What do you understand by, and what is the role of, notions of ‘simple’ and ‘elementary’ as laid out by Durkheim in the Introduction to Elementary Forms of Religious Life?

What do you understand by, and what is the role of, notions of ‘simple’ and ‘elementary’ as laid out by Durkheim in the Introduction to Elementary Forms of Religious Life?


‘I propose to study the simplest and most primitive religion that is known at present, to discover the principles and attempt an explanation of it’.

This is the very first sentence of the Introduction to the French Sociologist’s, Emile Durkheim’s book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, where through description and explanation of the most primitive religion he tries to understand the modern Man in a sociological perspective.

This essay will not try to discuss the meaning of religion, it will rather present the main ideas laid out by the author in the Introduction to The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which will help to understand role of the notions of ‘elementary’ and ‘simple’.

According to Durkheim, ‘all the essential elements of religious thought and life ought to be found, at least in germ, in the most primitive religions’. This essay, supported by Professor S. Lukes’ study, will try to argue that there is a lot of ambiguity in Durkheim’s explanation of the word ‘primitive ’. The ‘most primitive’ religion could either be the simplest religion, or the earliest religion. According to S. Lukes, Durkheim fails to perceive the significance of this ambiguity, which could imply that the notions of ‘simple’ and ‘elementary’ are not distinguished between one another very well.


The starting point will be the Oxford Dictionary of English, which has eight meanings of the word ‘simple’. The main one, states that ‘simple’ is something ‘free from elaboration or artificiality; artless, unaffected; plain, unadorned, unsophisticated, unspoiled.’ Also ‘with nothing added; considered or taken by itself; mere, pure, bare’. The word ‘elementary’ in the same dictionary is explained as something ‘of the nature of elements or rudiments; rudimentary, introductory. E.g. elementary book, writer, one that deals with first principles.’ Just by intuitively comparing these dictionary terms, it could be deduced that they have some similarities. However, what are the notions of ‘simple’ and ‘elementary’ for Durkheim and how does he use and explain them in the Introduction to The Elementary Forms of Religious Life?

In order to analyse the principles of religion, Durkheim proposes to study the most primitive religion known at present. He also states, that the religion he analyses must meet two conditions – ‘it must be found in societies the simplicity of whose organization is nowhere exceeded’ and it ‘must be explainable without the introduction of any element from a predecessor religion’. The purpose of his study, as he explains, is ‘not to seek to become acquainted with bygone forms of civilization for the sole purpose of being acquainted with and reconstructing them. Instead, <…> , its purpose above all is to explain a present reality that is near to as and thus capable of affecting our ideas and actions. That reality is man’. By analysing primitive religions of Australia, Durkheim argues that we will be able to ‘reveal a fundamental and permanent aspect of humanity’.

In his other works Durkheim defined, that no human institution could rest on an error or a lie. If an institution is not based on ‘the nature of things,’ Durkheim insisted, it encounters a resistance in nature, which destroys it; the very existence of primitive religions, therefore, assures us that they ‘hold to reality and express it.’ The symbols through which this reality is expressed, of course, may seem absurd; but we must know how to go beneath the symbol, to uncover the reality which it represents, and which gives it its meaning: ‘The most barbarous and the most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life, either individual or social. The reasons with which the faithful justify them may be, and generally are, erroneous; but the true reasons,’ Durkheim concluded, ‘do not cease to exist and it is the duty of science to discover them.’

In this sense, all religions are ‘true’; but if all religions are thus equal with respect to the reality they express, why did Durkheim focus on primitive (or elementary) religions in particular? It could be argued, that he did this for methodological reasons – he outlines them in the first part of the Introduction. His statement that by analysing primitive or elementary forms of religions we will be able to explain present-day humanity raises a question: how can these phenomena be connected and if so, is this connection valid? Durkheim argued that we cannot understand more advanced religions except by analysing the way they have been progressively constituted throughout history; for only by placing each of the constituent elements of modern religions in the context within which it emerged can we hope to discover the cause which gave rise to it – this is a statement, that history is perceived as developmental. In this analysis, as in Cartesian logic, the first link of the chain was the most important; but for Durkheim, this link at the foundation of the science of religions was not a ‘conceptual possibility’ but a concrete reality based on historical and ethnographic observations. Just as biological evolution has been differently conceived since the empirical discovery of mono-cellular beings, therefore, religious evolution is differently conceived depending upon what concrete system of belief and action is placed at its origin:

‘The particulars of religious facts are explained differently if naturism is places at the beginning of religious evolution than if animism or some other form, is placed there’.

