Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Jewish Hall of Fame: Émile Durkheim

The French sociologist, social psychologist and philosopher is considered to be one of the founding fathers of social science

By: Zak Edwards

Published: April 23rd, 2014 in News » World

Jewish Hall of Fame: Émile Durkheim

Since the dawn of time, Jewish people have contributed greatly to various fields, from sports to entertainment to politics to porn. With our Breakthrough Jew feature, we recognize those who are up and comers in these various industries, identifying those great innovators and leaders in the contemporary world who are making a mark on society that will last a lifetime.

With the Jewish Hall of Fame, we recognize the remarkable advancements members of our community have made on today’s society. These are people who have truly changed the world, and have earned the respect and praise of the members of today’s younger generation.

ShalomLife’s Jewish Hall of Fame is our ongoing tribute to the greatest Jews who have ever lived; be sure to catch us weekly with our latest inductees, and tweet us @ShalomLife with your suggestions.

Check out last week’s inductee into the Hall of Fame here.

Hall of Fame Member: Émile Durkheim

Born: April 15, 1858, Épinal, France

Died: November 15, 1917, Paris, France

Famous For: Being one of the founding fathers of social science

Few people have had such a significant impact on how we study, and how we study people, like Émile Durkheim. Often mentioned along with Karl Marx (another Jewish political philosopher) and Max Weber, Durkheim is counted as one of the founding fathers of social science, moving what were traditionally abstract studies of people to a more scientifically based analysis of society and culture. Durkheim dedicated his entire life to spreading his ideas and methodologies about sociology and, in the process, entered people ’s common phrases. Phrases like “collective conscience” are now regularly said and understood by most people. This is all thanks to Émile Durkheim.

Durkheim, however, was not always planning on revolutionizing the social sciences. Born in Épinal, France in 1858, David Émile Durkheim was the son of a long line of rabbis going back multiple generations. He too was ready to take the career of his father and grandfathers, but decided against rabbinical school at an early age. He instead pursued a more secular education and secular lifestyle. In fact, much of his work studied the impact of religion on communities and challenged the divine nature of religion in social spheres. Despite these studies, Durkheim remained active in the Jewish community, collaborating with Jewish scholars and involving himself in French-Jewish affairs.

Once breaking away from his family’s traditions, Durkheim attended École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in 1879 after two unsuccessful attempts to gain entrance. This was lucky for him in the long-run, however, as his entering year was filled with many future intellectuals in France. Classmates included Jean Jaurès and Henri Bergson, both of whom went on to become intellectual leaders in France.

At ENS, Durkheim studied under Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, who introduced the young student to Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. de Coulanges was himself a scholar combining scientific approaches to his classist projects, and these approaches had a profound effect on the future sociologist. His desire to follow such methods in his own work led to conflicts with the French Education department, which didn’t even have a social sciences department anywhere in the country. Knowing his ideas were too radical for France at the time, Durkheim looked beyond France’s borders on where to continue his studies.

After teaching philosophy at several provincial schools, Durkheim left France for Germany and studied in several cities. In Leipzig in particular, Durkheim found some like-minded researchers who reinforced the importance of empiricism in his own sociological studies. It was through empiricism that Durkheim thought scholars could create concrete yet complex ideas about the world around them. The Division of Labour in Society became his first major work and was spun out of his dissertation, which he completed in 1886.

The Division of Labour in Society revolutionized sociology when it was released, using entirely different methods to discuss the nature of human society and its development. With this book, Durkheim began to more fully look at humans and their societies from scientific viewpoints, using data, statistics, and other hard information to philosophize about cultures and how people interact.

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