisible hand ensures that what benefits one group can also benefit another. Again, the butcher, brewer, and baker gain their livelihood by manufacturing the lunch of their customers.
Returning to Smith's account of history, Smith also argues that historical moments and their economic arrangements help determine the form of government. As the economic stage changes, so does the form of government. Economics and politics are intertwined, Smith observes, and a feudal system could not have a republican government as is found in commercial societies. What Smith does here, again, is anticipate Marx's dialectical materialism, showing how history influences economic and political options, but, of course, he does not take it nearly as far as the German does close to a century later.
Given the diversity of human experience—WN's stage theory of history helps account for difference—Smith is motivated to seek unifying standards that can help translate economic value between circumstances. Two examples are his discussions of price and his paradox of value. Within these discussions, Smith seeks an adequate measure of "worth" for goods and services. Consumers look at prices to gauge value, but there are good and bad amounts; which is which is not always transparent. Some items are marked too expensive for their actual value and some are a bargain. In developing a system to account for this interaction, Smith offers a range of different types of prices, but the two most important are natural price—the price that covers all the necessary costs of manufacture—and the market price, what a commodity actually goes for on the market. When the market and the natural prices are identical, the market is functioning well: "the natural price, therefore, is, as it were, the central price to which the prices of all commodities are continually gravitating" (WN I.vii.15).
Here, the term "gravitating" indicates, yet again, that there are principles that guide the economic system, and a properly functioning marketplace—one in which individuals are in "perfect liberty"—will have the natural and market prices coincide (WN i.vii.30). (Smith defines perfect liberty as a condition under which a person "may change his trade as often as he pleases" (WN I.vii.6)). Whether this is a normative value, whether for Smith the natural price is better than other prices, and whether the market price of a commodity should be in alignment with the natural price, is a matter of debate.
Following the question of worth, Smith poses the paradox of value. He explains: "Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce any thing; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it" (WN I.iv.13). Smith's question is straightforward: why is water so much cheaper than diamonds when it is so much more important for everyday life?
What Smith means by this is unclear and a matter of controversy. What seems likely, though, is that one person's labor in any given society is not significantly different from another person's. Human capabilities do not change radically from one time period or location to another, and their labor, therefore, can be compared: "the difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of." He elaborates:
Labour, therefore, it appears evidently, is the only universal, as well as the only accurate measure of value, or the only standard by which we can compare the values of different commodities at all times and at all places. We cannot estimate, it is allowed, the real value of different commodities from century to century by the quantities of silver which were given for them. We cannot estimate it from year to year by the quantities of corn. By the quantities of labour we can, with the greatest accuracy, estimate it both from century to century and from year to year. From century to century, corn is a better measure than silver, because, from century to century, equal quantities of corn will command the same quantity of labour more nearly than equal quantities of silver. From year to year, on the contrary, silver is a better measure than corn, because equal quantities of it will more nearly command the same quantity of labour. (WN I.v.17)
In other words, for example, a lone person can only lift so much wheat at one go, and while some people are stronger than others, the differences between them don't make that much difference. Therefore, Smith seems to believe, the value of any object can be universally measured by the amount of labor that any person in any society might have to exert in order to acquire that object. While this is not necessarily a satisfying standard to all—many economists argue that the labor theory of value has been surpassed—it does, again, root Smith's objectivity in impartiality. The "any person" quality of the impartial spectator is analogous to the "any laborer" standard Smith seems to use as a value measure.
Ultimately, according to Smith, a properly functioning market is one in which all these conditions—price, value, progress, efficiency, specialization, and universal opulence (wealth)—all work together to provide economic agents with a means to exchange accurately and freely as their self-interest motivates them. None of these conditions can be met if the government does not act appropriately, or if it oversteps its justified boundaries.
c. Political Economy
The Wealth of Nations is a work of political economy. It is concerned with much more than the mechanisms of exchange. It is also concerned with the ideal form of government for commercial advancement and the pursuit of self-interest. This is where Smith's reputation as a laissez faire theorist comes in. He is arguing for a system, as he calls it, of "natural liberty," one in which the market largely governs itself as is free from excessive state intervention (recall Smith's use of the invisible hand in TMS). As he explains, there are only three proper roles for the sovereign: to protect a society from invasion by outside forces, to enforce justice and protect citizens from one another, and "thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain publick works and certain publick institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society" (WN IV.ix).
Each of the responsibilities of the sovereign contains its own controversies. Regarding the first, protecting society, Smith debated with others as to whether a citizen militia or a standing army was better suited for the job, rooting his discussion, as usual, in a detailed history of the military in different stages of society (WN V.1.a). Given the nature of specialization, it should not be surprising that Smith favored the army (WN V.1.a.28). The nature of justice—the second role of the sovereign—is also complicated, and Smith never fully articulated his theory of what justice is and how it ought to be maintained, although, as we have seen, he was liberal in his assumptions of the rights of individuals against the imposition of government on matters of conscience and debate. In his chapter on "the expence of justice" (WN V.i.b), he discusses the nature of human subordination and why human beings like to impose themselves on one another. However, it is the third role of the sovereign—the maintenance of works that are too expensive for individuals to erect and maintain, or what are called "natural monopolies"—that is the most controversial.
It is this last book—ostensibly about the expenditures of government—that shows most clearly what Smith had in mind politically; the government plays a much stronger role in society than is often asserted. In particular, book five addresses the importance of universal education and social unity. Smith calls for religious tolerance and social regulation against extremism. For Smith, religion is an exceptionally fractious force in society because individuals tend to regard theological leaders as having more authority than political ones. This leads to fragmentation and social discord.
The discussion of "public goods" includes an elaborate discussion of toll roads, which, on the face of it, may seem to be a boring topic, but actually includes a fascinating account of why tolls should be based on the value of transported goods rather than on weight. This is Smith's attempt to protect the poor—expensive goods are usually lighter than cheaper goods—think of diamonds compared to water—and if weight were the standard for tolls, justified, perhaps, by the wear and tear that the heavier goods cause, the poor would carry an undue share of transportation costs (WN V.i.d). However, the most intriguing sections of Book Five contain his two discussions of education (WN V.i.f–V.i.g). The first articulates the role of education for youth and the second describes the role of education for "people of all ages."
The government has no small interest in maintaining schools to teach basic knowledge and skills to young people. While some of the expense is born by parents, much of this is to be paid for by society as a whole (WN V.i.f.54-55). The government also has a duty to educate adults, both to help counter superstition and to remedy the effects of the division of labor. Regarding the first, an educated population is more resistant to the claims of extremist religions. Smith also advocates public scrutiny of religious assertions in an attempt to moderate their practices. This, of course, echoes Smith's moral theory in which the impartial spectator moderates the more extreme sentiments of moral agents. Finally, Smith insists that those who govern abandon associations with religious sects so that their loyalties do not conflict.
Regarding the second purpose of education for all ages, and again, anticipating Marx, Smith recognizes that the division of labor is destructive towards an individual's intellect. Without education, "the torpor" (inactivity) of the worker's mind:
renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging; and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war.... His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it. (WN V.i.f.50)
Education helps individuals overcome the monotony of day to day life. It helps them be better citizens, better soldiers, and more moral people; the intellect and the imagination are essential to moral judgment. No person can accurately sympathize if his or her mind is vacant and unskilled.
We see here that Smith is concerned about the poor throughout The Wealth of Nations. We also see the connections between his moral theory and his political economy. It is impossible to truly understand why Smith makes the political claims he does without connecting them to his moral claims, and vice versa. His call for universal wealth or opulence and his justification of limited government are themselves moral arguments as much as they are economic ones. This is why the Adam Smith Problem doesn't make sense and why contemporary Smith scholars are so focused on showing the systematic elements of Smith's philosophy. Without seeing how each of the parts fit together, one loses the power behind his reasoning—reasoning that inspired as much change as any other work in the history of the Western tradition. Of course, Smith has his detractors and his critics. He is making claims and building on assumptions that many challenge. But Smith has his defenders too, and, as history bears out, Smith is still an important voice in the investigation of how society ought to be organized and what principles govern human behavior, inquiry, and morality. The late twentieth century revival in Smith's studies underscores that Smith's philosophy may be as important now as it ever was.
4. References and Further Reading
All references are to The Glasgow Edition of the Correspondence and Works of Adam Smith, the definitive edition of his works. Online versions of much of these can be found at The Library of Economics and Liberty.
a. Work by Smith
- [TMS] Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. A.L. Macfie and D.D. Raphael. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1982.
- First published in 1759; subsequent editions in 1761 (significantly revised), 1767, 1774, 1781, and 1790 (significantly revised with entirely new section).
- [WN] An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 2 vols. Ed. R.H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1976.
- First published in 1776; subsequent editions in 1778, 1784 (significantly revised), 1786, 1789.
- [LJ] Lectures on Jurisprudence. Ed. R.L. Meek and D.D. Raphael. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1982.
- Contains two sets of lectures, LJ(A), dated 1762–3 and LJ(B) dated 1766.
- [LRBL] The Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. Ed. J.C. Bryce. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1985.
- Edition also contains the fragment: "Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages" in LRBL. Lecture dates, 1762–1763.
- [EPS] Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Ed. W.P.D. Wightman and J.C. Bryce. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1982.
- Contains the essays and fragments: "The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquires Illustrated by the History of Astronomy," "The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquires Illustrated by the History of Ancient Physics," "ThePrinciples which lead and direct Philosophical Enquiries Illustrated by the History of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics," "Of the External Senses," "Of the Nature of that Imitation which takes place in what are called The Imitative Arts," "Of the Affinity between Music, Dancing, and Poetry," "Of the Affinity between certain English and Italian Verses," Contributions to the Edinburgh Review of 1755-56, Review of Johnson's Dictionary, A Letter to the Authors of the Edinburgh Review, Preface and Dedication to William Hamilton's Poems on Several Occasions 261 and Dugald Stewart's "Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D." First published in 1795.
