The Significance of Simmel's Work
ex: Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological
Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context. Second edition. New York
: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
The Dialectical Method in Simmel's Sociology
The Significance of Numbers for Social Life
Simmel's Ambivalent View of Modern Culture
A Note on the Philosophy of Money
Simmel's approach to sociology can best be understood
as a self-conscious attempt to reject the organicist theories of Comte
and Spencer, as well as the historical description of unique events that
was cherished in his native Germany.
He advanced, instead, the conception that society consists
of a web of patterned interactions, and that it is the task of sociology
to study the forms of these interactions as they occur and reoccur in diverse
historical periods and cultural settings.
When Simmel turned his attention to sociology, the field
was most often characterized by the organicist approach so prominent in
the works of Comte in France, of Spencer in England, and of Schaffle in
Germany. This view stressed the fundamental continuity between nature and
society. Social process, it will be recalled, was conceived as qualitatively
similar to, although more complex than, biological process. Life was seen
as a great chain of being, stretching from the simplest natural phenomenon
to the most highly differentiated social organism.
For this reason, although the methods developed in the
natural sciences had to be adapted to the particular tasks of the social
sciences, such methods were considered essentially similar to those appropriate
to the study of man in society. Sociology was regarded as the master science
through which one could discover the laws governing all social developments.
The organicist view of social life was vigorously opposed
in the tradition of German scholarship as represented in the school of
The German tradition viewed Naturwissenschaft (natural
science) and Geisteswissenschaft (moral or human science) as qualitatively
different. In this tradition, natural laws would have no place in the study
of human culture, which represented the realm of freedom.
The method considered appropriate for the study of human
phenomena was idiographic, that is, concerned with unique events, rather
than nomothetic, the method concerned with establishing general laws. It
was believed that the student of human affairs could only describe and
record the unique events of human history and that any attempts to establish
regularities in the sphere of human culture would collapse because of the
autonomy of the human spirit.
Natur and Kultur were essentially different realms of
Moreover, the proponents of the German traditions argued,
sociology had no real object of study; the term society was but a rough
label, convenient for certain purposes but devoid of substance or reality.
They asserted that there is no society outside or in addition
to the individuals who compose it. Once these individuals and their historically
located actions are investigated, nothing remains by way of subject matter
for a science of society. Human freedom, the uniqueness and irreversibility
of historical events, the fundamental disjunction between Natur and Geist
(nature and spirit), all combined to make attempts at founding a science
of sociology a quixotic--even a scandalous--enterprise.
Far from being queen of the sciences, sociology was not
a science at all.
Simmel rejected both the organicist and the idealist schools.
He did not see society as a thing or an organism in the manner of Comte
or Spencer, nor merely as a convenient label for something that did not
have "real" existence.
In his view, society consists of an intricate web of multiple
relations between individuals who are in constant interaction with one
another: "Society is merely the name for a number of individuals, connected
The larger superindividual structures--the state, the
clan, the family, the city, or the trade union--are only crystallizations
of this interaction, even though they may attain autonomy and permanency
and confront the individual as if they were alien powers.
The major field of study for the student of society is,
therefore, sociation, that is, the particular patterns and forms in which
men associate and interact with one another.
Simmel argued that the grandiose claims of those who wish
to make sociology the master science of everything human are self-defeating.
Nothing can be gained by throwing together all phenomena
heretofore studied by jurisprudence and philology, by political science
and psychology, and labeling them sociology.
Qui trop embrasse, mal etreint.
By trying to embrace all phenomena that are in any way
connected with human life one pursues a will-o'-the-wisp.
There can be no such totalistic social science, just as
there is no "total" science of all matter.
Science must study dimensions or aspects of phenomena
rather than global totalities.
The legitimate subject matter of sociology lies in the
description and analysis of particular forms of human interaction and their
crystallization in group characteristics: "Sociology asks what happens
to men and by what rules they behave, not insofar as they unfold their
understandable individual existences in their totalities, but insofar as
they form groups and are determined by their group existence because of
Although all human behavior is behavior of individuals,
much of it can be explained in terms of the individual's group affiliation,
as well as the constraints imposed upon him by particular forms of interaction.
Although Simmel considered the larger institutionalized
structures a legitimate field of sociological inquiry, he preferred to
restrict most of his work to an investigation of what he called "interactions
among the atoms of society."
He limited his concern, in the main, to those fundamental
patterns of interaction among individuals that underlie the larger social
formations (what is today described as "microsociology").
The method he advocated and practiced was to focus attention
upon the perennial and limited number of forms such interaction might take.
From Coser, 1977:177-179.
