Simmel, Georg

views updated Jun 11 2018

Simmel, Georg

Life and career


Intellectual ancestors

Philosophical position

The process of social development

Relationism and the concept of society

The nature of sociology

Formal sociology

Norms and individual behavior

A historical nature of formal sociology



Georg Simmel (1858-1918), German philosopher and sociologist, is still a controversial figure. While some hail him as the founder of modern sociology, others see in him only a brilliant stylist who made no original contribution and failed to develop a systematic theory. It is true that Simmel was no system builder and was often preoccupied with defining approaches–philosophical, historical, or sociological–which he illustrated with his substantive analyses. But these analyses, subtle and full of surprising insights, still delight and stimulate readers, while many of the more systematic works of his contemporaries are no longer read.

Life and career

Simmel’s life was externally uneventful. He spent most of it in Berlin, his native city; he traveled little; and he experienced neither true poverty nor wealth, neither unanimous rejection nor great success. His predominant preoccupations were intellectual. He was not immediately concerned with the acute social and political problems of his age, and only once did a political event, the outbreak of World War I, move him to deep and emotional concern. His intellectuality was passionate, and he had a strong disdain for everything crude and vulgar, reflecting a kind of spiritual aristocratism.

Simmers father was a Jewish businessman who had become a Roman Catholic; his mother was of Jewish origin but a Lutheran. Simmel, baptized as a Lutheran, later renounced his church membership but retained a philosophical interest in religion. While he was still in school, his father died. His guardian later left him a small fortune, which enabled Simmel to live as a scholar even when he was without a salaried academic position. He studied history, folk psychology, the history of art, and philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he received his doctorate in 1881. His dissertation on the philosophy of Kant gained a prize; the thesis he wrote for his subsequent habilitation also dealt with Kant. He started to lecture as a Privatdozent in 1885 and almost immediately attracted large and enthusiastic audiences. At first he lectured on philosophy and ethics, but soon he began to emphasize certain sociological aspects of his topics and later devoted whole courses to this new subject, which at that time was not being taught by anyone else at his university. However, sociology accounted for only about half of his course offerings.

In 1890 Simmel married. His wife, Gertrud, with whom he had one son, was also intellectually inclined and a writer on philosophy. Their home became a meeting place for members of Berlin’s intellectual elite. But in his academic career Simmel was long frustrated, apparently because of his Jewish origin, his nonprofessorial brilliance, and his intellectual attitude, which some felt to be destructive. It was 15 years before he even became titular professor, and all attempts to achieve a full professorship failed until, at the age of 56, he was finally called to a chair at the University of Strassburg in 1914. He died there of cancer in the fall of 1918.


Simmel may be remembered today primarily by sociologists, but for him sociology was only one of many interests, and his productive period in this field lasted barely more than one decade. His earliest and his latest works were philosophical. He had a lifelong interest in art, admired and wrote about Rodin, received the young Rilke in his home, published a book about Goethe, and was a friend of Stefan George. Simmers BIBLIOGRAPHY (Gassen & Landmann 1958) lists 31 books (some very short ones), 256 articles, essays, etc. (many published in nonscholarly journals), and about 100 translations of his works into other languages.

Thus, Simmel was well known during his lifetime. However, he did not found a “school” in any of his fields of work. In philosophy his reputation did not long survive his death; in the 1920s his work was already overshadowed by existential philosophy. In sociology, Tonnies praised him during his lifetime, Durkheim published one of his essays in L’année sociologique, and Max Weber, whom he joined in founding the German Sociological Society in 1910, esteemed him and in his own later work utilized some of Simmer’s concepts and theses. However, both Durkheim and Weber soon surpassed Simmel in influence and renown, and later only Leopold von Wiese followed the path outlined by Simmel, although even von Wiese coupled his explicit indebtedness with criticism.

In the United States, Simmel first became known through early translations, many of them by Albion W. Small, and through the efforts of Park and Burgess (1921) and Spykman (1925). But the impact was not deep. After a period of oblivion, the efforts of Kurt H. Wolff (see The Sociology of Georg Simmel; Simmel 1908a; Wolff 1959) and Rudolph H. Weingartner (1962) have revived some interest in Simmel, but with a few exceptions, such as Coser’s book on conflict (1956) and the work of several authors on the three-person group (the triad), Simmel’s analyses have not been explicitly followed up by modern sociologists.

