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BlbUotec.a Daniel Coslo V1tlag.aa
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subjects than were embraced by his own work. In sorne quarters
he thus acquired a reputation as an academic showman. Morc-
GEORG SIMMEL over, he frequently addressed himselfto a popular audiencc, pub-
(1858-1917) Jishing widely in non-academic periodicals.
Simmel was a prolific writer. During his lifetime he published
Anthony Giddens sorne 200 articles, and 22 books, although the latter iocludcd rc-
visions of essays which had previously appeared in articlc forro.
GEORG SIMMEL was bom in Berlin on 1 March 1858. His Further works were published posthumously. His first works
parents were of Jewish origin, but had been converted to Pro- were primarily in the field of pbilosophy, as were bis last. These
testantism, and Simmel himself was baptized as a Protestant include critical works on moral philosophy and the pbilosophy of
When his father died, while Simrilel was still a young boy, a history, and his culminating work in philosophy, Lebensan-
wealthy friend of the family was appointed his guardian. The schauung (1918), as well as books on Kant, and Schopenhauer
latter on bis death left Simmel a sufficient sum of money for him and Nietzsche. Unlike almost every other outstanding socio-
to be able to live comfortably offthe income. logical theorist of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century,
Sinunel received his higher education and spent the greater part Simmel displayed little active interest in politics. He was, how-
of his academic career at the University of Berln, which he ever, very much au couranr with contemporary trends in literature
entered as an undergraduate in 1876. At the university he fint and art, and wrote critical essays on prominent literary figures of
registered to study history, but subsequently changed to philo- bis day. He also published biographical works on Goethe and
sophy. He received his doctorate from Berlin in 1881, for a Rembrandt, the latter of which was appropriately subtitled An
dissertation on Kant's phiJosophy of nature. Although Simmel Essay in the Philosophy ofArt.
was made Privardozent (lecturer) in 1885, academic advancemeot Simmel's sociology, like that of Max Weber, can be adequately
carne only very slowly for him. In 1900 he was promoted to the understood only in terms of the broad intellectual traditions
rank of ausserordenr/icher Professor (honorary professor); but which both were deeply intluenced by, but nevertheless reacted
neither this position nor his previous one carried a regular salary, against. The two leading branches of German social thought
and for the whole period during wbich he taught at Berln Simmel during the oineteenth century were those of the philosophy of
supported himself and his family mainly on the basis of the prvate history (represented above a1l by Hegel and Marx), and thc
income which had been bequeathed to him. In 1914, he finally historical school of jurisprudence and political economy, with
obtained a full professorship, at Strasbourg. He died only four ' itscentral conception ofthe Volksgeist. Thereexisted no positivist
years later. tradition of the sort which flourished in France even before
A number of factors combined to retard Simmel's academic Comte. Sociology emerged in Germany when scholars starting
career. One was his Jewish background; anti-Semitic elements out from diverse standpoints in philosophy, economics and
were becoming increasingly powerful inside German universities, bistory found themselves increasingly compelled to recognize the
and particularly in Berlin, at the tum of the century. Another relevance of social variables to problems in these various dis-
reason lay in the very encyclopedic character of Simmel's ciplines. But the resulting conception of sociology was quite
thought. Simmel lectured and wrote in an extraordinary variety of different from that developed by the positivist writers in France
fields, including sociology, psychology, ethics, epistemology and and England. Sinunel himself received his training rnainly in
aesthctics. His lectures were among the most popular in the philosophy, and his writings in both sociology and philosophy
university, and drew students from an even broader range of show how heavily he was inlluenced by Kant. Although Simmel
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was convinced that sociology could be founded asan autonornous subject to precise division, assessment and manipulation. The
discipline, he reacted against holistic' models ofsociety, whether jncreasing use of money as a form of exchange promotes rational
those of Hegel, or those of Comte and Spencer. In the conception calculation in social relationships. In Simmel's view, the transition
of sociology advanced by Comte and Spencer, as Simmel saw it, to a money economy is causally interrelated with the increasing
society was endowed with an existence of its own over and above rationality' characterizing modero society. The prevalence of a
that of the individuals composing it. Society, it seemed to hirn, rnoney economy anda 'rationalistic world outlook' are inextric-
was thus conceived as a reality 'externa)' to individuals, and ably connected with one another. Money exchange tends in-
moulding every aspect of individual behaviour and consciousness. creasingly in commerce to replace personal ti es between employer
Simmel attempted to establish sociology on a new basis which and employee with impersonal, anonymous relatioru.hips. This
would meet these objections. process of rationalization, based on the possibility of abstract
It is difficult to separate Simmel's sociology from the broader calculation, extends itself to all spheres of social life, but is
ethical and epistemological problems in which he interested hirn- rnanifest particularly in the development of the sciences, which
self. The attempt to found a philosophy of life was never far depend upon precise measurement and quantification.