Sociology, as conceived by Simmel, did not pretend to
usurp the subject matter of economics, ethics, psychology, or historiography;
rather, it concentrated on the forms of interactions that underlie political,
economic, religious, and sexual behavior.
In Simmel's perspective a host of otherwise distinct human
phenomena might be properly understood by reference to the same formal
To be sure, the student of warfare and the student of
marriage investigate qualitatively different subject matters, yet the sociologist
can discern essentially similar interactive forms in martial conflict and
in marital conflict.
Although there is little similarity between the behavior
displayed at the court of Louis XIV and that displayed in the main offices
of an American corporation, a study of the forms of subordination and superordination
in each will reveal underlying patterns common to both.
On a concrete and descriptive level, there would seem
little connection between the early psychoanalytic movement in Vienna and
the early Communist movement, but attention to typical forms of interaction
among the members of these groups reveals that both are importantly shaped
by the fact that they have the structural features of the sect. Sectarians
are characterized in their conduct by the belief that they share anesoteric
knowledge with their fellow sectarians and are hence removed from the world
of the vulgar.
This leads to intense and exclusive involvements of the
sectarians with one another and concomitant withdrawal from "outside" affairs.
Simmel's insistence on the forms of social interaction
as the domain peculiar to sociological inquiry was his decisive response
to those historians and other representatives of the humanities who denied
that a science of society could ever come to grips with the novelty, the
irreversibility, and the uniqueness of historical phenomena. Simmel agreed
that particular historical events are unique: the murder of Caesar, the
accession of Henry VIII, the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo are all events
located at a particular moment in time and having a nonrecurrent significance.
Yet, if one looks at history through the peculiar lenses
of the sociologist, one need not concern himself with the uniqueness of
these events but, rather, with their underlying uniformities. The sociologist
does not contribute to knowledge about the individual actions of a King
John, or a King Louis, or a King Henry, but he can illuminate the ways
in which all of them were constrained in their actions by the institution
The sociologist is concerned with King John, not
with King John.
On a more abstract level, he may not even be concerned
with the institution of kingship, but rather with the processes of conflict
and cooperation, of subordination and superordination, of centralization
and decentralization, which constitute the building blocks for the larger
In this way, Simmel wanted to develop a geometry
of social life: "Geometric abstraction investigates only the spatial
forms of bodies, although empirically these forms are given merely as the
forms of some material content. Similarly, if society is conceived as interaction
among individuals, the description of the forms of this interaction is
the task of the science of society in its strictest and most essential
Simmel's insistence on abstracting from concrete content
and concentrating on the forms of social life has led to the labeling of
his approach as formal sociology. However, his distinction between the
form and the content of social phenomena is not always as clear as we should
like. He gave variant definitions of these concepts, and his treatment
of particular topics reveals some obvious inconsistencies.
The essence of his thought, nevertheless, is clear.
Formal sociology isolates form from the heterogeneity
of content of human sociation.
It attempts to show that however diverse the interests
and purposes that give rise to specific associations among men, the social
forms of interaction in which these interests and purposes are realized
may be identical. For example, both war and profit-making involve cooperation.
Inversely, identical interests and purposes may crystallize
into different forms. Economic interests may be realized in competition
as well as in planned cooperation, and aggressive drives may be satisfied
in various forms of conflict from gang warfare to legal battles.
In formal analysis, certain features of concrete phenomena,
which are not readily observable unless such a perspective is applied to
them, are extracted from reality.
Once this has been successfully accomplished, it becomes
possible to compare phenomena that may be radically different in concrete
content yet essentially similar in structural arrangement.
For example, leader-follower relations may be seen to
be structurally the same both in deviant juvenile gangs and in conformist
On this point Simmel is often misunderstood: he was not
asserting that forms have a separate and distinct existence, but that they
inhere in content and can have no independent reality.
Simmel's was far from a Platonic view of essences.
He stressed that concrete phenomena could be studied from
a variety of perspectives and that analysis of the limited number of forms
which could be extracted from the bewildering multiplicity of social contents
might contribute insights into social life denied those who limit themselves
to descriptions of the concrete.
The term form was perhaps not a very happy choice since
it is freighted with a great deal of philosophical ballast, some of it
of a rather dubious nature.
It may have frightened away certain modern sociologists
intent on exorcising any metaphysical ghosts that might interfere with
the building of a scientific sociology. Had Simmel used the term social
structure--which, in a sense, is quite close to his use of form--he would
have probably encountered less resistance.
Such modern sociological terms as status, role, norms,
and expectations as elements of social structure are close to the formal
conceptualizations that Simmel employed.
