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Religion and Realism: Some Reflections on Durkheim's. L'Évolution pédagogique en Franc / Religion et réalisme. Réflexions sur L'Évolution pédagogique en France de Durkheim - article ; n°1 ; vol.69, pg 69-89

22 pages
Archives des sciences sociales des religions - Année 1990 - Volume 69 - Numéro 1 - Pages 69-89
21 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.
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Robert Alun Jones
Religion and Realism: Some Reflections on Durkheim's.
L'Évolution pédagogique en Franc / Religion et réalisme.
Réflexions sur L'Évolution pédagogique en France de Durkheim
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 69, 1990. pp. 69-89.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Jones Robert Alun. Religion and Realism: Some Reflections on Durkheim's. L'Évolution pédagogique en Franc / Religion et
réalisme. Réflexions sur L'Évolution pédagogique en France de Durkheim. In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N.
69, 1990. pp. 69-89.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1990.1315
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/assr_0335-5985_1990_num_69_1_1315Sc soc des Rel 1990 69 janvier-mars) 69-89 Arch
Robert Alun JONES
connus volution de la pensée pédagogique de Durkheim en France tels que éclaire son anti-cléricalisme des aspects peu ou
son engagement en faveur de école laïque On sait que Durkheim
considérait glise médiévale comme le dépositaire de certaines
vérités fondamentales la nécessité de former homme total
interpénétration de la foi et de la raison dans la philosophie
scolastique et par dessus tout idée chrétienne du devoir inverse
il en prit la Renaissance et aux Lumières pour leur interprétation
sociologiquement incohérente du Moyen-Age pour leur intérêt ex
cessif porté au goût élégance et au style pour leur adoption des
valeurs païennes origine de la corruption du sens du devoir hérité
du christianisme enfin pour leur mentalité mathématique qui
aboutit un goût trop simplificateur pour les généralisations et
En fait les mérites que Durkheim reconnaît au réalisme pédagogique
de Comenius Leibniz Windt et de fa on plus générale au protes
tantisme allemand opposé au formalisme du Moyen-Age et de la
Renaissance constituent le contexte partir duquel il énon sa
célèbre injonction considérer les faits sociaux comme des choses
est partir de là aussi qu il en appela un nouveau rationa
lisme plus inductif complexe historique et par-dessus tout plus
attentif importance première des choses que ne était le rationa
lisme dépassé un Descartes
In 1902 after lengthy parliamentary inquiry into secondary education led
by Louis Liard course in educational theory was created and immediately
required of all candidates for the agrégation at the University of Paris Not without
difficulty Liard persuaded Durkheim to take on the responsibility and the course
was taught at the cole Normale Supérieure each year from 1904 to 1913 But
there can be little doubt of Durkhein commitment to the project itself
constant skeptic of those reforms which lacking supportive moral infra
structure were merely political Durkheim argued that the regulations and
decrees of the previous twenty years would have no authority unless they have
been proposed planned publicised and in some way pleaded for by informed
opinion unless they express it in thoughtful clear and co-ordinated way
instead of trying to create and control it through the medium of officialdom
Ideals cannot be legislated into existence Durkheim added echoing Rousseau
they must be understood loved and striven for by those whose duty is to realise
them 3)
To this end Durkheim designed course that was both theoretical and
historical The theory was important because it was not enough to tell teachers
what to do in addition they must be made to understand -why they were doing
it And it was historical because educational reform itself presupposed the
genetic method Durkheim had described inLes Règles de la méthode sociologique
1895) In order to fully understand the development of any living phenome
non Durkheim now repeated in order to explain the different forms which it
assumes at successive moments in its history we should need to begin by
discovering the composition of the initial germ which stands at the origin of its
entire evolution. Thus in order to understand the way in which the educational
system which we are to study has developed in order to understand what it has
become we must not shrink from tracing it to its most remote origins 5)
Beginning with these most remote origins therefore Durkheim traced the
development of educational thought from Scholasticism through Humanism
down to modem Realism Only the third ultimately
insisted could meet the needs of the Third French Republic and in this sense the
work supports the interpretation of Lukes for example who emphasizes
aggressive secularism his desire to establish and inculcate doc
trine that would replace and not compromise with religion But volution