from the centre of Simmel's attention, even in his writings which The basic proposition developed in the Philosophie des Geldes
are explicitly sociological in character. On the other hand. many is that economic exchange can be studied as social interaction;
of bis essays concemed with subjects apparently Iying outside and that the characteristics of an object (money) can only be
sociology, those in the field of aesthetics, for example, are not defined in terms of its funct ion within an interactive system. The
without sociological significance: his writing is often rich with notion of social interaction (Wechselwirkung: literally translated
sociological insights and hypotheses. However, his most im- as 'reciproca! effect') occupies a focal position in Simmel's
portan! contributions to sociology are contained in two major sociology. For Simmel, the 'social' exists when two or more
works, bis Philosophie des Geldes (Philosophy of Money) (1900) individuals enter into interaction with one another: when we can-
and Soziologie (1908). not explain the behaviour of one individual except as a response
The earlier work must rank as one of the neg]ected classics of to the behaviour of another. Sociology studies forms of social
sociology. The title of the book is misleading. Simmel does deal interaction. The process whereby this is accomplished can be
at sorne length with problems which are mainly philosophical illuminated by analogy. A triangle can be drawn on paper, or
in character - such as the concept of freedom'; and with prob- made in metal or wood. The same geometrical properties pertain
lems which perhaps strictly speaking belong primarily to eco- to the figure regardless of the substance in which it is coostructed.
nomics- such as the theory of value: but much of the book is in spite of the fact that, in ooe sense, there is nothing apart
directly sociological in connotation. Marx had shown the develop- from the substance in which it is made. The geometrical pro-
ment of a rudimentary money economy to be one necessary stage perties of the triangle as a form cannot be deduced from a
in the development of modero ca pi talism. Simmel argues that the knowledge of the properties ofthe content or substance it is made
transition to monetary exchange, replacing an economy based o f.
on exchange in kind. has much more far-reaching consequences The separation of 'fonn' from 'content' here is an analytic
than this. Money certainly facilitates trade and commerce. But one. The mathematician considers the triangle as an abstract
Simmel attempts to show that the types of social relationships form, and establishes generalizations about its properties which
entailed by the predominance of a money economy are integrally hold regardless of its conteo t. An analogous procedure is involved
connected with other dominant characteristics of the structure of when the sociologist studies forms of social interaction; as
modero society. Money is a particularly fluid forro of property, Simmel put it:
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~Y. social. pheno~enon or process is composed of two eletnenta concemed with those social forms whch are mostly obviously
which m reahty are mseparable: on the one hand, an interest, a PUl super-individual', such as states, religious organizations or
~~.ora motive; on the other, a form or mode of interaction among systems of stratification. But besides such relatively permanent
mdiVJduals through which. or in the shape of wbich, that content
and circumscribed forms of social organization, there are many
attains social reality.
more transient, directly interpersonal, relationships which can be
It is the task of psychology to isolate and study the content of studied sociologically. In Soziologie Simmel provides a socio-
behaviour (drives, desires, goals): sociology abstracts out and Jogical analysis of sorne of these apparently 'trivial' forms of
analyses forms of social interaction through which these are social interaction - such as relationships in groups of two and
obtained or striven for. Any given tem of social behaviour can be tbree, Jeadership and subordination, tbe social significance of the
studied both in terrns of its content, and in terms of its form. In strange, rivalry and secrecy. Relationships like these are con
the first case, we abstract out and analyse psychological needs and standy coming into being and being broken off: thus Simmel
purposes (personality); in the second case, we regard the m. usually speaks of Vergesellschafrung (literally, 'societalization';
dividua! as a 'depersonalized' unit in a pattern of interaction. perhaps best translated as 'sociation '), rather than Gesellschaft
Forms of social interaction have properties of their own which (society). Sociation 'ranges all the way from the momentary
cannot be deduced from studying the needs and pu.rposes of getting together for a walk to the founding of a family, from
individuals. The object of 'pure' or formal sociology is thus to relations maintained "until further notice" to membership in a
isolate and study the conditions under which different forms of state .. .'
social interaction come into beng, maintain themselves, and It is possible here to give only a brief description of a few of the
disappear. topics Simmel analyses; it is impossible to convey in so short a
Simmel conceived formal sociology as a discipline on an equal space the incisive character of Simmel's writing, his graphic use of
footing with. but separate from, the already developed social aoalogy and his skill in using argument from paradox. Soziologie
sciences like history or economics. He also envisaged, however, contains a long discussion of the significance of number in social
two other types of sociological endeavour closely related to the Ji fe. Simmel points out, firstly, that as a group increases in size it
main discipline, formal sociology. Every science depends upon has to develop mechanisms which a small group does not need.