Futhermore, much of the building of modern sociological
theory proceeds precisely with the help of the perspective that Simmel
For example, in a reanalysis of some of the data of The
American Soldier, Merton and Rossi, when explaining the behavior of "green"
troops and their relationships with seasoned troops in different structural
contexts, use this perspective to account more generally for social situations
in which newcomers are involved in interaction with oldtimers.
By abstracting from the concrete content of army life,
they explain certain aspects of the behavior of newcomers--from immigrants
to college freshmen--in terms of their relation to preexisting groups.
It follows that the newcomer- oldtimer relationship, or
the newcomer as a social type, can now be understood as a particular form
that can profitably be studied through abstraction from the various concrete
social situations that are being observed.
It is through such abstraction from concrete social content
that the building of a theory becomes possible.
To Simmel, the forms found in social reality are never
pure: every social phenomenon contains a multiplicity of formal elements.
Cooperation and conflict, subordination and superordination,
intimacy and distance all may be operative in a marital relationship or
in a bureaucratic structure.
In concrete phenomena, moreover, the presence of a multiplicity
of forms leads to their interference with one another, so that none of
them can ever be realized in purity.
There is no "pure" conflict in social life, just as there
is no "pure" cooperation.
"Pure" forms are constructs, that is, typical relationships
never to be completely realized.
Simmel's forms are not generalizations about aspects of
reality, but they tend to heighten or to exaggerate "so as to bring out
configurations and relations which underlie reality but are not factually
actualized in it."
The art historian may speak of "gothic" or "baroque" style,
even though no known work of architecture exhibits all the elements of
either style in all their purity; so too the sociologist may construct
a "pure" form of social conflict even though no empirically known process
fully embodies it.
Just as Weber's ideal-type may be used as a measuring
rod to help calculate the distance between a concrete phenomenon and the type,
a Simmelian form--say, the typical combination of nearness and distance
that marks the relation of "the stranger" form the surrounding world--may
help gauge the degree of "strangerness" inherent in the specific historical
circumstances of, for example, the ghetto Jews or other pariah peoples.
From Coser, 1977:179-182.
Simmel constructed a gallery of social types to complement
his inventory of social forms. Along with "the stranger," he describes
in great phenomenological detail such diverse types as "the mediator,"
"the poor," "the adventurer," "the man in the middle," and "the renegade."
Simmel conceives of each particular social type as being cast by the specifiable
reactions and expectations of others.
The type becomes what he is through his relations with
others who assign him a particular position and expect him to behave in
specific ways. His characteristics are seen as attributes of the social
For example, "the stranger," in Simmel's terminology,
is not just a wanderer "who comes today and goes tomorrow," having no specific
On the contrary, he is a "person who comes today and stays
tomorrow . . . He is fixed within a particular spatial group . . . but
his position . . . is determined . . . by the fact that he does no belong
to it from the beginning," and that he may leave again.
The stranger is "an element of the group itself" while
not being fully part of it.
He therefore is assigned a role that no other members
of the group can play.
By virtue of his partial involvement in group affairs
he can attain an objectivity that other members cannot reach.
"He is not radically committed to the unique ingredients
and peculiar tendencies of the group, and therefore approaches them with
the specific attitude of 'objectivity.' "
Moreover, being distant and near at the same time, the
stranger will often be called on as a confidant. Confidences that must
be withheld from more closely related persons can be given to him just
because with him they are not likely to have consequences.
In similar ways, the stranger may be a better judge between
conflicting parties than full members of the group since he is not tied
to either of the contenders.
Not being "bound by commitments which could prejudice
his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given," he is the
ideal intermediary in the traffic of goods as well as in the traffic of
Similarly, the poor as a social type emerge only when
society recognizes poverty as a special status and assigns specific persons
requiring assistance to that category.
In Simmel's view, the fact that someone is poor does not
mean that he belongs to the specific social category of the 'poor' . .
. . It is only from the moment that [the poor] are assisted
. . . that they become part of a group characterized by poverty.
This group does not remain united by interaction among
its members, but by the collective attitude which society as a whole adopts
toward it. . . . Poverty cannot be defined in itself as a quantitative
state, but only in terms of the social reaction resulting from a specific
situation. . . .
Poverty is a unique sociological phenomenon: a number
of individuals who, out of a purely individual fate, occupy a specific
organic position within the whole; but this position is not determined
by this fate and condition, but rather by the fact that others ... attempt to correct this condition.
Once the poor accept assistance, they are removed from
the preconditions of their previous status, they are declassified, and
their private trouble now becomes a public issue.
The poor come to be viewed not by what they do--the criteria
ordinarily used in social categorization--but by virtue of what is done
to them. Society creates the social type of the poor and assigns them a
peculiar status that is marked only by negative attributes, by what the
status-holders do not have.
The stranger and the poor, as well as Simmel's other types,
are assigned their position by virtue of specific interactive relations.
They are societal creations and must act out their assigned
They resemble the character in one of Randall Jarrell's
academic novels who "had never been what intellectuals consider an intellectual
but other people had thought him one, and he had had to suffer the consequences
of their mistake."
From Coser, 1977:182-183.
The Dialectical Method in Simmel's Sociology
Simmel's sociology is always informed by a dialectical
approach, bringing out the dynamic interconnectedness and the conflicts
between the social units he analyzes.
Throughout his work he stresses both the connections and
the tensions between the individual and society. He sees individuals as
products of society, as links in the social process; yet "the total content
of life, even though it may be fully accounted for in terms of social antecedents
and interactions, must yet be looked at at the same time under the aspect
of singularity, as oriented toward the experience of the individual."
According to Simmel, the socialized individual always
remains in a dual relation with society: he is incorporated within it and
yet stands against it.
The individual is, at the same time, within society and
outside it; he exists for society as well as for himself: "[Social man]
is not partially social and partially individual; rather, his existence
is shaped by a fundamental unity, which cannot be accounted for in any
other way than through the synthesis or coincidence of two logically contradictory
determinations: man in both social link and being for himself, both product
of society and life from an autonomous center."
The individual is determined at the same time as he is
determining; he is acted upon at the same time as he is self-actuating.
The insistence on the pervasive dialectic of the relation
between individual and society informs all of Simmel's sociological thought.
Incorporation into the network of social relations is the inevitable fate
of human life, but it is also an obstacle to self-actualization; society
allows, and also impedes, the emergence of individuality and autonomy.
The forms of social life impress themselves upon each
individual and allow him to become specifically human.
At the same time, they imprison and stultify the human
personality by repressing the free play of spontaneity. Only in and through
institutional forms can man attain freedom, yet his freedom is forever
endangered by these very institutional forms.
To Simmel, sociation always involves harmony and conflict,
attraction and repulsion, love and hatred. He saw human relations as characterized
by ambivalence; precisely those who are connected in intimate relations
are likely to harbor for one another not only positive but also negative
sentiments. Erotic relations, for example, "strike us a woven together
of love and respect, or disrespect . . . of love and an urge to dominate
or the need for dependence . . . .
What the observer or the participant himself thus divides
into two intermingling trends may in reality be only one."
An entirely harmonious group, Simmel argued, could not
exist empirically. It would not partake of any kind of life process; it
would be incapable of change and development.
Moreover, Simmel stressed, it is naive to view as negative
those forces that result in conflict and as positive those that make for
Without, for example, "safety valves" allowing participants
"to blow off steam," many social relations could not endure.
Sociation is always the result of both categories of interaction;
both are positive ingredients, structuring all relationships and giving
them enduring form.
Simmel differentiated sharply between social appearances
and social realities.
Although a given conflictive relationship might have been
considered wholly negative by participants or by outside observers, it
nevertheless showed, upon analysis, to have latent positive aspects.
Only a withdrawal from a relationship could be considered
wholly negative; a conflictive relationship, though possibly painful for
one or more participants, ties them to the social fabric through mutual
involvement even in the face of dissensus.
It is essential to recognize, Simmel argued, that social
conflict necessarily involves reciprocal action and therefore is based
on reciprocity rather than unilateral imposition.
Conflict can serve as an outlet for negative attitudes
and feelings, making further relationships possible; it can also lead to
a strengthening of the positions of one or more parties to the relationship,
thereby increasing the individual's dignity and self-esteem.
Because conflict can strengthen existing bonds or establish
new ones, it can be considered a creative, rather than a destructive force.
Simmel never dreamed of a frictionless social universe,
of a society from which clashes and contentions among individuals and groups
would be forever banned.
For him, conflict is the very essence of social life,
an ineradicable component of social living.
The good society is not conflict-free; it is, on the contrary,
"sewn together" by a variety of crisscrossing conflicts among its component
Peace and feud, conflict and order are correlative.
Both the cementing and the breaking of custom constitute
part of the eternal dialectic of social life. It would therefore be a mistake
to distinguish a sociology of order from one of disorder, a model of harmony
from one of conflict.
These are not distinct realities but only differing formal
aspects of one reality.
Throughout his work Simmel considered the individual's
social actions not in themselves but in relation to actions of other individuals
and to particular structures of processes.
