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International Journal of Ethics (Philadelphie, janvier 1916)
George Alexander Johnston

Note de la rédaction

Source primaire:
Johnston (George Alexander), « Book Reviews – The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology. By Émile Durkheim. Translation by J. W. Swain, M.A., London: George Allen & Unwin, 1915. Pp. xii, 456 », International Journal of Ethics (Philadelphia), 26 (2), Jan. 1916, p. 303-304

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Texte intégral

1This important work, published in the original French edition some three years ago, is one of the most philosophically valuable of recent contributions to sociology. M. Durkheim insists on the necessity of philosophical reflection upon the olla podrida of bare facts with which anthropologists supply us; and regards sociology as not a merely historical and descriptive discipline, but an interpretative and critical science. This view of sociology naturally affects the method and results of the present work. In his investigation of primitive religion, M. Durkheim does not simply aim at satisfying the historical curiosity to know what [304] actually are the cults and rites of elementary religions; he is concerned with the much more fundamental problem of the essential nature of religion in general, and he examines primitive religious beliefs and practices because he expects that they will throw light on the meaning of religion for life, and on the constitution of society as a whole. In following this method M. Durkheim succeeds in avoiding what may be called the sociologist’s fallacy: he does not assume that the expression that is given to religious beliefs in a primitive society is necessarily a true expression, nor does he believe that if it can be shown that a particular elementary manifestation is false all religion must necessarily be an illusion.

2As the most elementary form of religion, M. Durkheim takes totemism; and in the body of his work he examines first the beliefs involved in the totemic systems, and then the ritual practices… connected with them. From the imposing array of facts marshalled in this book he concludes not only that religion is essentially social in character, but also that it forms the ultimate source of all man’s intellectual and moral acquisitions. M. Durkheim believes that there is something really objective in religion, and that, though the actual forms in which these objective values are clothed in particular cults may be erroneous and illusory, yet behind them there is a real system of spiritual values. He leaves the conception of values rather vague, but he insists that though they suffer transformation they are neither epiphenomenal nor supererogatory. They are not identical with reality, but they express an essential and pervasive aspect of it. Further, religious values are, as ideals, necessarily social in character, for society and religion are essentially related. On this point M. Durkheim’s argument sometimes comes perilously near a circulus in probando. He seems to want to prove that religion is based on society, and then that society is based on religion. The argument is not really, of course, so crudely self-contradictory as that; and it would be better to say that he interprets society by religion, and religion by society. But whether M. Durkheim’s conclusions are sound or not, it is his great merit that he has not been content simply to collect facts, but has tried to interpret them and use his results as a key to unlock the heart of religion in general. The translation, unfortunately, has not been well done.

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Référence papier

Johnston George Alexander, « Book Reviews », International Journal of Ethics (Philadelphia), 26 (2), January 1916, p. 303-304.

Référence électronique

George Alexander Johnston, « Book Reviews  », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], La première réception des Formes (1912-1917) (S. Baciocchi, F. Théron, eds.), II, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2013, consulté le 14 octobre 2019. URL :

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George Alexander Johnston

University of Glasgow, Scotland

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Droits d’auteur

Archives de sciences sociales des religions

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