After The Division of Labor (1893) and Suicide(1897), The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) is the third major book written by Emile Durkheim. It is for sure the most significant and influential. The extensive, almost 600-page work is divided into three books. In the preceding introduction to The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life , the "object of the investigation" is first outlined. Durkheim formulates two goals of his book: The main purpose is to analyze the elementary forms of religious life by studying the "most primitive and simplest" religion (which are now called ethnic religionsare designated). The second aim is to present the emergence of basic concepts of thought and the categories , why they are of religious and thus also social origin and how an epistemology can ultimately be derived from them.
In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, entitled 'Introductory Questions', Durkheim first sets out the necessary theoretical foundations and discusses them. Chapter 1 offers a definition of the religious phenomenon and religion (in general), because this is necessary "to find out the most primitive and simplest religion". The argumentation takes place in several stages: First, two conventional approaches are presented (I. The religion is defined as the supernatural and the mysterious; II. The religion is defined in terms of an idea of God), but then immediately refuted (The concept of the supernatural is the origin of more recent phenomena and has “nothing primitive about it” ; There are also religions without gods). Then Durkheim goes in search of a positive definition in the following section of the chapter (III). It seems to him more expedient to define religion not in its entirety as a system, but first of all the elementary phenomena: Religious phenomena according to Durkheim can be divided into two categories: beliefs and rites, the former representing opinions and the latter modes of action. That ITo relate rites to specific goals found in beliefs, it is necessary to determine beliefs prior to the rite. A division of the world into two areas is assumed: profane and sacred . Durkheim defines the terms introduced as follows:
Sacred things: "what the prohibitions protect and isolate"
Profane things: "what these prohibitions relate to and who must keep their distance from sacred things"
Religious Beliefs: "Concepts that express the nature of sacred things and the relationships they hold with one another or with profane things"
Rites: "Rules of conduct that dictate how people should behave in relation to sacred things"
As a preliminary definition of religion , the lines of thought presented result in “the sum of convictions and the corresponding rites”. However, this suggestion involves the problem that it applies equally to magiccan apply. The solution to the problem arises through the inclusion of the concept of the church ("A society whose members are united because they imagine the holy world and its relationships with the profane world in the same way and translate these ideas into the same practices", because while every religion has a church, in magic there are no lasting relationships between the individual and the magician. In the end, Durkheim comes to the following definition: "A religion is a solidarity-based system of beliefs and practices that relate to holy, that is, separate and forbidden things, beliefs and practices that exist in one and the same moral community called the church, unite all who belong to it. ”
With the help of this definition, Durkheim now sets out to investigate elementary religion and first checks in the following two chapters (2 and 3) whether the two most important conceptions of elementary religion at the time, animism and naturism (natural mythology), meet the criteria . Animism, whose main exponents include Edward B. Tylor and Herbert Spencer , is a belief in spirits that proceeds from an animated nature; der naturism (natural mythology), by Friedrich Max Müllerjustified, postulates a reverence for transfigured natural forces by man. Durkheim examines both theses in detail, ultimately refuting them because, in his opinion, they dissolve the subject. Religions, on the other hand, cannot be illusions, because then religious studies would not be a science either, because this discipline is characterized by the fact that it relates to a given reality.
For Durkheim, society alone represents a reality sanctified by itself, and that is why totemism is simply the simplest religion for him. In the chapter 4 of the first book, he gives a brief historical overview of the history of this system and gives methodological considerations for the (regional) selection of that group which is an example of a phenomenon common to all societies and which is the main part of the considerations. Durkheim is not concerned with examining a multitude of religious manifestations, rather he wants to depict the religious by describing an individual case that functions as a prototype.
The approach that totemism is the most elementary form of religion implies that all other forms have evolved from it. All previous work on totemism has dealt intensively with totemism in North American societies, but in Durkheim's opinion this does not represent the ideal field of research because it has "already passed the purely totemic phase" .
After this introductory section, which makes up about a quarter of the The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, there now follows an extensive presentation of the religion of (Australian) totemism, divided into two parts, the first of which represents the elementary beliefs (2nd book). It starts with the definition and description of the terms clan and totem (Chapters 1 to 4), followed by a discussion of theories that derive totemism from an even earlier form of religion, followed by their refutation (Chapter 5). Following this, the totem principle ( mana ) is presented (Chapters 6 and 7), followed by the analysis of the soul image (Chapter 8), a climax of the work. Finally, the 9th chapter is dedicated to the ' spirits and concept of God '.
The totem (usually symbolized by an animal or a plant) represents the gathering. Through the veneration that is bestowed on him, he transforms the individual individuals into a moral community and welds them together. Durkheim understands the totem principle to mean the idea of an impersonal power (denoted by the term mana , taken from Melanesian ), which is present in every individual as a soul , connects it with the sacred and thus constitutes the beginning of religious thought.
Totemism thus fulfills the two important functions of religion required by Durkheim: the embodiment of society (the totems are a symbol of the clan, they are the god of the clan and the totem principle can therefore be nothing other than the clan itself, ) and the emergence of categories of knowledge (“Because people were divided into groups, they could group things”,).
After the beliefs, the second part of the study in the third book is a description of the ritual practices . He distinguishes the negative (chapters 1 and 2), the positive (chapters 3 and 4) and atonement rites (chapter 5). The negative rites mainly include prohibitions; positive rites are community rites. The purpose of all rites is to maintain the community, to strengthen the feeling of togetherness of the group and to preserve the faith.
See here another summary of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
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