In his famous chapter on "Superordination and Subordination,"
he shows that domination does not lie in the unilateral imposition of the
superordinate's will upon the subordinate but that it involves reciprocal
What appears to be the exercise of absolute power by some
and the acquiescence by others is deceptive.
Power "conceals an interaction, an exchange . . . . which
transforms the pure one-sidedness of superordination and subordination
into a sociological form."
Thus, the superordinate's action cannot be understood
without reference to the subordinate, and vice versa.
The action of one can only be analyzed by reference to
the action of others, since the two are part of a system of interaction
that constrains both.
Attempts at analyzing social action without such reference
would have been rejected by Simmel as examples of what he called the fallacy
Moreover, he does not rest his case after demonstrating
that, contrary to first appearance, domination is a form of interaction.
He proceeds to show in considerable detail the particular
ways in which various types of groups structure are associated with different
forms of subordination and superordination--distinguishing, for example,
between levelling and gradation.
If a number of individuals are equally subject to one
individual, he argued, they are themselves equal.
Such levelling, or "negative democratization" to use Karl
Mannheim's term, favors and is favored by despotic rulers.
Despots try to level their subjects and, conversely, highly
developed levelling easily leads to despotism.
On the other hand, strong intermediated gradations among
a ruler's subjects tend to cushion his impact and weaken his hold over
Although intermediate powers may increase inequalities
in the subject population, they shield the individual from the direct powers
of the ruler.
A pyramidal form of social gradation, whether it develops
under the plan of the ruler or results from the usurpation of some of his
power by subordinates, gives every one of its elements a position both
lower and higher than the next rungs in the hierarchy.
In this way, each level--except the very highest and the
very lowest--is subordinate to the authorities above and, at the same time,
is superordinate to the rungs beneath.
Dependence on some persons is compensated by authority
From Coser, 1977:183-188.
The Significance of Numbers for Social Life
Simmel's emphasis on the structural determinants of social
action is perhaps best exemplified in his seminal essay, "Quantitative
Aspects of the Group."
Here he comes nearest to realizing his goal of writing
a grammar of social life by considering one of the most abstract characteristics
of a group: the mere number of its participants.
He examines forms of group process and structural arrangement
insofar as these derive from sheer quantitative relationships.
A dyadic relationship differs qualitatively from all other
types of groups in that each of the two participants is confronted by only
one another and not by a collectivity.
Because this type of group depends only on two participants,
the withdrawal of one would destroy the whole: "A dyad depends on each
of its two elements alone--in its death though not in its life: for its
life it needs both, but for its death, only one."
Hence the dyad does not attain that superpersonal life
which, in all other groups, creates among its members a sense of constraint.
Yet the very lack of superpersonal structure also entails
intense absorption of the participants in their dyadic relationship.
The dependence of the whole on each partner is obvious;
in all other groups duties and responsibilities can be delegated, but not
in the dyad, where each participant is immediately and directly responsible
for any collective action.
Because each partner in the dyad deals with only one other
individual, who forms a unit with him, neither of the two can deny responsibility
by shifting it to the group; neither can hold the group responsible for
what he has done or failed to do.
When a dyad is formed into a triad, the apparently insignificant
fact that one member has been added actually brings about a major qualitative
change. In the triad, as in all associations involving more than two persons,
the individual participant is confronted with the possibility of being
outvoted by a majority.
The triad is the simplest structure in which the group
as a whole can achieve domination over its component members; it provides
a social framework that allows the constraining of individual participants
for collective purposes.
The dyad relies on immediate reciprocity, but the triad
can impose its will upon one member through the formation of a coalition
between the two others.
Thus, the triad exhibits in its simplest form the sociological
drama that informs all social life: the dialectic of freedom and constraint,
of autonomy and heteronomy.
When a third member enters a dyadic group, various processes
become possible where previously they could not take place.
Simmel singled out three such processes, although others
have since been identified.
A third member may play the role of mediator vis-a-vis
the other two, helping, through his own impartiality, to moderate passions
that threaten to tear the group apart.
He may, alternately, act as a tertius gaudens (the third
who rejoices), seeking to turn to his own advantage a disagreement between
the other two.
Finally, through a strategy of divide et impera (divide
and rule), he may intentionally created conflicts between the other two
in order to attain a dominant position or other gains.
This brief outline of three types of strategy open to
the third participant can hardly exhaust the richness of Simmel's thought
in this analysis.
He offers a great variety of examples, deliberately comparing
intimate human involvements, such as the competition of two men for one
woman, with such large-scale events as the European balance of power and
the formation of coalitions among political parties.
He compares the strategy of a mother-in-law who confronts
a newly married couple with the ways in which Rome, after subjugating Greece,
dealt with Athens and Sparta.
