In one chapter in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and in paper Primitive classification (Mauss also), Durkheim critiques Kantian a priori pure forms of sensibility: space and time; on basis, that they are categories of indeed social origin (and therefore a posteriori?).

Durkheim line of reasoning is that these categories are religious and are part of this collective consciousness because they are dependent of social structure and created by division of space and experiences. To understand that space exist is to understand that certain group is habiting it. To understand that time exist is to understand that there are series or perhaps rhythm of experiences which are collective. Durkheim was influenced by Kant and is keeping some of a priori premises which I did not fully understand.

But is that a valid critique of Kant? I will be honest, I've not read as much Kant as I've should, but my interpretation is, that these pure forms of sensibility for Kant allows sensible experience and with underlying categories give understanding and reason. Hence, they are intuitive ways of how our reason works. It is not important how we classify them semantically in relation to social experiences, but it is important that they allow us to purely intuitively (in relation to sensibility) put objects of experience in certain relation and, again intuitively, to understand that certain relations exist (thanks to categories). In other words, calling up down or vice versa, or dividing (semantically) certain space by understanding that groups are habiting it, is not important as understanding in reason, that these objects and experiences are indeed in some sort of relation (as our reason sees it).

Therefore, it seems to me that by my interpretation, Kantian reasoning still stands, because in order to socially mark certain aspects of time and space, we need intuitively (a priori) to understand some relations (which we need in order to have experiences in the first place). This understanding is even more supported by the fact that, even though different cultures describe time and space differently, they all do it so.

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    Durkheim's "argument" that space and time are social constructs is just as good as Kant's "argument" that they are a priori. Neither of them is giving an argument in the deductive sense, they are postulating hypotheses that would explain how space and time could emerge in our thinking. And then, of course, there is the more traditional explanation that they are objective physical entities. The question then is whose explanation is "better", and that is a matter of judgment, not argument. Durkheim's critique is "valid" to the extent that one judges his explanation to be better than Kant's.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 23:37
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    A sociologist's argumentation has a different a priori interpretation of the world. Durkheim has dismissed Kantian philosophy as a part of a 'sub-social' group falling into religious group and therefore simply part of a variable grouping of a social structure - therefore trying to establish it as simply part of another social group to be dissected and analyzed without any thought to the actual philosophical dialectics. One can argue that this is valid from a narrow sociological viewpoint, but one might as well dismiss ALL of mankind's studies and understandings Commented Mar 6, 2021 at 6:40

1 Answer 1


Short version

I would argue that Durkheim seemed to think that the a priori character of space as a unitary frame across all rational beings was a threat to the socially determined plurality of representations of space his empirical approach showed and tried to capture. This, I would argue further, is a misinterpretation since it confused socially determined representation of space(s), which without a doubt can involve plurality in Kant as well, and the pure intuition of space that makes them possible. Thus, there isn't much of a competition between theories since they have different objects they try to explain and the critique isn't valid since it does not criticise the correct level of conditions of the possibility of experience. This kind of critical assessment of Kant, even if Durkheim's motivation is original, is not his own, though: He uncritically uses the arguments of the French neo-kantians Renouvier and, more explicitly, his pupil Hamelin.

Long version

My first point was about the motivation for Durkheim. Let me argue with Terry F Godlove Jr. (https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1520-6696(199610)32:4%3C441::AID-JHBS7%3E3.0.CO;2-T):

Durkheim apparently found Kant’s views threatening because he thought they undercut the possibility of an empirical inquiry into what he saw as the diversity of spatial representation - and so the sort of sociological program that Durkheim wished to inaugurate. [...] Durkheim sees his sociological (empirical) account of spatial representation as incompatible with Kant’s theory.

Thus, the main premise of Durkheim's critique is the incompatibility with his own, empirical approach to representations of space. Given that, Durkheim looked for arguments against Kant and in his favour.

Once Durkheim had determined that Kant’s views on space were a threat to his project, he apparently felt he could not proceed absent a compelling reply to them. He found them in the work of the neo-Kantian Renouvier (1815 - 1903) and in that of his Renouvierist contemporary Hamelin (1856- 1907).

