The Context of Writing the Text
It has been established that Maurice Halbwachs received the order for this article from Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, head of the Revue Philosophique, on 2 December 1917 and completed the text in February 1918 (Hirsch 2012). By the time he received this request, Émile Durkheim had been dead for less than a month.1 Halbwachs, for his part, left the Ministry of Armaments, where he worked from May to October to support the war effort, and resumed his teaching activities (in a high school in Nancy) and research in order to ‘kill time’. He was frustrated that, since the start of the war, he had not fought at the front.2 He claimed to do, among other things, mathematics.3 The writing of the article undoubtedly came at the right time to fill the void of inaction and it seems that Halbwachs immersed himself intensely in reading Durkheim. The letters written to his wife mention a kind of wonder when reading Durkheim's work. He admires his ‘visionary’ work (Basch 2000: 129). ‘I seem to have read all of this in the past, superficially and incompletely,’ he writes on 13 December 1917. ‘My admiration for our Master is redoubled. It is truly astounding in depth and richness’. Or again: ‘I have never been more at the centre of his “doctrine” than at the moment. It's very beautiful, but there are many gaps, some misunderstandings. In any case, it is a superb unilinear push, and I may be wrong, but it will go further than Bergson’ (quoted by Hirsch 2012: 227).
The Status of the Text
Emile Durkheim's ‘Doctrine’ had been a quite unknown text until its recent reassessment by Thomas Hirsch (2012). It is indeed precious in many respects because it provides elements on what the posterity of Durkheim was and how it was carried by Halbwachs, as much as by Marcel Mauss.4 As such, it is undoubtedly necessary to link this text to another that Halbwachs publishes in 1925, Les origines du sentiment religieux d'après Durkheim, in which Halbwachs claims that it is a ‘summary as exact and even as literal as possible of these ideas that received their final form in his latest book’ (Halbwachs 1925: 5). However, the scope of La Doctrine goes far beyond the simple dissemination of Durkheim's thought. The text also reveals the influence of Durkheim's thought on Halbwachs after 1918 and sheds light on this intellectual filiation.
First because, as Hirsch suggests, the article undoubtedly convinced Halbwachs to become a sociologist of religions. This kind of rediscovery of Durkheimian thought resulted in the increasing investment Halbwachs put into the field of religious sociology. We can provide proof, in addition to the 1925 text, in the courses he chose at this time (anthropology and mythology, sacrifice, religion according to Fustel de Coulages etc.) or in his participation in ‘Saturday meetings’ from the University of Strasbourg on the history of religions (Hirsch 2012). We can therefore think that the (re)reading of Durkheim suggested to Halbwachs aroused his interest in the religious from which he never departed until at least until 1941, when he published La Topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre Sainte.
But this text primarily reveals a lasting interest that lies in the articulation between religious sociology and the sociology of knowledge in line with what Durkheim presents in the conclusion of The Elementary Form. In a letter to Mauss on 24 June 1924, Halbwachs stated that he linked Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire to the ‘theory of intelligence and categories’ driven by Mauss and Durkheim.5 At that time, Halbwachs had already started his work on memory, which, as we know, is for him a privileged object of investigation, and his main contribution to the sociology of mental functions, which was also previously cleared by Durkheim and Mauss. Extending their results, Halbwachs came to the conclusion that thinking collectively is remembering, because the collective representations on which we rely when we think with others are full of the knowledge that accumulated from past generations. However, this past knowledge necessarily uses memories. Memory is therefore to be understood as a higher function of the mind (Halbwachs 1938); Durkheim had already written about the space of this ‘hyperspirituality’ (Durkheim 1898).