pédagogique en France also reveals deep appreciation of the influence
of the medieval Church on French education 7) his largely negative assessment
of the subsequent contributions of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and his
ongoing debt to German realism and empiricism The resulting view of
Durkheim is that of considerably more subtle complex and even romantic
figure significantly influenced by Christian thought disdainful of Humanism
ambivalent toward Cartesian rationalism and receptive to the latest advances of
German science
From his very first lecture Durkheim reminded his audience of at least four
major contributions made by the Christian Church to French education From its
origins he observed medieval thought was both Roman and Christian 8)
contradictory bequest that had fateful consequences The Roman origins of
Christianity meant that its language culture and social organization were irre
mediably pagan but where pagan religion was above all system of ritual
practices backed up no doubt with mythology but vague inconsistent and
without any expressly obligatory authority Christianity was an idealistic
religion system of ideas and body of doctrines To be Christian Durkheim
thus observed was not matter of carrying out certain material operations
according to the traditional prescriptions it was rather question of adhering to
certain articles of faith of showing certain beliefs of accepting certain ideas
Moreover unlike the handing down of traditional practices the communication
of Christian ideas and feelings required distinctively Christian education and
hence the cathedral and monastery schools but education in tum required
culture and the only culture was pagan Teaching and preaching Durkheim
explained presuppose in him who is teaching or certain linguistic
skills certain familiarity with man and with history All this knowledge was to
be found only in the work of the ancients 10)
These remarks had contemporary resonance for one argument of
Durkhein fellow reformers had been that the Church had seized the schools
in order to prevent any culture from embarrassing the faith The real truth
Durkheim insisted to the contrary was that the schools began by being the work
of the Church it is the Church which called them into existence with the result
that they found themselves from the moment of their birth one might even say
from the point of their conception stamped with an ecclesiastical character
which they subsequently had so much difficulty in erasing 11 Moreover it was
essential that it do so for only the Church with its pagan materialist past and
future idealist orientation could serve as bridge between the Roman
Germanic societies But if the schools thus began be being essentially religious
the pagan origins of Christianity also assurred that they would contain an
uneliminable element of secularity Feeble and rudimentary to begin with
Durkheim observed this secular spirit grew developed from being in the
background it passed gradually into the foreground but it existed from the very
beginning Like the aboriginal institutions described in The Elementary Forms of
the Religious Life therefore from their origins the schools carried within them
selves the germ of that great struggle between the sacred and the profane the
secular and the religious... 12)
The second contribution was the peculiarly organic quality of Christian
education In antiquity the goal of education had been to transmit number of
specific talents which might be learned from variety of different teachers 13
But Christianity by contrast was certain attitude of the soul. certain habitus
of our moral being an idea epitomized in the Christian idea unknown to
antiquity of conversion that profound movement whereby the soul in its
entirety by turning in quite different direction changes its position its stance
and as result modifies its whole outlook on the world 14 Imbued with this
idea Christianity
developed an awareness that underlying the particular condition of our intel
ligence and sensibility there is in each one of us more profound condition which
determines the others and gives them their unity and it is this more profound
condition which we must get at if we are truly to do our job as educators and have
an effect will be durable Christianity was aware that the forming of man
was not question of decorating his mind with certain ideas not of getting him to
contract certain specific habits it is question of creating within him general
disposition of the mind and the will which will make him see things in in
particular light 15)
Christian education in short was kind of gradual conversion an attempt to
act powerfully on the deepest recesses of the soul to effect the transformation of
the whole man And this could be achieved Durkheim observed only by
making children live in one and the same moral environment which is constant-
ly present to them which enshrouds them completely and from whose influence
they are unable as it were to escape 16 This was what Durkheim called
