Universität Zürich Soziologisches Institut der Universität Zürich Prof. Dr. Hans Geser

presents: Georg Simmel Online

       Sociology in Switzerland

Georg Simmel Online           






Georg Simmel: Biographic Information
ex: Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context. Second edition. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

The Person

Georg 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 contemporaries.

Simmel 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.

After 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 career.

Deeply 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) in 1885. 

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.

The Academic Outsider

For 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.

Despite 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. 

He attended 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.

His 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. 

In the 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.

Although 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.

A Virtuoso on the Platform

Although 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. 

He was 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.

In 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.

Simmel's Writing Career

In 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. 

They represent 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.

Simmel 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. 

After 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 of the
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.

Because 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." 

This is 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.

Among 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 Bernhard Groethuysen. 

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.



Prof. Hans Geser
Soziologisches Institut
der Universität Zürich
Andreasstr. 15 
8050 Zürich 
Tel. ++41 55 2444012