Simmel himself foresaw this fate when he wrote in his diary that he would leave no spiritual heirs because his heritage would be dispersed and made use of as money is used. And indeed, much of his sociological thought has become common coin without remaining associated with his name.

Intellectual ancestors

Simmel was sensitive to the intellectual currents of his time and reflected most of them in his work without identifying himself exclusively with any one of them. His methodology is fashioned according to Kantian principles, but with modifications. He was influenced by Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, and his philosophy of life–foreshadowing modern existentialism–has noticeable affinities with the work of his friend Husserl and of Bergson. The influence of Dilthey can be found in both Simmel’s sociology and his cultural philosophy, notably in his views on differentiation, interaction (Wechselwirkung), and the individual. Spencer, Comte, and Marx were other influences on Simmel’s sociology, but he rejected contemporary positivism and social Darwinism, and he was definitely not a Marxist. Thus, the work of Simmel escapes easy classification.

Philosophical position

For Simmel, philosophy was not a discipline ranged alongside other disciplines. Philosophy both precedes and follows all special disciplines–as epistemology, on the one hand, and as philosophy of the particular object, on the other. Philosophy, then, is not constituted by and confined to a particular subject matter; it is a distinct mode of treating any given subject matter, characterized by receptiveness to the totality of being and at the same time expressive of a fundamental attitude or world orientation on the part of the philosophizing person. Simmel demonstrated this view by writing on the philosophy of such different objects as money, culture, the sexes, religion, and art.

Epistemologically, Simmel held, in the manner of Kant, that all experience of contents is shaped by a priori categories. This view is the basis for his distinction between form and content, which later also became the methodological principle for his sociology. The distinction is clearly analytical. Form is, first of all, a basic organizing principle of perception or modality of experience, which imparts structure to that which in its immediate unity is structureless. Not simply philosophy itself, but also religion and science, are modalities of experience that may be applied alternatively to the same content.

Simmel extended this view to history. History is not the exact reproduction of all that has happened and is happening, but a coherent representation of the boundless manifold of human life and its products, created by selective perception and ordering. At first Simmel held this to be true not only for historiography but also for the conscious experience of history; later he modified this view somewhat and found a certain intrinsic coherence in history itself as a process of life. But Simmel did not stipulate any specific selective principle as adequate to the historical mode of perception, and it was this relativism that Troeltsch criticized as excessive his-toricism. Simmel never worked as a historian in the usual sense, although he had a widely ramified knowledge of history and often drew on it for illustrations, especially in his sociological works—including as sociological his Philosophie des Geldes (1900a).

Simmel’s philosophies of life and of culture may be considered together as one coherent, substantive theory. Life as a force or principle was for him a process of unbounded continuity, an uninterrupted flowing, a creative movement: life is more-life, as he put it. As a principle, life is the opposite of form and alien to it. But as a concrete process, life can become real only in forms. The individual, the concrete subject of life, is himself a bounded creature, and individual experience gives form to contents, thereby creating the objects of external reality. This process of objectification has two aspects: the perception of objects as external and the production of objects of material and spiritual culture (e.g., law, systems of knowledge, art, religion). Here Simmel talked of life as more-than-life, life becoming real and expressing itself in the creation of objects. These objects he also called “forms,” a duplication of terms that may easily cause confusion.

As a continuous and creative process, life cannot be contained in finished and static forms (or objects). It must leave and destroy them, but only to crystallize again in new forms. This is the basic antinomy of life, which becomes the tragedy of culture when attention is turned to the fate of the individual in this process. The individual produces objects of culture to maintain his life and develop his potentialities. To this end he must not only utilize the sum total of human products (or objective spirit), but he must also interiorize them and reintegrate them into the stream of his life. But this reintegration of subject and object remains unachievable. The elements of objective spirit, as finished forms dissociated from the stream of life, possess their own dynamic. They become autonomous and develop according to their inner logic, no longer means but ends in themselves. Thus, if man first wanted to know in order to live, some men will later live only to accumulate more knowledge. In the end, man is dominated and enslaved by his own products.

The parallel to the dialectic theory of alienation is obvious. But if for Marx alienation can be resolved in a future society, for Simmel the contradiction flowing from the antinomy of life is eternal. Naturally, Marxist critics jumped on this. Thus, in a brilliant critique, Lukacs (1953) accused Simmel of promoting a cynical and complacent adjustment to the status quo by interpreting as eternal a condition of the individual that is characteristic only of imperialism.

Simmel’s conception of the process of culture is not completely ahistorical. As he noted especially in the Philosophic des Geldes (1900a), social differentiation and the attendant specialization of human activities greatly increase the production of cultural objectifications. Thus, at the same time that specialization makes the full development of personality ever more difficult, there is a steadily growing amount of objective culture to be interiorized if subjective (or personal) culture is to flourish. Accordingly, the discrepancy between objective and subjective culture appears largest in contemporary society, where it has given rise to a struggle not only against obsolete forms, but against form as a principle.

The development of individual personality is a concern that links Simmel’s philosophy with his sociology. In the latter, he came to a more positive conclusion. While the full realization of individual personality is impeded by the tragedy of culture, it is also promoted by social differentiation and the expansion of social groups, and potentially even by the growth of a money economy.

The process of social development

Simmel’s theory of social development, although presented in his sociological writings, can be considered apart from his “pure” or “formal” sociology. In viewing this process, Simmel used two distinct points of reference, or approaches. The first, linked to his view of the process of culture, considers social differentiation and group expansion chiefly from the point of view of the effects on individualization.

Social differentiation and the quantitative expansion of groups are seen to be closely interrelated. Small groups are more vulnerable and cannot make full use of the energy-saving principle of division of labor; hence their preservation requires greater involvement and effort on the part of each member. With the expansion of groups and increasing differentiation, a lesser involvement is sufficient–and is all that can be demanded, since the consensus in larger groups tends to become segmental. Also, with group expansion the relations between members become impersonal, guided by an order of abstract rules. Thus only a limited and clearly defined contribution comes to be expected of each member, and this results in greater personal freedom. At the same time individuality has a chance to increase: as groups form on the basis of segmental interest and partial involvement, each person tends to belong to a larger number of different groups, and this has an individualizing effect.

The development of a money economy contributes to individualization both directly and indirectly, by stimulating the growth of large and purposive groups. Money is the basis of impersonal social relations and permits the substitution of financial for personal obligations. Of all types of obligation, a merely financial one is most compatible with a maximum of personal freedom–although this is, of course, freedom only in the negative sense, or potential freedom, which must be used for personal development. As money makes the individual independent of particular persons and groups, it stimulates the formation of associations for limited and specific purposes and hence contributes to the growth and multiplication of groups with the attendant individualizing effect.

Simmel saw a close relationship between the existence of a money economy, rationality, and the growth of natural science. All three are based on the principle of calculation. Rational (i.e., purposive and calculating) action presupposes knowledge of causal relations and hence motivates the search for such knowledge. As a consequence of such pervasive rationalization, emotionalism decreases; this, on the one hand, means a shallower emotional life but, on the other hand, facilitates mutual understanding and conciliation.

Simmel’s second approach in considering the process of group expansion and social development would today be called functionalist. It derives from the influence of Spencerian evolutionism, which marked Simmel’s view on social differentiation as put forth in his first sociological publication (1890). There he stated that the development of organisms is directed by a tendency toward greater efficiency, or as he put it, toward a relative saving of energy. This tendency is, according to Simmel, the characteristic, and positive, consequence of social differentiation, and he took great pains to demonstrate this principle in the growth of various forms of higher social organization–not very convincingly for the modern reader. In fact, Simmel dropped this evolutionary thesis later and did not repeat it in his other sociological works. But he retained the basic principle implied in this thesis –the explanation of certain social forms, processes, and changes by their usefulness.