It is a virtuoso performance, one of the more persuasive
demonstrations of the power of sociological analysis.
Simmel reveals the sterility of total psychological reductionism
by demonstrating how the apparently peripheral fact that a third member
has been added to a group of two opens up possibilities for actions and
processes that could not otherwise have come into existence.
He uncovers the new properties that emerge from the forms
of association among individuals, properties that cannot be derived from
characteristics of the individuals involved.
The triad provides new avenues of social action while
at the same time it restricts other opportunities, such as the expression
of individuality, which were available in the dyadic group.
Simmel does not restrict his analysis of numbers to the
dyad and triad. Although it is not possible to demonstrate that each addition
of new members would produce a distinct sociological entity, he shows that
there is a crucial difference
between small groups and larger ones.
In small groups, members typically have a chance to interact
directly with one another; once the group exceeds a relatively limited
size, such interaction must be mediated through formal arrangements. In
order to come to grips with the increasing complexity of relationships
among large numbers of individuals, the group must create special organs
to help the patterning of interactions among its members.
Thus, no large group can function without the creation
of offices, the differentiation of status positions, and the delegation
of tasks and responsibilities.
This is the reason larger groups become societies of unequals:
in order to maintain themselves, they must be structurally differentiated.
But this means that the larger group "gains its unity,
which finds expression in the group organs and political notions and ideals,
only at the price of a great distance between all of these structures and
The smaller the group, the greater the involvement of
its members, for interaction among a few tends to be more intense than
interaction among many, if only because of the greater frequency of contact.
Inversely, the larger the group, the weaker the participation
of its members; chances are high that they will be involved with only a
segment of their personalities instead of as whole human beings.
The larger group demands less of its members, and also
creates "objective" structures that confront individuals with superpersonal
powers: "For it is this large number which paralyzes the individual element
and which causes the general element to emerge at such a distance from
it that it seems that it could exits by itself, without any individuals,
to whom in fact it often enough is antagonistic."
Although through its formal arrangement the larger group
confronts the individual with a distant and alien power, it liberates him
from close control and scrutiny precisely because it creates greater distance
among its members.
In the dyad, the immediacy of the we is not yet marred
by the intrusion of structural constraints, and, it will be remembered,
in the triad two members may constrain the third and force their will upon
him. In the small group, however, the coalitions and majorities that act
to constrain individual action are mitigated by the immediacy of participation.
In the large group, the differentiated organs constrain the individual
through their "objective" powers, even though they allow freedom from the
group through segmental rather than total involvement.
Simmel's discussion of the differences between small and
large groups--between the intensity of involvement among individuals in
the primary group and the distance, aloofness, and segmentation of individuals
in larger groups--reveals his general dialectical approach to the relation
between individual freedom and group structure.
His minute sociological analysis is part of his general
philosophical view of the drift of modern history.
Like Durkheim, Simmel theorizes about types and properties
of group relations and social solidarities as part of a more general endeavor
to assess and evaluate the major trends of historical development and to
elaborate a diagnosis of his time.
From Coser, 1977:186-189.
Simmel's Ambivalent View of Modern Culture
Perhaps nothing so clearly reveals Simmel's profound ambivalence
toward contemporary culture and society as his view of the drift of modern
This view is a compound of the apparently contradictory
assessments of liberal progressivism and cultural pessimism, as revealed
in the writings of Herbert Spencer and as reflected in German idealism
since the days of Schiller or Nietzsche.
The trend of modern history appears to Simmel as a progressive
liberation of the individual from the bonds of exclusive attachment and
personal dependencies in spite of the increasing domination of man by cultural
products of his own creation.
In premodern societies, Simmel argued, man typically lived
in a very limited number of relatively small social circles.
Such circles, whether kinship groups or guilds, towns
or villages, tightly surrounded the individual and held him firmly in their
The total personality of the individual was immersed in
this group life.
Thus, medieval organizational forms "occupied the whole
man; they did not only serve an objectively determined purpose, but were
rather a form of unification englobing the total person of those who had
gathered together in the pursuit of that purpose."
Associations in premodern societies were not functionally
specific or limited to clearly articulated purposes; they bound the individual
through undifferentiated dependencies and loyalties.
Moreover, subordination in premodern society typically
involved domination over the entire personality of the subordinate.
The lord of the manor was not only the political overlord
of the serf; he dominated the total person of the serf--economically, juridically,
Dependence, therefore, was all encompassing.
In such premodern societies, the individuals were organized,
as it were, in a number of linked concentric circles.
A man could be a member of a guild, which in turn was
part of a wider confederation of guilds.
