1 March 1858|
Berlin, Kingdom of Prussia
26 September 1918 (aged 60)|
Strassburg, German Empire
|Alma mater||University of Berlin|
University of Berlin|
University of Strasbourg
|Formal sociology, social forms and contents, the metropolis of modern life, the tragedy of culture, web of group affiliation|
Simmel was one of the first generation of German sociologists: his neo-Kantian approach laid the foundations for sociological antipositivism, asking 'What is society?' in a direct allusion to Kant's question 'What is nature?', presenting pioneering analyses of social individuality and fragmentation. For Simmel, culture referred to "the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history". Simmel discussed social and cultural phenomena in terms of "forms" and "contents" with a transient relationship; form becoming content, and vice versa, dependent on the context. In this sense he was a forerunner to structuralist styles of reasoning in the social sciences. With his work on the metropolis, Simmel was a precursor of urban sociology, symbolic interactionism and social network analysis.
An acquaintance of Max Weber, Simmel wrote on the topic of personal character in a manner reminiscent of the sociological 'ideal type'. He broadly rejected academic standards, however, philosophically covering topics such as emotion and romantic love. Both Simmel and Weber's nonpositivist theory would inform the eclectic critical theory of the Frankfurt School.
Simmel's most famous works today are The Problems of the Philosophy of History (1892), The Philosophy of Money (1900), The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903), Soziologie (1908, inc. The Stranger, The Social Boundary, The Sociology of the Senses, The Sociology of Space, and On The Spatial Projections of Social Forms), and Fundamental Questions of Sociology (1917). He also wrote extensively on the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, as well on art, most notably his book Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art (1916).
Simmel was born in Berlin, Germany, as the youngest of seven children of an assimilated Jewish family. His father, Eduard Simmel, a convert to Roman Catholicism, had founded a successful chocolate factory, Felix und Sarotti, later Sarotti Confections, and was a prosperous businessman. His mother came from a Jewish family who had converted to the Lutheran Church. Georg himself, was baptized as a Protestant when he was a child. His father died in 1874, when Georg was 16, leaving a sizable inheritance. Georg was then adopted by Julius Friedländer, the founder of an international music publishing house, Peters Verlag, who endowed him with the large fortune that enabled him to become a scholar.
Beginning in 1876, Simmel studied philosophy and history at the Humboldt University of Berlin. In 1881, he received his doctorate for his thesis on Kant's philosophy of matter, Das Wesen der Materie nach Kants Physischer Monadologie (The Nature of Matter According to Kant's Physical Monadology).
In 1885, he became a Privatdozent at the University of Berlin, officially lecturing in philosophy but also in ethics, logic, pessimism, art, psychology and sociology. His lectures were not only popular inside the university, but attracted the intellectual elite of Berlin as well. Although his applications for vacant chairs at German universities were supported by Max Weber, Simmel remained an academic outsider. However, with the support of an inheritance from his guardian, he was able to pursue his scholarly interests for many years without needing a salaried position.
Simmel had a hard time gaining acceptance in the academic community despite the support of well known associates, such as Max Weber, Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George and Edmund Husserl. Partly he was seen as a Jew during an era of anti-Semitism, but also simply because his articles were written for a general audience rather than academic sociologists. This led to dismissive judgements from other professionals. Simmel nevertheless continued his intellectual and academic work, as well as taking part in artistic circles.
Only in 1901, was he elevated to the rank of extraordinary professor (full professor, but without a chair; see the German section at Professor). At that time he was well known throughout Europe and America and was seen as a man of great eminence.
In 1914, Simmel received an ordinary professorship with chair, at the then German University of Strassburg, but did not feel at home there. Because World War I broke out, all academic activities and lectures were halted and lecture halls were converted to military hospitals. In 1915 he applied – without success – for a chair at the University of Heidelberg.
Prior to World War I, Simmel had not been very interested in contemporary history, but rather in looking at the interactions, art and philosophy of his time. However, after its start, he was interested in its unfolding. Yet, he seems to give conflicting opinions of events, being a supporter in "Germany's inner transformation", more objective in "the idea of Europe" and a critic in "The crisis of culture".[dubious ] Eventually, Simmel grew tired of the war, especially in the year of his death.
In 1890, Georg married Gertrud Kinel, a philosopher who published under the pseudonym Marie-Luise Enckendorf, and under her own name. They lived a sheltered and bourgeois life, their home becoming a venue for cultivated gatherings in the tradition of the salon. They had one son, Hans Eugen Simmel, who became a medical doctor. Georg and Gertrud's granddaughter was the psychologist Marianne Simmel.