Simmel’s functionalism pervades all his sociological work, but it is perhaps most prominent in his treatment of the self-preservation of social groups, where he discussed the conditions for the continuous existence of a group in spite of a constant turnover of members–among these conditions are functional differentiation and formation of specialized organs, symbols, and norms, and formalization or impersonality in the definition of duties and obligations. However, here at least Simmel escaped the danger of organismic reification, which threatens any attempt to explain the rise or persistence of something by its usefulness to the group or social system. In his book on social differentiation (1890) he had stated explicitly that the observable tendencies toward group maintenance– such as group defense mechanisms–are not independent forces inherent in the group as such. Rather, they result from the self-interest of the members in preserving the group, because group solidarity is a necessity for individual life, especially in situations of conflict and strife. By virtue of social-psychological mechanisms, which Simmel only sometimes treated explicitly, the solidarity thus created tends to survive its immediate causes, giving existing groups a greater stability.

Relationism and the concept of society

One of Simmel’s basic tenets is that all things are to be considered as interdependent, or as functions of each other. This view, referred to as his functional-ism, relativism, or, most appropriately, relationism, should be clearly distinguished from his specifically sociological functionalism, which, by contrast, went largely unnoticed until recently. Simmel’s relationism derives from his basic philosophical position that reality is essentially movement, continuity, process, and that only the human intellect, fashioned to serve as an instrument for action and not for gaining knowledge for its own sake, tends to perceive reality in terms of structures and substances–solid, fixed phenomena that are amenable to classification, ordering, and calculation. But what is thus commonly regarded as a substance is often essentially a process, a function, an interdependence.

This view is most pronounced in Simmel’s treatment of money and of society. For Simmel money is not in itself a valuable substance and therefore exchangeable for objects of all sorts; it is, on the contrary, essentially the action of exchange in a concrete form, the material expression of the exchange relationship, a social function become a substance [see Interaction, article onsocial interaction].

Simmel similarly rejected the view that society is a substance, an organism, an irreducible real entity. Society is nothing but the sum total of the interactions and interdependencies (the German term Wechselwirkung implies both) between individuals–whose unity in turn is constituted only by the interaction between parts. Understandably, this view of society met with criticism from authors such as Othmar Spann, who resented this dissolution of the social organism and charged Simmel with psychologizing sociology. In fact, Simmel’s explicit reference in his definition of society to Kant’s treatment of nature may be misleading. But society was for him not merely a psychic phenomenon, a phenomenon of perception, because its constituents—interactions and interdependencies—are real enough. Only the conception of society as an entity is a matter of perception.

The nature of sociology

Simmel’s lasting attractiveness as a sociological author may derive from the subtlety of his substantive analyses, but his most important contribution is, nevertheless, usually considered to be his methodology, which gave an independent status to sociology as a special discipline. Simmel rejected sociology as a comprehensive study of all social facts, since as such it would be only a label for numerous special disciplines treating different aspects of the same general object, human life and its products. But if sociology has no concrete object of its own, it nevertheless gains a special object of cognition by isolating analytically the aspect of interaction from the whole of social reality. Interactions are to be analyzed not only where they have crystallized into relatively permanent structures or social institutions, but also on the level of the more transitory interpersonal relations. This emphasis on the subinstitutional, or microsociological, was novel for his time.

Simmel was also impatient with the confusion between sociology and the philosophy of history or social philosophy, and he wanted sociology to keep close to observable phenomena, leaving all metaphysical interpretations that transcend objective knowledge to what he later (1917) called “philosophical sociology.” However, Simmel did not conceive of sociology in a positivistic fashion, as a science of laws. He had early rejected the use of natural science as a model for the disciplines dealing with man and his creations, and he did not side with the positivists in the hotly debated issue of the idiographic as against the nomothetic character of social science. Rather, he attempted to play down any such distinction by pointing out that both viewpoints are alternative modes of perception. But the search for social laws never appeared promising to him. As early as 1890 he wrote that since a given event may have several and alternative causes, so that it can be produced by varying constellations of factors, it is usually impossible to formulate rules about a lawful association of isolated variables. When he himself described some specific regularity in his substantive analyses he repeatedly pointed out that this was not to be taken as a “law,” but only as a descriptive generalization, leaving quite open which causes might produce it under varying conditions. Simmel expressly denied the existence of laws of social development or of history in general and once even suggested that what we now know as natural laws may at some later time be revealed to be superstitions. Lukacs (1953) has charged that this “struggle against law and causality” was the self-defense of imperialistic philosophy against dialectical materialism and that with it Simmel undermined objective scientific knowledge.