A burgher may have been a citizen of a particular town
and this town may have belonged to a federation of towns, such as the Hanse.
An individual could not directly join a larger social
circle but could become involved in it by virtue of membership in a smaller
A primitive tribe does not consist of individual members
but of clans, lineages, or other groupings in which individuals participate
The principle of organization in the modern world is fundamentally
different: an individual is a member of many well-defined circles, no one
of which involves and controls his total personality.
"The number of different circles in which individuals
move, is one of the indices of cultural development."
Modern man's family involvements are separated from his
occupational and religious activities.
This means that each individual occupies a distinct position
in the intersection of many circles.
The greater the number of possible combinations of membership,
the more each individual tends toward a unique location in the social sphere.
Although he may share membership with other individuals
in one or several circles,he is less likely to be located at exactly the
same intersection as anyone else.
Human personality is transformed when membership in a
single circle or in a few of them is replaced by a social position at the
intersection of a great number of such circles.
The personality is now highly segmented through such multiple
In premodern societies, for example, locality or kinship
determined religious affiliation; one could not coexist with men who did
not share his religious beliefs, for the religious community coincided
with the territorial or kinship community.
In the modern world, in contrast, these allegiances are
A man need not share the religious beliefs of his neighbors,
although he may be tied to them by other bonds.
It does not follow, however, that religion loses its force;
it only becomes more specific. Religious concerns are differentiated from
other concerns and hence become more individualized; they do not necessarily
overlap with a person's kinship or neighborhood ties.
Multifaceted involvement in a variety of circles contributes
to increased self-consciousness.
As the individual escapes the domination of the small
circle that imprisons his personality within its confines, he becomes conscious
of a sense of liberation.
The segmentation of group involvement brings about a sense
of uniqueness and of freedom.
The intersection of social circles is the precondition
for the emergence of individualism.
Not only do men become more unlike one another; they are
also afforded the opportunity to move without effort in different social
The forms of subordination and superordination also assume
a novel character in the modern world.
No longer can the individual be totally dominated by others;
whatever domination continues to exist is functionally specific and limited
to a particular time and place.
As compared with the lord of the manor, the modern employer
cannot dominate the entire personalities of the workers in his factory;
his power over them is limited to a specifically economic context and a
specified number of hours.
Once the workers leave the factory gates, they are "free"
to take part in other types of social relations in other social circles.
Although they may be subordinate in some of these relations,
they may well be superordinate in others, thus compensating for their inferiority
in one area by superiority in another.
It should be clear that Simmel, in his original manner,
is retracing the liberal view of historical patterns that could be found
in such otherwise diverse thinkers as Spencer and Durkheim.
Differentiation, in this view, involves a shift from homogeneity
to heterogeneity, from uniformity to individualization, from absorption
in the predictable routines of a small world of tradition to participation in a wider world
of multifaceted involvements and open possibilities.
The drift of western history leads form status to contract,
form mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, from societies in which
custom is so rigid that it militates against individuality to those in
which the multiplicity of involvements and contracts allows the emergence
of uniqueness and individual autonomy.
This is only one of the two perspectives Simmel used to
consider the past and present cultural situation.
His other view owes more to Marx and to German cultural
pessimism than to the optimism of British and French progressive thought.
From this perspective, Simmel writes of the ineradicable
dualism inherent in the relation between individuals and objective cultural
An individual can attain cultivation only by appropriating
the cultural values that surround him.
But these values threaten to engulf and to subjugate the
More specifically, the division of labor, while it is
the origin of a differentiated cultural life, in its way also subjugates
and enslaves the individual.
More specifically, the division of labor, while it is
the origin of a differentiated cultural life, in its way also subjugates
and enslaves the individual.
The human mind creates a variety of products that have
an existence independent of their creator as well as of those who receive
or reject them.
The individual is perpetually confronted with a world
of cultural objects, from religion to morality, from customs to science,
which, although internalized, remain alien powers.
They attain a fixed and coagulated form and tend to appear
as "otherness" to the individual.
Hence, there is a perennial contradiction "between subjective
life, which is restless but limited and time-bound, and its contents which,
once created, are . . . timelessly valid."
The individual needs and science and religion and law
in order to attain autonomy and to realize his own purposes.
He needs to internalize these cultural values, making
them part of himself. Individual excellence can be attained only through
absorption of external values.
And yet the fetishistic character that Marx attributed
to the economic realm in the epoch of commodity production constitutes
only a special case of the general fate of cultural contents.
These contents are, particularly in more developed cultural
epochs, involved in a peculiar paradox: they have been created by people
and they were intended for people, but they attain an objective form and
follow an immanent logic of development, becoming alienated from their
origin as well as from their purpose.