There are four basic levels of concern in Simmel's work. First are his assumptions about the psychological workings of social life. Second is his interest in the sociological workings of interpersonal relationships. Third is his work on the structure of and changes in the Zeitgeist, the social and cultural "spirit" of his times. He also adopted the principle of emergence, which is the idea that higher levels emerge from the lower levels. Finally, he dealt with his views in the nature and inevitable fate of humanity. His most microscopic work dealt with forms and the interaction that takes place with different types of people. The forms include subordination, superordination, exchange, conflict and sociability.:158-88
A dialectical approach is multicausal, multidirectional, integrates facts and value, rejects the idea that there are hard and fast dividing lines between social phenomena, focuses on social relations, looks not only at the present but also at the past and future, and is deeply concerned with both conflicts and contradictions. Simmel's sociology was concerned with relationships--especially interaction--and was known as a "methodological relationist". This approach is based on the idea that interactions exist between everything. Overall, he was mostly interested in dualisms, conflicts, and contradictions in whatever realm of the social world he happened to be working on.
Simmel focused on forms of association and paid little attention to individual consciousness. Simmel believed in the creative consciousness and this belief can be found in diverse forms of interaction, the ability of actors to create social structures and the disastrous effects those structures had on the creativity of individuals. Simmel also believed that social and cultural structures come to have a life of their own.
Simmel refers to "all the forms of association by which a mere sum of separate individuals are made into a 'society,'" which he describes as a, "higher unity," composed of individuals.:157 He was especially fascinated, it seems, by the, "impulse to sociability in man".:157 He described it as "associations...[through which] the solitariness of the individuals is resolved into togetherness, a union with others," a process he describes by which, "the impulse to sociability distils, as it were, out of the realities of social life the pure essence of association," and "through which a unity is made," which he also refers to as, "the free-playing, interacting interdependence of individuals.":158
He defines sociability as, "the play-form of association,":158 driven by, "amicability, breeding, cordiality and attractiveness of all kinds.":158 In order for this free association to occur, he says, "the personalities must not emphasize themselves too individually...with too much abandon and aggressiveness.":158 He also describes, "this world of sociability...a democracy of equals...without friction," so long as people blend together in a spirit of fun and affection to, "bring about among themselves a pure interaction free of any disturbing material accent.":159
Simmel describes idealized interactions when he says that, "the vitality of real individuals, in their sensitivities and attractions, in the fullness of their impulses and convictions...is but a symbol of life, as it shows itself in the flow of a lightly amusing play,":162 or when he adds: "a symbolic play, in whose aesthetic charm all the finest and most highly sublimated dynamics of social existence and its riches are gathered.":163
A dyad is a two-person group; a triad is a three-person group. In a dyad a person is able to retain their individuality. There is no other person to shift the balance of the group thereby allowing those within the dyad to maintain their individuality. In the triad group there is a possibility of a dyad forming within the triad thereby threatening the remaining individual's independence and causing them to become the subordinate of the group. This seems to be an essential part of society which becomes a structure. Unfortunately as the group (structure) becomes increasingly greater the individual becomes separated and grows more alone, isolated and segmented. Simmel's view was somewhat ambiguous with respect to group size. On one hand he believed that the bigger the group the better for the individual. In a larger group it would be harder to exert control on the individual, but on the other hand with a large group there is a possibility of the individual becoming distant and impersonal. Therefore, in an effort for the individual to cope with the larger group they must become a part of a smaller group such as the family.
The value of something is determined by the distance from its actor. In "The Stranger", Simmel discusses how if a person is too close to the actor they are not considered a stranger, but if they are too far they would no longer be a part of a group. The particular distance from a group allows a person to have objective relationships with different group members.
One of Simmel's most notable essays is The Metropolis and Mental Life ("Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben") from 1903, which was originally given as one of a series of lectures on all aspects of city life by experts in various fields, ranging from science and religion to art. The series was conducted alongside the Dresden cities exhibition of 1903. Simmel was originally asked to lecture on the role of intellectual (or scholarly) life in the big city, but he effectively reversed the topic in order to analyze the effects of the big city on the mind of the individual. As a result, when the lectures were published as essays in a book, to fill the gap, the series editor himself had to supply an essay on the original topic.
The Metropolis and Mental Life was not particularly well received during Simmel's lifetime. The organizers of the exhibition over-emphasized its negative comments about city life, because Simmel also pointed out positive transformations. During the 1920s the essay was influential on the thinking of Robert E. Park and other American sociologists at the University of Chicago who collectively became known as the "Chicago School". It gained wider circulation in the 1950s when it was translated into English and published as part of Kurt Wolff's edited collection, The Sociology of Georg Simmel. It now appears regularly on the reading lists of courses in urban studies and architecture history. However, it is important to note that the notion of the blasé is actually not the central or final point of the essay, but is part of a description of a sequence of states in an irreversible transformation of the mind. In other words, Simmel does not quite say that the big city has an overall negative effect on the mind or the self, even as he suggests that it undergoes permanent changes. It is perhaps this ambiguity that gave the essay a lasting place in the discourse on the metropolis.
