On This Day … 15 April

People (Births)

  • 1858 – Émile Durkheim, French sociologist, psychologist, and philosopher (d. 1917).
  • 1920 – Thomas Szasz, Hungarian-American psychiatrist and academic (d. 2012).
  • 1931 – Tomas Tranströmer, Swedish poet, translator, and psychologist Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2015).

Emile Durkheim

David Émile Durkheim (15 April 1858 to 15 November 1917) was a French sociologist. He formally established the academic discipline of sociology and, with Max Weber, is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science.

From his lifetime, much of Durkheim’s work would be concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in modernity, an era in which traditional social and religious ties are no longer assumed, and in which new social institutions have come into being. His first major sociological work would be De la division du travail social (1893; The Division of Labour in Society), followed in 1895 by Les Règles de la Méthode Sociologique (The Rules of Sociological Method), the same year in which Durkheim would set up the first European department of sociology and become France’s first professor of sociology. Durkheim’s seminal monograph, Le Suicide (1897), a study of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant populations, especially pioneered modern social research, serving to distinguish social science from psychology and political philosophy. The following year, in 1898, he established the journal L’Année Sociologique. Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912; The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life) presented a theory of religion, comparing the social and cultural lives of aboriginal and modern societies.

Durkheim would also be deeply preoccupied with the acceptance of sociology as a legitimate science. He refined the positivism originally set forth by Auguste Comte, promoting what could be considered as a form of epistemological realism, as well as the use of the hypothetico-deductive model in social science. For Durkheim, sociology was the science of institutions, understanding the term in its broader meaning as the “beliefs and modes of behaviour instituted by the collectivity,” with its aim being to discover structural social facts. As such, Durkheim was a major proponent of structural functionalism, a foundational perspective in both sociology and anthropology. In his view, social science should be purely holistic, in that sociology should study phenomena attributed to society at large, rather than being limited to the specific actions of individuals.

He remained a dominant force in French intellectual life until his death in 1917, presenting numerous lectures and published works on a variety of topics, including the sociology of knowledge, morality, social stratification, religion, law, education, and deviance. Durkheimian terms such as “collective consciousness” have since entered the popular lexicon.

Thomas Szasz

Thomas Stephen Szasz (15 April 1920 to 08 September 2012) was a Hungarian-American academic, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He served for most of his career as professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. A distinguished lifetime fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a life member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, he was best known as a social critic of the moral and scientific foundations of psychiatry, as what he saw as the social control aims of medicine in modern society, as well as scientism. His books The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) and The Manufacture of Madness (1970) set out some of the arguments most associated with him.

Szasz argued throughout his career that mental illness is a metaphor for human problems in living, and that mental illnesses are not “illnesses” in the sense that physical illnesses are; and that except for a few identifiable brain diseases, there are “neither biological or chemical tests nor biopsy or necropsy findings for verifying DSM diagnoses.”

Szasz maintained throughout his career that he was not anti-psychiatry but was rather that he opposed coercive psychiatry. He was a staunch opponent of civil commitment and involuntary psychiatric treatment, but he believed in and practiced psychiatry and psychotherapy between consenting adults.

His views on special treatment followed from libertarian roots, based on the principles that each person has the right to bodily and mental self-ownership and the right to be free from violence from others, and he criticised the use of psychiatry in the Western world as well as communist states.

Tomas Transtromer

Tomas Gösta Tranströmer (15 April 1931 to 26 March 2015) was a Swedish poet, psychologist and translator. His poems captured the long Swedish winters, the rhythm of the seasons and the palpable, atmospheric beauty of nature. Tranströmer’s work is also characterised by a sense of mystery and wonder underlying the routine of everyday life, a quality which often gives his poems a religious dimension. He has been described as a Christian poet.

Tranströmer is acclaimed as one of the most important Scandinavian writers since the Second World War. Critics praised his poetry for its accessibility, even in translation. His poetry has been translated into over 60 languages. He was the recipient of the 1990 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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