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


Georg Simmel im 21. Jahrhundert
Textinterpretationen aus heutiger Perspektive

  Sociology in Switzerland   Georg Simmel Online Georg Simmel im 21. Jahrhundert


Portrait of Georg Simmel as a Young Man

Andrea Pitasi

Introduction. 1890-1990: one hundred years of postmodernity

1 Simmel: the theorist of diversity

2 The adventures of modernity

3 About social diversity

4 Social diversity and the autonomy of the individual


Introduction. 1890-1990: one hundred years of postmodernity

The inception of this work proceeds from a didactics requirement and from a study.

On the level of didactics, it endeavours to fill the gap characterising the spreading of Simmelian sociology in university courses and in other similar contexts: Simmel’s works, even when they are part of the curricula, are limited to lectures on its 20th century production - from The Philosophy of Money onwards. There is no trace of the 19th century Simmel. And yet, as I will demonstrate, Social Diversity (1890!) is in fact the first work where complexity makes its appearance, although in disguise.

It is in the intersection between social diversity and individual diversity that the shift is made towards a complex, redundant, possibilistic, abstract, mental, symbolic world which is relativised into multishaped subjective meanings as far as the postulation of the idea of life, which is by this stage extremely personal. Simmel’s social actor becomes a stranger firstly to him/herself and is left with the single certainty of being "one, none, and a hundred-thousand". When Luhmann stated the concept (1995), it had already been expressed by Pirandello and Goffman. In Simmel’s view, experience is adventure, and its meaning is chiefly energetic, even passional. When the energy load wears out, experience is deprived of meaning. The same concept was restated by Luhmann much later (1985).

Although it is not quite possible to claim that Luhmann confined himself to recycling Simmel’s work, it is certainly true that rooting Luhmann’s thought in Simmel’s work, and particularly in his early works, intensifies Luhmann’s theorisation itself and brings about a sudden yet crucial epochal excursion; postmodernity, the age of rampant complexity and of self-referentially self-generated subjectivity had already been experienced by the Simmelian stranger who, venturing in the heaving city of Berlin, had looked at himself from the outside like someone who has a paranormal experience, while he accidentally intertwined his destiny with that of countless social circles that were increasingly tighter and exclusively prepared to have fleeting contacts. It is clearly a wholly mental, cognitive and contingent observation. One wonders how it would work within Luhmann’s psychic system.

Postmodernity begins in Europe in 1890; Talcott Parsons, who had studied in Germany and translated Weber into English, comes off as an absent-minded and unpolished scholar with his theories of the action first (1937),and of the social system later (1951). And here is where the second requirement of this work comes in: not so much to study Simmel’s reality, which is after all clear thanks to the description of postmodernity,but rather to recontextualise the post-modern age through Simmel’s works. While reading the sombre pages from Mein Kampf, for example, one perceives the distress and unease of the bricklayer Adolph Hitler walking in multi-coloured, multi-ethnic, chaotic, post-Hapsburg Vienna, with its surrounding confusion and existing multi-cultural hybridisation.

Totalitarianisms may therefore be seen as post-modern phenomena with a grotesquely naïve tragic nature. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini look like fresh students who wish to lessen complexity by attributing a meaning to history, which is turned into History. Yet complexity can never be lessened, except contingently, and it always need to be managed.

The hypothesis of this study is the following: postmodernity begins in Germany around 1890 and about a century later it gains there its theoretical legitimisation through Luhmann’s works. US sociological production, on the other hand, reveals its theoretical and analytical frailty by crowning Jeffrey C. Alexander as the Talcott Parsons’s successor. And even in the pedantic works of the Californian sociologist there is no trace of complexity.

The hypotheses for research that I submit with this study are in fact little more than speculation. Solider arguments will be required to grant substance to these forms. But they will also require more pages.


1. Simmel, the theorist of diversity

Georg Simmel is doubtless the only author really worth reading, in the entire classic sociological tradition, in order to comprehend the exceedingly complex Western World. He is an uncomfortable author who has often been marginalised, rejected and ignored by the sociologists’ community in its anxious search for appeasing, though deceptive, certainties. The fact that Simmel’s thought cannot easily be placed within a specific sociological tradition has been an annoyance to all the historians of sociology who have in vain yet zealously attempted to find him a place in a specific chapter of those typical, insipid and artificial didactics manual - the only cosmic dimension where everything has a place and there’s a place for everything.