- [Corr.] Correspondence of Adam Smith. Ed. E.C. Mossner and I.S. Ross. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1987.
b. Companion Volumes to the Glasgow Edition
- Index to the Works of Adam Smith. Ed K. Haakonssen and A.S. Skinner. Indianapolis,: Liberty Press, 2002.
- Essays on Adam Smith. Edited by A.S. Skinner and Thomas Wilson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
- Life of Adam Smith. I.S. Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
c. Introductions and Works for a General Audience
- Berry, Christopher J. The Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
- Fleischacker, Samuel. On Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
- Haakonssen, K. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Adam Smith.
Émile Durkheim (1858—1917)
Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist who rose to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along with Karl Marx and Max Weber, he is credited as being one of the principal founders of modern sociology. Chief among his claims is that society is a sui generis reality, or a reality unique to itself and irreducible to its composing parts. It is created when individual consciences interact and fuse together to create a synthetic reality that is completely new and greater than the sum of its parts. This reality can only be understood in sociological terms, and cannot be reduced to biological or psychological explanations. The fact that social life has this quality would form the foundation of another of Durkheim’s claims, that human societies could be studied scientifically. For this purpose he developed a new methodology, which focuses on what Durkheim calls “social facts,” or elements of collective life that exist independently of and are able to exert an influence on the individual.
Using this method, Durkheim published influential works on a number of topics. In these works he analyzes different social institutions and the roles they play in society, and as a result his work is often associated with the theoretical framework of structural functionalism. Durkheim is most well known as the author of On the Division of Social Labor, The Rules of Sociological Method, Suicide, and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. However, Durkheim also published a voluminous number of articles and reviews, and has had several of his lecture courses published posthumously.
When Durkheim began writing, sociology was not recognized as an independent field of study. As part of the campaign to change this he went to great lengths to separate sociology from all other disciplines, especially philosophy. In consequence, while Durkheim’s influence in the social sciences has been extensive, his relationship with philosophy remains ambiguous. Nevertheless, Durkheim maintained that sociology and philosophy are in many ways complementary, going so far as to say that sociology has an advantage over philosophy, since his sociological method provides the means to study philosophical questions empirically, rather than metaphysically or theoretically. As a result, Durkheim often used sociology to approach topics that have traditionally been reserved for philosophical investigation.
For the purposes of this article, Durkheim’s strictly sociological thought will be set aside to allow his contributions to philosophy to take prominence. These fall largely in the realms of the philosophy of religion, social theory, hermeneutics, the philosophy of language, morality, meta-ethics, and epistemology. Durkheim’s deconstruction of the self, as well as his analysis of the crisis brought on by modernity and his projections about the future of Western civilization, also deserve significant consideration.
Table of Contents
- Intellectual Development and Influences
- Reception of Durkheim’s Thought
- The Sociological Method: Society and the Study of Social Facts
- Durkheim’s Social Realism
- The Sociology of Knowledge: Durkheim and the Logos
- Représentations Collectives
- Durkheim’s Philosophy of Language
- The Categories
- The Classification of Knowledge
- Cultural Relativism versus Scientific Truth
- Durkheim’s Philosophy of Religion
- Durkheim on Morality
- Social Change and Modernity in the West
- Causes of Social Change
- The Division of Labor and the Emergence of Modernity in Europe
- The Death of the Gods
- The New Religion of the West: The Cult of the Individual
- The Individual and Society
- References and Further Reading
- Selection of Durkheim’s Works in French
- Selection of Durkheim’s Works in English
- Secondary Sources
David Émile Durkheim was born in April 1858 in Épinal, located in the Lorraine region of France. His family was devoutly Jewish, and his father, grandfather, and great grandfather were all rabbis. Durkheim, however, broke with tradition and went to the École normale supérieure in 1879, where he studied philosophy. He graduated in 1882 and began teaching the subject in France. In 1887 he was appointed to teach Social Sciences and Pedagogy at the University of Bordeaux, allowing him to teach the first ever official sociology courses in France. Also in 1887, Durkheim married Louise Dreyfus, with whom he would eventually have two children. During his time at Bordeaux, Durkheim had great success, publishing his doctoral thesis On the Division of Social Labor (1893, Division), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895, Rules), and Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897, Suicide). Also, in 1896 he established the prestigious Année sociologique, further cementing sociology’s place in the academic world.
In 1902, Durkheim was finally given a promotion in the form of the chair of the Science of Education at the Sorbonne. In 1906 he became a full professor and in 1913, his position was changed to formally include sociology. Henceforth he was chair of the Science of Education and Sociology. Here he gave lectures on a number of subjects and published a number of important essays as well as his final, and most important, major work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912, Forms). The outbreak of World War I would prove to have disastrous consequences for Durkheim. The war took many of his most promising pupils and in 1915 his son, André, also died in combat. From this Durkheim would never recover and in November 1917 he died of a stroke, leaving his last great work, La Morale (Morality), with only a preliminary introduction.
During his lifetime, Durkheim was politically engaged, yet kept these engagements rather discrete. He defended Alfred Dreyfus during the Dreyfus affair and was a founding member of the Human Rights League. Durkheim was familiar with Karl Marx’s ideas. Yet, Durkheim was very critical of Marx’s work, which he saw as unscientific and dogmatic, as well as of Marxism, which he saw as needlessly conflictual, reactionary, and violent. Nevertheless, he supported a number of socialist reforms, and had a number of important socialist friends, but never committed himself to the party and did not make political issues a primary concern. Despite his muted political engagement, Durkheim was an ardent patriot of France. He hoped to use his sociology as a way to help a French society suffering under the strains of modernity, and during World War I he took up a position writing anti-German propaganda pamphlets, which in part use his sociological theories to help explain the fervent nationalism found in Germany.
b. Intellectual Development and Influences
Durkheim was not the first thinker to attempt to make sociology a science. Auguste Comte, who wished to extend the scientific method to the social sciences, and Herbert Spencer, who developed an evolutionary utilitarian approach that he applied to different areas in the social sciences, made notable attempts and their work had a formative influence on Durkheim. In particular, Durkheim appropriated elements of Comte’s positivism as well as elements of his scientific approach to studying societies. Durkheim’s analysis of the ways in which different parts of society operate to create a functioning whole, as well as his use of the organic analogy, was in many ways inspired by Spencer’s own brand of functionalist analysis. However, Durkheim was critical of these attempts at sociology and felt that neither had sufficiently divorced their analyses from metaphysical assumptions. These were to be found particularly in what Durkheim considered Comte and Spencer’s unilinear models of social development, which were based on a priori laws of social evolution. While Durkheim incorporated elements of evolutionary theory into his own, he did so in a critical way, and was not interested in developing a grand theory of society as much as developing a perspective and a method that could be applied in diverse ways. The sociological method that Durkheim devised, thus, sought to be free of the metaphysical positivism of Comte and Spencer and differed greatly from Comte’s mere extension of the scientific method of the natural sciences to society.
Several of Durkheim’s teachers at the École normale supérieure would also have an important impact on his thinking. With Emile Boutroux, Durkheim read Comte and got the idea that sociology could have its own unique subject matter that was not reducible to any other field of study. Gabriel Monod and Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, both historians, introduced Durkheim to systematic empirical and comparative methods that could be applied to history and the social sciences. Charles Renouvier, a neo-Kantian philosopher, also had a large impact on Durkheim. Renouvier was an adamant rationalist and likely played a fundamental role in shaping Durkheim’s interpretation of Kant, specifically Durkheim’s understanding of the categories, an understanding that some observers have called into question. Renouvier was also preoccupied with a number of ideas that would appear in Durkheim’s thinking, including the scientific study of morality or social cohesion and the relation of the individual to society.
Between 1885 and 1886, Durkheim spent an academic year visiting universities in Germany. What Durkheim found there impressed him deeply. He encountered German scholars such as Alfred Wagner, Gustav Schmoller, Rudolph von Jhering, Albert Schäffle, and Wilhelm Wundt who were working on scientific approaches to the study of ethics. Importantly these scholars were relating morality to other social institutions such as economics or the law, and in the process were emphasizing the social nature of morality. Arguably the most important of these thinkers for Durkheim was Wundt, who rejected methodological individualism and argued that morality was a sui generis social phenomenon that could not be reduced to individuals acting in isolation. Taken together, these thinkers laid the foundations for Durkheim’s social realism and provided a powerful critique to utilitarian conceptions of morality, epitomized by Spencer, which viewed the origin of morality within the rational, self-interested calculations of the individual.
Throughout Durkheim’s life, other notable thinkers would have a prominent impact on him. Early in his career Durkheim wrote dissertations about Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu, both of whom he cited as precursors to sociology. In 1895 Durkheim’s thinking about society changed dramatically after he read William Robertson Smith’s Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. Before this time, as in Division, Durkheim focused on how the material and morphological elements of a society affected it. After reading Smith’s book, Durkheim began to concentrate on the more ideational elements of society, with an increasing focus on the role of religion in social life. Different philosophers are also prominent in Durkheim’s discussions. The most important of these, arguably, is Kant, whose moral and epistemological theories were of great influence. However Plato, William James, and Descartes, among others, are all present in Durkheim’s work and influenced him in substantial ways.
c. Reception of Durkheim’s Thought
Durkheim remains a fundamental and prominent figure for sociology and social theory in general. Yet, in comparison with Marx and Weber, the influence of Durkheim’s thought has been somewhat muted, especially with regards to philosophy. This can be partly explained by the fact that the Durkheimian school of thought was greatly reduced when many of his most promising students were killed in WWI, that Durkheim went to such great lengths to divorce sociology from philosophy, or by the fact that his thought has been, and continues to be, simplified and misunderstood.
