Reconciling Antinomy: Durkheim on Apriorism & Empiricism

In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim reconciles the apparent antinomy between apriorism and empiricism. In order to unify these two approaches to understanding, Durkheim explores the source of their contradictions: an “essential duality,” which goes by many names — sacred and profane, part and whole, specific and general, material and ideal, all of which, Durkheim suggests, are various incarnations of the same relationship, that between the individual and society (39). Durkheim succeeds in situating the external truth that characterizes apriorism within the constrains of the material world by explaining reason as social phenomena, constructed via collective thought and imposed by the moral authority of society. Sociology, the new science of man, is the product of this synthesis.

The classical understanding of knowledge can be divided into “two contrasting doctrines:” empiricism and apriorism (15). Each offers an apparently irreconcilable explanation for the source of the categories of understanding — the “notions of time, space, genus, number, cause, substance, [and] personality” — which enable rational thought and are basic requirement for social life (11). Empiricism asserts that “these categories are constructed, made of bits and pieces, and it is the individual who forges this construction” (15). The individual is subjected to repeated sensations and experiences and, in order to make sense of the maelstrom of perceptual inputs, the mind categorizes. In contrast, apriorism maintains that these categories are “simple givens, irreducible and immanent in the human mind by virtue of its inherent make-up” (15). Reason — “the whole set of fundamental categories” — precedes experience; it is an essential feature, a precondition, of human cognition (15). Each of these explanation has its own merits. Empiricism reflects the reality of the individual biological being, while apriorism reflects that of the social being. Yet both also present difficulties: empiricism’s irrationality and apriorism’s unknowability. Durkheim sets out to reconcile the two.

Empiricism asserts that the reality can be understood through the senses. All that is empirical is “essentially individual and subjective” as sensation is tactile and specific (15). A sensation exists only for those who experience it and remains open to divergent interpretation. The reaction that one individual has to specific stimulation has no bearing on how another will necessarily respond. For empirical theorists, the relative uniformity of the categories across individuals reflects “illusions that can be practically useful,” but no fundamental truth about reality itself (15). Indeed, this is one of the difficulties that Durkheim notes: that “to reduce reason to experience is to conjure it away” (16). While the material world may impose a sensation, the individual is master how he conceives of it and his response to it. The categories of understanding constitute the “the common ground where all minds meet” (15). They are essential as a function of their universality; without this set of “homogenous” concepts there could be no “agreement between minds” (19). It is only because all men’s thoughts are framed by these notions that is common life possible. Therefore, the implications of empiricism are abrasive to this necessary universality: “[i]f reason is only a form of individual experience, there is no more reason” (17). This damage to reason explains Durkheim claim that “classical empiricism verges on irrationalism” (16).

Durkheim finds the alternative to be superior. He endorses the basic thesis of apriorism that “knowledge is formed from … two distinct and superimposed strata” — the phenomenal world of ideas and ideals layered on to the noumenal, material world (17). However, while he is amenable to apriorists’ conclusions, he questions their grounding: to merely assert that reason “is inherent in the nature of human intelligence is not an explanation” (17). By supposing that categories are innate, Durkheim sees apriorists attributing a transcendental power to the human mind: the inclination to accept certain, necessary ideas without “previous examination” or “additional proof” (18). The unusual capacity goes unexplained and unjustified. Durkheim contends that apriorists rightfully reject the constraints of empiricism, allowing for an unimpoverished conception of reason. However, they subsequently consign the source of reason to inscrutability, placing it “beyond the boundaries of nature and science” (17).
For centuries, philosophers seeking to explain man’s “superior and specific faculties” were given this choice: either to ground reason purely in the material world and individual senses, which in effect extinguishes its claims to universality, or to attach it to a “supra-experiental reality that was postulated, but whose existence no observation could establish” (342). Durkheim seeks to maintain reason’s universal character while exposing its source to scientific interrogation. He believes that apriorist principles can be explained without resorting to obscurantism. His newly formulated theory of knowledge “grants reason its special power but accounts for it without leaving the observable world” (21).