Simmel is the stranger of sociology; he explains and exemplifies the absolute arbitrariness of disciplinary boundaries not through a specific study, but granting this meaning to his entire production. And he largely anticipates the extraordinary Foucault.

Simmel explains to Durkheim that if society is something other than the mere sum of the individual units it is comprised of, and if the former transcends the latter, then it is also true that these individual units are inclined to differentiate themselves and to make themselves autonomous with respect to society in an utterly original way. Were that not true, complexity would not exist and manuals would still be an accepted literary genre.

Simmel constituted a fertile source particularly for Niklas Luhmann who, as always self-referentially honest, openly acknowledged his intellectual debt towards the author of Sociology.

The Simmel-Luhmann relationship is remarkably odd. Social Systems ideally begins where The Philosophy of Money ends. Simmel states that his legacy, his bequest, is somehow cash, and that everyone may make use of it in the future. The universal nature of money! Luhmann adds that tradition and the past may be managed only in a self-referential way, and this is why he takes the money and runs, being true to himself and, paradoxically, to his mentor’s teachings. If jokes were allowed, one might think that Luhmann read Simmel’s works while he was doing some yoga exercises requiring him to stand on his hands. Scientifically speaking, Luhmann duplicates Simmel by turning him upside down. Social Diversity, the core of this paper, could easily have been written by Luhmann as a young man. Differences will surface later in life.

Complexity emerges from the constant intersection of the process of social differentiation with that of individual differentiation: there is a growing number of ever-tighter social circles. The relationships between these social circles are often contingent, uncertain, acentric and non-hierarchical. The individual splits him/herself, in the face of etymology, and becomes manifold, and the building of the individual personality becomes experimental.

In Luhmann’s perspective this is scarcely relevant because the psychic system is the environment of the social system - and vice versa.

I hypothesise that, in fact, both aspects co-exist in Simmel. In Simmel as a young man, society is doubtless comprised of individuals, but these can in a way be split, and society begins to have serious self-representation problems.

And complexity marches on, slowly but relentlessly.

In Luhmann’s thought, the socio-systemic perspective is over-discussed, while the psycho-systemic one is undervalued. In brief, Luhmann claims that the social system and the psychic system represent each other’s environments, even though he never really deals with issues relating to the psychic system’s viewpoint. The latter finds itself in an odd marginalisation-liberation situation; it intertwines itself periodically with the social system as if this were a pick up counter, provided that it does not cheats one out of the coins - but it does not have a particularly rooted sense of belonging; on the contrary. And it is not even instrumentally utilitarian. It does not believe in individualism, but it does believe in individuation. The stranger turns into a great metaphor and the experimental building of one’s individuality becomes an indistinct and variously conducted research. Luhmann’s theory is still applicable, but it needs to be straightened up and reshaped, so to speak. To take the shape of a letter, for instance.


2. The adventures of modernity

Simmel’s thought has gained considerable relevance in the study of complex contemporary Western societies; the Berlin-born scholar’s observations emphasise the crucial problem of comprehending life in its unpredictable developments, an understanding that is better accomplished by giving up any deterministic and totalising Weltanschauungen.

Modern sociology, from Marx and Durkheim to well after Simmel’s demise (see Parsons) has indeed countered totalising views with other totalising views: this is also why Simmel’s thought, which is rich in fragmental examples, cannot be systematised if not with manipulative ends.

After all "for Simmel… the knowledge acquisition process is merely the occurrence of situations that involve all the relationships of the knowing subject, and it is therefore a process that relies on the mutual and changing self-determination of its interfering elements. In his view there cannot be, therefore, any finite system of knowledge, but only an ad infinitum process of knowledge acquisition. And since even the knowledge impulse is driven by a need, the impossibility of achieving that finite system of knowledge and, thus, of thoroughly fulfilling that need, urges man to make a "reality leap"; it is the leap to metaphysics where man finds, if not the truth in the observation of relationships, at least the existential truth, for which the only reference pattern is … usefulness. On the other hand, knowledge as self-awareness of relationships is partial, imperfect, bent on constant reviews. The phenomena themselves, by their own nature, always generate endless combination chains, so that the relationship with the intellect that approaches reality effects the permanent review and correction of its images. Thus, above all, Simmel considers as invariably false those statements that, ‘in the dogmatic crystallisation of a temporary stage of development, claim to be totally exact’. Secondly, it is futile and absurd to expect that the images of relationships for the social phenomena that we define may produce the ‘desired effects’ in the reality to which we refer or that they may ‘rightly guide it’. … The notion of society is attained through the conscious interaction that the socialisation process effects on the individual of a tangible society. Thus, the notion of society is not transcendentally inferred, but it is arrived at as a form of self-awareness of the empirical world we are part of.