Of course, Simmel did not reject the possibility of causal explanation in the realm of human life and its products. But such explanation was for him essentially psychological in nature. Ultimately, the genesis of specific social forms and cultural objec-tifications must be derived psychologically. In his substantive analyses, Simmel again and again offered psychological explanations for the phenomena he described, both in terms of the conscious motives, interests, or goals of the individuals involved, and in terms of unconscious psychic mechanisms determining the reactions of these individuals. But he did not draw on any systematic psychological theory; rather, his often strikingly sensitive and perceptive explanations seem the result of introspection and conjecture.

Formal sociology

In 1890 Simmel defined the subject matter of sociology as consisting of interactions and interrelations, but he did not remain content with this definition. Later, going back to the basic distinction made in his philosophy, he demanded that the forms of interaction be distinguished from their contents and held that only the former constitute sociology’s special object of cognition. Still later (1917), this seems to have appeared too restrictive to him, and he conceived of a “general sociology” in addition to formal sociology; but he failed to make its approach clear.

The contents of interaction are its motive powers –individual drives, purposes, interests, and so forth. The forms of interaction, or social forms, are not structured real entities (analogous to the forms of culture) but abstract, analytical aspects of social reality. They might best be conceived of as basic structural configurations or structuring principles. Simmel found a justification for this distinction in the seeming independence of forms and contents: the same structural principle can be observed in groups or relations characterized by widely divergent contents, while the same content (interest, purpose) may be found expressed in different forms of social organization.

Simmel’s attempt to explain the concept of social form with a misleading analogy between sociology and geometry and his admitted failure to make his methodological principle quite explicit did much to provoke criticism of his “formal sociology.” Such criticism was especially directed against the form-content distinction, on the grounds that in social reality the structural details of any concrete group and its particular syndrome of “contents” are inseparably linked. This is true and, incidentally, is quite obvious from Simmer’s own analyses. But Simmel expressly distinguished the forms of sociation from their embodiment in special social units. Conceived of as very general, abstract structural principles, or basic modes of interrelationship among social elements, the forms of sociation can indeed be isolated analytically. Structural principles that Simmel himself named are the relation of superordination-subordination; the relation of antagonism (conflict); the division of labor, or relation of functional interdependence; the in-group-outgroup relation and the related principle of party formation; the principle of representation; the principles of spatial and temporal structuring; and the quantitative dimension. Other structural principles are implied in Simmel’s writings, such as the dependence-autonomy dimension, which plays such a crucial role in his analysis of group membership and individuality.

The specific task of sociology was for Simmel not the causal explanation of these social forms, but the analysis of their objective meaning. This distinction is analogous to one commonly made in the analysis of forms of culture, such as objects of art and systems of ideas: they possess an objective meaning, which is something distinct from their psychologically explained genesis. The objective meaning (the analogy does not fit completely) of social forms rested for Simmel in their essential characteristics and range of empirical variation, on the one hand, and in their consequences, on the other. His Soziologie (1908b) contains several chapters devoted to the analysis of selected structural principles in these terms. In other chapters he started by focusing on a specific type of group (e.g., secret societies) or class of persons (e.g., the stranger, the poor man, the aristocrat) and proceeded to show how they are characterized and determined by a unique constellation of several of these structural principles.

Where Simmel dealt with the essential characteristics of some social form, his writing has a strongly phenomenological flavor. But the inclusion of the consequences or effects of social forms breaks this confinement and links his formal approach with his theory of social development, since he selected for analysis the consequences of given structural configurations either for individualization or for the preservation and functioning of groups. This procedure is obvious not only in the topical chapters on these subjects, but also where he treated specific structural principles (e.g., conflict), special types of relationship, such as marriage, or special types of groups, such as secret societies. Thus his Soziologie, often criticized for being an unsystematic collection of substantive analyses only vaguely connected with his formal approach, really does possess a surprising—if partly implicit—internal coherence.

