The sociological view according to Emile Durkheim

This section examines the analyses of systems by Emile Durkheim, Ferdinand de Saussure and Antoine Meillet, and in particular their views of the relationship between the whole and its component parts.

As for the 'whole-parts' question, Durkheim states briefly:

C'est qu' un tout n'est pas identique a la somme de ses parties, il est quelque chose d'autre et dont les proprietes different de celles que presentent les parties dont il est compose. [A whole is not identical to the sum of its parts, it is something different, whose properties are different from those of the parts of which it is composed].

(Durkheim, 1999 [1895], p. 102)

It should be noted that this statement by Durkheim is very similar to Moore's definition in his Principia Ethica (Moore, 1903, p. 28): '[t]he value of a whole must not be assumed to be the same as the sum of the values of its parts'.

Keynes, too, when referring to Edgeworth's Mathematical Psychics, sets forth a similar conception:

The atomic hypothesis which has worked so splendidly in physics breaks down in psychics. We are faced at every turn with the problems of organic unity, of discreteness, of discontinuity - [T] he whole is not equal to the sum of the parts ... the assumptions of a uniform and homogeneous continuum are not satisfied.

(Keynes, 1972 [1933], p. 262; emphasis added)16

We can find a locus classicus of these discussions in Bertrand Russell's The Principles of Mathematics (Russell, 1903). In Chapter 16 of Volume 1 of that work ('Whole and Part') he refers to 'two very different classes of whole', that is, 'unities' and 'aggregates'.17

It is interesting to note here Durkheim's own view about the superiority of society to the individual:

Sans doute, nous faisons de la contrainte la caracteristique de tout fait social ... Elle est simplement due a ce que l'individu se trouve en presence d'une force qui le domine et devant laquelle il s'incline; mais cette force est naturelle. Elle ne derive pas d'un arrangement conventionnel que la volonte humaine a surajoute de toutes pieces au reel; elle sort des entrailles m§mes de la realite; elle est le produit necessaire de causes donnees.. Comme la superiorite que la societe a sur lui [l'individu] n'est pas simplement physique, mais intellectuelle et morale [Undoubtedly, we make constraint to be the distinguishing feature of any social fact ... This is because the individual finds himself confronted by a force that dominates him and to which he yields; but that force is natural. It is not derived from a conventional arrangement that the human will has added to reality; it comes out of the internal structure of reality itself; it is the necessary product of given causes ... Just as the dominance of society over, the individual is not simply physical but intellectual and moral as well.]

(Durkheim, 1999 [1895], pp. 121-2)

In his explanatory notes on Durkheim, Takashi Miyajima breaks through the central ideas of Durkheimian sociology. Note the following comment:

What is a social fact? It is a kind of unique reality acknowledged by the properties of both externality and coercion and distinguished from some individual's mirror image of it. Institutions, laws, customs and morals etc.—nearly all of them are transmitted from former generations, they govern an individual's life by means of their own logic, and form at times an irresistible coercive force. Without appropriately recognizing the objectivity and reality of these factors as such, the science of society could not be established. It is utilitarian individualism reducing exhaustively a social fact to individual and subjective elements that Durkheim considered as a great enemy obstructing the existence of sociology.

(Miyajima, 1978, pp. 289-90; emphasis added)

As the above passage makes clear, Durkheim decisively rejected the view of society reduced to ultimate atoms, namely, logical atomism. Moreover, he always opposed Gabriel Tarde. It cannot be said that Tarde supports simplistic atomism. Rather, he adopts une psychologic sociale (a social psychology) or rather une interpsychologie sociale (social interpsychology) against Durkheim's 'sociologisme'. However it is, I think, undeniable that Tarde found the ultimate basis of his sociology in 'la croyance (belief) and 'le desir' (desire) of individuals as simply suggested in the sentence: 'Tout ce qui est genial est individuel, meme le crime [Everything that is inspired pertains to the individual, even crime.]18, 19

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