Latour on Durkheim: Part 3 of 5

This is the third of five posts on Latour’s review of Durkheim’s 1912 text The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. The original review in French can be found here. You can see the previous posts of this mini-series here and here.

The next critical insight Latour offers in regard to Durkheim’s sociological method, and the philosophy of religion that ensues from it, is quite straightforward. He points out that if Durkheim’s thesis concerning the religious-agency of the Dieu-Société is to hold water, Durkheim will need to posit an account of the human subject that is weak to the same measure as the Dieu-Société is strong. The weakness  of the human subject must correspond to the strength of the Dieu-Société. Latour calls this ‘the psychology of the weak individual’. For Durkheim, the human subject, his being, his identity, almost his very soul, must be understood as donated to him, by dint of his submission to the cult of Society. At best it can therefore be said that the human subject enjoys …

[…] l’âme déversée sur lui par la société (9).

[…] a soul that is discharged upon him by society (perhaps we could translate this in a more dramatic way: ‘a soul that is dumped upon him by society’, the imagery suggesting precipitation dropped from a heavy black cloud).

Without Dieu-Société as identity-provider, the Durkheimian human subject would remain a helpless monad, unable to enter into relations with the Other, and without even the most basic means of offering communication to companions. This is the mandatory situation of the Durkheimian account of hominization.

If left to themselves, individual consciousnesses are closed to each other; they can communicate only by means of signs which express their internal states. If the communication established between them is to become a real communion, that is to say, a fusion of all particular sentiments into one common sentiment, the signs expressing them must themselves be fused into one single and unique resultant. It is the appearance of this that informs individuals that they are in harmony and makes them conscious of their moral unity. It is by uttering the same cry, pronouncing the same word, or performing the same gesture in regard to some object that they become and feel themselves to be in unison. (Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p.230).

For Durkheim, the higher achievements of the human spirit such as science and philosophy only become possible as a result of the Dieu-Societé.

To borrow the language of AIME, it is as if Durkheim is here wielding one single mode as that which alone can open up the play of all the others. The consequence, of course, is the hegemony of one mode and a disharmonic in understanding the world.

Against this I would contrast one of my favourite passages in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, the conclusion to part II of the book entitled ‘Arranging the Modes of Existence’, and in particular the multimodal account of hominization Latour proposes in the sub-section entitled ‘Another Possible Position for Anthropogenesis’.

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