February 16, 2006

Durkheim’s Collective representations

UNCHANGED MEANINGS The Literary Criticism we Need
Rafe Champion Printed in the Age Monthly Review, August 1985
Wellek and Warren’s mention of the emergent, sui generis nature of a literary work should immediately remind us of Durkheim’s sui generis theory to account for the nature of that cultural artefact par excellence – society itself. Durkheim’s theory of collective representations is a good start on a theory of objective knowledge, which has been relegated to the archive of sociological oddities. It seems that it has not been developed despite Durkheim’s status as a founding father of sociology with his classical investigation of suicide and religious affiliation. Nobody could work out what to do with his conscience collective, sometimes translated as the "collective conscience" to illustrate its role in maintaining moral cohesion in society, and sometimes as the "collective consciousness", raising the spectre of a group mind which was not Durkheim’s intention.
Wellek and Warren’s theory, along with that of Durkheim, has apparently been buried beneath the weight of subsequent novelties, and Popper’s theory of objective knowledge appears to be completely out of step with reductive spirit of the times. Another theory which possibly avoids that charge comes from Wittgenstein who, like Popper and Piaget, was taught by Buhler and refused to take on board the mechanistic cause-and-effect model of physics to account for human language and behaviour. Wittgenstein’s response is his doctrine of "forms of life" and "language games". This may be compared with Popper's answer - the three world theory, critical rationalism and conjectural objective knowledge. These divergent lines of thought are generally considered to be incommensurable and none of the myriad of books and articles generated by the Wittgenstein industry even mention Popper. But once their common problem is recognised then they can be compared in terms of the fertility of their different solutions.
The program of objectivity and rationality that follows from the work of Popper and Bartley does not depend on any guarantees about the certainty of knowledge, it merely calls for a community of interested people who are prepared to use the higher functions of language to solve problems. This includes the problem of grasping the meaning and value of literary texts (and other works of art). This imaginative and critical task is exemplified by Martin Harrison in his review of reviewers (in the May 1985 edition of the Age Monthly Review, the journal where this piece was first printed).

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