Language and imagined Gesellschaft: Émile Durkheim’s civil-linguistic nationalism and the consequences of universal human ideals

Theory and Society 49 (4):597-630 (2020)
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Abstract

When Thomas Luckmann, a pioneer of the “linguistic turn” in sociology, regarded Émile Durkheim as a source for the sociology of language, he had lifeworldly community–building in mind. However, the French sociologist himself understood language in the context ofcivil society–building. To Durkheim, language was a “social thing in the highest degree” that enabled general ideas and intermediated them to people. Abstract human ideals like the civil religion since the French Revolution could be shared through (a common) language. Thus, Durkheim took the exclusive use of French in the Third Republic’s laic public education for granted, ignoring the patois in the country: This “child of the Enlightenment” considered French to be a universal language ofGesellschaftand, beyond ethno-communal elements, to work as a basis for the organic solidarity of French national civil society where the social division of labor was progressing. Durkheim’s theory was predicated on civil-linguistic, not ethnolinguistic, nationalism.

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