Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was born in Berlin, Germany, the son of a successful businessman and the youngest of seven children. He formally studied philosophy and history at the University of Berlin, but Simmel was interested in a wide variety of topics including psychology, anthropology, economics, and sociology. This wide intellectual breadth and curiosity would characterize Simmel’s career as a social theorist, as he wrote on just about every social topic imaginable – love, crime, conflict, religion, money, urbanism, ethics, culture; you name it, Simmel probably wrote about it.
Simmel received his doctorate in philosophy from Berlin in 1881 and later took an unpaid lecturer position there in 1885. Simmel was a prolific writer of books, essays, and articles, many of which were as or more popular with the German public than the academic establishment. Along with his writings, Simmel was also renowned for his speaking abilities. He was an intense lecturer and a showman at the podium, and his lectures were well-attended by students and members of the general public. Simmel was well-known and respected as a great intellectual during his lifetime, gaining the admiration of several prominent contemporaries including Max Weber (Weber and Simmel influenced each others’ thinking greatly).
Despite all this recognition, Simmel always remained an outsider within the academic establishment. He was repeatedly denied full professorships and chairs of sociology throughout his career. Simmel’s outsider status was largely based on the fact that he was Jewish in an increasingly anti-Semitic Germany, but it was also partly about his eclectic interests and the fact that he preferred to write more for the general public than for academics.
Simmel died of cancer in 1918, shortly before the end of World War I, but his intellectual legacy has continued to flourish.
The quintessential outsider, Simmel never developed what could be called “a school of thought.” But his ideas have heavily influenced a vast array of scholars including renowned sociologists like Norbert Elias and Robert Park, the great European philosophers Martin Heidegger and Martin Buber, as well as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Moreover, Simmel’s century-old ideas on the rise of the city, the tragedy of modern culture, and the generality of particular social forms and social roles in modern life still read like cutting-edge theory, even today. Simmel remains one of the most creative, wide-ranging, and prescient thinkers in social theory and, because of this, his writings continue to inspire.
In everyday social life, we often focus on the content of our social interactions with others—for example, “what is the right thing way to react to my boss’ outlandish work demands?” or “what the heck was my husband thinking when he said that to me?” But, for Simmel, the task of the sociologist was less about looking at the contents that distinguish types of social interaction from one another and more about illuminating the shared social forms through which a variety of seemingly different interactions take place. For example, for Simmel, it isn’t the specific demands of your overbearing boss that are of primary sociological interest, but rather that the interaction takes the form of a relationship of domination and subordination, a social form that we can see taking shape not only between bosses and their employees, but also regularly between wealthy and poor, white and black, husbands and wives, and so on.
Simmel was interested in the fact that many different contents could take the exact same social form. Interactions within families, gangs, and businesses, for example, all regularly take on the social form of conflict. Conversely, Simmel noted that the exact same content (the desire for money, for example) could be expressed through a variety of social forms, like cooperation, for example, or competition, or outright warfare. By exploring the many forms by and through which we engage in social interaction, Simmel saw the sociologist as devising what he called a “geometry of social life.”
It’s often noted that many of Simmel’s concepts are characterized by combining seeming opposites into a synthetic whole. Simmel’s understanding of the stranger is perhaps the best example of this aspect of his thought (but so is the Tragedy of Culture, explained below). For Simmel, the stranger is a social role that combines the seemingly contradictory qualities of nearness and remoteness. The stranger is connected to the broader social community by only the most general (and generic) commonalities, yet is still relied on by large groups of people. By virtue of the stranger’s simultaneous nearness and distance from others, the stranger is often valued for his or her objectivity, for being able to take a distanced and dispassionate view of events and relationships. The stranger may also be someone we turn to, paradoxically, as a close confidant because their social distance from us prevents them from judging us too harshly.
Simmel viewed human culture as a dialectical relationship between what he termed “objective culture” and “subjective culture.” He understood “objective culture” as all of those collectively shared human products such as religion, art, literature, philosophy, rituals, etc. through which we build and transform our lives as individuals. “Subjective culture,” in turn, refers to the creative and intelligent aspects of the individual human being, aspects of ourselves that Simmel argued could only be cultivated through the agency of external or “objective” culture.
The Tragedy of Culture, Simmel theorized, occurred as societies modernized and the massive amounts of objective cultural products overshadowed (and overwhelmed) the subjective abilities of the individual. Presented with more options than one person can possibly ever hope to experience in a lifetime, the modern individual runs the risk of stunting his or her social psychological growth.
Georg Simmel is a very eclectic and wide-ranging social theorist, which can make it difficult to get a grasp on this dynamic thinker. The Sociology of Georg Simmel is a great book to check out from your library if you want to get an overview of Simmel’s body of thought: