Simmel was born on March 1, 1858, in the very heart of Berlin, the corner
of Leipzigerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse. This was a curious birthplace--it
would correspond to Times Square in New York--but it seems symbolically
fitting for a man who throughout his life lived in the intersection of
many movements, intensely affected by the cross-currents of intellectual
traffic and by a multiplicity of moral directions. Simmel was a modern
urban man, without roots in traditional folk culture.
Upon reading Simmel's
first book, F. Toennies wrote to a friend: "The book is shrewd but it has
the flavor of the metropolis." Like "the stranger" he described in his
brilliant essay of the same name, he was near and far at the same time,
a "potential wanderer; although he [had] not moved on, he [had] not quite
overcome the freedom of coming and going."
One of the major theorists to emerge in German philosophy
and social science around the turn of the century, he remains atypical,
a perturbing and fascinating figure to his more organically rooted
was the youngest of seven children. His father, a prosperous Jewish businessman
who had converted to Christianity, died when Simmel was still young. A
friend of the family, the owner of a music publishing house, was appointed
the boy's guardian. Simmel's relation to his domineering mother was rather
distant; he seems not to have had any roots in a secure family environment,
and a sense of marginality and insecurity came early to the young Simmel.
graduating from Gymnasium, Simmel studied history and philosophy at the
University of Berlin with some of the most important academic figures of
the day: the historians Mommsen, Treitschke, Sybel and Droysen, the philosophers
Harms and Zeller, the art historian Hermann Grimm, the anthropologists
Lazarus and Steinthal (who were the founders of Voelkerpsychologie), and
the psychologist Bastian.
By the time he received his doctorate in philosophy
in 1881 (his thesis was entitled "The Nature of Matter According to Kant's
Physical Monadology"), Simmel was familiar with vast field of knowledge
extending from history to philosophy and from psychology to the social
sciences. This catholicity of tastes and interests marked his entire subsequent
tied to the intellectual milieu of Berlin, both inside and outside the
university, Simmel did not follow the example of most German academic men
who typically moved from one university to another both during their studies
and after; instead, he decided to stay at the University of Berlin, where
he became a Privatdozent (an unpaid lecturer dependent on student fees)
His courses ranged from logic and the history of philosophy to
ethics, social psychology, and sociology. He lectured on Kant, Schopenhauer,
Darwin, and Nietzsche, among many others. Often during a single academic
year he would survey new trends in sociology as well as in metaphysics.
He was a very popular lecturer and his lectures soon became leading intellectual
events, not only for students but for the cultural elite of Berlin. In
spite of the fascination he called forth, however, his academic career
turned out to be unfortunate, even tragic.
fifteen years Simmel remained a Privatdozent. In 1901, when he was forty-three,
the academic authorities finally consented to grant him the rank of Ausserordentlicher
Professor, a purely honorary title that still did no allow him to take
part in the affairs of the academic community and failed to remove the
stigma of the outsider. Simmel was by now a man of great eminence, whose
fame had spread to other European countries as well as to the United States.
He was the author of six books and more than seventy articles, many of
which had been translated into English, French, Italian, Polish, and Russian.
Yet, whenever Simmel attempted to gain an academic promotion, he was rebuffed.
Whenever a senior position became vacant at one of the German universities,
Simmel competed for it. Although his applications were supported by the
recommendations of leading scholars, Max Weber among others, they did not
meet with success.
all the rebuffs Simmel received from his academic peers, it would be a
mistake to see in him an embittered outsider. He played an active part
in the intellectual and cultural life of the capital, frequenting many
fashionable salons and participating in various cultural circles.
the meetings of philosophers and sociologists and was a co-founder, with
Weber and Toennies, of the German Society for Sociology. He made many friends
in the world of arts and letters; the two leading poets of Germany, Rainer
Maria Rilke and Stefan George, were his personal friends.
He enjoyed the
active give-and-take of conversation with artists and art critics, with
top-level journalists and writers. Very much a man about town, Simmel stood in the intersection of many intellectual
circles, addressed himself to a variety of audiences, and enjoyed the freedom
from constraints that comes from such an interstitial position.
sense of relative ease must also have been enhanced by the fact that he
was free of financial worry. His guardian had left him a considerable fortune
so that he was not beset by financial concerns as were so many Privatdozenten
and Ausserodentliche Professoren in the prewar German university.
Berlin years Simmel and his wife Gertrud, whom he had married in 1890,
lived a comfortable and fairly sheltered bourgeois life. His wife was a
philosopher in her own right who published, under the pseudonym Marie-Luise
Enckendorf, on such diverse topics as the philosophy of religion and of
sexuality; she made his home a stage for cultivated gatherings where the
sociability about which Simmel wrote so perceptively found a perfect setting.
Simmel suffered the rebuff of academic selection committees, he enjoyed
the support and friendship of many eminent academic men. Max Weber, Heinrich
Rickert, Edmund Husserl, and Adolf von Harnack attempted repeatedly to
provide for him the academic recognition he so amply deserved. Simmel undoubtedly
was gratified that these renowned academicians for whom he had the highest
regard recognized his eminence.
Virtuoso on the Platform
many of his peers and elders, especially those of secondary rank, felt
threatened and unsettled by Simmel's erratic brilliance, his students and
the wider, nonacademic audience he attracted to his lectures were enthralled
by him. Simmel was somewhat of a showman. Many of his contemporaries who
left an account of his lectures have stressed that it seemed to them that
Simmel was thinking creatively in the very process of lecturing.
a virtuoso on the platform, punctuating the air with abrupt gestures and
stabs, dramatically halting, and then releasing a torrent of dazzling ideas.
What the great German critic Walter Benjamin once said of Marcel Proust,
that his "most accurate, most convincing insight fasten on their objects
as insects fasten on leaves" applies equally well to Simmel. Emil Ludwig
describes him well, though with a touch of characteristic vulgarity, when
he writes: "Simmel investigated, when he lectured, like a perfect dentist.
With the most delicate probe (which he sharpened himself) he penetrated
into the cavity of things.
With the greatest deliberation he seized the nerve of
the root; slowly he pulled it out. Now we students could crowd around the
table in order to see the delicate being curled around the probe." George
Santayana, then still experimenting with New England terseness, was given
to less fancy modes of expression; but when he wrote to William James that
he had "discovered a Privatdozent, Dr. Simmel, whose lectures interest
me very much," he undoubtedly wished to convey in this sober fashion a
fascination equal to that experienced by Ludwig.
view of Simmel's enormous success as a lecturer, it must have been especially
galling to him that when he finally achieved his academic goal, a full
professorship at the University of Strasbourg, he was deprived of practically
every opportunity to lecture to students.
He arrived at Strasbourg, a provincial
university on the borderline between Germany and France, in 1914, just
before all regular university activities were interrupted by the outbreak
of the war. Most lecture halls were converted into military hospitals.
A man as alive to the incongruities in man's destiny as Simmel could not
have failed to smile wryly on this crowning irony. His last effort to secure
a chair at Heidelberg, where the death of Wilhelm Windelband and Emil Lask
had created two vacancies in 1915, proved as unsuccessful as previous attempts.
Shortly before the end of the war, on September 28, 1918, Simmel died of
cancer of the liver.
contrast to all the other sociologists discussed so far, Simmel's interest
in current affairs and in social and political issues was minimal. Occasionally
he would comment in newspaper articles on questions of the day--social
medicine, the position of women, or criminal insanity--but such topical
concerns were clearly peripheral to him. There is one major exception,
however. With the outbreak of the war Simmel threw himself into war propaganda
with passionate intensity.
"I love Germany," he wrote then, "and therefore
want it to live--to hell with all 'objective' justification of this will
in terms of culture, ethics, history, or God knows what else." Some of
Simmel's wartime writings are rather painful to read, exuding a kind of
superpatriotism so alien to his previous detached stance.
a desperate effort by a man who had always regarded himself as a "stranger"
in the land to become immersed in the patriotic community. His young friend
Ernst Bloch told him: "You avoided decision throughout your life--Tertium
datur--now you find the absolute in the trenches." Throughout his career
Simmel had managed to preserve a distance that enabled him to view events
with cool rationality; in the last years of his life he succumbed to the
desire for nearness and communion.
Perhaps it was a failure of nerve.
was a most prolific writer. More than two hundred of his articles appeared
in a great variety of journals, newspapers, and magazines during his lifetime,
and several more were published posthumously. He wrote fifteen major works
in the fields of philosophy, ethics, sociology, and cultural criticism,
and another five or six less significant works.
his dissertation, his first publication, entitled On Social Differentiation
(1890), was devoted to sociological problems, but for a number of years
thereafter he published mainly in the field of ethics and the philosophy
of history, returning to sociology only at a later date. His two major
early works, The Problems of the Philosophy of History and the two volumes
Introduction to the Science of Ethics, were published
in 1892-93; these were followed in 1900 by his seminal work, The Philosophy
of Money, a book on the borderline between philosophy and sociology. After
several smaller volumes on religion, on Kant and Goethe, and on Nietzsche
and Schopenhauer, Simmel produced his major sociological work, Sociology: Investigations
on the Forms of Sociation, in 1908. Much of its content had already been
published previously in journal articles.
He then turned away from sociological
questions for almost a decade, but he returned to them in the small volume
published in 1917, Fundamental Questions of Sociology. His other books
in the last period of his life dealt with cultural criticism (Philosophische
Kultur, 1911), with literary and art criticism (Goethe, 1913, and Rembrandt,
1916), and with the history of philosophy (Hauptprobleme der Philosophie,
1910). His last publication, Lebensanschauung (1918), set forth the vitalistic
philosophy he had elaborated toward the end of his life.
he was unable to develop a consistent sociological or philosophical system,
it is not altogether surprising that Simmel did not succeed in creating
a "school" or that he left few direct disciples. With his accustomed lucidity
and self-consciousness, he noted in his diary shortly before his death:
"I know that I shall die without intellectual heirs, and that is as it
should be. My legacy will be, as it were, in cash, distributed to many
heirs, each transforming his part into use conformed to his nature: a use
which will reveal no longer its indebtedness to this heritage."
indeed what happened. Simmel's influence on the further development of
both philosophy and sociology, whether acknowledged or not, has been diffuse
yet pervasive, even during those periods when his fame seemed to have been
eclipsed. Robert K. Merton once called him "that man of innumerable seminal
ideas" and Ortega y Gasset compared him to a kind of philosophical squirrel,
jumping from one nut to the other, scarcely bothering to nibble much at
any of them, mainly concerned with performing his splendid exercises as
he leaped from branch to branch, and rejoicing in the sheer gracefulness
of his acrobatic leaps. Simmel attracted generation after generation of
enthralled listeners, but hardly anyone who would call himself a disciple.
Americans who sat at his feet was Robert Park. No one who reads Park's
work can overlook Simmel's profound impact. Continentals who derived major
inspiration from his lectures include such dissimilar figures as the Marxist
philosophers Georg Lukacs and Ernst Bloch, the existentialist philosopher-theologian
Martin Buber, the philosopher-sociologist Max Scheler, and the social historian
German sociologists Karl Mannheim, Alfred Vierkandt,
Hans Freyer and Leopold von Wiese also were influenced by Simmel's work.
Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and the other representatives of the Frankfort
school of neo-Marxist sociology owe his a great deal, especially in their
criticism of mass culture and mass society. Modern German philosophers
from Nicolai Hartmann to Martin Heidegger were also indebted to him. It
is not an exaggeration to state that hardly a German intellectual from
the 1890's to World War I and after managed to escape the powerful thrusts
of Simmel's rhetorical and dialectical skills.