Nevertheless, his ideas had, and continue to have, a strong impact in the social sciences, especially in sociology and anthropology. Members of his research group, such as Marcel Mauss, Paul Fauconnet, Célestin Bouglé, and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and later thinkers, such as Maurice Halbwachs, Talcott Parsons, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, and Claude Levi-Strauss, were all strongly influenced by him. Philosophers such as Henri Bergeson and Emmanuel Levinas acknowledge the influence of Durkheim’s ideas, and his work is also present in that of Jacques Lacan and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In addition to this, Durkheim’s ideas are latent in the structuralist thought that emerged in post WWII France, for example in Alain Badiou, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault. However, these thinkers never discuss Durkheim at length, or acknowledge any intellectual debt to to him. More recently, social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Bellah, and Steven Lukes, and philosophers such as Charles Taylor and Hans Joas, have been influenced by Durkheim’s thinking.
2. The Sociological Method: Society and the Study of Social Facts
According to Durkheim, all elements of society, including morality and religion, are products of history. As they do not have a transcendent origin and are part of the natural world, they can be studied scientifically. In particular, Durkheim viewed his sociology as the science of the genesis and functioning of institutions, with institutions being all of the beliefs and modes of conduct instituted by the collectivity. A fundamental element of this science is the sociological method, which Durkheim created specifically for this purpose.
The foundational claim for Durkheim’s sociology, and what is to make up the subject matter for sociology, is the existence of what Durkheim calls social facts. A social fact, as defined in Rules, is “a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.” (Durkheim; 1982: 52) According to Durkheim, social facts have an objective reality that sociologists can study in a way similar to how other scientists, such as physicists, study the physical world. An important corollary to the above definition is that social facts are also internal to individuals, and it is only through individuals that social facts are able to exist. In this sense, externality means interior to individuals other than the individual subject. This leads to the seemingly paradoxical statement that social facts are both external and internal to the individual, a claim that has frequently been misunderstood and left Durkheim’s work open to criticism.
In order to fully grasp how social facts are created and operate, it must be understood that for Durkheim, a society is not merely a group of individuals living in one particular geographical location. Rather, society is an ensemble of ideas, beliefs, and sentiments of all sorts that are realized through individuals; it indicates a reality that is produced when individuals interact with one another, resulting in the fusion of individual consciences. It is a sui generis reality, meaning that it is irreducible to its composing parts and unable to be explained by any means other than those proper to it. In other words, society is greater than the sum of its parts; it supercedes in complexity, depth, and richness, the existence of any one particular individual and is wholly new and different from the parts that make it up. This psychic reality is sometimes (although especially in Division) referred to by Durkheim with the term conscience collective, which can alternately be translated into English as collective conscience or collective consciousness. What is more, society and social phenomena can only be explained in sociological terms, as the fusion of individual consciences that, once created, follows its own laws. It cannot be explained, for example, in biological or psychological terms, or be reduced to the material forms of a society and its immediate vital necessities, as is the case in historical materialism. Social facts are key, since they are what constitute and express the psychic reality that is society. Through them individuals acquire particular traits, such as a language, a monetary system, values, religious beliefs, tendencies for suicide, or technologies, that they would never have had living in total isolation.
In Rules, Durkheim delineates two different classes of social facts. The first class concerns social facts of a physiological, or operative, order. This set of social facts includes a society’s legal code, religious beliefs, concept of beauty, monetary system, ways of dressing, or its language. In these cases it is easy to see how society imposes itself onto the individual from the outside. The first class of social facts also contains currents of opinion, or social phenomena that express themselves through individual cases. Examples include rates of marriage, birth, suicide or migration patterns. In these cases, the operation of society on the individual is not so obvious. Nevertheless, these phenomena can be studied with the use of statistics, which accumulate individual cases into an aggregate and express a certain state of the collective mind. The second class of social facts is of a morphological, or structural, order. It is often concerned with the demographic and material conditions of life and includes the number, nature, and relation of the composing parts of a society, their geographical distribution, the extent and nature of their channels of communication, the shape and style of their buildings, and so forth. While at first glance it might not be evident how the second class of social facts is influenced by collective ways of thinking, acting, or feeling, they indeed have the same characteristics and the same elements of externality and constraint as the first class. In the end, Durkheim dismisses the distinction altogether, claiming that the second class of social facts are simply more crystalized forms of the first class of social facts, making the term ‘social fact’ a very flexible concept that comprises basically any and all social phenomena.
Durkheim then provides a set of rules for studying social facts. The first and most important rule is to treat social facts as things. What Durkheim means by this is that social facts have an existence independent of the knowing subject and that they impose themselves on the observer. Social facts can be recognized by the sign that they resist the action of individual will upon them; as products of the collectivity, changing social facts require laborious effort. The next rule for studying social facts is that the sociologist must clearly delimit and define the group of phenomena being researched. This structures the research and provides the object of study a condition of verifiability. The sociologist must also strive to be as objective towards the facts they are working on as possible and remove any subjective bias or attachment to what they are investigating. Finally, the sociologist must systematically discard any and all preconceptions and closely examine the facts before saying anything about them.
Durkheim applied these rules to empirical evidence he drew primarily from statistics, ethnography, and history. Durkheim treated this data in a rational way, which is to say that he applied the law of causality to it. At this, Durkheim introduced an important rationalist component to his sociological method, namely the idea that by using his rules, which work to eliminate subjective bias, human behavior can be explained through observable cause and effect relationships. Accordingly, he often used a comparative-historical approach, which he saw as the core of the sociological method, to eliminate extraneous causes and find commonalities between different societies and their social facts. In so doing, he strove to find general laws that were universally applicable. Durkheim also argued that contemporary social facts could only be understood in relation to the social facts preceding and causing them. Accordingly, Durkheim followed the historical development of political, educational, religious, economic, and moral institutions, particularly those of Western society, and explicitly made a strict difference between historical analysis and sociology: whereas the historical method strives only to describe what happened in the past, sociology strives to explain the past. In other words, sociology searches for the causes and functions of social facts as they change over time.
In the early part of his career, Durkheim focused on the second class of social facts, or the structural organization of society. Later, social facts of the first class, such as suicide rates, religion, morality, or language became his primary topics of interest. As Durkheim’s interests shifted, his notion of coercion also changed, as did his use of the word ‘constraint’. In his later works, Durkheim focused more on questions of a normative nature, or how individuals come to think and act in similar ways, and less on actual physical or legal constraints. Here society still imposes itself onto the individual, but social facts are seen in a more positive light, as the enablers of human activity or as sources of strength for the individual. As time wore on Durkheim eventually ceased using the word constraint altogether.
a. Durkheim’s Social Realism
An important, and often misunderstood, element of Durkheim’s sociological method is to be found in what can be termed Durkheim’s social realism, or the idea that society is an objectively real entity that exists independently and autonomously of any particular individual, a view that is epitomized by his prescription to treat social facts as things. Within this realist position there are two important claims. First, Durkheim makes an ontological claim concerning the sui generis reality of social facts. Second, Durkheim makes an epistemological and methodological claim, arguing that social facts should be treated as real objects, existing external to the researcher’s mind, that can be determined by their ability to coerce behavior. Hence, Durkheim is arguing that social facts have particular properties of being and that they can be discovered and analyzed when the sociologist treats them in the proper, scientific way.
These elements of Durkheim’s sociology have led to some confusion. Some critics claim that Durkheim is guilty of saying that social facts exist independent and outside of all individuals, which leads them to think that Durkheim hypostatizes some sort of metaphysical “group mind.” Other critics argue that Durkheim is guilty of an ontologism or a realism in which he considers social facts to be material properties of social life.
Durkheim strongly refuted such accusations. In response to the first critique, it must be remembered that social facts are both exterior and interior to individuals, with externality in this case meaning interior to individuals other than the individual subject. To say that social facts exist independent of all individuals is an absurd position that Durkheim does not advocate. Only on a methodological level, in order to study social facts from the outside as they present themselves to individuals, does the sociologist abstract social facts from the individual consciences in which they are present. In response to the second critique, Durkheim maintains that social facts, as manifestations of a psychic, or ideational, reality, do not have a material substratum. They can only be observed through the more or less systematized phenomenal reality (to be analyzed as empirical data) that expresses them. By stating the reality of the ideational realm of social facts in this way, Durkheim’s social realism can be seen as an attempt to bridge diverging schools of philosophical thought, such as realism and nominalism, or empiricism and idealism.