Durkheim begins his inquiry with the “well-known formula” that “man is two-fold” (18). Man exists simultaneously as an “individual being that originates in the organism” and a social being that channels the moral and intellectual framework created by society (18). As an organism, man is unremarkable. Like all biological beings, individual humans are specific. They are oriented in time and space, situated in a physical body, and constrained by the limitations of the material world. The reality that individuals directly experience is purely empirical. This state is sufficient for isolated, biological beings to fulfill their needs: “sensations are adequate to guide them automatically” (338). Durkheim notes that animals are frequently observed to return to familiar places at the proper times without needing to invent categories. Man, without his sociality, is reduced to mere instinct. He is isolated, unable to communicate, to carry out the rich “intellectual commerce” that characterizes social life (329). He is confined to his own consciousness and, thus, “reduced to only individual perception, he [is] inseparable from animal” (334).

However, man when in society is not like other animals. While animals participate in the world solely though momentary sensation, human beings perceive an additional layer superimposed on to the material world. It is this duality that separates man from beast. Human beings experience the world through the senses but, in addition, have “the capacity to conceive of the ideal and add it to the real” (316). The scholars of apriorism would suggest that the ideal is eminent in the universe and, through reason, man uncovers it, while their empiricist counterparts would argue that experience leads to an individually constructed ideal. Durkheim proposes a third path, that of a socially constructed ideal. Durkheim describes that when “collective life reaches a certain degree of intensity,” the individual undergoes a profound psychic change: his senses are overstimulated and something new is awakened within him (317). In this moment, he is overwhelmed with powerful sensations and in order to account for them, this primitive man superimposes a new world upon empirical reality which “exists only in his thoughts”; this is the world of the ideal (317). Collective life simultaneously provides the basic substrate for society, a “consciousness of consciousnesses,” and gives rise to the ideal, thus endowing humanity with its dual nature (339).

Durkheim’s fundamental insight is that society should be thought of as more than a simple collection of individuals, more than a set of laws and institutions. Society is the “system of active forces” that manufactures the conditions for social life and it could not exist without them (343). It makes man something other than himself. “[C]ollective thought is possible only by the grouping together of individuals” and this grouping would be untenable without the production of the ideal (342). Organizing any collective activity, such as a feast or a hunt, demands that all individuals in the group have a shared understanding of time and its subdivisions. To cooperate at all generally requires agreement upon a shared goal and the means of attaining it. Thus society must enforce a “minimum of logical conformity” because the basic pursuits of civilization would be impossible without common beliefs (19). If every individual was free to construct their own set of categories, nothing would be common and collective life would be impossible. In other words, the creation of an ideal “is not an optional step” or a “finishing touch” — society is the “idea it fashions of itself” (317)(318).

So society extends this set of shared ideals; it impose parameters on thought and creates a conceptual vocabulary which can be used to describe reality. However, society cannot exist without specific instantiation in the minds of individuals. It is real “only to the extent that it has a place in human consciousness” (257). It requires physical organisms to act as hosts. These hosts are ‘infected’ with the ideal and tether society to the material world. However, the essence of society cannot be understood through its origins in the amalgamation of individual biological beings. From this essentially particular substrate, something permanent and stable is produced. While society presupposes collective life, it is not be defined by this prerequisite, but rather by the new and inherently different reality that it generates. The birth of society is inseparable from the birth of the ideal; society “has created [a] new world by constructing itself” (318).

The invention of this ideal world of “impersonal aims and truths,” which bears a striking resemblance to that conceived by the apriorists, remains grounded in the empirical world; it is a product of “cooperation [between] particular wills and sensibilities” (342). Society, situated “above individual and local contingencies,” introduces a new mentality (340). It compels individuals to think in an impersonal and stable manner, which subsequently developed into organized and collective thought. As social reality is external to any single individual, universal categories can still be formulated — though now as a social fact, rather than Kantian truth. Durkheim rightfully conceives of these categories as “artful instruments of thought” that are the products of centuries of intellectual labor (21). The truths generated by society are common to everyone and do not bear the mark of any individual’s consciousness. Such collective artifacts “present guarantees of objectivity” as a function of their persistence; if they did not correspond to a material nature, they would not continue to hold “extensive and prolonged” sway in people’s minds (333).

Durkheim’s new science of sociology is a compelling synthesis of apriorism and empiricism. Apriorism’s vision of universal reason before experience has been salvaged and, at last, its origins are accounted for. Impersonal reason is recast as “another name for collective thought” (341). The ideal becomes simply “a natural product of social life” (317). Furthermore, despite his affection for apriorism, Durkheim does not go as far as to entirely eschew the notion of any empirical reality. Indeed, he asserts that social reality will necessarily correspond to the nature of things, encapsulating an essential principle of empiricism. Durkheim, by examining the sources of the antagonism between empiricism and apriorism, effectively integrates the two.

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