certain basic concepts and methods which cannot be analysed A very large number of people can be a unit onJy if there ts a
in terms of its own researcb- because this research is based on complex division of labour: as a social organization increases in
them. 1t is the task of 'philosophical' sociology to deal wi tb these size it has to develop defined mechanisms of communication and
problems in relation to formal sociology, as well as witb ethical a hierarchical distribution of authority. But we can often establisb
problems arising from tbe findings of formal sociology. Secondly, more direct connexions between numbers and social life. For
Simmel recognized that sociological generalizations established in example, we can ask tbe question: why are aristocracies always so
formal sociology would haveto be used as part of the explanatory small? One reason, obviously, is that as an elite group an aristo-
framework of the other social sciences. Economics necessarily cracy would not rank as such unless it was exclusive, and set off
involves tbe consideration of sociological princiP.les, besides against tbe mass of the population. But, according to Simmel,
others, as does history. there is also an absolute limitation in number, beyond which tbe
In hs Soziowgie, Smmel attempts to illustrate the potential aristocratic forro of the group cannot be maintained. A stable
fruitfulness of formal sociology as be conceived it. He deliberately aristocracy must be 'surveyable' by every member of it: eacb
sets out to examine social phenomena which sociologists had family must be personally acquainted with every other. Relations
previously ignored. Sociology, he points out, has been mainly by blood and marriage must be traceable througbout the whole
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gro~p. Thus most aristocracies which have survived for lolll is distorted, but that the person who is lied to is deceived about
penods have had defined rules, such as unconditional Primo- the prvate attitude of the liar. In tbe context of this discussion,
geniture, leading to numericallimitation. Simmel constantly underlines interrelations between personality
In another chapter of Sozio/ogie, Simmel analyses confiict &nd and social interaction. Self-esteem and self-identity, he shows, are
antagonism. Confiict, he shows, can be regarded as a fonn of intimately bound up with the individual's attachments to others.
sociation in itself. Conflict is always confiict with someone: if Personality is never a rigidly bounded system: the interna!' or-
two parties are indifferent to each other, there is no social relation ganization of personality cannot be understood apart from the
between them. Sociologists like Comte and Spencer, Simmel individual's 'extemal' relationships with others.
points out, tended to see conflict as pathological '. This is based The very virtues of great breadth and variety in Simmel's
on that misconception that social order and social cotlflict are work are at the same time the source of its limitations. Simmel's
polar opposites. Simmel emphasizes that conflict is 'built in' writings do not have the power and cumula ti ve force of those of
to many social relationships, and may in fact be an essential Durk.heim, which attack fundamental theoretical problems
element in their stability. There are few types of conflict which do through thecareful marshallingof empirical data. Simmel's use of
not entail sorne defined and continuing relationship with the empirical method is cavalier: he quotes examples without docu-
antagonistic party. Simmel goes on to hypothesize various wayS mentation as if truth were self-evident- although this is bound up
in which conflict may function to maintain or even further inte- with what he repeatedly stressed as the provisional and ex-
grate an existing forro of social interaction. One of these, for ploratory character of his work. Simmel's terminology tends to
example, is that groups tend to become more cohesive in the be loose to the point of carelessness. lt is clear that, in Simmel's
face of extemal conflict. This occurs in two ways: (1) through usage, social 'form' usually approximates to the modero notion
increased awareness of group unity, developed througb the of social structure '.
projection of common feelings of hostility against the out- Simmel's writings have perhaps been more influential in
group; (2) through the development of a clearer articulation of American than in German sociology. lo Germany Simmel's
authority in the group. Whatever the validity of the specific work was rapidly overshadowed by that of Max Weber, in spite
hypotheses that Simmel sets up, he undoubtedly substantiates of the fact that sorne of Weber's central ideas were based directly
his thesis: that the absence of confiict cannot necessarily be taken on those developed earlier by Simmel. Several of Simmel's
asan index of the stability of a social relationship. essays, however, appeared in translation in the American Journa/
Simmel's analysis of interaction in sorne ways strikingly of Sociology between 1893 and 1910. Park and Burgess's Jn-
parallels that later developed by G. H. Mead. Interaction, Simmel troduction to the Science of Society, which exerted enormous
shows, presupposes communication. One of the first preliminaries inftuence for a considerable period in American sociology,
on meeting someone, for example, is to be introduced: this is one borrowed heavily from Simmel. Many American sociologists
indicatioo of the 'mutual knowledge presupposed by every were thus, perhaps unwittingly, iodebted to Simmel. During
relatiooship '. We can investigate the el ues pec ple use to identify recent years, a number of translations of Simmel's works have
and categorize others, as well as the behaviour they employ to appeared, starting with Kurt Wolff's The Sociology of Georg
present a particular image of themselves to others. Simmel high- Simmel (1950). Coser's The Functions of Social Conftict (1956)
lights this by exarnining cases of the deliberate distortion or consists entirely of an elaboration of hypotheses taken directly
restriction of commuoication: lying and secrecy. Lying, he in- from Simmel's discussion of confict. All this a ttests to a re--
dicates, is fundamentally an ioteractive phenomenon: what surgence of interest in Simmel's work.
matters is not simply that the truth regarding a particular object