3. The Sociology of Knowledge: Durkheim and the Logos
Durkheim was one of the first thinkers in the Western tradition to examine how an individual’s social milieu affects the way that individual perceives the world. His most definitive statement on the subject can be found in Forms, a book dedicated not only to studying religion, but also to understanding how logical thought arises out of society. Other works, such as Pragmatism and Sociology, a posthumous lecture series given late in his life, elaborate his views. His sociology of knowledge argues that many, if not all, facets of an individual’s thought and conception of the world are influenced by society. Not only are our common beliefs, ideas, and language determined by our social milieu, but even the concepts and categories necessary for logical thought, such as time, space, causality, and number, have their source in society (with the latter claim Durkheim challenges the entire philosophical tradition going back to Aristotle). This logical structure helps to order and interpret the world, ensuring that individuals have a more or less homogenous understanding of the world and how it operates, without which human society would not be possible. And since every society has had some form of logical system to guide its understanding of things, it follows that there has never been a society that is pre-logical or one that has lived in disorder or chaos. To begin to understand Durkheim’s analysis, a fundamental concept of his sociology of knowledge, représentations collectives, needs to be discussed.
a. Représentations Collectives
According to Durkheim, no knowledge of the world is possible without humanity in some way representing it. Furthermore, Durkheim rejects the idea of the Ding an sich, or the transcendent thing in itself. This means that the world exists only as far as it is represented, and that all knowledge of the world necessarily refers back to how it is represented. Accordingly, the central part of Durkheim’s theory of knowledge is his concept of représentations collectives (this term could be translated into English as collective representations, although there is no English equivalent to Durkheim’s use of the French term représentation, which in his work can mean both a copy of something or an idea about something). Représentations collectives are the body of representations a society uses to represent to itself things in reality, as those things relate to and affect society. It is important to note that while représentations collectives refer to things in reality, they are not simple images that reflect reality as it is projected onto the intellect from the outside. Rather they are the result of an interaction between the external world and society; in being represented by society, things are infused with elements of a society’s collective experience, providing those things with a meaning and value. Représentations collectives are thus the repositories and transmitters of collective experience and thereby embody and express the reality of a society’s collective existence. Représentations collectives are of paramount importance to collective life, and it is no surprise that later in his career Durkheim dedicated so much time to their study. While représentations collectives can take on a diverse number of forms, including photographs, fables, myths, and especially religious imagery, Durkheim reserves special analysis to conceptual thought and language, which late in his life Durkheim saw as the primary enabler of all social life.
b. Durkheim’s Philosophy of Language
Durkheim’s analysis of language in many ways illustrates not only what he means by the term représentations collectives, but also how he sees society operating on a fundamental level. As Durkheim explains, words, or concepts, are unlike individual sensory representations, which are in a perpetual flux and unable to provide a stable and consistent form to thought. Concepts are impersonal, stand outside of time and becoming (le devenir), and the thought they engender is fixed and resists change. Consequently, language is also the realm through which the idea of truth is able to come into being, since through language individuals are able to conceive of a world of stable ideas that are common to different intelligences. Thus, language conforms to the two criteria for truth that Durkheim lays out, impersonality and stability. These two criteria are also precisely what allow for inter-subjective communication. Language is, therefore, obviously a sui generis product of social interaction; its necessity only becomes apparent when there are two or more individuals and language can only come into being through the fusion of individual consciences, with the result being completely new and different from and irreducible to the parts that make it up. As such, the concept is common to all, and is the work of the community. Language does not bear the imprint of any mind in particular, and is instead developed by society, that unique intelligence where all of the others come to meet and interact, contributing their ideas and sentiments to the social nexus. This is a claim of great hermeneutical intrigue, since the signification of any word is to be traced back to this potentially endless well of collective experience. Words are merely the way in which society, in its totality, represents to itself objects of experience. As such, language is also infused with the authority of society. With this, Durkheim makes a reference to Plato, saying that when confronted with this system of notions, the individual mind is in the same situation as the nous of Plato before the world of ideas. The individual is thereby compelled to assimilate the concepts and appropriate them as their own, if only so as to be able to communicate with other individuals.
Language, as a set of représentations collectives, also has a unique quality in that it plays an active role in structuring an individual’s perception of reality. As Durkheim argues, objects of experience do not exist independently of the society that perceives and represents them. They exist only through the relationship they have with society, a relationship that can reveal very different aspects about reality depending on the society. This is because contained within language is all of the wisdom and the science that the collectivity has learned over the centuries. Through language society is able to pass on to an individual a body of collective knowledge that is infinitely rich and greatly exceeds the limits individual experience. To think conceptually, thus, does not simply mean to see reality in a general way, it is to project a light onto reality, a light that penetrates, illuminates, and transforms reality. The way in which an individual, literally, sees the world, and the knowledge an individual comes to have about existence, therefore, is highly informed by the language that individual speaks.
c. The Categories
Language is not the only facet of logical thought that society engenders; society also plays a large role in creating the categories of thought, such as time, space, number, causality, personality and so forth. In formulating his theory, Durkheim is especially critical of rationalists, such as Kant, who believe that the categories of human thought are universal, independent of environmental factors, and located within the mind a priori. The categories, such as time and space, are not vague and indeterminate, as Kant suggests. Rather, they have a definite form and specific qualities (such as minutes, weeks, months for time, or north, south, inches, kilometers for space). The characteristics of the categories, furthermore, vary from culture to culture, sometimes greatly, leading Durkheim to believe that they are of a social origin. Durkheim’s rejection of the rationalists, however, does not lead him to the opposing theoretical framework, that of the empiricists. Durkheim is also critical of this school of thought, which argues that an individual’s experience of the world gives rise to the categories. Durkheim argues that the categories share the same properties as concepts. Categories, like concepts, have the qualities of stability and impersonality, both of which are necessary conditions for the mutual understanding of two minds. Like concepts, then, categories have a necessarily social function and are the product of social interaction. Individuals could therefore never create the categories on their own. Durkheim believes that it is possible to overcome the opposition between rationalism and empiricism by accounting for reason without ignoring the world of observable empirical data. In order to do so, Durkheim treats the categories as représentations collectives, and studies them as such.
As Durkheim argues, the categories are the natural, sui generis result of the co-existence and interaction of individuals within a social framework. As représentations collectives created by society, the categories exist independently of the individual and impose themselves onto the individual’s mind, which would have no capacity for categorical thought otherwise. What is more, not only does society institute the categories in this way, but different aspects of the social being serve as the content of the categories. For example, the rhythm of social life serves as the base for the category of time, the spatial arrangement of the group serves as a base for the category of space, the social grouping of society (for example in clans or phratries) serves as a base for the category of class (as in the classification of items), and collective force is at the origin of the concept of an efficacious force, which was essential to the very first formulations of the category of causality. Another category of utmost importance is the category of totality, the notion of everything, which originates from the concept of the social group in total. The categories are not, of course, used only to relate to society. Rather, they extend and apply to the entire universe, helping individuals to explain rationally the world around them. As a result, the ways in which individuals understand the world through the categories can vary in important ways.
This element of Durkheim’s theory has a significant flaw, however. As Steven Lukes has pointed out, Durkheim does not distinguish between the faculties of categorical thinking, such as the faculty of temporality, and the content of these faculties, that is dividing time into set units of measurement. Instead, Durkheim views both the capacity and the content of categorical thought as stamped onto the individual mind by society at the same time. As such, Durkheim’s theory fails to account for the inherent abilities of categorical or logical thought. There may be different classifications within a society, for example, but in order for an individual to recognize these classifications in the first place, they must have prior possession of the ability to recognize classifications. Despite this flaw, an important element of Durkheim’s theory, the idea that the content of the categories is modeled on the organization of society and social life, has proven to be challenging and influential to later thinkers.
d. The Classification of Knowledge
Another vital role that society plays in the construction of human knowledge is the fact that it actively organizes objects of experience into a coherent classificatory system that encompasses the entire universe. With these classificatory systems it becomes possible to attach things one to another and to establish relations between them. This allows us to see things as functions of each other, as if they were following an interior law that was founded in their nature and provides order to an otherwise chaotic world. What is more, Durkheim argues that it was through religion that the very first cosmologies, or classificatory systems of the universe, came into being, in the form of religious myth. Religion was thus the first place where humans could attempt to rationally explain and understand the world around them. As a result, Durkheim argues that the evolution of logic is strongly linked to the evolution of religion (though both ultimately depend upon social conditions). This leads to the claim that religion is at the origin of much, if not all, of human knowledge. This argument has a far reach, affecting even the way in which modern science views itself. Following Durkheim, while modern science might claim to have no kinship with religion and in fact claim to be opposed to religion, it is in effect through religion that the conceptual and logical thought necessary for scientific thinking originated and was first elaborated. This component of Durkheim’s sociology of knowledge has been highly provocative and influential both in sociology and beyond.
e. Cultural Relativism versus Scientific Truth
With such a theory of knowledge, Durkheim reveals himself to be a cultural relativist, arguing that each culture has a network of self-referential logic and concepts that creates truths that are legitimate and, while not necessarily grounded in the reality of the physical world, are grounded within the reality of their respective social framework. Truths of this nature Durkheim calls mythological truths. In opposition to this relativistic view of truth, however, Durkheim also defends scientific rationalism and the idea that there exist scientific truths that are not dependent on cultural context and that express reality “as it is.” These scientific truths, or scientific représentations, are subjected to stringent verification and methodological control, and while they express these truths through inadequate symbols and in an approximated way, they are more perfect and more reliable than other représentations collectives. Despite the fact that they are of a fundamentally different nature (expressing reality as it is and not the reality of society), scientific représentations operate in the same way and are just as instrumental to society as other représentations collectives. Scientific truths deal with the same subject matter as mythological truths (nature, man, society), and like other représentations collectives they serve to reinforce and unify the collective conscience around one idea. Scientific truths are also représentations to which society has added the knowledge it has accumulated historically through collaborative effort. Scientific représentations reflect collective experience and express the relationship a society has with the world around it. Thus, while, there are objective truths about the world to be discovered, it would be mistaken to think that reality exists independently, or is logically antecedent, of it being represented through society, since it is only through collective effort that these scientific truths are discovered, and thus come to being. Scientific truths, while of a special nature, are also in an important way bound by the limits of society.
In the end, Durkheim strives to account for a total sociology of knowledge. Society creates for itself, through its représentations collectives, a vast network of language and logical thought that is instrumental in allowing its individuals to understand and think the world. And, since the world exists only as far as it is thought, and since the world is totally thought only by society, the world takes its shape in society. In other words, society establishes, from the outset, the limits of possibility for rationality, linguistic expression, and knowledge in general.
4. Durkheim’s Philosophy of Religion
During Durkheim’s life, his thinking about religion changed in important ways. Early in his life, as in Division, he argued that human societies could exist on a secular basis without religion. But later in his life he saw religion as a more and more fundamental element of social life. By the time he wrote Forms, Durkheim saw religion as a part of the human condition, and while the content of religion might be different from society to society over time, religion will, in some form or another, always be a part of social life. Durkheim also argues that religion is the most fundamental social institution, with almost all other social institutions, at some point in human history, being born from it. For these reasons he gave special analysis to this phenomenon, providing a philosophy of religion that is perhaps as provocative as it is rich with insights.
According to Durkheim, religion is the product of human activity, not divine intervention. He thus treats religion as a sui generis social fact and analyzes it sociologically. Durkheim elaborates his theory of religion at length in his most important work, Forms. In this book Durkheim, uses the ethnographic data that was available at the time to focus his analysis on the most primitive religion that, at the time, was known, the totemic religion of Australian aborigines. This was done for methodological purposes, since Durkheim wished to study the simplest form of religion possible, in which the essential elements of religious life would be easier to ascertain. In a certain sense, then, Durkheim is investigating the old question, albeit in a new way, of the origin of religion. It is important to note, however, that Durkheim is not searching for an absolute origin, or the radical instant where religion first came into being. Such an investigation would be impossible and prone to speculation. In this metaphysical sense of origin, religion, like every social institution, begins nowhere. Rather, as Durkheim says, he is investigating the social forces and causes that are always already present in a social milieu and that lead to the emergence of religious life and thought at different points in time, under different conditions.
Durkheim’s analysis is not without its detractors, who criticize among other things his methodology, his misinterpretation of ethnographic data, or his undermining of traditional religion. Nevertheless, his assertion that religion has an essentially social foundation, as well as other elements of his theory, have been reaffirmed and re-appropriated over the years by a number of different thinkers.
It is important to look at the starting point of Durkheim’s analysis, his definition of religion: “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (Durkheim; 1995: 44) There are, thus, three fundamental elements to every religion: sacred objects, a set of beliefs and practices, and the existence of a moral community. Of the three, perhaps the most important would be the notion of the sacred, which is the point around which any religious system revolves. It is that which inspires great respect and admiration on the part of society and what is set apart and keeps us at a distance. Durkheim contrasts the sacred with the notion of profane, or that which desecrates the sacred and from which the sacred must be protected, making the opposition between sacred and profane a central element of Durkheim’s theory. With this definition Durkheim also puts an emphasis on the social element of religion. This is important because he spends a great deal of time in Forms arguing against theorists like Herbert Spencer, Edward Tylor, or James Frazer who locate the origin of religion in psychological phenomena such as dreams (the animistic view of Spencer) or natural phenomena, such as storms (the naturalistic view of the latter two). Durkheim argued that such an interpretation of phenomena was socially learned, and could only be the effect of an already established religion, not its cause. With this said, it is now time to examine how Durkheim believes a religion originates and operates.
According to Durkheim, a religion comes into being and is legitimated through moments of what he calls “collective effervescence.” Collective effervescence refers to moments in societal life when the group of individuals that makes up a society comes together in order to perform a religious ritual. During these moments, the group comes together and communicates in the same thought and participates in the same action, which serves to unify a group of individuals. When individuals come into close contact with one another and when they are assembled in such a fashion, a certain “electricity” is created and released, leading participants to a high degree of collective emotional excitement or delirium. This impersonal, extra-individual force, which is a core element of religion, transports the individuals into a new, ideal realm, lifts them up outside of themselves, and makes them feel as if they are in contact with an extraordinary energy.
The next step in the genesis of religion is the projecting of this collective energy onto an external symbol. As Durkheim argues, society can only become conscious of these forces circulating in the social world by representing them somehow. The power of religion must therefore be objectified, or somehow made visible, and the object onto which this force is projected becomes sacred. This sacred object receives the collective force and is thereby infused with the power of the community. It is in this way that a society gains a tangible idea, or representation, of itself. When discussing these matters, Durkheim is careful to use the word “sacred object” to describe what is traditionally understood in the West as a god. This is because sacred objects can be very diverse and do not necessarily refer to supernatural deities. For example, God is the sacred object for Christian societies, Thor was the sacred object for Viking society, but the four noble truths are also sacred objects for Buddhists, and, as we will see, the individual person has become the sacred object for modern, Western society. Physical objects, such as rocks, feathers, totem polls, crosses, and so forth, can also become infused with the force of the collectivity, thereby becoming sacred and serving as a physical reminder of society’s presence. Such views on religion allow Durkheim to make the radical claim that a society’s sacred object is nothing but the collective forces of the group hypostatized. Religion is society worshipping itself, and through religion, individuals represent to themselves society and their relationship to it.
With this, Durkheim lays bare the inner workings of a society’s symbolic network. With Durkheim’s rejection of the thing in itself, the meaning and value of an object are not intrinsic to it, but are to be found in that object’s relationship to society. Said otherwise, an object’s status is determined by the meaning that society attributes to it, or as its status as a représentation collective. Importantly, this analysis goes beyond what is strictly considered the religious realm, since all socially derived meaning operates in the same way. For example, a stamp, a flag, or the sport of football are by themselves just a piece of paper, a piece of cloth, or a group of padded men chasing a leather ball; they are all essentially worthless and derive their value from the reality of collective forces they represent and embody. The more important a society determines an object to be, the more valuable it will be in the eyes of an individual.
If these moments of collective effervescence are the origin of religious feelings, religious rituals must be repeated in order to reaffirm the collective unity of a society, otherwise its existence is at risk. Durkheim remarks that if the societal forces central to the religious life of a society are not re-animated, they will be forgotten, leaving individuals with no knowledge of the ties that exist between them and no concept of the society to which they belong. This is why religious ritual is necessary for the continued existence of a society; religion cannot exist through belief alone-it periodically needs the reality of the force behind the belief to be regenerated. This takes place through various religious rituals, in which collective beliefs are reaffirmed and the individual expresses their solidarity with the sacred object of society, or with society itself. The form the specific ritual takes can vary greatly, from funerals to rain dances to patriotic national holidays, but its goal is always the same. Through these rituals, society maintains its existence and integrates individuals into the social fold, exerting pressure on them to act and think alike.
Of great significance to Durkheim’s theory is his insistence on the reality of these religious phenomena. As he argues, the social forces that animate a society’s religious life are real, and are really felt by the participants. While it is a mistake for an individual to believe that this power emanates directly from the sacred object, or is somehow intrinsic to the sacred object, behind the symbol manifesting the force is a living and concrete reality. Consequently, all religions are true, at least symbolically, for they express a power that does exist, the power of society. Religion, religious belief, and the religious experience cannot, therefore, be dismissed as mere fantasies or illusions.
5. Durkheim on Morality
Durkheim’s moral philosophy was unfortunately denied its culmination by his untimely death in 1917. His writings on the subject, therefore, lack the consistency he would have liked to give them. Nevertheless, he did publish several important articles, most notably his Determination of a Moral Fact (1906), and gave lectures on the subject, including the posthumously published Moral Education, from which his views on morality can be deciphered.
Durkheim’s moral theory is unique in that he rejects theorists who rely on a priori moral concepts or abstract logical reasoning to construct ethical systems. Rather, Durkheim treats moral phenomena as conditioned both socially and historically. Each society creates over time its own set of moral rules, which can vary dramatically from one society to the next, with each society creating for itself moral principles that are more or less adequate to its existential needs. When analyzing moral phenomena, the moral philosopher must take into consideration the socio-historical context of the moral system they are operating in and make moral prescriptions accordingly, or risk doing great harm to that society. However, that there exists no universal morality for humanity in no way abnegates the validity of any moral system and does not open the door to moral nihilism. On the contrary, moral rules are rooted in the sui generis reality of society that the individual cannot deny; morality is a social fact and should be studied as such. This approach to morality would form the basis of what Durkheim considers a physique des moeurs, or a physics of morality, a new, empirical, rational science of morality. Yet, what exactly does Durkheim understand morality to be? And how does it operate in a society?
While Durkheim’s understanding of morality can at times be vague and lead to several interpretations, he most often understands morality as a system of rules and maxims that prescribes to individuals’ ways of behaving in different situations. Contained within this moral system is a set of moral values, beliefs, and ideas that provide a framework for the rules. Morality is also a wholly social phenomenon, with morality not existing outside of the limits of society. As Durkheim claims, morality begins only when an individual pertains to a group.
Moral rules have several unique characteristics that separate them from other rules that might be found in society. These special features lie in morality’s obligatory nature and in its desirability. According to Durkheim, at the heart of morality is a central moral authority that commands to its adherents its moral precepts. Through this central authority the individual feels an external constraint to conform to a society’s moral code. Obligation is thus a fundamental element of morality. This aspect of morality corresponds closely to the Kantian notion of duty, whose influence Durkheim openly acknowledges. However, Durkheim was critical of the Kantian notion of duty, since he felt that the repressive notion of duty was lacking a positive counterweight. For Durkheim, such a counterweight is found in the desirability of morality, which is equally important and necessary for the existence of morality. What Durkheim means with the desirability of morality is that the individual views the authority dictating to them their obligations as a higher power that is worthy of their respect and devotion. When an individual performs their duty, they feel as if they are working towards some sort of higher end, which Durkheim equates to the good (le bien). As a result, the individual willingly accepts the obligatory nature of moral rules and views them beneficially.
Within this dual obligatory-desirability element of morality, Durkheim views to a large extent the influence of religion. According to Durkheim morality and religion are intimately linked, and goes so far as to say that the moral life and the religion of a society are intimately intertwined. Wherever one finds a religion, one will find with it an accompanying moral doctrine and moral ideals that are commanded to believers. Moral authority is, thus, born out of religious life and draws its authority from the power of religion, which, as seen in the section above, is merely society’s collective force hypostatized and made visible. Religious imagery therefore takes on a moral tone and can be an important physical source of moral authority in a society. It is not surprising to Durkheim then that religious imagery inspires the same emotions of fear, obedience, and respect that an individual feels in the face of moral imperatives. In this way, moral authority is constituted by a force that is greater than the individual, outside of the individual, but also a force that penetrates the individual and shapes their personality.
At this, Durkheim was keen to distinguish two elements of morality, both equally important to moral behavior. On the one hand, there is the morality of the group, which exists objectively and outside of the individual. On the other hand there is the individual’s way of representing this morality. Indeed, there are moral rules created by society that exert a pressure on the individual, but each individual expresses the morality of their society in their own way. It is impossible for any individual to exactly translate the moral conscience of society, which means that even where moral conformity is the most complete, the individual still retains an individual moral conscience and has a hand in adding elements of their personality to society’s moral codes. This allows the individual to create, at least in part, their own morality. In this way, morality has both an extra-individual element and an individual element, as is the case with all other social facts.
Yet, one is inclined to ask, is the individual free to critique moral rules? Can morality not be changed? Is there any space for individual autonomy in this matter? According to Durkheim, moral rules do not need to be blindly followed by individuals. If the individual finds reason to object, critique, or rebel against the moral principles of society, not only is this possible, but it is perhaps even beneficial to society. For example, it is possible that changes take place within a society that can either cause a moral principle to be forgotten, or produce a schism between a traditional moral system and new moral sentiments that have not yet been recognized by the collective conscience. When this happens, an individual is correct to show the relevance of the forgotten moral principle or to illuminate what these new moral sentiments are exactly (as an example of the latter case Durkheim points to Socrates). For these purposes, the physique des moeurs can be very helpful. Thus, an individual is able to experiment with different moral claims, but only granted that these moral claims reflect that actual moral state, or states, of society (the individual is of course free to completely reject society, but this would only confirm the existence of the moral rules being rejected and potentially cause harm to the individual). This last caveat demonstrates that even when the individual acts in an autonomous way, they are, morally speaking, still bound by the limits of society.
6. Social Change and Modernity in the West
One of the most prominent and problematic interpretations of Durkheim’s thought is the misconception that he does not have a theory of social change. On the contrary, social change is a primary focus in much of Durkheim’s thought. In particular, Durkheim focuses on Europe’s difficult transition from a medieval society to a modern one. Thus, Durkheim’s structural analyses of social institutions are complemented in important ways by analyses of the dynamic nature of these phenomena.
a. Causes of Social Change
Durkheim’s theory of social change is largely elaborated in Division. In this book Durkheim argues that social change is a mechanical process, meaning that it is not directed in any intentional way. It is spurred above all by changes in the ways that people interact with each other, which in turn depend upon the demographic and material conditions of a society. The two main factors affecting social interaction are increases in population density and advances in technology, most notably in the fields of communication and transportation. This is because population growth and technology advances increase social connectivity, leading to interactions that differ in quantity, intimacy, frequency, type, and content. Cities, the locus of social change, also emerge and grow as a result of changes in population and technology. The rate at which individuals come into contact and interact with one another is what Durkheim calls moral or dynamic density.
The most important change to take place as a result of increased moral density occurs on a structural level and is what Durkheim calls the division of labor. At their beginning, societies are characterized by what Durkheim calls mechanical solidarity. In mechanical solidarity, groups are small, individuals in the group resemble each other, and their individual conscience is more or less synonymous with and dependent on the collective conscience. There is little to no individual volition and individuals belong to the group. The individual and individuality as we understand them do not exist. As the moral density increases, this changes. Appealing to Darwin’s evolutionary theory that the more alike two organisms are the greater the combat for the resources will be, Durkheim argues that with an increase in moral density comes greater competition for fewer resources. In order to mitigate the competition and make social life harmonious, individuals in a society will specialize their tasks and pursue different means to make a living. The more a society grows in moral density, the more the labor of a society will divide and the more specialized the tasks of its individuals will become. This leads to what Durkheim calls organic solidarity, or solidarity based not upon individual resemblances, but upon the functional interdependence of society’s individual parts, much the way the organs of a body are interdependent. In this way, Durkheim argues, modern societies will retain their cohesion. Concerning the specific impacts of the division of labor, Durkheim concentrates his analysis on Europe.
b. The Division of Labor and the Emergence of Modernity in Europe
One of the most important effects of the division of labor is the rise of individualism and the importance of the individual within a society. In order for the specialization of tasks to take place, the individual must be given more freedom to develop their work. As the specialization increases, the autonomy of the individual will also increase, since the rest of society will be less and less capable of telling the individual how to do the work. In this way, the individual feels in a real way less acted upon by society. As a result of these divisions in society, there will also be fewer and fewer collective experiences shared by all members of the group, leading further to different points of view and a greater diversity among individuals and within the collective conscience. The division of labor thus has the important effect of individuating the population and creating differences between individuals in a society. The creation of the individual through this process is perhaps the defining characteristic of modernity.
It is worth noting here Durkheim’s opposition to social contract theorists and utilitarians, like Spencer, who argue that society begins when individuals come together to form groups. In many ways his book Division is a refutation of this theory and strives to show that collective life is not born from the individual, but, rather, that the individual is born out of collective life.
The division of labor also had major impacts within the economic and social realms, as evidenced by the historical development of Europe. In medieval society, there were well-defined social institutions in the realms of religion, politics, and education that were each distinct from one another. The organization of the economic sector was especially important, with guilds developing into strong, independent institutions that were at the heart of social life. These institutions regulated prices and production and maintained good relations between members of the same craft. These institutions and structures of society ensured that individuals were integrated into the social fold properly, promoting social solidarity. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, a large growth in population was coupled with a large demographic shift, which was aided by technological innovation (such as the railroad, the steamship, and various manufacturing techniques). Without the previous restrictions on mobility or production capabilities, cities grew greatly in size, production of goods centralized, and the economic and social equilibrium that existed in the medieval period was ruptured. The ever-greater mobility of goods and people extended the reach of economic, political, and social institutions. As a result the guild system disappeared and regional trading interdependence gave way to international interdependence. Large-scale institutions in politics, education, medicine, shipping, manufacturing, arts, banking and so forth that were free from regional limitations developed and extended their influence to greater portions of society.
In essence, Durkheim is describing the birth of the modern industrial state. The concentration of the population and the centralization of the means of production created an enormous shift in the way of life for large parts of European society. It also changed the way that people related to one another. City life was characterized by fewer and weaker intimate relationships, greater anonymity, but also greater personal freedoms. Factory life was also different from the guild system, as workers were separated from their family for greater parts of the day, there was greater stress on workers’ nervous systems, and workers worked on assembly lines that regimented and mechanized their movements. Under these circumstances, the way of life that corresponded to medieval society no longer corresponded to the way of life in the modern industrial world. It was impossible for new generations to live in the same ways as their predecessors and European society witnessed a weakening of all its previous traditions, particularly its religious traditions.
c. The Death of the Gods
“The old gods are aging or are already dead, and others are not yet born.” [Durkheim; 2005 (1912): 610-611]
An incredibly important but often overlooked part of Durkheim’s philosophy is his declaration of the death of the gods of European society, and what this means for the future of Western civilization. Durkheim’s declaration, however, should not be confused with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous “death of God.” While Durkheim was familiar with some of Nietzsche’s work and favorable points of comparison between the two could be made on the subject, Durkheim does not appear to have been influenced by Nietzsche in this respect. Rather, Durkheim’s declaration of the death of the gods is closely linked to his analysis of the social disintegration of European society brought about by modernity, a subject that he comes back to throughout the entirety of his career, from Division to Forms. Yet how is one to understand this statement? What does this mean for European society?
There are two parts to Durkheim’s declaration that need to be de-compacted. On the one hand the old gods are dead. Because of the massive transformations taking place, European society became profoundly de-structured. The institutions animating medieval life disappeared. As a result, individuals were having a hard time finding meaningful attachments to social groups and society as a whole lost its former unity and cohesiveness. Not only this, but the transformations that led to modernity also rendered former beliefs and practices irrelevant. The big things of the past, the political, economic, social, and especially religious institutions, no longer inspired the enthusiasm they once did. With former ways of life no longer relevant and society no longer cohesive, the collective force so vital for the life of a society was no longer generated. This would have an important impact on the religion of medieval society, Christianity. Because society no longer had the means to create the collective force that exists behind God, belief in God weakened substantially. Christian society was no longer sufficiently present to the individual for faith in God to be maintained; the individual no longer felt, literally, the presence of God in their lives. With the lack of faith in God also came a rejection of other elements of Christian doctrine, such as Christian morality and Christian metaphysics, which were beginning to be replaced respectively by modern notions of justice and modern science. In sum, the social milieu that supported Christianity disappeared, leaving Christian faith, values, and thinking without any social foundations to give them life.
That Christianity faded away in European society is not a problem in itself, for it merely reflects a natural course of development a society may take. The problem arises when taking into consideration the second element to Durkheim’s phrase: no new gods have been created to replace the old ones. For Durkheim, the changes in European society were taking place too quickly and no new institutions had been able to form in the absence of the old ones. European society had not yet been able to create a religion to replace Christianity. Instead what Durkheim saw in Europe was a society in a state of disaggregation characterized by a lack of cohesion, unity, and solidarity. Individuals in such a society have no bonds between them and interact in a way similar to molecules of water, without any central force that is able to organize them and give them shape. European society had become nothing but a pile of sand that the slightest wind would succeed at dispersing. In other words, European society was no longer a society in Durkheim’s sense of the word, and as such was open to a number of further problems.
To begin, such a society is incapable of generating social forces that act on the individual. It is unable to create an authority that exerts pressure on individuals to act and think in a similar manner. Without these forces acting on the individual from the outside, individuals are dispersed from their commitment to society and left to their own. Duties are no longer accepted carte blanche and moral rules no longer seem binding. As such, individuals increasingly are detached from group obligation and act out of self-interest. These are the two conditions that Durkheim believes characterize the moral situation of modern European society: rampant individualism and weak morality. Durkheim’s term for this “froid moral” in which morality breaks down is anomie, a state of deregulation, in which the traditional rules have lost their authority.
A second problem stemming from the fact that society is no longer present to individuals is a higher suicide rate, specifically with two types of suicide that Durkheim identifies in Suicide. The first is egoistic suicide, in which an individual no longer see a purpose to life and sees life as meaningless. These feelings arise because the bonds integrating the individual to society have weakened or been broken. This problem involves society because society is an important source of meaning and direction for individuals, giving them goals to pursue and norms to guide them. The second type of suicide is anomic suicide, which involves what Durkheim calls a “mal d’infini.” Normally society, with the help of its moral code, plays an important part in defining what are legitimate aspirations in life, as concerns wealth, material goods, or any other type of pleasure. Without limits set on these desires, the passions are unregulated, and the individual’s expectations do not correspond with reality. Consequently the individual is perpetually unhappy. Both types of suicide result from a weakness of social solidarity and an inability for society to adequately integrate its individuals.
A final consequence is that society has no central measure for truth and no authoritative way of organizing or understanding the world. In such a state, there arises the potential for conflict between individuals or groups who have different ways of understanding the world. Such a conflict could be seen in the 19th and early 20th centuries between Christian religious doctrine and modern science, a conflict that Durkheim’s own sociology took part in and one that continues today.
Essentially, Durkheim’s analysis of the death of the gods concentrates on the underlying disorganization of European society that led to the demise not only of Christianity, but of a number of other economic, political, and social institutions as well. This same underlying disorganization was preventing European society from generating the collective force necessary for the creation of new institutions and a new sacred object. The death of the gods is a symptom of a sickened society, one that has lost its internal structure and descended into an-archy, or a society with no authority and no definitive principles, moral or otherwise, to build itself on. In spite of such a glum analysis, Durkheim did have hope for the future. Out of the chaos he saw the emergence of a new religion that would guide the West, what he termed “the cult of the individual.”
d. The New Religion of the West: The Cult of the Individual
According to the later Durkheim religion is part of the human condition and as long as humans are grouped in collective life, they will inevitably form a religion of some sort. Europe could thus be characterized as in a state of transition; out of the ashes of Christianity, a new religion would eventually emerge. This new religion would form around the sacred object of the human person as it is represented in the individual, the only element common to all in a society that is becoming more and more diverse and individualized. Appropriately, Durkheim calls this new religion the ‘cult of the individual.’ But how does this religion begin? What is its conception of individual? And what kind of society/religion does the cult of the individual create?
To begin, the cult of the individual begins, like all religions according to Durkheim, with collective effervescence. The first moments of collective effervescence for the cult of the individual could be found in the democratic revolutions taking place in Europe and elsewhere at the end of the 18th and during the 19th centuries. The French Revolution is the perfect example of such a release of collective energy. The concept of individual that these social movements were embracing follows strongly the line of thinking that was established during the Enlightenment; it is based on a general idea of human dignity and does not lead to a narcissistic, egotistical worship of the self. As Durkheim argues, the individualism of the cult of the individual is that of Kant and Rousseau; it is what the Déclaration des droits de l’homme (Declaration of the Rights of Man), the document produced by revolutionaries during the French Revolution, attempted to codify more or less successfully. In other words, the cult of the individual presupposes an autonomous individual endowed with rationality, born both free and equal to all other individuals in these respects. Belief in this abstract conception of individual creates the ideal around which the cult revolves.
With this sacred object at its core, the cult of the individual also contains moral ideals to pursue. These moral ideals that define society include the ideals of equality, freedom, and justice. The specific moral code that translates these ideals is built around the inalienable rights of the individual; any disenfranchisement of an individual’s human rights or any violation of an individual’s human dignity is considered sacrilege and is a moral offence of the highest order. Furthermore, with society becoming more diverse, the respect, tolerance, and promotion of differences become important social virtues. Private property, as a tangible expression of an individual’s autonomy and rights, likewise becomes a symbol of the sacred character of the individual and is itself imbued with a certain degree of sacredness. Considering its ideals and beliefs, the cult of the individual also has a political dimension. Modern democracy, which encodes, institutionalizes, and protects the rights of the individual, is the form of government whereby Western societies best express their collective belief in the dignity of the individual. It is by protecting the rights of the individual in this way, somewhat paradoxically, that society is best preserved.
Rationality is also of primary importance to this religion. The cult of the individual has as a first dogma the autonomy of reason and as a first right free inquiry. Authority can and must be rationally grounded in order for the critically rational individual to have respect for social institutions. In continuing with the importance of rationality, modern science provides the cosmology for the cult of the individual. Scientific truths have come to be accepted by society as a whole and Durkheim even says that modern society has faith in science in the same way that past societies had faith in Christianity cosmology; despite that most individuals do not participate in or fully understand the scientific experiments taking place, the general population trusts scientific findings and accepts them as true. Modern science has an advantage, however, in that, unlike other religious cosmologies, it avoids dogmatizing about reality and permits individuals to challenge scientific theories through rational inquiry, fitting with the doctrine of the cult of the individual perfectly.
However, with the large growth in population and the individualization of society, it becomes very easy for society to lose hold of individuals or for the government to become out of touch with the population it serves. If there was to be social integration and solidarity, there needed to be ways in which the moral capacities of individuals could be ensured, and through which individuals could feel attachment to society. As a way of preventing the creation of a wholly individualistic society, Durkheim advocates the existence of intermediary groups, in particular labor unions. These groups would have a double purpose. On the one hand they would be intimate enough to provide sufficient social bonds for the individual, which would serve to integrate the individual into the society and develop their moral conscience. On the other hand, they would represent the demands of individuals to the government and thereby ensure that the state does not become domineering.
Through the new religion of the cult of the individual, to which he gave his full support, Durkheim predicted that European society would once again find the unity and cohesion it was lacking; once again it would have a sacred object. The extent to which Durkheim’s predictions have come true can be debated, although several developments since Durkheim’s death point to the validity of his thought. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed in 1948, more than 30 years after Durkheim’s death. This document could be regarded as the central holy text of the cult of the individual and today international moral discourse is dominated by questions of human rights. Furthermore, as some scholars have pointed out, the growth of democratic movements around the world, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union, could also be used as evidence of the merits of Durkheim’s theories. In any case, Durkheim acknowledges that this religion, like all others preceding it, would only be of use to humanity temporarily, and would eventually be replaced by some future system of belief more adequate to the needs of society.
7. The Individual and Society
Durkheim is one of the first thinkers in the Western tradition, along with other 19th century thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Peirce, and Karl Marx, to reject the Cartesian model of the self, which stipulates a transcendental, purely rational ego existing wholly independent of outside influence. In opposition to the Cartesian model, Durkheim views the self as integrated in a web of social, and thus historical, relations that greatly influence their actions, interpretations of the world, and even their abilities for logical thought. What is more, social forces can be assimilated by the individual to the point where they operate on an automatic, instinctual level, in which the individual is unaware of the effect society has on their tastes, moral inclinations, or even their perception of reality. Social forces thus comprise an unconscious “substructure” of the mind, in which they have to varying degrees been incorporated by the individual. In consequence, if an individual wants to know themselves, they must understand the society of which they are a part, and how this society has a direct impact on their existence. In fact, in a complete reversal of Descartes, Durkheim, following the sociological method, advocates that in order to understand one’s self, the individual must avoid introspection and look outside of themselves, at the social forces that determine their personality. In these ways, Durkheim anticipated by at least fifty years the post-modern deconstruction of the self as a socio-historically determined entity.
Partly because of this conception of the individual, and partly because of his methodology and theoretical stances, Durkheim has been routinely criticized on several points. Critics argue that he is a deterministic thinker and that his view of society is so constraining towards the individual that it erases any possibility for individual autonomy and freedom. Others argue that his sociology is too holistic and that it leaves no place for the individual or for subjective interpretations of social phenomena. Critics have gone so far as to accuse Durkheim of being anti-individual due in part to his consistent claims that the individual is derived from society.
Such critics, however, misconstrue a number of elements of Durkheim’s thought. To begin, there is an important individual component to society in that it is both external and internal to individuals. Durkheim makes clear on several occasions that elements of society, such as religious beliefs, morality, or language, are incorporated and appropriated by individuals in their own manner. While it is true that représentations collectives, for example, are the work of the collectivity and express collective thought through the individual, when the individual assimilates them they are refracted and colored by the individual’s personal experiences, thereby differentiating them. Thus, each individual expresses society in their own way. It should also be remembered that social facts are the result of a fusion of individual consciences. As such there is a delicate interplay between the individual and society whereby the individual not only maintains their individuality, but is also able to enrich the field of social forces by contributing to it their own personal thoughts and feelings.