academic organicism i.e. the idea that teaching must not be too diffuse that
the disparate branches of learning should be grouped together that all should be
infused by the same spint and taught from the same point of view and he
considered it intrinsic to Christianity itself 17)
These passages are worth citing at length for they illuminate certain aspects
of sociology which have frequently been ignored One is that for all
his advocacy of secular education thought like that of Hegel whom
he occasionally startlingly ressembles as well as Kant was deeply rooted in the
Judaeo-Christian tradition For these passages as their unconscious lapse into
the present tense implies express one of most fundamental convic
tions concerning what French education ought to be the principal aim of
education is not to give the child more or less large number of pieces of
knowledge Durkheim insisted but to imbue in him some deep and internal
state of mind kind of orientation of the soul which points it in definite
direction not only during childhood but throughout life 18 If the production
of Christians was no longer the goal of education under the Third Republic
therefore the goal of producing whole men endured
just as to become Christian it is necessary to acquire Christian way of
thinking and feeling so too in order to become man it is not enough to have
mind furnished with certain number of ideas but rather must one above all
have acquired truly human manner of feeling and thinking Our conception of
the aim has become secularised consequently the means employed must also
change but the abstract outline of the educational process is not changed It is
still question of getting down to these deep recesses in the soul about which
antiquity knew nothing
Like their cathedral and monastery counterparts therefore the schools of the
Third Republic had to provide morally cohesive environment which closely
envelopes the child and which acts on his nature as whole 19)
Another aspect which disappears almost entirely from stories of Durkheim-
as-child-to-the-Enlightenment is his palpable fascination shared by Burke and
the later XIXth century romantics with the medieval period in European history
The very phrase the Middle Ages itself product of the XVIIIth century was
one of which Durkheim disapproved 20 For it evinced the
contemptuous and mistaken notion that the medieval period was mere
hyphen between classical antiquity and modern civilisation between the
moment when ancient civilisation burned itself out and the moment when it was
reborn in order to embark again upon new career On the contrary Durkheim
argued if the content of medieval education was taken from paganism it was
expounded in an entirely new way according to an entirely new conception of the
human soul and in this sense the medieval period sowed the seeds of an entirely
new civilisation 21)
third contribution was the international character of the medieval uni
versity itself consequence of the corporatist social organization of the Middle
Ages 22 The medieval corporations emerged when workers in the same occu
pation formed associations to secure their legal rights These associations then
became monopolies as workers tried to restrict the rights thus secured to their
own group but each association also imposed duties and obligations on its
members and if these were not met members lost their rights and privileges The
teachers operating outside of the French ecclesiastical structure 23 organized
themselves as such corporation the University of Paris and their unity was
increased further when the Pope acknowledging the international
character placed it under the protection of the Holy See 24 This observation
was important for Durkheim was not simply arguing that the European univer
sities were international in their origins Quite beyond this he was insisting that
they could not become narrowly nationalistic in the present without betraying
their own essential nature Moreover the renaissance of the French univer
sities of the preceding twenty years had been precisely an attempt
to open themselves up to the outside to attract foreign students and teachers to
multiply the opportunities for looking at the world from different conceptual
point of view to our own while at the same time striving to extend their influence
beyond national frontiers and to sum it all up to work gradually towards
becoming centres of international civilisation. 25)
In light of later remarks concerning the cultural origins of
educational realism see below) it is difficult to read this passage without
thinking that German experimental science was at the top of list of
different conceptual point(s of view to our own French nationalism as well as
the older French rationalism were twin obstacles mutually and repeatedly
indicted in program for social and educational reform
The fourth contribution of course was Scholastic philosophy for which
Durkheim held qualified admiration Given the ambiguous origins already
described the medieval university of the period was both an eccle
