Georg Simmel Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.