Sociology is to Simmel the study of the manifold forms of interaction; in a way sociology is the grammar of society and it cannot therefore direct nor determine its contents. Mongardini rightly emphasises that for Simmel the possibility of society depends on the manifold and tangible development of those conscience intuitions on social reality that represent the three sociological postulates:

  • Ego-Alter relationship;

  • dialectic unity between the individual and society;

  • society is not a purely objective framework: if that were the case, everything would seem functionally predisposed and life would be changed into pure form. Instead, through pure forms, life expresses the unpredictability of those restricted relationships that cannot in any way be reduced to a finite synthesis.

Again, it is Mongardini who expresses the unpredictability of life and the irriducibility of reality: "In our relationship with reality we only grasp segments of reality; that unity which we can build with our own mind is merely that which we take to be probably closer to reality, since we feel, as was said, that part of it can never be reduced to the ‘prescription’ of our laws".

Life expresses and develops its contents; its emergence occurs from pure forms which, although they objectivise themselves and become other than the life which created them, have purely energetic - or vital - boundaries of meaning, as Simmel clearly exemplifies in his observation on adventure: ‘it has a beginning and an end according to a much more powerful meaning than the one we are accustomed to assign to the other forms of our life contents. And in this way it reveals its independence form the interlacement and connection of those same contents: this is what it is meant by hitting the nail on the head in a self-sufficient sense. All ordinary events are said to reach a conclusion when, or because, something else takes their place: they mutually define their boundaries and, by this, the unity of the vital whole is formed or expressed. On the other hand, adventure in itself is independent from what comes before it and from what comes after it, and it disregards these when defining its boundaries. Whenever a relationship with life continuity is denied, or rather, when there is no need at all to deny such continuity because one stands before something alien, something uninferrable, something out of the ordinary, that is when adventure can be called into question. Adventure lacks the mutual intertwining between neighbouring parts that turns life into a single Whole. Adventure is like an island in the sea of life that sets its beginning and its end according to its own forming energy rather than, as is the case for a continental strip, in relation to the energies of what is on this side and what is on the other side. This marked isolation with which adventure detaches itself from the overall course of a given destiny is not mechanical but organic. An organism does not define its spatial form according to the many obstacles it comes across from all sides, but rather following a life-forming impulse that starts from the inside; the same is true for adventure, which does not end because something else begins, but rather, its temporal form, its radical finite status are the exact configuration of its inner sense. … The notion of adventure is determined by the fact that something which is isolated and accidental may hold a meaning and a need, in contrast with all those facets of life that fate places in a peripheral area. An event is turned into adventure when it is susceptible of this double definition: having a well-defined beginning and end or achieving something that has some relevance".

Life itself thus becomes a constant adventure, as paradoxical as this may sound, from the purely energetic boundaries of meaning underlying the many-sided nature of life itself.

Adventure-life develops energetically from the responsibilities and intentionality of the individual - who is in his/her turn fragmentary and who objectivates that more or less extended side of his/her personality which is legitimised to interact with and in the context of a given formally described social circle. The boundaries of meaning between forms are at any rate always energetic and internal to the one who has initiated the interaction, in spite of and beyond the pure objectivating forms. Action is thus intended as the development in the vitality and univocity of creativity.It is not precisely the individual that becomes fragmented, but rather the interpretative categories of action on which basis freedom and responsibility are indissolubly linked beyond the universal laws - as in Kant’s categorical imperative - that crystallise ethics and detach it from life. As Calabrò had eloquently explained in his introduction to Simmel’s works on ethics, "life’s qualifying feature is that of being always somehow creative, that of generating more life, of being more life; but life is also at the same time more than life, it is form in terms of individuality, that is something limited, finished, opposed to something else and to endless centres where it fulfils itself according to its absence. These two aspects of life, its being both constant flow and tangible form, a form that is determined and objectivatedin countless subjects and contents, cannot at all be opposed on an abstract level and are, in Simmel’s view, complementary.

This complementarity may be seen as dialectic only if it leaves out any resolutory or pacifying synthesis; in complementarity Simmel sees what he terms transcendency, or rather the self-transcendency of life, since the process of constantly overcoming one’s limitations can take place only within life itself."

Many of the considerations made in the works on ethics and, partly, in Social Diversity, have been superseded and revised by Simmel himself in his later years.

The entire production by Simmel, on a high level of abstraction, may be seen as a gradual shift and a dialectic development devoid of the presumption to reach any definitive synthesis from an energetic concept of social diversity to one based on abstract forms of pure symbolic exchange such as, for example, money. Both these concepts existed and were complementary ever since the beginning of Simmel’s intellectual activity; this is why the above mentioned gradual shift is to be intended basically as a partial philosophical conclusion that opens sociological issues which are resolved in the evidence of facts and irresolvable in theoretical systematisations.

This study focuses in particular on one of Simmel’s early works, Social Diversity, which he wrote in 1890 at 32. It comprises six chapters. The first chapter, gnosiologically rather than epistemologically oriented despite the positivist influences, sets out some considerations on the fragmentariness of human knowledge, which can grasp and understand only segmented aspects of reality. And this is what generates the impossibility of sociological laws or of totalising Weltanschauungen.

The gnosiological issue is not so easily exhausted, however: it concerns the very identity of sociology which ultimately becomes a methodology for studying those forms of social interaction that are liberated by all content peculiarities, although they are not liberated from specific and contingent contents.

In the remainder of his work the Berlin-born scholar illustrates the relationship between individual and social group through five forms of social relationship:

  1. the study of collective responsibility as it develops through the various stages of social diversity;

  2. the dependency relationship existing between the quantitative augmentation (in terms of expansion) of the social group and the development of individuality;

  3. the creation within the social whole at a given social level;

  4. the relationship pattern emerging from the intersection between social circles;

  5. individual and group differentiation based on energy use and development.

And all this being understood that sociability is a pure form of association.

The next paragraph deals with Simmel’s works in more details.


3. About social diversity

This work was translated into Italian, edited by Bruno Accarino, and first published in Italy only in 1982, as though emphasising Italian culture’s fundamental lack of interest in Simmel’s thought. The first monograph devoted to the Berlin-born scholar is also dated 1982 - with a philosophical rather than sociological slant. Two years later came the translation of the fundamental work The Philosophy of Money, and Sociology itself, although it had appeared in the Edizioni di Comunità di Milano catalogue since 1989, is quite hard to find. In other words, the concomitance of a number of factors seems to operate a marginalisation of Simmel’s works, just like the German academic world of the beginning of the century - it would appear - marginalised the man Simmel himself.

In the introductory essay to this early work Accarino eloquently stigmatises this works’ value within Simmel’s comprehensive intellectual development: "It would be appropriate and perhaps required at this stage to place this 1890 work in the early activities of the young Simmel and to see it as little more than an introductory study. Social Diversity is characterised by a massive presence of Darwinian and Spencerian terminology (which spread throughout Germany probably thanks to Albert Schaffle’s organicism) whose traces will never quite disappear from Simmel’s sociology writing; it is run through at different points by the temptation to interpret social processes from an evolutionary and almost naturalistic perspective and it is written in a taut and laborious prose. And yet, Simmel constantly referred to Social Diversity as a marker of his intellectual biography.

Accarino continues: "The very theme core of Social Diversity - and what was Simmel throughout his life, if not a great theoretician of difference? - and the circumstances in which, after 18 years, the fifth chapter (on the intersection of social circles) is literally reinstilled in Soziologie, make this work an extremely reliable documentation for Simmel’s thought, although some analytical specifications are adequately treated only in later writings."

In the second chapter, "Simmel resumes the issue of the individual from the viewpoint of the historical obsolescence of collective responsibility. Modern social relationships have marginalised that ancient form of compensation that, for a crime perpetrated by one individual, vested the responsibility for that crime in the group the individual belonged to. And since this kind of compensation generally coincided with a bloody revenge effected on the clan, the family group, etc., the shift from collective to individual responsibility brings about a decrease of violence in social relationships. The modern ‘punishment’ is no longer meant to involve the social sector of origin of the individual, nor is it meant to strike the individual as a whole, but rather to punish that side of his/her personality that was found guilty of violating normality."

