Georg Simmel belongs, together with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, to the founding fathers of modern sociology. From the 1890s onward, the essay plays a prominent role in his work. In addition to a rich production of essays published in newspapers, magazines, and journals, Simmel’s academic writings illustrate the central role the essay assumes in his new method of sociology. Suspicious of system-building tendencies, Simmel fashions the essay into the suitable genre for his thought. Combining a Nietzschean critique of culture with a fin-de-siècle sensibility for symbolism and the wary postKantian soberness that outlines the aesthetics of Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivism), he engages in a search for the typical forms of social interaction.
Given the fragmentary, fluid, and dynamic nature of the social sphere, Simmel argues that sociology can gain a firm hold of its subject only if its aesthetic qualities receive due attention. Sociology as a discipline must, therefore, methodologically reflect the aesthetic moment in the production of knowledge. Sociology, then, is not so much a science that depends on new facts; rather, in reconstructing the rules of their social relevance, it reinterprets facts critically. Less interested in society (Gesellschaft) per se, sociological reflection attends to the laws of association that form social relations (Vergesellschaftung). “Drawing a new line through the facts which are otherwise well known” creates perspectives which lead to new interpretations of the laws that govern social relations.
Looking at the dynamic, ever-differentiating process of social associations, Simmel distinguishes the content from the form of social interactions. While recognition of social forms reveals the laws of interhuman action, the distinction between content and form operates in areas where there are no fixed rules. Instead, aesthetic intuition leads the way to discovery. Any attempt at laying bare “pure forms of human behavior” hinges, therefore, on an “intuitive procedure,” i.e. “a special focus of the gaze.” Consequently, even Simmel’s textbook study Soziologie (1908; Sociology) is replete with fragments woven into a text that combines precise observations of the trivial with high-powered theorizing. Instead of a system, this approach offers vistas and highlights where the forms of associations that inform social experience appear in sharp profile: “…human association is continuously constituted, dissolved and constituted anew, a perpetual flowing and pulsating that concatenates the individuals.” Because instances of individual behavior represent crystallized forms of social interdependences, the method of knowledge production itself must reflect this. In describing the dynamics of human relations in their diverse, expanding, and often conflicting paths, Simmel reflects at the same time on the method with which to tackle the restless fluidity of the social sphere: “At every moment such threads are spun, dropped, resumed, replaced, and intenvoven with others.” This is exactly how Simmel’s essays themselves proceed.
The specificity of the individual event, sign, interaction, or exchange is, as a part, always connected to the whole, which it represents in its own manner. This unity of the social sphere, tentative and precarious as it may be, provides in all its fragility a common denominator for interpreting social laws. The essay takes advantage of this epistemological given as it launches an analysis that feeds off the unified but open-ended nature of human experience. It knows itself to be carried by the recognition that “from each point on the surface of existence—however closely attached to the surface it might seem—one may drop a sounding into the depths of the psyche so that almost all the most banal externalities of life finally are connected with the ultimate decisions concerning the meaning and style of life.”
This new approach redefines the scope of the essay. A whole new range of phenomena now comes into focus. Fashion, coquetry, conversation, communication, secrecy, discretion, competition, subordination, thankfulness, loyalty, jewelry, poverty, gender, acting, and landscapes and cityscapes now all become objects of the sociologist’s concern. In his essays on the handle, the bridge and the door, the rose, money, clothing and jewelry, Simmel turns to cultural artifacts which, at the intersection of interhuman relations, highlight the functioning of the social weave. Exposing the purely functional aspects of these social constructions, these essays bring out the formal codes of what constitutes society as a whole. With the bridge that connects the two sides of a river, humans fashion nature in their own minds’ image, inscribing social forms onto the landscape. Likewise, the door connects to what it separates; clothing and jewelry expose what they obscure. As a result, social functions rather than the nature and materiality of the world determine human behavior, which thus assimilates everything to its own needs as it casts the categorical net of forms of social associations over the world. Probing the conditions of the possibility of such social associations, Simmel’s essays abound with intellectual playfulness. Their self-referential turn relies on the literary nature of the essay.
Simmel’s observations on the adventurer, the artist, the stranger, the traveler who enjoys ruins and the Alps, make manifest the essayist as theorist of margins and marginal existence. Like them, he travels the overwhelming realm of experience. His insights are only as good as the categories he brings into play. Like the adventure, the essay enacts the accidental coincidence which—marginal to existence as it may present itself— connects directly to the heart of life. As the continuum of the social sphere expands in all directions, sociology’s procedure is the lucky gaze that, directed at infinitely reflecting mirrors, guides an enriched understanding.
Wherever the essay picks up a single thread in the fabric of appearances, it is sure to interconnect with the whole, a kind of “aesthetic pantheism,” as Simmel calls it: “Every point contains within itself the potential of being redeemed to absolute aesthetic importance. To the adequately trained eye, the totality of beauty, the complete meaning of the world as a whole, radiates from every single point.” With Simmel, the essay thus becomes the genre in which the intellectual and the existential conflict of modernity—the loss of mediation between individual and universal—finds its critical form.
