Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work (1858-1917)
[Excerpt from Robert Alun Jones. Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986. Pp. 12-23.] David Emile Durkheim was born on April 15, 1858 in Epinal, capital town of the department of Vosges, in Lorraine. His mother, Mélanie, was a merchant's daughter, and his father, Moïse, had been rabbi of Epinal since the 1830s, and was also Chief Rabbi of the Vosges and Haute-Marne. Emile, whose grandfather and great-grandfather had also been rabbis, thus appeared destined for the rabbinate, and a part of his early education was spent in a rabbinical school. This early ambition was dismissed while he was still a schoolboy, and soon after his arrival in Paris, Durkheim would break with Judaism altogether. But he always remained the product of close-knit, orthodox Jewish family, as well as that long-established Jewish community of Alsace-Lorraine that had been occupied by Prussian troops in 1870, and suffered the consequent anti-Semitism of the French citizenry. Later, Durkheim would argue that the hostility of Christianity toward Judaism had created an unusual sense of solidarity among the Jews. An outstanding student at the Collège d'Epinal, Durkheim skipped two years, easily obtaining his baccalauréats in Letters (1874) and Sciences (1875), and distinguishing himself in the Concours Général. Intent now on becoming a teacher, Durkheim left Epinal for Paris to prepare for admission to the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure. Installed at a pension for non-resident students, however, he became utterly miserable: his father's illness left him anxious over his family's financial security; he was an utter provincial alone in Paris; and his intellectual predilections, already scientific rather than literary, were ill-fitted to the study of Latin and rhetoric essential for admission to the Ecole. After failing in his first two attempts at the entrance examination (in 1877 and 1878), Durkheim was at last admitted near the end of 1879. Durkheim's generation at the Ecole was a particularly brilliant one, including not only the socialist Jean Jaurès, who became Durkheim's life-long friend, but also the philosophers Henri Bergson, Bustave Belot, Edmond Goblot, Felix Rauh, and Maurice Blondel, the psychologist Pierre Janet, the linguist Ferdinand Brunot, the historians Henri Berr and Camille Jullian, and the geographer Lucien Gallois. Despite constant fears of failure, which plagued him throughout his life, Durkheim became an active participant in the high-minded political and philosophical debates that characterized the Ecole; and, like Jaurès, he was soon a staunch advocate of the republican cause, with special admiration for Léon Gambetta, the brilliant orator and "spiritual embodiment" of the Third Republic, and the more moderate Jules Ferry, whose anti-clerical educational reforms would soon lead to a national system of free, compulsory, secular education. Durkheim's concerns were less political than academic, however, and while he continued to criticise the literary rather than scientific emphasis of the Ecole, he discovered three scholars of a more congenial spirit - the philosophers Charles Renouvier and Emile Boutroux, and the historian Numas-Denis Fustel de Coulanges. Though ill through much of 1881-82, Durkheim successfully passed his agrégation (the competitive examination required for admission to the teaching staff of state secondary schools, or lycées), and began teaching philosophy in 1882. In 1882, the Faculty of Letters at Bordeaux had established France's first course in pedagogy for prospective school teachers, and in 1884 the state had begun to support it as part of its drive for a new system of secular, republican education. The course was first taught by Alfred Espinas, whose Les Sociétés animales(1877) Durkheim greatly admired, but who was soon elevated to Dean of the Faculty. Durkheim's articles on Germany philosophy and...
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