siastical and secular body composed of laymen who retained their clerical
appearance and clerics who had becomesecularized As consequence religion
and philosophy faith and reason were but single unity It was not question of
juxtaposing reason and doctrine Durkheim explained but rather of intro
ducing reason into doctrine of rendering faith rational It is this inextricable
mixture which reflects so accurately the parallel mixture of the secular and the
ecclesiastical which we have found to be mark of the external organization of
the University 26 Nor was this explanation prelude to the criticisms of more
enlightened age On the contrary Durkheim felt that the XVIIth
liberation of secular from spiritual studies had been purchased at an exorbitant
price i.e. wholly artificial dissociation of sacred from profane thoroughly
mediocre kind of eclecticism and lamentable restriction on the
field of operations How much more interesting Durkheim challenged his
was the age which we are presently studying when no one was yet trying to
separate these inseparable aspects of human life no had yet attempted
to channel and to build dam between these two great intellectual and moral
streams as if it were possible to prevent them from running into one another How
much more vital was this general tumultuous mêlée of beliefs and feelings of
every kind than the state of calm which was artificial and only apparent which
was characteristic of succeeding centuries 27)
man of the future thus bore an uncanny resemblance to man
of the past not the aristocrat of the ancien régime but the lay-cleric of medieval
Scholasticism His intentions were thus essentially reconstructive an attempt to
reproduce that medieval unity of religion and philosophy faith and reason
which preceded the XVIIth century The significant qualification was that the
religion like had to be civil and the faith like quintessentially
But this of course touches only on the form of Scholastic philosophy Surely
Durkheim shared the largely negative assessment of the Renaissance and Enligh
tenment concerning its contents In the XIIIth and XIVth centuries Durkheim
acknowledged education was less question of learning certain truths than one
of learning what certain authorities said about them Study thus dealt not with
lists of problems but with lists of works the latter being subjected to the exegetic
method including both expositie i.e. the dialectical analysis of the text in the
effort to reveal the necessary connections between its propositions and quaes-
tiones i.e. the extraction of all the controversial propositions from the text which
then provided the pretext for debate 28 The purpose of such exercices was to
train students in dialectic which meant that the role of logic in medieval
education was absolutely overwhelming Morevoer it was of special
kind It was far less question of teaching people how to reason Durkheim
explained than of teaching them how to debate What was taught above all was
the art of arguing against another person the art of refutation even more than the
art of proof 29)
It was precisely this emphasis on exegesis dialectic and debate of course
which rendered Scholasticism vulnerable to the derisive criticisms of the Renais
sance and Enlightenment But alas here again Durkheim appears as the defender
of Scholastic thought and practice the way in which principle may thus be
abused he argued in no wise proves that the principle is unsound for the
principle may be very good one capable of producing beneficial effect even if
some people operate it clumsily or to excess If the debates served any purpose if
they met any need all the excesses all the ridicule which they might have
occasioned will not suffice to condemn them utterly 30 And did they serve any
purpose Durkheim had habitual Burkean argument for thinking that they did
the very fact that the Scholastic practice of debate played so important role
in European education for nearly three centuries scarcely justifies the historian in
supposing that it was simply the monumental educational aberration which the
pundits of the Renaissance believed it to be 31)
What then was their purpose Briefly it was to train students in the art of
dialectic and debate There was no question of making debate substitute for
Durkheim argued but rather of setting debate beside proof in that area
where strict proof had not as yet penetrated 32 And in the Middle Ages the
range of impenetrability was immeasurably large for the idea of experimental
science did not yet exist This was the most important point of entire
discussion of the Scholastic period for it revealed what was to him the critical
decisive difference between his age and theirs the Scholastic focus on books in
sharp contrast to the modern focus on things Durkheim acknowledged that the
Scholastics knew what observation was but they did not know that observation
could be organized and transformed in such way as to furnish the elements of
rule governed demonstrative proof The idea of experimental reasoning i.e.