Born 1 March 1858 in Berlin. Studied history and psychology at the University of Berlin, Ph.D., 1881. Outside lecturer in philosophy, 1885–1900, and professor extraordinarius, 1900–14, University of Berlin; professor of philosophy, Universky of Strasbourg, 1914– 18. Married Gertrud Kinel, 1890. Died in Strasbourg, 26 September 1918.
Essays and Related Prose
Kant: Sechzehn Vorlesungen, 1904
Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie, 1905; as The Problems of the Philosophy of History: An Epistemological Essay, edited and translated by Guy Oakes, 1977
Soziologie, 1908; as The Sociology of Georg Simmel, edited and translated by Kurt H.Wolff, 1950; part as Conflict, translated by Wolff, and The Web of Group Affiliations, translated by Reinhard Bendix, 1955
Philosophische Kultur: Gesammelte Essays, 1911; revised edition, 1919
Der Krieg und die geistigen Entscheidungen: Reden und Aufsätze, 1917
Lebensanschauung: Vier metaphysische Kapitel, 1918
Schulpädagogik: Vorlesungen, edited by Karl Hauter, 1922
Zur Philosophie der Kunst: Philosophische und kunstphilosophische Aufsätze, 1922
Fragmente und Aufsätze, aus dem Nachlass und Veröffentlichungen der letzten Jahre, edited by Gertrud Kantorowicz, 1923
Brücke und Tür: Essays des Philosophen zur Geschichte, Religion, Kunst, und Gesellschaft, edited by Michael Landmann, 1957; as Das Individuum und die Freiheit, 1984
The Conflict in Modern Culture, and Other Essays, translated by K. Peter Etzkorn, 1968
Das individuelle Gesetz: Philosophische Exkurse, edited by Michael Landmann, 1968
On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings, edited by Donald N. Levine, 1971
Georg Simmel: Sociologist and European (selections), edited by P. A.Lawrence, translated by D.E.Jenkinson, 1976
Essays on Interpretation in Social Science, edited and translated by Guy Oakes, 1980
Vom Wesen der Moderne: Essays zur Philosophie und Ästhetik, edited by Werner Jung, 1990
Other writings: works on sociology and philosophy (including Philosophie des Geldes
[The Philosophy of Money], 1900), coquetry, and German writers.
Collected works editions: Gesammelte Werke, 1958– (in progress); Gesamtaugabe, edited by Otthein Rammstedt, 9 vols., 1988–95 (in progress).
Gassen, Kurt, Georg Simmel 1858–1918: A Collection of Essays, edited by Kurt H.Wolff, Coiumbus: Ohio State University Press, 1959:357–75
Adorno, Theodor W., Noten zur Literatur, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, Frankfurt-on-Main: Suhrkamp, 1981 (original edition, 1958–65)
Axelrod, Charles D., “Toward an Appreciation of Simmel’s Fragmentary Style,”
Sociological Quarterly 18 (1977): 185–96
Böhringer, Hannes, and Karlfried Griinder, editors, Ästhetik und Soziologie um die Jahrhundertwende: Georg Simmel, Frankfurton-Main: Klostermann, 1976
Christen, Matthias, “Essayistik und Modernitat: Literarische Theoriebildung in Georg Simmels Philosophischer Kultur,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 66 (1992):129–59
Coser, Lewis A., “Georg Simmel’s Style of Work: A Contribution to the Sociology of the Sociologist,” American Journal of Sociology 63 (1958): 635–40
Dahme, Heinz-Jürgen, and Otthein Rammstedt, editors, Georg Simmel und die Moderne: Neue Interpretationen und Materialien, Frankfurt-on-Main: Suhrkamp, 1984
Davis, Murray S., “Georg Simmel and the Aesthetics of Social Reality,” Social Forces 51 (1973):320–29
Frisby, David, Sociological Impressionism: A Reassessment of Georg Simmel’s Social Theory, London: Heinemann, 1981
Frisby, David, Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985
Gassen, Kurt, and Michael Landmann, editors, Buch des Dankes an Georg Simmel: Briefe, Erinnerungen, Bibliographie, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1993 (original edition, 1958)
Kracauer, Siegfried, Georg Simtnel, Das Ornament der Masse, Frankfurt-on-Main: Suhrkamp, 1977
Liebeschiitz, Hans, Von Georg Simmel zu Franz Rosenzweig: Studien zum Jiidischen Denken im deutschen Kulturbereich, Tübingen: Mohr, 1970
Susman, Margarete, Die geistige Gestalt Georg Simmels, Tübingen: Mohr, 1959
Weinstein, Deena, and Michael A.Weinstein, Postmodern(ized) Simmel, London and New York: Routledge, 1993
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