Since its origins, Critical Theory has considered itself a philosophical supplement to the social sciences, aimed at reorienting their goals and methodologies. We could describe this as a love/hate affair, a perennial struggle between the evaluation of the critical and political contents of the social sciences and the denunciation of their lack of criticism. Critical Theory addresses the tension between the “objective” epistemology of the social sciences, and the normative moral and political aims pursued by societies (and by classes, genders, races and individuals within those societies). It has tried throughout its history to supplement observations with normative insights about the transformation of society, and to embed its critique in the struggle for emancipation. Critical Theory has suggested that the tension between the epistemology of the social sciences on the one hand, and the moral and political aims of social actors on the other, is an inescapable condition of modernity.

Émile Durkheim and the Durkheimian school also allow us to rethink the tension between the modern social sciences, and morality and politics. However, Durkheim’s analysis of this tension is, in some respects, divergent from the one put forward by Critical Theory. Sociology, according to Durkheim, is neither about supplementing the social sciences with philosophical normative insights, nor is it about accepting a pure, positivist conception of social science, abolishing moral and philosophical reflection.

Durkheim’s aim is not to conflate philosophy and sociological theory. Nor does he want to separate philosophy from sociology, confining the latter to a pure, positivist, value-free epistemology, letting political philosophy supplement the lack of normativity. Instead, he understands sociology as a way of problematizing the normative underpinnings of modern political philosophy. Sociology challenges the way modern philosophy has attempted, since Hobbes, to offer a “Civil Science”: a scientific knowledge of politics.

Durkheim’s sociology, rightly understood, can suggest a different conception of critique, aiming to renew our understanding of social normativity; to overcome the Enlightenment dichotomy of reason and religion; and to rethink authority and institutions, valorizing the expectations of justice produced within societies by social movements and social conflicts.

Social Normativity: Immanent critique and social pathologies

In order to highlight the peculiarity of Durkheim’s conception of critique, it is necessary to focus on his method. We can do this by addressing the accusations of objectivism and naturalism that Critical Theory has levied against him, as well as the criticism of his organicist vision of society.

According to the objectivist criticism, Durkheim’s reference, in The Rules of Sociological Method, to “social facts,” and his talk of treating social facts as things, are considered proof that he believes that society can be studied objectively, and thus proof that sociology belongs to “traditional” (as opposed to critical) theory. According to the naturalist criticism, Durkheim is a structural-functionalist thinker who bases his theory on biological analogies, imagining society as an organic totality and social pathologies as its malfunctions.

Both of these criticisms are based on a very reductionist conception of what a “moral fact” is, and what “society” means for Durkheim. On the contrary, according to him, the creativity of action and the moral effervescence of societies prevent us from considering society a static and objective being. The previous two criticisms have contributed to shaping an image of Durkheim as a positivist and conservative thinker, who aims to heal societal malfunctions after having reduced them to an organized pattern of empirical data. A new perspective, largely developed in the last decades by new Durkheim studies, is therefore needed in order to change our perception of these issues and make Durkheim’s relevance for contemporary Critical Theory apparent.

Firstly, Durkheim’s apparent objectivism is not a positivist attempt to naturalize moral life, but rather a way to reestablish a relationship between observation (and science) and the agent’s moral and critical faculties. Durkheim’s idea of a science of society was about empowering actors’ agency and critical disposition through a specific kind of collective self-reflection. This science understands the realm of moral facts as neither based on the pure axiological neutrality of the observer, as in the Weberian tradition, nor on the conflation of observation and practice, as in the Marxist tradition, but rather on the possibility of understanding moral facts as “collective representations” produced and reproduced in rule-governed practices, embedded and transmitted in the longue durée life of institutions. This last aspect puts Durkheim in open dialogue with Wittgesteinian and pragmatist conceptions of social life, trying on one side to rescue actors’ intentionality from those approaches that would reduce it to an ideological effect, and on the other side allowing us to understand the meaning of action based on an interwoven process of shared semantic rules.

Secondly, the concept of social pathology does not express a normative preference for a conflict-free society by analogy to biological forms of life, but rather expresses a conception of justice emerging from social conflicts themselves. Insofar as societies can be observed from the viewpoint of their changing opinions and customs, and insofar as these changes in collective life necessarily reveal new collective expectations of social justice — this being one of the consequences of Durkheim’s holism — we can establish general criteria that enable us to understand what is blocking these expectations and then evaluate the efficacy of socially-embedded forms of criticism. A social pathology would not then represent what a sociologist considers as pathological, because sociology does not offer, properly speaking, normative criteria. And that’s what necessarily makes this science a critique of normatively-based forms of political science, whether their normativity is based on sovereign’s last word (the Hobbesian monopoly on opinion and violence) or on the natural moral laws defended by liberalism. The category of “social pathology” rather helps describe and interpret the quest for social justice and the moral expectations immanent to modern societies themselves. This is the sense of Durkheim’s positivism: not reducing a collectivity to a living being by use of biological analogies, but making a science of beliefs and opinions, and in this way giving them voice, recovering them from being filtered out by the criteria of certainty and infallibility within modern moral and political sciences.

