MAIN THEMES IN DURKHEIM'S WRITINGS
The Division of Labour in Society
Durkheim is ordinarily regarded, in the English-speaking world, at least, as one of the founders of modern ‘empirical’ sociology: as a writer whose works played a leading role in the transformation of sociology from a speculative, philosophical endeavour into a clearly-bounded discipline firmly planted in the controlled observation of empirical reality. This, indeed, represented one of Durkheim's most frequently stated ambitions. But he never lost sight of broader philosophical questions, and held that it should be one of the functions of sociology to throw new light upon old philosophical debates. As he himself wrote: ‘Having begun from philosophy, I tend to return to it; or rather I have been quite naturally brought back to it by the nature of the questions which I met with on my route.’
Durkheim's earliest writings are rooted in an attempt to establish a critique of two major streams of social thought (which, of course, embodied numerous, complex and overlapping subdivisions), namely that formed by political economy, and utilitarian philosophy more generally, on the one hand, and that represented by the various schools of ‘idealist holism’ on the other. The latter tradition, at least in Durkheim's treatment of it in his early writings, includes various apparently discrepant sorts of social thought – such as, for example, that of Comte, and of German authors such as Schmoller and Schaffle. What such writers as these shared in common, as it seemed to Durkheim, is the assumption, either implicit or explicit, that the positive valence of moral ‘ideals’ provides the major impetus to the evolution of human society.