In ‘La doctrine d'Émile Durkheim’, Halbwachs therefore insists on the scope of Durkheim's work about religious sociology in the field of sociology of knowledge. This is the only point he allows himself to add a personal development, whereas on other points he limits himself to faithfully restoring Durkheim's thought. In a letter to his wife on 20 January 1918, he indicates that he forbid himself to criticise the text, but that he has noted, for his own use, a certain number of ‘heterodox reflections ‘that came to me by closely squeezing the thought of the master’(quoted by Hirsch 2012: 227). We can hypothesize that the writing of this text was for Halbwachs a source of inspiration, even a trigger in the orientation of his future research, which is a major contribution to Durkheim's theory of knowledge and is in line with Durkheim's reflections on collective representations, logical thinking and mental functions. Let us take a closer look at this commentary revealing what Halbwachs has in mind and what he allows himself to put forward about his own conception of knowledge.
What We Learn from Reading Halbwachs
Built as a skilful and elegant discussion that articulates different themes at the heart of Durkheim's thought, the text does not strictly follow the chronological order of publication of his works. Halbwachs, using his own words, discusses the issues addressed by Durkheim, occasionally delivering a quotation with reference to one of his books. There would undoubtedly be a complete study to be done on the writing of Halbwachs because the choice of words and the arguments certainly endeavour to do justice as much as possible with the thought of Durkheim, but is also a ‘translation’ that reflects Halbwachs’ choices. For example, the famous instruction of treating social facts as things in Les Règles de la méthode sociologique must be understood, according to Halbwachs, as the need for the sociologist to study the most sensitive and material expressions of men's actions, which are but the reflection of common thoughts and tendencies, born from the coalescence of consciousnesses.6 The Division du travail social only appears in the second paragraph where the law is presented by Halbwachs as an example of the psychic action society applies on its members.
But the most interesting paragraphs are for us the third and the fourth, which relate to the theory of knowledge. Halbwachs recalls that, in primitive societies, the idea of soul exists. It is a piece of the totem embodied, which has become the life principle of men. At the origin of the distinction between soul and body, between spiritual faculties and senses, we find the distinction between the profane and the sacred. There is the same radical heterogeneity between these two parts of ourselves as between the individual and society. Thus the first seeds of higher spiritual functions sprang at the same time as religious beliefs from the ‘ardent centres of social life’. During those crucial moments, periodically set on fire in the festivals, the ritual ceremonies, the meetings, the clan, the tribe, got a strong consciousness of themselves. But not only did they give birth to those more intellectual and higher forms of religion that have been mentioned: science and morality also came from there. These disciplines consist of a body of concepts and rules that seem to have very unclear relations with the mentality and the practices of the primitives, but here is their origin, as revealed by sociology.
The primitives, indeed, use the same name, and group together, in the same kind the most diverse things and beings: material objects, plants, beasts and so forth. They seem to attribute the same nature to a bird, a tree, and a human being. If there is any logic in their judgments, it is not inspired by the principle of contradiction since they admit that objects and things can be both what they are and something else. We recognize here Lévy-Bruhl's definition of ‘prelogical’ thought and the criticism that Durkheim opposed to its demonstration presented in Les Fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910). However, in the life of the ‘savages’, the separations established by their thought are as deep and impose themselves with the same strength as ours based on logic and science. This strength comes from a tendency, common to the members of the tribe, to project into nature and to impose on things the divisions of society. Thus, for the Wutaroo and Yungaroo tribes of Queensland in Australia, all animate and inanimate things are divided into two classes also called Wutaroo and Yungaroo (Durkheim and Mauss 1903). If there is ‘delirium’, according to the Westerners, it is nonetheless ‘well grounded’, because it is systematic and imposes itself on all. And if it imposes itself with this force, it is that these classifications have a useful role: to strengthen the conscience and the unity of the group. In all circumstances, knowledge consists of a set of classifications whose origin is social and expresses, in one way or another, the way society thinks about its experience at a given moment.
One can thus wonder how this rudimentary cosmology relates to modern science and philosophy. One even has the impression that a period of systematic confusion was followed by another that opposed it, and the two have nothing in common. A concept is not distinguished from images. It is a fixed and crystallized way of thinking, withdrawn from time and becoming. It is, if not universal, at least universalisable, whereas a sensation and an image, whatever they are, cannot pass integrally from one consciousness to another. The characteristic of a concept is to be able to be communicated and to be identical in all consciences. He also has authority because, apart from the fact that it is a link between the thinking of individuals, everybody knows that the content of the concept greatly exceeds his experience, and that a science far more extensive than his own is condensed there. In short, it is a collective way of thinking that dominates and exceeds the individual just like society. Thanks to him, the individual completes and achieves his fragmentary perceptions. Thus, conceptual thinking in all fields meets the same need as the thinking of the primitives: rudimentary but already capable of classification. Between the logical thinking of the primitives and ours, the difference is therefore only in degrees and not in nature. There is continuity between these first formless tests and the elaborate notions of our intelligence bent to scientific methods.
However, there are in our mind eminent concepts that play a fundamental role in knowledge: Kant calls these the categories. These are the general frameworks of thought, which Durkheim calls ‘social in the second degree’, because they express the attitude of social thought towards things, and the very things they represent are signs or aspects of society. Thus, the category par excellence is the notion of totality: it is the characteristic of society that envelops all the others, as well as all the individuals who are attached to all objects. It is the whole that is the supreme class of which all the others are only subdivisions. This social thought extends to the whole of space, which was, originally, only one aspect of society. It is the same with time: the succession of our states of consciousness is too irregular for us to distinguish parts of it. The abstract notion of time comes from social time, the movements of concentration and dispersion that occur in collective life, the regular return of rites, festivals, ceremonies, are all landmarks that determine periods. Now, these critical or solemn moments of social life are linked to material phenomena (recurrence of the stars, alternation of the seasons) because objective signs were to make us sensitive to all the divisions of collective time. The individual, reduced to his psycho-organic nature, cannot have by himself the idea of time, space, cause, and end. Certainly, in primitive societies these collective representations remained primitive in many respects. They contained subjective elements, and could only be transformed into scientific notions after a long process of purification. They were nevertheless the seeds of these notions, and with them, stable and impersonal thought took shape.
The question becomes understanding how this evolution took place. Durkheim and Mauss suggest in the 1903 text that society, seeing its population increase, fragments itself and associates the clans with a part of the space. At the same time the classifications are inspired by this fragmentation in space and become more abstract and more complicated at the same time. Durkheim and Mauss outline a law of evolution of classifications that moves from totemic classifications to spatial classifications, without much more being known, in particular on the passage from these spatial classifications to contemporary conceptual thinking. Halbwachs's commentary outlines an element of response to fill this void, and in so doing reveals a sensitivity that heralds his future work. Indeed, he states, as man only depends on three kinds of environment, the organism, the outside world and society, and since the first two have hardly changed, intellectual progress cannot be explained but by changes in society. As societies have lost their peculiarity, as they have grown, been distorted, brought closer and merged, the needs expressed by concepts and categories have been maintained in these new and larger societies, but the content of concepts has changed. The notion of change and evolution in general may have arisen from transformations in society. The notion of the infinite, which seems foreign to primitive societies, may have been formed under the action of the progressive retreat of the barriers that enclosed the groups. In contact with more recent ideas, in order to agree with them, the other ideas had to expand and soften. Finally, the idea of the individual seems to have reflected the loosening of social ties, the greater freedom that members of society have had.
The introduction of the individual into collective thought resulted in a critical work that made it possible to increasingly purify the concepts and categories, without modifying their essential structure (which satisfies the permanent needs of society), and to mould them more and more exactly on objective reality. Halbwachs explicitly points out in his text that Durkheim did not speak of these three notions of change, the infinite and the individual. But he considers the theory of the transition from polysegmental societies to more extensive forms is the basis of this deduction. It can therefore be shown that as society has changed in structure, and the separations that existed between groups have been erased, conceptual thinking has been enriched and has eliminated false ideas, rectified others, but never ceased to be a function of collective organization.