that well-conducted systematic observations might be combined to prove scien
tific laws was to be the distinctive contribution of Galileo and the idea that this
form of reasoning was sui generis logical operation new method of proof
would emerge only with Bacon In its absence scientific proof was quite naturally
regarded as synonymous with mathematical proof and the enormous realm of
experience about which only plausible propositions were assumed possible
was left subject to the dialectical method
The inordinate trouble which was taken in those days to train young men in the
practice of dialectic therefore should not be attributed to sort of morbid
dilletantism or severe over-development of the logical sense It was rather
because given the state of contemporary science there neither was nor could be
any other way of reasoning applicable to the world of experience It is conse
quently fair to say that at this moment of history learning how to think consisted
of learning how to debate 33)
In order to be able to debate of course one had to be familiar with the full
variety of arguments and thus with the texts within which these arguments were
contained The almost superstitious respect which the Scholastics showed toward
books was thus not the consequence of their believing that these books contained
demonstrable truths but rather of the view that they contained resources which
might be useful in the dialectical pursuit of merely plausible propositions In
short Durkheim concluded that the cult of the book was the product of specific
historical conditions the necessary consequence of certain view of science
which was forced upon the age 34)
Here as in De la division du travail social treatment of past ideas
scarcely concealed his present purposes For his whole point was to show that the
Scholastic emphasis on dialectic was the natural consequence of specific histo
rical causes and since by the XIXth century these causes no longer existed i.e.
we are aware of the nature and value of experimental reasoning the argument
that the study of books should be preeminent loses andshould lose all credibi
lity to be replaced by the study of things Today we know that there is an
alternative method of proof different mode of argument Durkheim observed
and it is now no less essential that we inculcate this mode of argument in our
children than it was necessary to teach the scholars of the Middle Ages the art of
dialectic 35)
Just as he had quarreled with the understanding of medie
val Scholasticism Durkheim found its interpretation of the nature and causes of
the Renaissance sociologically incoherent In addition to his earlier objection to
the Enlightenment that the Middle Ages was mere hyphen between ancient
and modem societies Durkheim like Fustel considered the Enlightenment
resurrection of Rome as the model for its political and social reforms historically
anachronistic And to this argument he added third i.e. it was simply not true
that classical literature reputedly rediscovered by the Humanists had been
unknown during the Middle Ages There was not single period during the
whole of the Middle Ages he insisted when these literary masterpieces were not
known in every generation we find few people sufficiently intelligent and
sensitive to be abte to appreciate their work. the scholars of the Middle Ages
knew about all the main aspects of classical civilisation but only retained what
they regarded as important what answered to their own personal needs 36 In
short it was the medieval preoccupation with logic dialectic and debate not
ignorance of the classical sources which defined the special characterof Scho
The distinctive feature of the Renaissance therefore was the decline of this
preoccupation and the rise of more refined elegant literary culture and its with classical literature was the consequence not of its re
discovery but rather of the need to satisfy the new more refined tastes of rising
materialistic middle class Social change created demand for new kind of
human being and hence for new kind of education 37 The Renaissance
criticism of medieval education was thus epitomized in words like barbarus
stoliditas rustidlas The Scholastic teacher was not simply wrong he was quite
literally barbarian ignorant of all the benefits of civilisation 38 If the primary
contribution of the Middle Ages to education had been its form of social
organization therefore the primary contribution of the Renaissance was to be its
educational ideal one by which the French would live until at least the mid XIXth
century 39)
The contempt in which Durkheim held this educational ideal with its
academic exercises competitions and prizes its appeal to the sense of
honor and taste for praise was increased by his sense that it still survived in the
secondary schools of the Third Republic 40 The resulting indictment was
simultaneously social and moral Socially the Renaissance preoccupation with
elegance and style clearly reflected the needs and interests of leisured aristo
cratic class or those who like the rising bourgeois of the Second Empire aspired