Accarino proceeds in its delineation of Simmel’s work: "The subsequent chapters lead to the core of the diversity issue. Simmel’s contention cannot be reproduced in its analytical passages. There is, however, a substantial harmony in the analysis of individuality development in relation to group expansion (Chapter Three), to the ‘social level’ (Chapter Four) and to the intersection of social circles (Chapter Five). The fundamental notion emerging throughout Simmel’s words is that individual freedom grows as the reference social area expands. The individual who shares his/her entire biographical story with the fate of the social group he/she belongs to is deprived of freedom. Freedom is above all - but not only - the collapse of the identifying bonds and the vanishing of coincidental relationships. However, since the larger social forms and the lesser social formations (State, nation, etc. on the one hand and occupations, leisure time associations, etc. on the other) arrange themselves in a concentric pattern, i.e. synchronically, different regulatory levels arise. By extending its boundaries, the larger social circle - ‘society’ as ordinarily meant - does not stifle nor erase the lesser circles. The relationships in force in the former shall therefore be intensely different from those in force between the individual and the lesser circles. This shattering and diversifying of social norms, whereby a set of basic rules (the ‘social level’) is inadequate to the abundance of social life though indispensable to set off human communal life on a minimum of social rationale, was for Simmel an object of profound interest."

Chapter Two’s title eloquently anticipates its contents: collective responsibility. By collective responsibility Simmel means the fundamental lack of diversity that characterises the most tribal and primitive social contexts. Social diversity as a developmental logic is seen in evolutionary and positivist terms: "Less civilised ages generally show a tendency to see an individual’s damaging action as the punishable guilt of his/her social circle, of his/her whole family, of his/her stock, etc. When there is a central power which persecutes the misdeed, i.e. within a politically unified group, persecution often reaches the third and fourth family members, and punishments of all kinds strike family members who are totally innocent of the perpetrated crime. This is also the case of private revenge, perhaps even more markedly so; the offence to one individual by another individual not uncommonly degenerates into a family war which involves members from two families both in terms of extent and in terms of involvement of future generations. In politically divided groups, all of the ones demand satisfaction from all of the others for the damage sustained by them or by one of their members at the hand of one of the members of the other group. In this case there may be a lack of diversity in two respects: first of all, from an objective viewpoint, since the merging of the individual and the whole may in fact be so tight that the actions by one individual may rightfully count not as strictly individual actions, but as actions that have emerged from a certain degree of solidarity of each individual with the others; secondly, from a subjective point of view, by virtue of the inability of those who judge to separate the guilty individual from the group; he/she is in fact linked to the group through all the other relationships, but he/she is particularly bound to it because of the guilt at issue. However, since there is often one single cause at the root of both viewpoints, motivating these possibilities (see below) would seem not to require a clear distinction between them. With respect to the actual belonging, it would seem that the notion of hereditary transmission within the primitive group, which calls into question the issues of cohesion and equality among individuals, gets the upper hand over the adaptive principle, which in turns brings up the issue of autonomy and variability."

The positivist motives of the young Simmel emerge a few lines later: "To be able to exist, the whole requires a given nutritional quantum that, as is the case with the single individual, does not develop proportionally to the size of the whole; therefore, when the group is comprised only of a relatively small number of members, each of them shall have to contribute to preserving the group more than he ought to were the number of members bigger. … The social organism shows those akin phenomena that lead to the presumption concerning the existence of a particular life energy within the single living being. The admirable resolve employed by the body to face the removal of those conditions to which its nutrition and the survival of its form are linked; the resistance it opposes to veritable disorders while developing inner energies that make themselves proportionally available to the amount required to overcome a momentary attack; and finally, the reconstruction of damaged or lost parts via a process that is generated through an inner energy drive by the whole itself (or at least which the whole itself endeavours to generate) regardless of the form of the damage: all of this appears to be linked to a particular energy that, by placing itself above the individual parts and being independent from them, preserves the whole such as it is in its existence. Without resorting to mystical harmony it may however be observed, with regard to the social whole, that there is a similar resistance force whose development is proportional to the requirements set down by external attacks, a therapeutic energy which exists according to the damage caused, a self-preservation forcewhose external sources are apparently unidentifiable and which often keeps the whole together a long time after the healthy lymphs have worn out and the new nutritional flow has been cut off. The current belief, however, is that that life energy is not a particular agent floating above the body parts, but that it may be considered at the most as a synthetic oppression of the interaction of the parts. No single body part moves, preserves itself or becomes integrated in a form that cannot also be produced outside the organism, provided the same mechanical and chemical stimuli are supplied. The individual organs and cells are not driven towards cohesion and growth by an energy that is located beyond them, but only from the different energies that are within them, and the form and length of their coexistence exclusively depend on the stretched energies input by each organ and for which each organ triggers development. It is only in consideration of the immense subtlety and of the connection between these interactions, preventing the identification of the single elements and of each part’s contribution, that it seemed necessary to call into question a particular energy that is located beyond those existing in the elements themselves."

It is precisely in the specific concrete nature of elements that the energy is developed which allows life to be different. Although the crucial chapters are the following ones, this one already unveils Simmel’s discourse on the individual as the original maker of meaning in social interaction.

Despite the influence of positivism and the less marked impact of scientific socialism, Simmel understands that not even the individual that is fragmented in his/her manifold complexity may be considered as the primary cell of the social organism. In the primitive reality of the tribal bond, "one must consider that the individual, inasmuch as it devotes him/herself to the group by being at their service, receives from the group the form and contents of his/her essence. … In a way his/her nature is absorbed in that of the whole since, especially across the generations, features adapt themselves to interests and the unity of purpose leads to the unity of the spiritual and corporeal being."

Such a structuring of social bonds is however very little flexible and barely capable of facing the unpredictable occurrencesthat life, and the unyielding nature of its conceptual frameworks, offers.

The tribal organisation, or the clan, seems to dispel itself with feuds and ancient rivalries for which conflict is not seen as Uebergangszeit, no matter how horrid and contemptible, but as values crystallising in sterile matters of principle. In civilised development - keeping in mind young Simmel’s positivism, which he never totally relinquished - the bond of the individual with the social organism is gradually diluted, even though "factual diversity, especially with regard to punitive action, often appears much later than theoretical diversity. … Besides, the search for a higher diversity in this sense does not stop at the individual, but is extended also to the behaviour towards the individual. Due to the more refined knowledge we have acquired, we make an ethical mistake and give increasingly less responsibility to the whole human being, and we perceive that education, example and natural disposition may have damaged an individual impulse and an individual circle of representations, while the remainder of personality may behave totally in accordance with ethical principles. The growing diversity between the practical elements of our nature objectively contributes to this process, just as much as the theoretical forces of our nature contribute to it subjectively; the more refined and developed is personality, the more separate and independent is the spatial location of its various instincts, and the more guilt may relate to one side of personality without being ascribable to the whole. … Insofar as those who judge do not transpose their whole personality in the sensation triggered by others and only grant the others’ action the outcome that corresponds exactly to it, the former are also objective towards the others, limiting their reaction to the point where their own action is simply a part of the others’ personality, learning to distinguish the thing from the person and the individual element from the whole."

At its highest degree of civilisation, from the evolutionary viewpoint of this early work by Simmel, society becomes again collectively responsible for individual actions, though not - as was the case in the tribal stage - because society binds the individual so much that it devours him/her, but rather because the individual, being deprived of the power of its subjective unity and being fragmented into the manifold and tight social circles, seems no longer capable of making meaning as a single entity. What ensues is the weakening of all ontological or eschatological presumptions.

Social diversity progressively leads to the nebulous and gradual overcoming of the tribal condition, characterised by a binding and extensive notion of social ties. The individual was accepted only insofar as he/she integrated him/herself in the tribal representation of itself through rituals and mythopoeic processes of integration (e.g. totemism).

At its highest degree of civilisation, the complex and multifarious nature of social interactions in their most authentic concreteness makes society possible only through symbolic, universally shared forms of pure exchange, such as, for instance, money.

Simmel’s discourse’s most significant development in this direction, as was seen, dates to 1900. Far from utterly rejecting the notion of the energetic meaning of life that underlies Simmel’s 1890 works, his discourse defines the very meaning of life energy as the descriptive boundary of the multiple forms through which life, by differentiating itself, expresses its continuity.

At this stage, Simmel’s observation seems to deploy itself on four levels, which may be represented in the following table:










The above mentioned levels underlie a paradoxical logic: the continuity-energy (case A) that prevails in the work considered is only meaningful in a state of high social diversity, since it is only in this condition that society partially releases the individual by optimising energy use. Diversity-energy is largely reminiscent of the short essay on adventure mentioned in the preceding paragraph: diversity-energy (case C, at last) accomplishes the assertion of life as adventure by reiterating its continuity. The continuity-symbol (case B), which is well simplified by money, and the diversity-symbol (clearly indicated by the phenomenology of fashion as in case D) always presume a dialectic and dual relationship; this relationship allows on the one hand for a great individual diversity in the age of the continuity-symbol, and on the other, because it aims at granting a touch of exclusiveness to the emerging fashion phenomenon, it triggers an auto-poeic and seemingly uninterrupted mechanism in the gradual though apparently unavoidable process of the expansion of innovation.

Within this paradoxical contradictoriness, Simmel’s thought emerges as a forerunner of postmodernity.


4. Social diversity and the autonomy of the individual

The fragmentariness and the apparently transitory nature of Simmel’s issues and themes should not induce one to see the German scholar as a relativist.

It should always be born in mind that "in the fragment, Simmel grasps the glows of the whole, a pre-category whole such as life, for which the many phenomenal relationships are a witness: the philosopher may capture the gleams of the whole by observing and roaming amid the phenomena in all those directions of enquiry where his curiosity takes him."

As was often remarked, in Simmel’s observations there is a fundamental duality that, with respect to this particular work, is outlined in Chapter Three; here is where the macro-micro dialectic is developed, though clearly without a definitive synthesis. Simmel delineates the shift from a social organisation centred on tight circles - whose collective representation oppresses the individual in his/her unity hampering his/her free development - and a universal and abstract social organisation, founded on purely impersonal exchanges, where relationships’ objectivity only calls into question that personality fragment which was legitimised for that specific interaction. Hence the development of individual diversity in the universality of relationships of pure exchange. This is the case of cosmopolitanism.

Chapter Four focuses on the social level, which was illustrated in the discussions on predominance and on fashion. The issue is more generally explained by Simmel in the following excerpt: "What is shared by all can only be the property of those who own less. A regime that raises itself above two classes, the ruling and the ruled class, usually relies on the latter. To be capable of raising itself harmoniously above all layers, it must level them. Yet levelling is only possible if the higher level lowers itself more than the lower level can rise. For this reason usurpers find in the lower layers a readier support. Linked to this is the fact that those who wish to exert an influence on masses cannot achieve their purpose by persuading them on an intellectual level, but must instead, essentially, call upon the masses’ feelings. Feeling represents undoubtedly a lower philogenetical level compared to thought; pleasure and pain, just like a number of instinctive feelings linked to self-preservation and to the survival of the species, have however developed before it became common to work with notions, judgements and inferences: this is why masses will more easily identify with, and will be more easily identified through, primitive feelings rather than by means of more abstract intellectual functions. Finding oneself before the single individual, one may presume the existence, in his/her psychic energies, of sufficient diversity to justify the attempt to act upon his/her feelings in order to effect his/her intellectual conviction. Both psychic energies need to have reached a certain degree of autonomy to be able to cause mutual effects that are determined by objective contents. When diversity is not as advanced as this, influence may be applied only in a direction that respects natural and psychological development. Since the mass in itself is not differentiated, the path that leads to its conviction will, generally speaking, pass through its feelings; unlike what happens with the single individual, moulding convictions will imply acting on feelings. … A higher spiritual development cuts off the associative connections linking together the elements of psychic life so mechanically that the stimulation of a given point is often firmly linked to a vivid emotion, the intensity and area of which often bear no objective relation to the starting point. The growing diversity renders autonomous the single elements of conscience, so that each of them can increasingly establish bonds which are justified simply on a logical plane; these bonds free themselves from the affinity born of vagueness and darkness, of the lack of distinct boundaries and of rough representations. As long as these representations prevail, the prevalence of feelings over intellectual functions must be acknowledged. Whether there is some truth - or none at all - in the theory that feelings are but obscure thoughts, confusion and the mutual, indistinct intersection of representation contents generate a relatively vivid excitement of the sense of feeling. The lower the intellectual level, and therefore, the less defined are the boundaries between the representation contents that somehow connect each of them to each other, the more excitable are feelings, and the lower the probability that the clearly delineated and logically articulated expressions are not generated by the overall spiritual excitement that follows the extension of a certain drive and which is both cause and effect of feeling fluctuation. When a widely accepted idea or impulse lose their conceptual focus - also because one individual’s view is influenced by that of his/her equals - a logic foundation is created on which basis it is possible to direct and determine the mass by appealing to its feelings. When conceptual indistinctiveness leaves a wide margin to emotional life, the interaction of feeling exerts a larger influence on diverse and higher functions: those decisions that usually emerge from a clearly articulated teleological conscience process are then the result of those extremely obscure reflections and impulses that follow emotional excitement. This corresponds also, essentially, to the lack of resistance deriving from this psychic construction and which helps us explain why individuals are drawn in the way indicated above: the more primitive and non-differentiated is the state of conscience, the less is the emergence of an impulse likely to find the necessary counterweights."