In another sense, critics claiming that Durkheim is anti-individual overlook his analysis of modern society. As discussed above, according to Durkheim’s theory of the division of labor, as societies develop, they cultivate differences between individuals by necessity. This grants individuals an increasing amount of freedom to develop their personality. At least in Western society, the development of and respect for individualism has grown to such an extent that it has become the object of a cult; the individual is a sacred object and the protection of individual liberties and human dignity has been codified into moral principles. Granted that this individualism is itself a product of collective life, modern society, if anything, encourages individual autonomy, diversity, and freedom of thought as shared social norms.
As a whole, there is no antagonism between the individual and society in Durkheim’s sociology. In fact, Durkheim argues that to adhere to a group is the only thing that makes an individual human, since everything that we attribute as being special to humanity (language, the ability for rational thought, the ability for moral action, and so forth) is a product of social life. Far from being anti-individual, Durkheim never lost sight of the individual, and the relation of the individual to society is a guiding question throughout his work. Rather than showing that individuals are wholly subservient to society for all aspects of their existence, Durkheim’s analyses demonstrate that in order to understand the individual, it is necessary to situate them within the network of social relations that informs and influences their life. This is exactly what Durkheim’s sociology does, and its strength lies precisely in its illumination and deconstruction of those elements of society that have the greatest bearing on and realize themselves through the individual.
8. References and Further Reading
a. Selection of Durkheim’s Works in French
- “La Science positive de la morale en Allemagne.” Revue philosophique 24: 33-58, 113-42, 275-84, 1887.
- Review of ideas of German moralists Wagner, Schmoller, Schaeffle, Ihering, Wundt, and Post.
- De la division du travail social: étude sur l'organisation des sociétés supérieures. Paris: Alcan, 1893.
- Les Règles de la méthode sociologique. Paris: Alcan, 1895.
- Le Suicide,Paris: Alcan, 1897.
- “L'Individualism et les intellectuels.” Revue bleue, 4e série 10: 7-13, 1898.
- In many ways, Durkheim’s most definitive statement on the cult of the individual.
- Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. 5ème edition, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2005 (1912).
- “Le Dualisme de la nature humaine et ses conditions sociales.” Scientia 15: 206-21, 1914.
- An article examining Durkheim’s thoughts on the social/religious origin of the mind-body split and its implications for human civilization.
- L'Allemagne au-dessus de tout: la mentalité allemande et la guerre. Paris: Colin, 1915.
- Pamphlet examining German nationalism during WWI.
- Sociologie et philosophie. Préface de Célestin Bouglé. Paris: Alcan, 1924.
- Contains three important articles: “Représentations individuelles et représentations collectives” (1898), “La Détermination du fait moral” (1906), and “Jugements de valeur et jugements de réalité” (1911).
- L'Éducation morale. Présentation de Paul Fauconnet. Paris: Alcan, 1925.
- A lecture course Durkheim regularly gave on the subject of morality and how it could be instilled in individuals through various disciplinary mechanisms.
- Le Socialisme. éd. avec introduction de M. Mauss, Paris: Alcan, 1928.
- A text examining the history of socialist ideas and the socialist movement, including Karl Marx and St. Simon.
- Leçons de sociologie: physique des moeurs et du droit. Istanbul: L'Université d'Istanbul. “Publications de l'Université Faculté de Droit,” no. 3; et Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950.
- Pragmatisme et sociologie. Paris: Vrin, 1955.
- A lecture course given by Durkheim examining and critiquing Pragmatist views on truth and defending his sociological explanation of truth.
b. Selection of Durkheim’s Works in English
- The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by W.D. Halls. New York: The Free Press, 1984.
- The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method. Translated by W. D. Halls, Steven Lukes, ed. New York: The Free Press, 1982.
- Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1951.
- The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995.
- “Germany Above All”: German Mentality and the War. Paris: Colin, 1915.
- Pamphlet examining German nationalism during WWI.
- Sociology and Philosophy. Translated by D. F. Pocock. London: Cohen and West, 1953.
- Contains three important articles: “Individual and Collective Representations” (1898), “The Determination of Moral Facts” (1906), and “Value Judgments and Judgments of Reality” (1911).
- Professional Ethics and Civic Morals. Translated by Cornelia Brookfield. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957.
- Socialism and Saint-Simon. Translated by C. Sattler. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1958.
- A text examining the history of socialist ideas and the socialist movement, including Karl Marx and St. Simon.
- “The Dualism of Human Nature and Its Social Conditions.” in Émile Durkheim, 1858-1917: A Collection of Essays, with Translations and a Bibliography, edited by Kurt Wolff. Translated by Charles Blend. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1960.
- An article examining Durkheim’s thoughts on the social/religious origin of the mind-body split and its implications for human civilization.
- Moral Education: A Study in the Theory and Application of the Sociology of Education. Translated by Everett K. Wilson and Herman Schnurer. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1961.
- A lecture course Durkheim regularly gave on the subject of morality and how it could be instilled in individuals through various disciplinary mechanisms.
- “Individualism and the Intellectuals.” Political Studies 17: 14-30, 1969.
- In many ways, Durkheim’s most definitive statement on the cult of the individual.
- Pragmatism and Sociology. Translated by J.C. Whitehouse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
- A lecture course given by Durkheim examining and critiquing Pragmatist views on truth and defending his sociological explanation of truth.
c. Secondary Sources
- Allen, N.J., W.S.F. Pickering, and W. Watts Miller eds. On Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religion Life. London: Routledge, 1998.
- Collection of essays on Durkheim’s most important work on religion and logical thought.
- Aron, Raymond. Les étapes de la pensée sociologique. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.
- A critical look at the founders of sociological thought, including Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, Durkheim, Pareto and Weber.
- Bellah, Robert. “Introduction.” in Emile Durkheim on Morality and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.
- Excellent introduction to Durkheim’s thought with a collection of important texts.
- Besnard, Phillippe. ed. The Sociological Domain: The Durkheimians and the Founding of French Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
- A collection of essays that examines the foundation of the Durkheimian school of sociology in France at the beginning of the 20th century.
- Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passeron. “Sociologie et philosophie en France depuis 1945: mort et resurrection de la philosophie sans sujet.” trans. “Sociology and Philosophy in France since 1945: Death and Resurrection of a Philosophy without Subject,” in Social Research, vol. 34, no. 1, 1967, p. 162-212.
- A long essay examining the reception, or rather the rejection and ignorance, of Durkheim’s oeuvre in the post WWII period in France.
- Cladis, Mark. A Communitarian Defense of Liberalism: Emile Durkheim and Contemporary Social Theory. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.
- Reappraisal of Durkheim social and political thought in a contemporary context.
- Cladis, Mark, ed. Durkheim and Foucault: Perspectives on Education and Punishment. Oxford: Durkheim Press, 1999.
- A collection of essays examining the similarities and differences between Durkheim and Foucault concerning education, disciplinary techniques, and the individual subject in the modern age.
- Fournier, Marcel. Emile Durkheim 1858-1917. Paris: Fayard, 2007.
- The definitive French language study of Durkheim’s life and work.
- Godlove, Terry, ed. Teaching Durkheim. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- A collection of essays that explores different ways of teaching Durkheim’s philosophy of religion.
- Jones, Robert Allen. Emile Durkheim: An introduction to four major works. Beverly Hills CA: Sage Publications, 1986.
- An introduction to Durkheim’s four most important works.
- Jones, Robert Allen. The Development of Durkheim’s Social Realism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- An exploration of the early influences of Durkheim’s that which led to his social realism.
- Karsenti, Bruno. La société en personnes. Études durkheimiennes, Economica, 2006.
- Examines the legacy of Durkheim’s sociology for both philosophy and sociology. Guide to understanding Durkheim’s thought.
- Lehmann, Jennifer. Deconstructing Durkheim: A Post-Post Structuralist Critique. New York: Routledge, 1993.
- A reappraisal of Durkheim’s work from a philosophical perspective.
- Lukes, Steven. Émile Durkheim: His life and works. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1973.
- The definitive English language study of Durkheim’s life and work.
- Meštrovic, Stjepan. The Coming Fin de Siècle: An Application of Durkheim's Sociology to Modernity and Postmodernism. London, Routledge, 1992.
- An interesting application of Durkheim’s theories to contemporary society.
- Miller, W. Watts. Durkheim, Morals, and Modernity. London: Routledge, 1996.
- Examination of Durkheim’s moral theory and its application to modern society.
- Nielsen, Donald. Three Faces of God: Society, Religion, and the Categories of Totality in the Philosophy of Emile Durkheim. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998.
- Examination of Durkheim’s sociology in a philosophical context, comparing it to Spinoza, Kant, Aristotle, Bacon, and Renouvier.
- Pickering, William S. F. Durkheim’s Sociology of Religion. London: Routledge, 1984.
- In-depth study of Durkheim’s theory of religion.
- Pickering, William S. F. Durkheim and Representations. London: Routledge, 2000.
- On Durkheim’s theory of knowledge and representation and its relationship to Kant and Renouvier.
- Tiryakian, Edward. Sociologism and Existentialism. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1962.
- Original and ground-breaking comparison between Durkheim’s sociology and the thought of existential thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Jaspers, and more. The main point of comparison between the two schools of thought is the relationship of the individual to society.
- Tiryakian, Edward. For Durkheim (Rethinking Classical Sociology). Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009.