From that, we can conclude that probably, the true aim of the argument of Durkheim is not Kant himself, but a particular French reading of Kant. And that is exactly what Godlove shows us to be the case, after which he concludes:

What is clear is that Durkheim believed that Hamelin had already answered Kant on technical, purely philosophical grounds, and, in so doing, has shown that our underlying representation of space is not an a priori intuition but rather a general concept - just the result that Durkheim felt he needed.

I cannot reproduce the whole argument here, but it essentially is about whether the metaphysical exposition of space provided by Kant justifies the priority of a single intuition of boundless space over a general concept of particular spatial structures. Durkheim's sources do deny that, but this does not mean that they are doing justice to Kant:

[I]t appears to me that neither Renouvier nor Hamelin jeopardize Parsons’ recent judgment that Kant’s central phenomenological claims about space are “on the whole sound.” These claims include the priority of space over objects (we experience objects as in space, and for that reason we cannot construct the concept of space from relations between objects), and the singularity and boundlessness of space as experienced. If Durkheim is right that these results pose a threat to sociological inquiry into the form of human spatial representation, his appeal to Hamelin (and, tacitly, to Renouvier) will be in vain. At the same time, we recognize that this leaves unaddressed the deeper and philosophically most pressing issue, namely, the ground of the phenomenological priority of space over spaces.

Thus, the philosophical basis of Durkheim's critique is shaky: Even if it may point out some potential problems in the phenomenological parts (3 and 4) of the metaphysical exposition of space, it does so by taking them as stand-alone arguments (part of Godloves greater line of argument) and concludes that the exposition as a whole fails to show what it is supposed to. That is not to say that the critique he builds upon does not have some merit to it. But it is at least questionable that this critique, taken as a stand-alone, justifies the outright rejection and replacement of Kant's transcendental metaphysics and space (singular, boundless) as the a priori form of intuition.

Even worse, Durkheim's original motivation seems to be based on a misunderstanding since there are reasons to assume that pure intuition and general concept are not mutually exclusive:

As I have been urging for the last several paragraphs, Durkheim was deeply right to see Kant’s theory of space as an a priori intuition as tied to an individualistic conception of epistemology. Whether he correctly perceived its bankruptcy is another matter. I have tried to sketch - alongside these two critical traditions - a third position which remains genuinely Kantian and which promises peaceful co-existence with Durkheim’s sociological programme. To establish its philosophical cogency and textual credentials would of course be a much larger undertaking.

That being said, there are good reasons to think that Durkheim's critique is not valid since it only discusses Kant's phenomenological arguments without context and is, therefore, based on an insufficient account of Kant's argument as a whole. Further, Durkheim makes uncritical use of the problematic conclusion that since phenomenologically, space was always relative to objects (probably an unsound premise, see above), the general concept of space as a bounded relation in which objects stand (what Kant will later call relative spaces in his natural philosophy) is actually the most basic kind of space and that Kant's form of intuition is to be discarded. Even worse, guided by a particular early reception of Kant, he sees his probably erroneous premise that his theory was incompatible with Kant's confirmed instead of critically assessing it.

To argue, with Kant, why the pure intuition of space isn't even an object of thought (or representation) and thus the plurality of representations of space does not need to pose a problem to Kant at all (here a summary by Willaschek):

As Kant argues in the “Transcendental Aesthetic,” space and time are primarily a priori forms of intuition. As Kant acknowledges in a footnote to the B-version of the Transcendental Deduction, however, their status as forms of intuition as such does not give us representations of space and time as objects (as they are needed in mathematical thinking) (B 160). The forms of intuition provide us with a manifold of intuition (namely points in space and time), but as such they do not unite this manifold into intuitive representations of space and time. This latter kind of representation Kant calls “formal intuition” (B 160), which results from actively synthesising the manifolds of space and time into unified representations of space and time as objects (in the widest sense). Hence, space and time as objects of our representations are not mind-independent objects, but products of acts of synthesis. (bolder mine)

Thus, Durkheim (with Hamelin) does at the very least confuse the pure forms of intuitions with their (formal) representations.

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