Durkheim’s central achievement was to spell out the elements of social explanation at a time when political and ethical philosophy, the ‘science’ of political economy, and the positive schools were united under the banners of individualism. Taking up the temporarily eclipsed work of the moral statisticians, Durkheim (1964a, pp. 144–5) urged a confrontation between sociologists, concerned with social facts, and those who would engage in individualistic reductionism:

If we consider social facts as things, we consider them as social things … It has often appeared that these phenomena, because of their extreme complexity, were either inhospitable to science or could be subject to it only when reduced to their elemental conditions, either psychic or organic, that is, only when stripped of their proper nature. … We have even refused to identify the immateriality which characterizes [social facts] with the complex immateriality of psychological phenomena; we have, furthermore, refused to absorb it, with the Italian school, into the general properties of matter.

Psychology and biology were not alone in being unable to explain the social determination of action. ‘Analytical individualism’ found expression, in particular, in the traditional political philosophies of liberalism: the classical philosophies of a social contract freely entered into by atomized individuals, 72renouncing a degree of that freedom in exchange for protection by the society. This kind of analytical individualism, for Durkheim, had no relationship to the realities of industrial society. A society divided into different interest groups, on an inequitable basis, was not a society in which ‘just contracts’ between individuals and society could be struck. He writes 1964b, p. 202) that:

The conception of a social contract is today very difficult to defend, for it has no relation to the facts. The observer does not meet it along his road, so to speak. Not only are there no societies which have such an origin, but there are none whose structure presents the least trace of a contractual organisation. It is neither a fact acquired through history nor a tendency which grows out of historical development. Hence, to rejuvenate this doctrine and accredit it, it would be necessary to qualify as a contract the adhesion which each individual, as adult, gave to the society when he was born, solely by reason of which he continues to live. But then we would have to term contractual every action of man which is not determined by constraint.

The attack on utilitarian political philosophy was also, necessarily, an attack on the view of economic life depicted in the work of Herbert Spencer and the laissez-faire political economists. Where these thinkers tended to see economic relations as a confrontation and an exchange between social interests of supply and demand, resulting in the satisfaction of both, Durkheim (1964b, p. 204) had a less sanguine view of ‘interests’ in the industrial society of his time: ‘There is nothing less constant than interest. Today, it unites me to you: tomorrow, it makes me your enemy.’