Durkheim rejected naturist and animist theories, ‘according to which man has superimposed on observable reality an unreal world, made up entirely of the fantastic images which excite his mind during a dream, or of the aberration, often monstrous, allegedly generated by the mythological imagination under the bewitching but deceiving influence of language’ . He chose totemism as Elementary Religion, as it stands ‘as close as possible to the origins of evolution ’.

Durkheim also suggested that the scientific study of religion itself presupposed that the various religions we compare are all species of the same class, and thus possess certain elements in common:

‘At the foundation of all systems of belief and all cults, there must necessarily be a certain number of fundamental representations and modes of ritual conduct, that, despite the diversity of forms that the one and the other may have taken on, have the same objective meaning everywhere and everywhere fulfil the same functions. It is these enduring elements that constitute what is eternal and human in religion; they are the whole objective content of the idea that is expressed when religion in general is spoken of’ .

Again, therefore, Durkheim was trying to answer a time-honoured philosophical question – the ‘essential nature’ of religion – by new, sociological means and the special value of such analysis is that it captures religious ideas and practices before priests, prophets, theologians, or the popular imagination had had the opportunity to refine and transform them. Durkheim is implying the importance of looking at elementary forms:

‘That which is accessory or secondary… has not yet come to hide the principal elements. All is reduced to that which is indispensable to that without which there could be no religion. But that which is indispensable is also that which is essential, that is to say, that which we must know before all else.’

Primitive religions (or elementary forms of religions) are privileged cases, Durkheim thus argued, because they are simple cases. But if this simplicity of primitive religions helps us to understand its nature, it also helps us to understand its causes. In fact, as religious thought evolved through history, its initial causes became overlaid with a vast scheme of methodological and theological interpretation, which made those origins virtually imperceptible. The study of primitive religion, Durkheim thus suggested, is a new way of taking up the old problem of the ‘origin of religion’ itself – not in the sense of some specific point in time and space when religion began to exist (no such point exists), but in the sense of discovering ‘the ever-present causes upon which the most essential forms of religious thought and practice depend.’ Steven Lukes, however, argues that this Durkheim’s suggestion has a lot of ambiguity and could be misleading:

‘The ambiguity, and his blindness to it, are also revealed in his claim to be “taking up again, but under new conditions, the old problem of the origin of religion”, meaning by “origin” not an “absolute beginning, but the most simple social state that is currently known, that beyond which we cannot go at present”, so as to discover “the ever-present causes on which the most essential forms of religious thought and practice depend.” He [Durkheim] took it simply axiomatic that there is an identity between (cultural and structural) simplicity and evolutionary priority.’

However, Lukes then states that, ‘the enormous interest and importance of The Elementary Forms is largely independent of its evolutionism.’, which could allow us to deduce that although Durkheim failed to fully explain the distinctions between the notions of ‘simple’ and ‘elementary’, this does not invalidate his methodology and consequently his work.

In the second part of the Introduction Durkheim lays out his perception of theory of knowledge. According to him ‘men owe to religion not only the content of their knowledge, in significant part, but also the form in which that knowledge elaborated’.

