My last blog on Durkheim may have left some a little unclear as to the distinction Durkheim makes between his epistemology and his sociology of knowledge. My hope is that the following might help clear up this distinction and, if it does not, that readers will be drawn to read Anne Warfield Rawls’ article on this topic (“Durkheim’s Epistemology: The Neglected Argument” 1996, AJS, 102). Nevertheless, Rawls believes that this distinction is a major point of confusion about Durkheim’s work. As the abstract to her article states:
Durkheim’s epistemology, the argument for the social origins of the categories of the understanding, is his most important and his most neglected argument. This argument has been confused with his sociology of knowledge, and Durkheim’s overall position misunderstood as a consequence. The current popularity of a “cultural” or “ideological” interpretation of Durkheim is as much a misunderstanding of his position as the “functional” interpretation from which the current interpretations seek to rescue him. Durkheim articulated a rather sophisticated epistemology in the classical sense, a point which has been entirely missed.
Rawls goes on to point out:
Durkheim’s epistemology and his sociology of knowledge are not the same. The task of an epistemology is to explain the possibility of human knowledge and to ascertain what relation human experience and ideas bear to the objects of experience (in Durkhiem’s case socially enacted objects, i.e., practices). An epistemology asks where our ideas came from and what validity they have. Durkheim’ sociology of knowledge on the other hand, appears in the conclusion to The Elementary Forms, and at the end of the lectures on pragmatism, consists roughly of the argument that language and culture consist of cosmologies of ideas, which arise as collective explanations for social forces (which are then transposed to natural forces), and that these are passed on down through generations. . . . However, Durkheim’s sociology of knowledge does not address the epistemological question of how such ideas or cosmologies are related to an underlying reality. In fact, it makes it clear that he does not think the collective representation bear any necessary relation to an underlying reality.
Durkheim’s epistemology, on the other hand, best represented by the central chapters of The Elementary Forms, deals explicitly with the question of where the basic ideas, which Durkheim refers to as categories of the understanding, originally come from. They do bear a necessary relationship to an underlying social reality and must come from direct participation of empirical (social) reality.
There is no contradiction between these two positions. They deal with different questions. The sociology of knowledge examines the origins of broad cultural narratives and asks what social forces they have developed in response to and what happens to these ideas once we have them. The epistemology asks how we develop a framework of six basic ideas in common in the first place such that any ideas could be shared to a degree sufficient to allow for the development of a cosmology. The epistemology lays out the framework for thought: the sociology of knowledge the content.
Rawls is trying to make clear that a sociology of knowledge deals with concepts and ideas and that epistemology, in the classical sense, deals with where those concepts and ideas came from in the first place. Rawls makes clear that Durkheim’s epistemological argument is that concepts and ideas come from ritual practices. Concepts and ideas, more specifically, are retrospective accounts of what happened during ritual practices in and through which collective effervescence and moral force were generated.
Another important point, based on the above, is that Durkheim believed that most epistemological problems or dilemmas resulted from individualism. Durkheim believed that Kant, Hume, and even James’ radical empiricism started with the individual and therefore were problematic. Durkheim, instead, argues for a radical socio-empiricism that focuses on group members as participants in ritual social practices. As Rawls makes clear, “But, in rejecting the individual as a starting point, the way is opened for Durkheim to explain the origin of the necessary basic concepts in terms of social processes (which Rawls also calls ritual practices); something that had never been done before.”