Smith explores some features of social holism, as explained and defended by Emile Durkheim.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

No short list of the most influential sociological thinkers of modern times would be complete or credible if it did not include Emile Durkheim (1857–1917). The author of some of the most respected books in social science, such as Suicide: A Study in Sociology (1897), Durkheim held the first chair in social science ever established at a French university, and he founded the immensely influential journal L’Année Sociologique. Durkheim’s influence was extensive, reaching beyond sociology and anthropology into the field of history, as exemplified in the brilliant work of Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, and other members of the Annales School of historiography. The conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet (The Social Bond, 1970)—one of Durkheim’s most ardent, if selective, defenders—called Durkheim “one of the greatest of modern sociologists” and dubbed his book Suicide “a very model of what a scientific explanation should be in sociology.”

Durkheim’s political views were eclectic. He has been described as everything from a conservative to a socialist, but he is probably best described as an adherent of the New Liberalism that emerged in Europe during the late nineteenth century. (See William Logue, From Philosophy to Sociology: The Evolution of French Liberalism, 1870–1914. This book contains an extensive discussion of Durkheim.) A secularist and self‐​proclaimed rationalist, Durkheim was a vigorous advocate of state schooling during the French Third Republic (beginning in 1870), and he lectured and wrote extensively on the crucial role of education in inculcating the values essential for social cohesion. Like other New Liberals, Durkheim repudiated the individualism and laissez‐​faire economics of Old (or Classical) Liberalism, calling for more state intervention to improve society. Even more significant, theoretically speaking, was the argument of the New Liberals, including Durkheim, that sociology, not economics and the doctrine of natural rights, should serve as our primary guide in how to understand and reform society.

Durkheim played a major role in establishing sociology as a legitimate science, indeed, as the master social science that should supplant the individualistic methods and social theories of Old Liberalism. We see this most clearly in his first book, The Division of Labor in Society (1893). This book provides a valuable insight into some key differences between Old and New Liberalism, for it contains an extensive critique of Herbert’s Spencer’s ideas about the role of voluntary relationships, based on contracts, in an advanced, “industrial” society. Although Durkheim agreed with Spencer on some significant issues, as when he explained the “organic solidarity” that results when specialized roles generate interdependence among members of a society, who must rely on other people to satisfy even their most basic needs, Durkheim also criticized the individualistic foundations of Spencer’s treatment in The Principles of Sociology. The Division of Labor in Society therefore provides an excellent window through which we can see how and why New Liberals, while not rejecting the ideas of Old Liberalism altogether, sought to revise and update those ideas through the medium of sociology. Thereafter Old Liberals were frequently portrayed as behind the times, as regressive defenders of an outmoded and dogmatic ideology that could not pass the test of modern social science—a condescending attitude, typically based on serious misrepresentations of individualism and classical liberalism, that has persisted to this day.

I shall discuss the conflict between Durkheim and Spencer in a subsequent essay. For the remainder of this essay I shall summarize some of Durkheim’s fundamental ideas about sociology, as presented mainly in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). I make no attempt to criticize Durkheim’s views in this barebones account. I reserve that task for a later time. Before proceeding, however, I should explain why libertarians should be interested in Durkheim’s ideas and make an effort to understand them.

Well, all of us probably have heard claims to the effect that the individual is a product of his or her social environment; that the individual is nothing more than an abstraction which cannot be understood outside of his or her social context; that when libertarians speak of “individuals,” they are invoking unreal ghosts; that economics deals with an “economic man” that is likewise unreal; that libertarians have no appreciation for the social traditions and norms that mold individuals—and on and on, virtually ad infinitum. Although Durkheim did not defend the crude forms in which such ideas are typically expressed, he did provide their theoretical foundations. So let’s take a look at those foundations.

Social facts, declared Durkheim, “are things and should be treated as such.” In making this claim Durkheim did not mean to philosophize about the ontological nature of social facts or to draw analogies with other forms of existence (such as organisms). Rather, this is a methodological precept. In referring to social facts (institutions in the broadest sense) as “things,” Durkheim meant that “they are the sole datum afforded the sociologist.” Social facts, when viewed as things external to the individual, constitute the starting point of social science.

Durkheim (like Spencer before him) contrasted an objective “thing” with a subjective “idea.” A thing “forces itself upon our observation.” A thing cannot be modified through a mere act of will but offers some degree of resistance. We cannot, in other words, will a thing in and out of existence as we can an idea. Social facts exist externally to the individual and exercise a coercive restraint over his beliefs, values, and actions. Durkheim wrote:

Here, then 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. Consequently, since they consist of representations [i.e., ideas] and actions, they cannot be confused with organic phenomena, nor with psychical [i.e., psychological] save in and through the individual consciousness. Thus they constitute a new species [of things] and to them must be exclusively assigned the term social.

