Georg Simmel Essay - Critical Essays

Simmel, Georg


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Die Religion (sociology) 1912 [Sociology of Religion, 1979]

Goethe (criticism) 1913

Deutschlands innere Wandlung (lecture) 1914

Das Problem der historischen Zeit (philosophy) 1916

Rembrandt: Ein Kunstphilosophischer Versuch (criticism) 1916

Grundfragen der Soziologie (Individuum und Gesellschaft) (sociology) 1917 [The Sociology of George Simmel (partial translation) 1950]

Der Krieg und die geistigen Entscheidungen: Reden und Aufsitze (sociology) 1917

Der Konflikt der modernen Kultur: Ein Vortrag (sociology) 1918

Lebensanschauung: Vier metaphysische Kapitel (philosophy) 1918

Vom Wesen des historischen Verstehens (sociology) 1918

Schulpddagogik (lectures) 1922

Zur Philosophie der Kunst: Philosophische und kunstphilosophische Aufsitze (philosophy) 1922

Fragmente und Aufsitze aus dem Nachlass und

Veriffentlichungen der letzten Jahre (essays) 1923

Rembrandtstudien (criticism) 1953

Brü cke und Tür: Essays des Philosophen zur Geschichte, Religion, Kunst, und Gesellechaft (philosophy) 1957

Georg Simmel, 1858-1918: A Collection of Essays (essays) 1959

On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings (sociology) 1971

Georg Simmel: Sociologist and European (essays) 1976

On Women, Sexuality, and Love (essays) 1984


Leopold von Wiese (essay date 1910)

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 Ratzenhofer). To this rejection of completeness, Simmel adds the narrow delimitation of sociology as a science. It is to his credit that he has clarified the difference between the general modern tendency to view the objects of various sciences sociologically (but without detracting from their independence and autonomy), and the creation of sociology as a new science. Because of the intellectual demands of the present age, it is more and more frequently recognized today that the objects of the traditional humanities (cultural and moral sciences [Geisteswissenschaftenl) find realization only within the framework of society. This sociological method in the moral sciences is the legacy of the nineteenth century. The establishment of sociology is an altogether different thing. Although the latter cannot bring new facts, new material, to light, it draws "a new line through otherwise well-known facts." It establishes new points of view, new abstractions. The various older social sciences have as their objects the contents of social processes, corresponding to the particular real areas of social life (such as economics, jurisprudence, and so on); sociology, however, examines the forms of association. That is to say, it examines the phenomena of human cooperation, altruistic and antagonistic interaction, the modes of reciprocal influence and mutual interpenetration in all their numberless purposes and diverse contents. The manifold forms in which association is realized are to be conceptually released from these diverse contents and analyzed as psychic phenomena of a special kind. But despite this [socio]psychological basis, sociology is in no sense a branch of psychology. Although sociology deals predominantly with psychic facts, it does not do so in order to discover the laws of psychic processes; the aim of sociology is, rather, to grasp the "objectivity of association" (which, however, as was said, is "carried by psychic processes"). In the same way that, on the one hand, psychology and sociology are not identical, so, on the other hand (and as in all special sciences), social science proper is distinct from its epistemology and its metaphysics. According to Simmel, the question of the position of society in the cosmos belongs to the metaphysics of sociology, while sociological epistemology includes the questions "Is society possible?" and "Does society exist outside of us or only in our consciousness?" and the like;...

(The entire section is 1590 words.)

Celestin Bougle (essay date 1912)

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."...

(The entire section is 2237 words.)

Alfred Mamelet (essay date 1914)

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...

(The entire section is 3821 words.)

Emile Durkheim (essay date 1918)

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...

(The entire section is 2317 words.)

Ferdinand Tonnies (essay date 1918)

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...

(The entire section is 1067 words.)

Donald N. Levine (essay date 1957)

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...

(The entire section is 27419 words.)

Charles David Axelrod (essay date 1979)

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...

(The entire section is 5615 words.)

David Frisby (essay date 1984)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 7387 words.)

Arthur A. Molitierno (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 4140 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 597 words.)