In passages that may express more pathos than analytical
understanding, Simmel sees modern man as surrounded by a world of objects
that constrain and dominate his needs and desires.
Technology creates "unnecessary" knowledge, that is, knowledge
that is of no particular value but is simply the by-product of the autonomous
expansion of scientific activities.
As a result of these trends, modern man finds himself
in a deeply problematical situation: he is surrounded by a multiplicity
of cultural elements, which, although they are not meaningless to him,
are not fundamentally meaningful either.
They oppress the individual because he cannot fully assimilate
them. But he cannot reject them because they belong at least potentially
to the sphere of his own cultural development.
"The cultural objects become more and more linked to each
other in a self-contained world which has increasingly fewer contacts with
the subjective psyche and its desires and sensibilities." Simmel, like
Marx, exemplifies this process by reference to the division of labor.
Once this division is highly developed, "the perfection
of the product is attained at the cost of the development of the producer.
The increase in physical and psychical energies and skills
which accompanies one-sided activities hardly benefits the total personality;
in fact it often leads to atrophy because it sucks away those forces that
are necessary for the harmonious development of the full personality."
The division of labor severs the creator from the creation
so that the latter attains an autonomy of its own.
This process of reification of the cultural products,
accentuated, though not originated, by the division of labor, causes increasing
alienation between the person and his products.
Unlike the artist, the producer can no longer find himself
within his product; he loses himself in it.
The cultural universe is made by men, yet each individual
perceives it as a world he never made.
Thus, progress in the development of objective cultural
products leads to an increasing impoverishment of the creating individuals.
The producers and consumers of objective culture tend
to atrophy in their individual capacities even though they depend on it
for their own cultivation.
Although committed in one facet of his Weltanschauung
to the progressive liberal vision of those French and English thinkers
who influenced him deeply, Simmel is equally bound to a tragic vision of
He combines in an original, though not fully resolved,
way the uncomplicated evolutionary faith in the perfectibility of man of
a Condorcet with the metaphysical pathos of a Schiller or a Nietzsche.
Unable to relinquish the vision of a progressive liberation
of the individual from the bonds of tradition and subjugation, Simmel yet
foretells, with a sense of impending doom, "a cage of the future" (to use
Max Weber's term), in which individuals will be frozen into social functions
and in which the price of the objective perfection of the world will be
the atrophy of the human soul.
From Coser, 1977:189-193.
A Note on the Philosophy of Money
Simmel's The Philosophy of Money is a much neglected classic.
While most of his sociological work has now been translated
into English, we still lack a translation of this seminal work.
One possible reason for its neglect is the title, which
could have led many to infer that this is one of Simmel's metaphysical
An early interpreter of Simmel in this country, Nicholas
Spykman, took just that view.
Although this large book does contain certain important
philosophical ideas, it is mainly a contribution to cultural sociology
and to the analysis of the wider social implications of economic affairs.
Economic exchange, Simmel argues, can best be understood
as a form of social interaction.
When monetary transactions replace earlier forms of barter,
significant changes occur in the forms of interaction between social actors.
Money is subject to precise division and manipulation
and permits exact measurement of equivalents.
It is impersonal in a manner in which objects of barter,
like crafted gongs and collected shells, can never be.
It thus helps promote rational calculation in human affairs
and furthers the rationalization that is characteristic of modern society.
When money becomes the prevalent link between people, it replaces personal
ties anchored in diffuse feelings by impersonal relations that are limited
to a specific purpose.
Consequently, abstract calculation invades areas of social
life, such as kinship relations or the realm of esthetic appreciation,
which were previously the domain of qualitative rather than quantitative
Just because money makes it possible to limit a transaction
to the purpose at hand, it helps increase personal freedom and fosters
social differentiation; money displaces "natural" groupings by voluntary
associations, which are set up for specific rational purposes.
Wherever the cash nexus penetrates, it dissolves bonds
based on the ties of blood or kinship or loyalty.
Money in the modern world is more than a standard of value
and a means of exchange.
Over and above its economic functions, it symbolizes and
embodies the modern spirit of rationality, of calculability, of impersonality.
Money levels qualitative differences between things as
well as between people; it is the major mechanism that paves the way from
Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft.
Under its aegis, the modern spirit of calculation and
abstraction has prevailed over an older world view that accorded primacy
to feelings and imagination.
The Philosophy of Money elaborates on various themes Simmel
discussed in other works, some of which have already been taken up in the
However, because this work gives a fuller treatment of
these themes than do his other writings, it is indispensable for an understanding
of his cultural analyses and his cultural criticism.
From Coser, 1977: 193-194.