Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Durkheim is trying to take up “the old problem of the origin of religions but under new conditions” (7), presupposing that, if we study what primitive religions were, we would come to know the origin (maybe essence or nature) of religions, because “in the primitive religions, the religious phenomenon still carries the visible imprint of its origins. This kind of ethnographic and social evolutionist theory could be supported by the assumption that the primitive forms of religion, the primitive forms of life was so simple, in the sense that it is placed at the beginning of religious evolution, that we could easily get to the core of the religions, as if biology learns the origin of life from the evolution from the unicellular organisms.

This perspective is backed up by the other assumption that “there is an aspect of every religion that transcends the realm of specifically religious ideas” (8). So, he believes that if we all human beings do not stand on the one and the same (universal) category – homogeneous conception of time, space, cause, number, etc. – “all consensus among minds, and thus all common life, would become impossible” (16). My question is about this universality of imperative category. Although I think his method is the only scientific way that I know of, I cannot persuade myself that the primitive society had the same category of representation with ours. They could not have had the category of number itself – maybe such as ‘a few’ and ‘many.’ Even if they have experienced the cycle of season and day, they could have thought it not just in different form but in entirely unimaginable way. Or put it another way, what if they have had an entirely different category from ours? 

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