The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. The antagonism represents the most modern form of the conflict which primitive man must carry on with nature for his own bodily existence. The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality and in economics in order to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have sought to promote, in addition to man's freedom, his individuality (which is connected with the division of labor) and his achievements which make him unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more dependent on the complementary activity of others; Nietzsche may have seen the relentless struggle of the individual as the prerequisite for his full development, while socialism found the same thing in the suppression of all competition - but in each of these the same fundamental motive was at work, namely the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.-- Georg Simmel The Metropolis and Mental Life 1903, 
Simmel believed people created value by making objects, then separating themselves from that object and then trying to overcome that distance. He found that things which were too close were not considered valuable and things which were too far for people to get were also not considered valuable. Considered in determining value was the scarcity, time, sacrifice, and difficulties involved in getting the object.
For Simmel, city life led to a division of labor and increased financialization. As financial transactions increase, some emphasis shifts to what the individual can do, instead of who the individual is. Financial matters in addition to emotions are in play.
Simmel's concept of distance comes into play where he identifies a stranger as a person that is far away and close at the same time.
The Stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people.-- Georg Simmel The Stranger 1908, 
A stranger is far enough away that he is unknown but close enough that it is possible to get to know him. In a society there must be a stranger. If everyone is known then there is no person that is able to bring something new to everybody.
The stranger bears a certain objectivity that makes him a valuable member to the individual and society. People let down their inhibitions around him and confess openly without any fear. This is because there is a belief that the Stranger is not connected to anyone significant and therefore does not pose a threat to the confessor's life.
More generally, Simmel observes that because of their peculiar position in the group, strangers often carry out special tasks that the other members of the group are either incapable or unwilling to carry out. For example, especially in pre-modern societies, most strangers made a living from trade, which was often viewed as an unpleasant activity by "native" members of those societies. In some societies, they were also employed as arbitrators and judges, because they were expected to treat rival factions in society with an impartial attitude.
Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given.-- Georg Simmel The Stranger 1908, 
On one hand the stranger's opinion does not really matter because of his lack of connection to society, but on the other the stranger's opinion does matter, because of his lack of connection to society. He holds a certain objectivity that allows him to be unbiased and decide freely without fear. He is simply able to see, think, and decide without being influenced by the opinion of others.
According to Simmel, in small groups, secrets are less needed because everyone seems to be more similar. In larger groups secrets are needed as a result of their heterogeneity. In secret societies, groups are held together by the need to maintain the secret, a condition that also causes tension because the society relies on its sense of secrecy and exclusion. For Simmel, secrecy exists even in relationships as intimate as marriage.In revealing all, marriage becomes dull and boring and loses all excitement. Simmel saw a general thread in the importance of secrets and the strategic use of ignorance: To be social beings who are able to cope successfully with their social environment, people need clearly defined realms of unknowns for themselves. Furthermore, sharing a common secret produces a strong "we feeling." The modern world depends on honesty and therefore a lie can be considered more devastating than it ever has been before. Money allows a level of secrecy that has never been attainable before, because money allows for "invisible" transactions, due to the fact that money is now an integral part of human values and beliefs. It is possible to buy silence.
In his multi-layered essay, published in 1923, Simmel discusses flirtation as a generalized type of social interaction. According to Simmel, "to define flirtation as simply a 'passion for pleasing' is to confuse the means to an end with the desire for this end." The distinctiveness of the flirt lies in the fact that she awakens delight and desire by means of a unique antithesis and synthesis: through the alternation of accommodation and denial. In the behavior of the flirt, the man feels the proximity and interpenetration of the ability and inability to acquire something. This is in essence the "price." A sidelong glance with the head half-turned is characteristic of flirtation in its most banal guise.
In the eyes of Simmel, fashion is a form of social relationship that allows those who wish to conform to the demands of a group to do so. It also allows some to be individualistic by deviating from the norm. There are many social roles in fashion and both objective culture and individual culture can have an influence on people. In the initial stage everyone adopts what is fashionable and those that deviate from the fashion inevitably adopt a whole new view of what they consider fashion. Ritzer wrote,
Simmel argued that not only does following what is in fashion involve dualities so does the effort on the part of some people to be of fashion. Unfashionable people view those who follow a fashion as being imitators and themselves as mavericks, but Simmel argued that the latter are simply engaging in an inverse form of imitation.
This means that those who are trying to be different or "unique," are not, because in trying to be different they become a part of a new group that has labeled themselves different or "unique".
Simmel´s major monographic works include, in chronological order: