2 minute read

Idea of the Person

Durkheim's Critique

Émile Durkheim's (1858–1917) monumental treatise of The Elementary Form of Religious Life (1912) begins with the bold assertion that "a human institution cannot rest upon error and falsehood … when I approach the study of primitive religions, it is with the certainty that they are grounded in and express the real" (p. 2). Durkheim definitely had Tylor in mind when he wrote these lines, and devoted an entire chapter of the book to a refutation of Tylor's theories. Specifically, he argued that Tylor's account of the generation of ideas of the double and the soul from primitive explanations of dreams was radically circular. Rather, such notions presupposed the very ideas whose origins they were supposed to explain. For Durkheim, ideas such as the soul, ancestor spirits, totems, or gods could not be derived from the experience, much less the speculations, of individuals. Rather, they were intrinsically social phenomena.

Nonetheless, Durkheim concurred with Tylor that the idea of the soul was fundamental to religion: "Just as there is no known society without religion, there is no religion, however crudely organized, in which we do not find a system of collective representations dealing with the soul—its origin and destiny" (p. 242). Unlike Tylor, who drew for examples for his theories from around the globe and throughout history, Durkheim's examination of primitive religion focused on ethnographic accounts from Australia, and his discussion of the idea of the soul was correspondingly centered on Australian examples. According to native Australians, there exists a limited stock of souls. Each individual is a reincarnation of an ancestor, and all people are ultimately reincarnations of the original totemic alcheringa ancestors, powerful beings who existed in dreamtime and whose natures were merged with those of totemic species. For Durkheim, these representations addressed the critical problem of the relationship of society to the individual. The ancestral souls embodied the fundamental reality of society of which the individual was a particular manifestation.

Within the context of his discussion of the soul, Durkheim quietly introduced the idea of the person. The person, Durkheim suggested, represents the conjunction of an impersonal and personal principle, the soul and the body. The first, impersonal, derives from "the spiritual principle that serves as the soul of the collectivity … the very substance of which individual souls are made" (p. 273), whereas the body, by situating this impersonal principle in a specific location in space and time, serves as the differentiating element. Hence, "individuation is not the essential characteristic of the person. A person is not only a singular subject that is distinguished from all the others. It is, in addition and most of all, a being to which a relative autonomy is imputed in relation to the milieu with which it interacts most directly" (p. 274).

The idea of the person, for Durkheim, squarely embodied the relationship between the individual and society at the very core of his approach to sociological theory. While it still reflected European dualistic thinking about body and soul, reading his own society's dichotomies into the thought of native Australians, it opened the way to new, less ethnocentric ways of understanding non-European conceptions of the person.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - IndifferentismIdea of the Person - Durkheim's Critique, Mauss: The Person As "a Category Of The Human Mind"