Reason and Religion: Practices and post-secular societies

Once we are able to see how Durkheim’s sociology transforms our understanding of normativity, locating the critical aims of a society within itself, it becomes easy to grasp his critical understanding of religion, law and politics.

Contemporary debates show an increasing skepticism about purely secularist conceptions of modernity, and the dichotomy between reason and tradition. At the same time, a growing sensibility within political theory is a post-secularist conception of the political, trying to rethink the role of religion in public life, and exploring the religious origins of our political concepts. Political theology now enjoys a broad appeal among radical political theorists. However, without a re-conceptualization of religious phenomena, this move towards political theology can constitute a simple inversion of modernism that does not properly capture the role of religious practices as we should conceive of them today.

Durkheim argues for the anthropogenic function of religion in social life — the fact that religion has a constitutive role in the cognitive and affective structures of human nature. Because Durkheim’s sociology seeks to understand societies in action, i.e. to understand society as a reality fundamentally made out of desires and mental representations, it sees the social role of religious practices, rituals and cults as constitutive of rationality itself. Durkheim’s sociology neither impoverishes rational and secular thinking, reducing them to an illusion — as contemporary debates tend to do — nor does it legitimize a purely secularist conception of modernity, unable to understand the widening role of religion in public life. Instead, Durkheim’s conception of modernity denies the strict opposition between reason and tradition that modern philosophy has often supported, and allows us to understand the autonomy of modern rationality.

The consequences of this move are relevant for our understanding of the relationship between reason and critique, and consequently for our conception of the tasks of Critical Theory. Understanding the emergence of rationality from religion, and in the meantime furnishing a social (and rational) conception of the latter, Durkheim’s sociology refuses the modern opposition between reason and tradition, problematizing the Enlightenment’s views of modernity. Durkheim finds in social practices an immanent perspective from which to understand the emergence of religion and reason alike. Symbolization, the transfiguration of social forces in objects and images, becomes in such a way the shared requirement of religious and secular forms of social life.

Critique then, according to Durkheim, is not located in the opposition between reason and religion, but is rather located in the expressive, social nature of both, and sociology allows us to notice this common feature of religion and rationality in order to formulate a different kind of critique in post-secular societies.

Rethinking Politics: the authority of sociological critique

The political consequences of these conceptions are made explicit by Durkheim himself in most of his works, from the third book of his Division of Labour in Society, until roughly his Lessons on Socialism. However, it is in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals that Durkheim’s conception of critique most clearly shows its implications for the understanding of modern politics. It would be difficult to summarize in a few words a book that has the ambition of renewing our conceptions of the state and pluralism, democracy and cosmopolitism, property and class conflict, contractual law and social justice, individualism and belonging.

We should just remember that what is at stake in Durkheim’s conception of politics is not a reductionist conception of human action, but instead a deep awareness of the crisis of authority in the modern world, and the necessity of confronting this crisis by freeing our thinking from sovereignty-centered conceptions of the political order, and consequently from modern political epistemology. With a commitment comparable to that of such thinkers as Hannah Arendt or Michel Foucault, Durkheim’s critique of modern politics consists in acknowledging the impossibility of political criticism without radically upturning the cognitive structure by which the modern political order has been conceptualized. This is the paradigm-changing, political ambition of modern sociology in the Durkheimian tradition, irreducible either to positivism or axiological neutrality.

Durkheim’s sociology, as a science of diffused (in opinions) and organized (in institutions) moral life, allows us to extend our conception of modern politics beyond its canonical self-representation in liberal thought. Durkheim’s holistic approach to politics and law (a move that in many respects can be positioned alongside philosophical attempts to think the political form via the grounding structure of ethical life, from Spinoza to the young Hegel) deconstructs the individualistic presumption of both modern natural law and modern political economy.

Sociology overcomes the modern liberal distinction between morality and law, on the understanding that both juridical and customary institutions are grounded on moral obligations. With this move, Durkheim prompts a revision of the notion of an institution: institutions are expressions of moral collective life, instead of being the artificial product of modern rationality.

In bypassing the modern dialectic of the natural and the artificial, Durkheim is not just opening a way of historically reorienting our understanding of institutions, he allows to think how, beyond the formalism of modern law, there is embedded a hidden quest for social justice, emerging from religious origins, but radically transformed in modernity. Hence, the political ambition of sociological critique, made explicit since even The Division of Social Labor, consists in furnishing a specific form of reflexivity that is at the same time a form of action, allowing democratic societies to be conscious of the relationship between their quest for justice and the changing history of their institutions. This ambition is very timely if related to contemporary difficulties encountered by social movements in finding a viable political grammar without suppressing agents’ political autonomy, and should be very fruitful in satisfying Critical Theory’s ambition to give voice these conflicts.