The fate of the categories of change and of individual in Halbwachs’ thought, or the importance of social morphology
We agree with Hirsch to say that, even more than Durkheim who granted collective representations relative autonomy compared to social morphology, Halbwachs shows by this addition that he links social evolution and evolution of ideas by going to seek in society and its transformations the determining cause of properly intellectual functions of man (Hirsch 2012: 227). Durkheim considered that once collective representations entered into people's minds, they lived a life of their own, creating particular psychological states (Durkheim 1898). According to Halbwachs, mental and psychic life appears much more embedded in the form of society. Mental life therefore also comes from a morphological analysis: ‘If we pay attention to these material forms, it is in order to discover behind them a whole part of collective psychology’, he wrote 20 years later (Halbwachs  1970: 12). This primacy given to morphology to study mentalities sheds light on the use that Halbwachs will make of these categories of change and of individuals.
A set of customs, beliefs and ways of being, which result from the usual occupations of men and of their mode of establishment. … Two kinds of life or two types of civilization … are similar in that they involve more or fewer opportunities for men to relate to each other, friendly relationships, relationships indifferent or reports of hostility. (Halbwachs 1930: 502)
In other words, vulnerability to suicide depends on the frequency and intensity with which people meet and on the ‘quality’ of the relationships that result from it: more or less ephemeral meetings, friendly or not, etc. From these interactions arise representations that in turn also influence the mode of encounter. Depending on the idea we have of the environment in which we evolve, we anticipate the type of relationship we will encounter. For example, the district of a city regulates the mode of regrouping of its inhabitants, their extension, their tightening or their scattering, their movements in space, which have a consequence on tastes, needs, mores, aspirations and so on.
Therefore in the countryside, people commit suicide less because collective life is both very strong and very simplified. Occupations and events are more limited, less is happening, and everything is happening in one place. This is why the peasants are viscerally attached to the land and their agricultural exploitation, to which they link their group identity, and why they think this collective identity as linked to a centre of tradition (Halbwachs  1955). In the city, by contrast, ‘not only the places where professional activity takes place are distinct and usually far apart in the space of the houses which constitute the material framework of domestic life, but also the periods devoted to these two modes of existence are clearly separated and do not encroach on each other’ (Halbwachs 1930: 505–506). In other words, in the city, social life is more intense, while physical isolation causes fragmentation in that social life. The result is a mixture of representations meaning that, in all the large agglomerations, social groups tend to dissolve there more than anywhere else. From there arise collective feelings more powerful than elsewhere when jostled in the crowd among colleagues in dense traffic and meeting paths, but at the same time by repeatedly experiencing otherness, people become more easily aware of the material or moral misery in relation to those higher on the social ladder, for example. In the city ‘space, spatial representations can be as much a principle of rapprochement as of division or isolation’ (Halbwachs  1970: 81). Individuals alternate between moments of elation – when they think they feel as they should – at the heart of social life, and moments of despair and depression when they realize they are not participating in collective life. In short, in town, one is more inclined to commit suicide because collective representations lose coherence and fixity: social life becomes more complicated. This is the morphological lesson that can be learned from the transition from a rural civilization to an urban civilization. This category also plays a crucial role in the explanation given by Halbwachs of the facts of population he is very interested in during the 1930s (Halbwachs 1935, 1946).
Jointly, the category of individual arises and imposes itself, because the city requires a lot of effort from its inhabitants who have to change a lot of habits to be assimilated, and ‘all this expenditure of strength on their part and its own (society) would be pointless, if it did not obtain from them that they now contribute to maintaining its functions as long as possible, by encouraging them to keep themselves, to defend and extend their lives’ (Halbwachs  1970: 127).