We can better understand Durkheim’s approach in the context of his objections to methodological individualism. Durkheim repudiated the doctrine that social phenomena can be explained solely in terms of personal utility, such as the striving of individuals to attain happiness. Institutions may indeed have utility, they may facilitate the pursuit of individual goals, but to “demonstrate the utility of a fact does not explain its origin, nor how it is what it is.” An institution is useful because of its properties, but our need for something cannot explain the origin or particular nature of those properties. A perception of utility can motivate us to set specific causes in motion that will generate or maintain an institution, but this effect cannot be conjured up out of nothing. An institution, considered in terms of its origin and specific properties, is not the result of individual wills; it is the product of an objective social environment which, though modifiable by human action, is beyond the control of any given person. The quest for utility (as expressed in terms of happiness, self‐​interest, etc.) leads to a variety of purposeful actions, but those individual purposes cannot explain the distinctive characteristics of social phenomena. A desire cannot produce an institution unless there already exist the necessary social forces to work with.

The cash value, so to speak, of methodological holism is expressed by Durkheim as follows: “The determining cause of a social fact must be sought among antecedent social facts and not among the states of the individual consciousness.” I cannot examine this methodological rule in any detail, except to note that it springs from Durkheim’s desire to establish sociology as an autonomous discipline. Sociology is not a branch of psychology, because social facts (the fundamental data of social science) cannot be reduced to, or explained in terms of, the conscious states and processes of individuals. From social interaction there emerges a new level of reality that could not exist in the mind of the isolated individual, and it is the business of the sociologist to study the causal factors that produce this world of social facts.

[I]n order for a social fact to exist, several individuals at the very least must have interacted together and the resulting combination must have given rise to some new production. As this synthesis occurs outside each one of us (since a plurality of consciousness are involved) it has necessarily the effect of crystallizing, or instituting outside ourselves, certain modes of action and certain ways of judging which are independent of the particular individual will considered separately.

From the synthesis of individual interaction there emerge institutions, which consist of collective beliefs and modes of behavior. Thus, according to Durkheim, sociology may be defined “as the science of institutions, their genesis and functioning.”

Institutions are experienced by the individual as existing independently of his beliefs and desires and should therefore be viewed by the sociologist as real “things”—not material things, to be sure, but real nonetheless. Social facts are in some sense psychical, “since they all consist of ways of thinking and acting,” but “the states of the collective consciousness are of a different nature than the states of the individual consciousness; they are representations of another kind.” The social facts expressed in institutions “cannot be explained by purely psychological factors.”

Thus far the position of Durkheim resembles that of Karl Popper and other individualists who reject “psychologism” as a satisfactory method of explanation in the social sciences. Methodological individualists freely admit that many social phenomena are the unintended outcome of human action and therefore cannot be reduced to the intentions of individual actors. (See my discussion in Part 6.) At times this appears to be all that Durkheim means to say, in which case it would be misleading to dub his method “holistic.” But matters are not that simple.

Durkheim concedes that “society is made up of nothing except individuals”; “the sole elements of which society is composed are individuals.” Social interaction, however, generates new phenomena with distinctive properties that cannot be explained in terms of individual states of consciousness. Just as chemical interaction produces a new phenomenon with emergent properties that are not possessed by its isolated elements, so social interaction produces a new phenomenon—the institution—that also possesses emergent properties. Society is more than the sum of its parts; its “properties differ from those displayed by the parts from which it is formed.” Society is a “system” which, though formed by an association of individuals, “represents a specific reality which has its own characteristics.”

This brings us to Durkheim’s most troublesome holistic notion. Society “constitutes a psychical individuality of a new kind,” which Durkheim called the “collective consciousness.” As previously indicated, Durkheim’s rejection of methodological individualism sometimes appears to be nothing more than a rejection of psychologism, according to which social phenomena can be explained in terms of the intentions and conscious desires of individuals. We have seen, however, that psychologism has also been rejected by many individualists (Hayek, Popper, etc.). What makes Durkheim a holist are his many references to a “collective consciousness” which exists as a distinct “substratum” apart from the consciousness of individuals. This is a very problematic notion, to say the least.

By “collective consciousness,” Durkheim did not mean to suggest that there exists a psychic entity (“society”) which is spatially located outside the minds of human beings. Indeed, Durkheim stressed that “there is no need to hypostatize the collective consciousness,” i.e., to treat it as a metaphysical being. We should distinguish collective consciousness from individual consciousness simply because those phenomena exhibit different properties:

Individual consciousness result from the nature of organic and psychical being taken in isolation, collective consciousness from a plurality of beings of this kind. The results cannot therefore fail to be different, since the component parts differ to this extent.

In sum, social facts, according to Durkheim, are distinguished by two essential characteristics: “exteriority” and “constraint.” Social facts are experienced by the individual as existing outside of him and as constraining his beliefs and actions. This exteriority does not mean that society is a separate psychical entity, one that is located in space outside the minds of individuals. Society is “exterior” to the individual inasmuch as it is experienced as a different plane of reality that does not depend for its existence on the minds of particular individuals.

I must admit that I did not enjoy writing this summary of Durkheim’s ideas. On the contrary, I found the process frustrating because, try as I may, I was unable to state some of his ideas in what I regard as an intelligible fashion. Even Durkheim’s defenders, such as Robert Nisbet, have conceded that Durkheim tended to make his idea of the “collective consciousness” (or, sometimes, “collective conscience”) seem mystical at times, but we are assured that it contains a solid, comprehensible core. Well, given my respect for Nisbet (as I discussed in Part 5), I was willing to go along for the ride and learn how Durkheim applied his fundamental concepts to specific problems. Even that proved a bumpy ride, however, as we shall see in my next essay.