The author continues: "The social level’s extensions towards equality and the collective property will therefore resort to a compromise even when the advancing differentiation creates or finds public spirit forms that ensure the possibility of a correctly ethical coexistence of the many aspirations and lifestyles. Conversely, the expansion of the collective property, however brought about, cannot lead to an expansion of personal affinities. This occurs most apparently when one nation tries to effect an annexation, even domestically, of conquered provinces, by forcefully implementing its language, its law, its religion: throughout the following generations the distinct differences between the old and the new provinces will have been levelled out, and the equality of the objective spirit will have led to a greater equality of the subjective spirits."

In the final pages of Chapter Four Simmel emphasises the factual impossibility of humanity’s full socialisation: in a logical-theoretical perspective this would mean absolute equality in the socialist sense of the word; this, however, is non practically feasible, because life flows much more quickly and unpredictably than any logical, theoretical form. In other words the human being has a soul supplement which allows him/her to live and grasp life in terms of difference. Our interest with regard to Chapter Five, which was amply retracted in the following years, lies in emphasising the concept according to which: "the number of social circles the individual is part of is one of the indicators of civilisation".

There is a directly proportional relationship between the two terms. The fragmentary human being who simultaneously belongs to more circles, even the most diverse ones, perceives life as a spatial cohesion of events - which may or may not be heterogeneous - even before perceiving it as a temporal sequence indicating a logic of development. The coincidence of fragmentary and even contradictory realities makes life "adventurous", in the above mentioned sense, liberating the individual from powerful collective imaginations and making him/her free to interact with each of the circles he/she belongs to in turn. The universality of pure relationships cannot therefore be embraced by any general theoretical framework, however abstract this is. Yet it can be investigated in the manifold and specific forms of social interactions.

What emerges from the Sixth and final Chapter is Simmel’s brilliant intuition. This chapter focuses in particular on "diversity and the principle of energy-saving".

In Simmel’s view, social action, as was often noted, is generated by the individual in an original way, and it is therefore from psychic energy that the author begins his considerations. The initial difficulty in reading this chapter concerns precisely the notion of energy. This notion cannot be dealt with at a high level of theoretical abstraction without the risk of straying from it into metaphysics, something which does not pertain to Simmel’s thought. The notion of energy cannot, however, be interpreted purely in psycho-biological terms: these perspectives may be found within disciplines that in the last century (and it is little more than a century since this work was written) have witnessed the collapse of a great many certainties and that have simultaneously brought about many important discoveries and innovations.

What is particularly apparent and seems still relevant today is the need to optimise the strategic management of resources, particularly of energy resources, through social diversity. This is a need that clashes with three obstacles that the author promptly identifies: friction, the diversion that appears in temporal sequence, and the improper co-ordination of means which clearly arises from spatial cohesion. The few apparent traces of proto-functionalism may be the result of the work’s organisational choices, but the author’s extremely complex figure cannot easily be restricted to a similar constrained interpretation: one should always bear in mind that the German sociologist was used to talk with - so to speak - philosophers and scholars past and present in a rigidly implicit form through his works. Perhaps Simmel only expressed to them a infinitesimal part of himself, leaving out those complex mental processes that allowed him to place himself dialogically in relation to his own store of knowledge.

This is also why the intuitive nature of Simmel’s work does not leave room for authentically concise re-elaborations that can be linked to a clearly identified sociological tradition, even though the current sociology manuals label the author of The Philosophy of Money the father of sociologic formalism.




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