In short, to be possible, modern life requires that we attach more value to individual existence and its extension so that people adapt to this more complicated life. In order for society to maintain itself, it must be more interested in individuals, because it is in its interest for them to be more concerned with themselves and ‘that the value of individual existence is increasingly appreciated’ (Halbwachs  1970: 129). Also the lower number of births is to be understood in this perspective, as an adaptation to the lack of space in the city, especially in the case of the upper classes, to which demographic and social space is the most measured, and the most disputed, and where one scrambles to enter the group and settle there. Likewise, if the number of suicides increases in town, it is because society ruthlessly eliminates its lame ducks, telling the vanquished of life that the best they can do is disappear to avoid the collective life of ‘a spectacle which would weaken in it the vital impulse’ (Halbwachs 1930: 472). Facing a more complicated social life, society cannot tolerate those who are too weak to bear it or permanently encumber it. Future people committing suicide therefore find reason to kill themselves with others, when their contacts persuade them that they have been ‘downgraded’, that is to say detached from their home groups, no longer sharing the same views and the same objectives (Halbwachs 1930: 417). In this way, the group has an influence on the secret approaches of its members, helping to shape their motives and their aspirations, by exercising control over its body, that is to say, its population.
‘La doctrine d'Émile Durkheim’ shows how Halbwachs drew inspiration from Durkheim and added the categories of change and of individual. He extended his theory of knowledge by articulating a conception of collective representations to a collective psychology, a theory of the population understood as the ‘body’ of society, and a theory of mental functions. As already shown (Marcel 2007), the knowledge is constructed, according to Halbwachs, from memories linked with the social concerns of the moment, that memory sorts and works. In doing so, it mobilizes collective representations whose cognitive power and ability to shape the psyche of individuals is subject to their greater or lesser clarity. This clarity can be reduced to a ‘fixity’ that only collective spatial representations, ‘immediate data of social consciousness’ (Halbwachs  1970: 183), provide.
On 15 November 1917. He never recovered after the death of his son André, killed at the front in 1915.
He was withdrawn because of myopia.
This earlier interest in mathematics and statistics will propel the writing, with Fréchet, of a handbook on probabilities (Halbwachs and Fréchet 1923).
For example, in this text written after 1918, Mauss very rarely quotes Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse! (Marcel 2019).
Fund Marcel Mauss, IMEC Archives. Halbwachs probably refers to the text Durkheim and Mauss wrote in 1903, ‘De quelques formes primitives de classifications’, the conclusion of Elementary Forms continues on some points.
This idea will be taken up almost word for word in the ‘Foreword’ of Morphologie Sociale: ‘The author of the rules of sociological method, who recommended studying social realities “as things”, gave particular importance to what, in societies, borrows more the characteristics of physical things: extent, number, density, movement, quantitative aspects, everything that can be measured and counted. It is from this definition that we started ( 1970: 1). Halbwachs uses the term ‘forms’ in both texts. In the 1938 text, he clearly refers to Georg Simmel ( 1970: 6).
Durkheim, E. 1898. ‘Représentations individuelles et représentations collectives’. Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 6: 273–302.
Durkheim, E. and M. Mauss. 1903. ‘De quelques formes primitives de classifications (contribution à l'étude des représentations collectives)’, L'Année Sociologique 6, in M. Marcel, Œuvres, 2nd ed. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1968, 13–89.
Halbwachs, M. 1946. ‘Réflexion sur un équilibre démographique: Beaucoup de naissances, beaucoup de morts; peu d'enfants, peu de décès’. Annales, Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 1 (4): 289–305.
Hirsch, T. 2012. ‘Maurice Halbwachs et la sociologie religieuse: Des Formes aux Cadres sociaux de la mémoire’. Archives de sciences sociales des religions 159: 225–245.
Marcel, J-C. 2007. ‘Mémoire, espace et connaissance chez Maurice Halbwachs’. In M. Jaisson and C. Baudelot (eds), Maurice Halbwachs, sociologue retrouvé. Paris: Presses de l'ENS, 103–126.
Marcel, J-C. 2019, ‘La réception des Formes par Mauss: 1912–1950’. In M. Béra and N. Sembel (eds), Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse cent ans après: Durkheim et la religion. Paris: Garnier, 31–49.