Georg Simmel 1858-1918
German sociologist and philosopher.
Simmel is credited as the founder of sociology as a distinct field of scientific study. While focusing on the study of society and social relationships, Simmel's works reflect his interest in a variety of disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, religion, and art. Although he is often faulted for the lack of systemization in his sociological thought, Simmel was an influence on the works of such later writers as Georg Lukics and Max Weber.
The youngest of seven children, Simmel was born in Berlin. His father, a successful Jewish businessman who converted to Catholicism, died when Simmel was quite young. His mother's family background was also Jewish, but she was a practicing Lutheran and had her son baptized in that religion. Although he later left the Lutheran church, Simmel concerned himself with the philosophical questions of religion over the course of his life. An inheritance allowed him to study history and philosophy at the University of Berlin. He received a doctorate in 1881 and was a lecturer at the university from 1885 to 1900. He then served as professor extraordinary, an unpaid office, until 1914, when he accepted a position at the University of Strasbourg. He retired from teaching in 1918 and died that same year.
A key aspect of Simmel's work was the "tragedy of culture," which refers to his view that the very structures that facilitate social interaction significantly conflict with the interests of the individual. For Simmel, this struggle was most clearly exemplified by the relationship of people to money. In his Philosophie des Geldes (The Philosophy of Money), Simmel asserted that the exchanges made possible by the use of money served to alienate individual's from their interior, personal lives. He believed that this state of affairs held true for all societies, whatever the nature of their economic system. Simmel expressed many of his ideas in essays on a wide range of subjects, including art and literary criticism, women's rights, and city life.
Simmel's broad scope of interests and lack of systematic methodology has posed the greatest challenge to both his critics and his admirers. Simmel's severest detractors have viewed his work as the superficial reflection of middle-class German society at the turn of the century. The wide-ranging subjects of his essays have led some critics to regard Simmel as lacking focus. In Europe and the United States, however, his ideas have continued to influence social theorists. Simmel was a member of a discussion group that included Georg Lukics and Max Weber, both of whom reveal their serious consideration of Simmel's ideas in their own works. Weber expanded on Simmel's observations on the conflict between form and content in modern life. Although critical of what he termed Simmel's irrationalism, Lukac's used Simmel's analysis of money in his interpretation of alienation in the writings of Karl Marx.
Das Wesen der Materie nach Kants physischer Monadologie (philosophy) 1881
Uber sociale Differenzierung: Soziologische und pyschologische Untersuchungen (sociology) 1890
Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie: Eine erkenntnistheoretische Studie (philosophy) 1892; revised edition, 1905 [The Problems of the Philosophy of History, 1977]
Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft: Eine Kritik der ethischen Grundbegriffe. 2 vols. (philosophy) 1892-93
Philosophie des Geldes (sociology) 1900 [The Philosophy of Money, 1978]
Kant: Sechzehn Vorlesungen gehalten an der Berliner Universitdt (philosophy) 1904; revised edition, 1913 Philosophie der Mode (sociology) 1905
Kant und Goethe (philosophy) 1906; revised edition, 1916
Schopenhauer und Nietzsche: Ein Vortragszyklus (philosophy) 1907 [Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, 1986]
Soziologie: Untersuchenungen Uber die Formen der Vergesellschaftung (sociology) 1908; [The Sociology of Georg Simmel (partial translation) 1950; Conflict and the Web of Group-Affiliations (partial translation) 1955]
Hauptprobleme der Philosophie (philosophy) 1910
Philosophische Kultur: Gesammelte Essays (philosophy and sociology) 1911; revised edition, 1919...
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SOURCE: "Simmel's Formal Method," in Georg Simmel, edited by Lewis A. Coser, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, pp. 53-7.
[In the following essay, which originally appeared in Archiv fir Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik in 1910, von Wiese offers a consideration of Simmel's method for analyzing social relationships.]
Georg Simmel's Sociology is today understandably viewed with the greatest interest by all those who believe in the future of sociology as a science. Although these Investigations into the Forms of Association are broad in scope, the work is fragmentary and incomplete, as its author intended it to be. He would not—could not—present a complete, closed system; the only aim of the book is to clarify his fundamental conception of the problem of sociology by means of a series of applications. The author states:
As a consequence [of the basic conception], it is out of the question to attempt anything more than to begin and to point out the direction of an infinitely long path; and any systematically final completeness would be, at the least, self-deception. An individual can attain completeness here only in the subjective sense, by reporting everything he has succeeded in observing.
This is a very important advance over the older sociologists, who foundered on their mania for systems (I need mention only...
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SOURCE: "The Sociology of Georg Simmel," in Georg Simmel, edited by Lewis A. Coser, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, pp. 58-63.
[In the following excerpt originally published in a 1912 book-length study of German philosophy in the nineteenth century, Bougle views Simmel as essentially a psychological thinker.]
In the large volume which he entitles Sociology: Investigations into the Forms of Association, Simmel claims that he is not offering a system but rather a great number of examples designed to show the kinds of generalizations one can make in sociology; and he does this if only that he might be able to use what Descartes described as the appropriate "bias."
Why is it that history neither is nor can be a science? Perhaps it is because, in the last analysis, the subject matter of history is a fluid complexity which must be grasped in its totality. And so it is not surprising either that the study of history should reveal more variations than consistencies, or that historians should find it difficult to establish causality between the myriad of occurrences. However, if one agreed to limit himself to a particular perspective and to abstract from the variations in content so as to focus only on the constant forms, then he would, perhaps, arrive at a series of observations the significance of which would extend beyond the range of the particular fact. It was by abstraction—i.e., by...
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SOURCE: "Sociological Relativism," in Georg Simmel, edited by Lewis A. Coser, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, pp. 64-73.
[In the following excerpt from his 1914 study Le relativisme philosophique chez Georg Simmel, Mamelet finds that Simmel's work is distinguished from that of his contemporaries by its philosophical qualities.]
Simmel's conception of sociology is, from the outset, clearly opposed to contemporary French sociology. The latter is predicated upon regarding social facts as something possessing two characteristics: exteriority and constraint. French sociology has its origin in traditionalism and positivism. It is anti-individualist; and political and historical contingency has effected a link between this anti-individualism and the notion of the existence of a social order. Preoccupied above all with putting restrictions on individual initiative in areas of social and political organization, the traditionalists and Auguste Comte endeavored to show that the social order, like the physical order, has its own laws which are superior to individual wills, and that individuals cannot transgress these laws without precipitating grave calamity. Their concern for social organization and stability (a concern which would legitimize the state of French society as it was at the beginning and middle of the nineteenth century), and their concern to contain the revolutionary spirit supplies the explanation...
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SOURCE: "Sociology and Its Scientific Field," in Georg Simmel, edited by Lewis A. Coser, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, pp. 43-9.
[In the following essay, which first appeared in French in 1918, Durkheim characterizes Simmel's works as "intriguing" but concludes that they fall short of the objectives and scientific standards of sociology.]
A science which has barely begun to exist has, and initially is bound to have, only an uncertain and vague sense of the area of reality that it is about to approach, and the extent and the limits of that area. It can gain a clearer picture only to the degree that it proceeds with its studies. And the heightened awareness of its subject matter that it acquires in this way is of the greatest importance; for the path of the scientist is the more secure the more orderly it becomes; and the more methodical it is, the more exact is the account that he can render of the territory he is invading.
Sociology has reached the point at which it is opportune to make every effort to bring about such progress. If some reactionary critics, unwittingly under the influence of the prejudice which always militates against the formation of new sciences, reproach sociology for not knowing the precise subject matter with which it intends to deal, they can be told that such ignorance is inevitable in the first stages of study and that our science came into being only yesterday....
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SOURCE: "Simmel as Sociologist," in Georg Simmel, edited by Lewis A. Coser, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, pp. 50-2.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in Frankfurter Zeitung in 1918, Tönnies argues that Simmel is better described as a social psychologist than as a sociologist.]
After Schäffie's precedent, and apart from books of momentary importance, Simmel was the first to give the title Soziologie (Sociology) to a major work in the German language. The objection has been raised that the title does not correspond to the content, which offers nothing of a systematic nature. But Simmel appears to defend himself against this criticism in advance, by prefacing the work only with the demand that the reader keep firmly in mind throughout the book the question raised about the problem of sociology in the first chapter, "since otherwise these pages might appear as a collection of unrelated facts and reflections." Thus to characterize this insightful work would, however, be an injustice, for the subtitle, "Investigations into the Forms of Association" ("Vergesellschaftung"), sufficiently indicates that Simmel was concerned only with theory.…
On Social Differentiation: Sociological and Psychological Investigations (1890), the work which first established Simmel's name, contains his fundamental methodological ideas, so that its fifth chapter, "On the...
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SOURCE: "Some Key Problems in Simmel's Work," in Georg Simmel, edited by Lewis A. Coser, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, pp. 97-115.
[In the following excerpt from his 1957 doctoral dissertation, Levine delineates major themes in Simmel's work.]
The Simmelian corps may be conveniently divided according to the three viewpoints Simmel mentioned for analyzing things human: the individual, the social, and the objective. Under objective culture are to be found his various contributions to ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, and metaphysics, comment on which lies beyond the scope of this study. Under the viewpoint of individual personality are to be found his studies of a few historic personalities—Michelangelo, Goethe, Rembrandt are the main ones—and occasional statements which reveal a rough working theory of personality. His aim in the study of the great personalities is always to disclose the inner unity, the form or essence, the "formula of the destiny of his soul" which underlies the diverse contents and expressions of the subject's life.
Simmel's theory of personality, like most prepsychoanalytic conceptions, is restricted to the psychology of the ego. It is dominated by two images. One image represents the self as a unity born of the interaction of psychic elements, just as the forms which sociology studies are unities born of the interaction among social elements. The other image, more...
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SOURCE: "Simmel," in Studies in Intellectual Breakthrough, University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, pp. 35-49.
[In the following excerpt, Axelrod examines how Simmel perceived the tension between the individual and society and analyses Simmel's writing style as reflecting his intellectual strengths and limitations.]
[Thomas] Kuhn characterizes scientific paradigms as achievements which provide new orientations to one or many areas of scientific work, and which isolate limited sets of problems to be investigated and limited ways of formulating those problems. When a sector of the scientific community accepts the authority of a paradigm, says Kuhn, members' attention is directed solely toward that set of problems that the paradigm defines. At the same time, that particular sector rules as illegitimate or uninteresting all work that does not proceed from the paradigm. Thus while the scientific community awakens certain possibilities among its members, it also restricts—even hides—other possibilities.…
Kuhn shows how occasionally a scientist experiences the violence of these restrictions in the course of his work and begins to reconsider the grounds of the accepted paradigm. He finds it necessary to violate the paradigm's authority if he is to proceed with the work in which he is involved.… [Breakthrough], for Kuhn, not only involves overcoming restrictions imposed by the accepted...
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SOURCE: "The Foundation of Sociology," in Georg Simmel, Ellis Horwood Limited and Tavistock Publications, 1984, pp. 45-64.
[In the following excerpt, Frisby highlights Simmel's consideration of a broad range of human interactions as the reason for the wide scope of his sociological thought.]
A NEW CONCEPT OF SOCIOLOGY: FIRST ATTEMPT
In his review of Simmel's Sociology, Alfred Vierkandt makes the following ambitious claim:
If sociology succeeds in developing itself into an autonomous individual science, then its future historian will have to celebrate Simmel as its founder, and even if this process is not completed, his work remains an outstanding, penetrating achievement. He has indeed demarcated an autonomous group of problems for the study of society and thereby demonstrated the possibility and urgent need for a new discipline. His distinction between the form and content of social life elevates him above the encyclopaedic interpretation of sociology. In the same way, he distinguishes himself from those who allow sociology to be identified with the tasks of historical, cultural or social philosophy. For its specific problem is always the interactions and relationships between the individual elements of a group.
If we leave aside for the moment a judgement upon this claim, then we should at least...
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SOURCE: "Georg Simmel's Cultural Narcissism: A Non-Ideological Approach," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 308-23.
[In the following essay, Molitierno compares the central ideas of Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism with Simmel's concept of the "tragedy of culture. '"]
In a comprehensive statement about the concept of instrumentality in Georg Simmel's sociological analysis of modern culture, Guy Oakes aptly refers to the concept of narcissism. Although Simmel does not refer to narcissism per se, his views on the problems of modernity surely encompass this concept:
According to Simmel, the instrumentalization of culture is responsible for the belief that life has become meaningless. This perception of the pointlessness or absurdity of life is the source of the qualities of personal life that typify advanced cultures: banality, decadence, narcissism, aestheticism, solipsism, skepticism, relativism, and nihilism.
Equally true, the alienation which Marx had criticized as part of capitalism's very structure foreshadows not only Simmel's view of the problematic nature of money in advanced societies but also the current emphasis by the Left (i.e. socialist critics) on the contradictions within capitalism. The alleged crisis of modern capitalist culture has become a major ideological...
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Bogardus, Emory S. The Development of Social Thought, pp. 462-76. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1940.
Overview of what Bogardus considers Simmel's fundamental contribution to sociology: the idea of socialization, or the "social process."
Coser, Lewis A. "Georg Simmel's Style of Work: A Contribution to the Sociology of the Sociologist." The American Journal of Sociology LXIII, No. 6 (May 1958): pp. 635-41.
Examines the effect of the German academic system on Simmel's thought.
Donahue, Neil H. "Fear and Fascination in the Big City: Rilke's Use of Georg Simmel in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge." Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature 16, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 197-219.
Assesses the influence of Simmel's writings on the German poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke.
Frisby, David. Sociological Impressionism: A Reassessment of Georg Simmel's Social Theory. London: Heinemann, 1981, 190 p.
Study that "attempts to reconstruct some of the central themes in Simmel's work largely through the original texts themselves as well as contemporary commentary."
Green, Bryan S. Literary Methods and Sociological Theory: Case Studies of Simmel and Weber. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988, 303 p.
A linguistic analysis of...
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