Durkheim was not interested in totemism merely as an exotic social phenomenon. He is quite explicit in the Introduction that he is concerned with the analysis of totemism, in the first place, as a critical illumination of his general theory of religion, this in turn being merely one side of his wider theory of knowledge. It is the theory of knowledge that is his principal, underlying concern throughout the study. This concern is crystallized in his discussion of the categories of understandings – concepts of space, time, class, force, substance, efficacy, personality, causality, etc. – concepts that are fundamental to all human thought. Durkheim rejects the ideas of materialism and idealism and adopts a standpoint, which develops the earlier ideas of Comte. In order to avoid deriving mind from matter, or calling on any super-experimental reality, it ‘is no longer necessary to go beyond experience,’ he says, and the specific experience to which he refers is the ‘super-individual reality which we experience in society’.Concepts of space, time, number, cause, etc. for Durkheim are ‘like solid frames that confine thought, since it seems we cannot think of objects that are not in time or space, that cannot be counted, and so forth’ . This means that thought is social and, at the same time, confined by certain frames. It’s quite a moving statement, because it could be interpreted that although individuals are free to think, their actual thoughts have defined limits.ARGUMENTSA lot of scholars have tried to show the disadvantages of Durkheim’s methodology. For example, there is no evidence that Australian totemism is the earliest totemism, let alone the earliest religion; and, though technically less advanced than the North American Indians, the Australians have a kinship system which is far more complex. But then, in contradiction with Durkheim, there is no necessary relationship between the ‘simplicity’ of a society and that of their religious beliefs and practices; nor, for that matter, is there any necessary relationship between religion and totemism generally. However, in The Elementary Forms Durkheim does not base his methodology completely on totemism – he rather uses it in order to illustrate it.

Furthermore, Durkheim states, that ‘all the essential elements of religious thought and life ought to be found, at least in germ, in the most primitive religions’. Professor Lukes argues, that there is ambiguity in the crucial word ‘primitive’ – ‘The ‘most primitive’ religion could either be the simplest religion, or the earliest religion’.The translator of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Karen E. Fields, also discusses the problem of distinction between ‘elementary’ and ‘simple’ readers might encounter. In her opinion the word ‘elementary’ should be replaced by ‘elemental’ in order to avoid confusion.‘The question is not right or wrong translation but the scope each alternative leaves for right or wrong understanding. On the on hand, “elementary” will do in some respects; think of the concept “elementary particles”, defined as being the smallest and most fundamental particles known. On the other hand, in day-to-day usage, “elementary” has a diminutive and vaguely dismissive connotation and sets up the same potential problem for some readers as “simple” . Karen E. Fields suggests considering a sentence ‘You just don’t seem to get the most elementary points’. Here elementary means the easiest or simplest. ‘Durkheim means “simplest” as well, but he means it as particle physicists mean it, scientists who assuredly mean things that challenge the intellect. He [Durkheim] seeks to explore building blocks of human social life, as physicists explore building blocks of matter. “Elementary” is suitable only if used in a restricted sense.’ The restricted sense is that it doesn’t mean easiest or simplest.CONCLUSIONThe role of notions of ‘simple’ and ‘elementary’ in Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life is very important, as they are crucial in his methodology, which is based on the analysis of primitive (elementary) religions – ‘we cannot arrive at an understanding of the most modern religions without tracing historically the manner in which they have gradually taken shape’ .
When focusing on totemism, Durkheim thought to only be making a single methodological assumption, however, Steven Lukes argues that this assumption ‘can be analysed in to two, importantly different, assumptions’. Durkheim assumption was that all the essential elements of religious thought could be found in the most primitive religions’. Steven Lukes argues, that there is a lot of ambiguity in the crucial word ‘primitive’ – in his opinion:‘The “most primitive” religion could either be the simplest religion, or the earliest religion. The first interpretation represents Durkheim’s residual evolutionism; the second his inclination to study relatively undifferentiated, small-scale and closed societies. The first points backwards to the pervasive evolutionism of the nineteenth century; the second points forwards to modern social anthropology.’We can clearly see that in this sense, the notion of the word ‘primitive’ (which is often interchanged with the word ‘elementary’) is crucial when describing ‘the causes on which the most essential forms of religious thought and practice depend’ . Therefore, it is crucial to understand the notions correctly.Although Durkheim failed to fully explain the distinctions between the notions of ‘simple’ and ‘elementary’, this does not invalidate his methodology and consequently his work.BIBLIOGRAPHYDurkheim, Emile: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Paris, F. Alcan, 1912 (translated by Fields, K. E., New York, The Free Press, 1995).Hamilton, Peter: Emile Durkheim: Critical Assessments, Vol. IV, London, Routlegde, 1990

Lukes, Steven: Émile Durkheim – His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study, London, Allen Lane, 1973.

Oxford English Dictionary Online (Second Edition, 1989):http://dictionary.oed.com