to it) and concomitant ignorance that beyond this small world there were vast
masses who should not have been neglected and for whom education should
have raised their intellectual and moral standards and improved their material
condition 41 Morally the educational ideal of the Renaissance provided an
occasion for oft-repeated puritanical insistence that aesthetic values
breed immorality Any culture which is exclusively or essentially he
argued contains within itself germ of immorality or at least of inferior
morality The basis for this claim seems to have been that deep respect for the of simple unrefined peoples and concomitant suspicion of the ethics of
literate society which Durkheim shared with Kant and Rousseau
But above all and here again the debt to and is palpable)
Durkheim felt that the Renaissance attempt to revive the ethics of antiquity had
passed over the single most important consequence of the intervening centuries
the Christian idea of duty In fact for all his admiration of Aristotle
assessment of pagan ethics particularly in light of the austere
Protestant morality he inherited from Kant was always rather negative The
Greeks and Romans had very vague and flimsy notion of duty] regarding
morality not as categorical law which commands and which must be obeyed
simply because it does comand but rather as
seductive ideal which is inherently attractive and which spontaneously gives
direction to the will of anyone who has managed to see it clearly For them the
problem of morality presented itself in the following terms what is the sovereign
good the object supremely worthy to be desired They had different ideas about
where the road to happiness lay but they conceived of virtue as being inseparable
from astate of blessedness This is why all their doctrines even the most sublime
even those of the Stoics were derived from the eudaemonic ethics which they were
never able to shake off 42)
In sharp contrast the Christian idea which Durkheim seems almost to have
paraphrased from Religion within in Bounds of Mere Reason 1793) was
all considerations of personal happiness were banished from the whole moral
sphere as they could only serve to corrode and diminish the moral value of our
actions The ideal of the Christian way of life is to do duty because it is
duty to obey the rules because they are the rules it depends on the idea of man
rising above his nature and freeing himself from it by taming it and subjecting it
to the spiritual laws whose object is in word sanctity 43)
The disastrous consequence of the Renaissance ideal was that the child was
forced to live in both moral environments simultaneously making him moral
hybrid divided against himself tom between the present and the past and
enfeebled by the conflict 44)
Durkheim thus endorsed the Scholastic view that pagan education led to
internal conflict confusion and the corruption of moral agency And for similar
reasons he preferred the Rabelaisian quest for encyclopaedic knowledge to the
narrowly egotistical pursuit of praise represented by Erasmian Humanism But
above all he admired Rabelais elevation of things over ideas for
in order to succeed in understanding things one must necessarily step outside
oneself and out of the internal world of images in which the pure man of letters
delights it is necessary to make contact with the real world which surrounds us
and to live in it on terms of intimate familiarity one must thus be enthusiastic
about it one must love it and love it in its entirety despising no part of it We must
remain indifferent to nothing which is contained within it 45)
Nor should this preference for the real world of things be construed as
purely theoretical fancy On the contrary it was above all practical moral
matter For Durkheim repeatedly insisted that an immersion in the world of
things not only provided more accurate complete conception of nature more
important it man with better sense of his place within it and thus
combats his natural destructive tendency to egoism by comparing himself
with the immense universe surrounding him Durkheim explained he under
stands that he is not the whole of it but only small part He no longer runs the
risk of thinking of himself as the centre to which everything must be related
rather he perceives that he belongs to system which goes infinitely beyond him
and which has its centre outside him 46 In short Durkheim embraced the
XVIIth century view of science later reconstructed and anatomized by Robert
Merton the view that the practice of science dealing with things was an
essentially moral and even redemptive activity 47)
Durkheim also considered the Renaissance powerful formative influence
on the French character Arguing against the view that Humanist education had
inhibited the flowering of French he insisted that the study of ancient languages
had produced several of the most distinctive traits of the national intellect e.g.
its taste for generalized and impersonal types epitomized in the classical French
drama of the XVIIth century) its tendency to abstraction and simplification and

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