Emile Durkheim Biography
Emile Durkheim was born on
April 15, 1858 at Epinal, Vosges, in Lorraine, France, the son of
Moïse Durkheim, the Chief
Rabbi of the Vosges and Haute-Marne, and his wife Mélanie,
a merchant's daughter. Since Emile's father, grandfather, and
great-grandfather had all been rabbis, it was expected that young
Emile would follow suit, so he was sent to a a rabbinical school.
However, things did not turn out as planned when Emile moved to Paris.
When he was in his
early teens, Durkheim took an interest in Catholicism, but he also
abandoned that religion as well, realizing that he preferred to study
religion from an agnostic standpoint as opposed to being
This in no way meant that
he was rejecting his heritage, as he remained close to his family and
the Jewish community. Durkheim was a brilliant student, and was
awarded several prizes and honors. His high intellect and
academic excellence earned him early advancement, and baccalaureates
in Letters 1874, and Sciences in 1875, at the Collège d’Epinal, as well as high
distinction in the Concours Général. which had made it easy for him to
be accepted at the Lycée
Louis-le-Grand in Paris.
But Durkheim's real
academic ambition was not the Lycée, but rather the prestigious Ecole
Normale Supérieure, which he worked tenaciously to gain acceptance
therein. Durkheim's father had become ill, and he was staying in
a pension, which made him quite depressed. Furthermore,
Durkheim's scientific way thinking did not make it easy for him to do
well in the studies he required to gain admittance into the Ecole
Normale Supérieure. It wasn't until 1879, at the age of 21, on the third try that he
finally attained his goal, joining the ranks of other great
intellectual and political leaders such as socialist Jean Jaurès,
psychologist Pierre Janet, philosophers Henri Bergson, Felix Rauh and Maurice Blondel, all of whom had been, or were soon to be studying
at the the famed institution.
Durkheim and this
group of young thinkers were involved in political and philosophical
discussions, most of which focused on the Republican cause, of which
Durkheim, along with his friend Jaurès were strong proponents.
Durkheim had great admiration for Léon Gambetta, one of the founders
of the French Third Republic, and Jules Ferry, who introduced the
anti-clerical reform that made primary education obligatory, free, and
non-clerical, but his own interest in education centered more upon
teaching methods, which had long been literary, and which he felt
needed to be scientific, and it was this issue which fueled his
orations. It was then, that Durkheim found allies in
philosophers Emile Boutroux, Charles Renouvier, and historian Numas-Denis
Fustel de Coulanges.
Though he became ill in 1881, Durkheim passed the difficult
examination required for admission to the teaching staff of state
secondary schools, and was soon thereafter teaching philosophy.
5 years later, in 1887, Durkheim married Louise Dreyfus, with whom he
had a son, André, and later a daughter, Marie. It was also that
same year that Durkheim was appointed "Chargé des Cours de Pédagogie
et de Sciences Sociales" at Bordeaux, by departing teacher Alfred Espinas and
Louis Liard, a devoted republican who was then Director of Higher
Education in France. The "Sciences Sociales" part of the
appointment had been tailored to fit Durkheim's new ideas, and thus,
sociology became part of the French academic curriculum.