Georges Davy et les Américains, ou le troisième âge du durkheimisme (1945-1955)

in Durkheimian Studies

The reception of American sociology in post-war France is often associated with an abandonment of the philosophically rooted, grand theoretical interests of Durkheimian social science, in favour of much more empirical concerns, whether with the quantitative surveys championed by Jean Stoetzel or the more qualitative fieldwork studies advocated by Georges Friedmann. At the same time, however, there was not just a continuation but a revival of an older, philosophically inspired sociological tradition, amounting to a new, ‘third age’ of Durkheimianism. This movement was especially led, in their own particular yet interrelated ways, by Georges Davy and Georges Gurvitch, but also involved the key figure of Mikel Dufrenne, who collaborated with both of them. A fundamental aim was to develop a new discourse of the social that ‘psychologized’ the Durkheimian legacy, and an essential strategy in doing so was to draw on Americans such as Abram Kardiner, whose idea of a ‘basic personality’ was taken up in Dufrenne’s book La Personnalité de base (1953). The project of a rapprochement between sociology and psychology can be traced back to the efforts of Mauss and others in the inter-war years, but also has origins in concern, in Durkheim’s own intellectual milieu, with an antinomy between the phenomenal world’s explanation and internal experience. Even so, a whole set of new challenges to the Durkheimian tradition had developed by the 1950s. These included Hegelianized forms of Marxism, the spread of interest in Weber and, again via Germany, the rise of phenomenology not only as post-war France’s hegemonic philosophy but also, especially in the work of Sartre, as radically anti-sociological. The Americans were a vital resource in helping to fight off this challenge.