Norms and individual behavior

Simmel occasionally used the term “role” and recognized that social relations are defined by mutual obligations. Yet it would be a mistake to interpret his social forms as structures in the Parsonian sense, i.e., basically normative patterns, or to see the influence of social forms on individual behavior as that of role expectations. When Simmel analyzed individual behavior, he saw it primarily as a result of individual motives and of psychologically mediated reactions to the structure of the situation. He would not have denied that norms also play a part in determining individual behavior, but he paid little attention to them on this level of analysis. This may be due to his often paramount psychological interest and to the fact that he did not conceive of norms as external constraints or impositions. The latter view is made explicit in his Lebensanschauung, or philosophy (1918a), where he maintained that Sollen–a substantivation of the German verb meaning “shall” for which there is no exact translation–is a basic mode of life, a “categorical archphenomenon.” Its specific contents, however, are to be derived psychologically and historically.

This last view seems connected with the fact that when Simmel argued sociologically, on the group level instead of on the individual level, he paid more explicit attention to norms. And here, the “historical” determination of the content of norms appears to be essentially of a functionalistic nature. In 1890 he had stated that what is “correct behavior” changes with the expansion of the group, and from several examples he used for illustration it becomes clear that the content of a norm, be it law or custom, depends on its social usefulness. Similar examples can be found in his later sociological works. But the whole principle is never explicitly stated as such, and the criterion of usefulness is not defined precisely; sometimes it seems to be goal achievement, sometimes group preservation, and sometimes it is the facilitation of a process of development.

A historical nature of formal sociology

One of the major criticisms of Simmel’s approach is directed at its ahistorical nature. Of course, Simmel did not deny the historical character of society, which he saw as a continuous process, the present always being shaped by the accumulated past. But it seems that by selecting the forms of interaction for analysis, he defined as the essence of society that which is changeless and ahistorical, thus freezing history into motionless structures by his mode of perception.

That he conceived of the forms of sociation as abstract, general principles is undeniable. He used them to describe historical forms of social organization and certain general aspects of social development, but he did not use them to explain social phenomena as stages in a historical process. His focus on basic structural characteristics even made him occasionally describe as permanent some social form or relation that we would recognize as historically relative. This is true, for instance, of his description of sociability as a pure form of sociation, which might be roughly identified as an upper-bourgeois culture pattern, or of his analysis of the characteristics of man and woman, which is in effect largely a generalization of culturally relative sex roles.

The question is whether these examples merely point to occasional errors in Simmel’s search for truly general ahistorical structuring principles or whether he failed–whether he had to fail–in this effort throughout. For it might be argued that since social reality is always historical in nature, nothing but historical forms can be abstracted from it. If this were true, even Simmel’s most general structural principles, like antagonism, superordination, and so forth, would be specific to a certain phase of history and inapplicable in others. Simmel did not think so, which means that as a matter of principle he thought it possible to abstract ahistorical concepts or analytical dimensions from social reality. While the majority of contemporary sociologists would tend to share his view, it is this methodological position which, in the last analysis, defines Simmel as ahistorical in the eyes of modern dialectic theory.

Renate Mayntz

[For the historical context of Simmel’s work, seeAlienation; Conflict, article onsocial aspects; History, article onthe philosophy of history; interaction, article onsocial interaction; Society; and the biographies ofDilthey; Husserl; Troeltsch. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeCoalitions, article oncoalition formation; Conflict; Cross pressure; Family, article oncomparative structure; Fashion; Groups, article onthe study of groups; Integration, article oncultural integration; Interaction, articles onsocial interaction and social exchange; Mass society; Privacy; Prostitution; Teaching; and the biographies ofLukacs; Small; Wiese.]


(1890) 1910 Uber soziale Differenzierung: Soziologische und psychologische Untersuchungen. 3d ed. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

(1892) 1923 Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie: Eine erkenntnis-theoretische Studie. 5th ed. Munich and Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

1896 Superiority and Subordination as Subject-matter of Sociology. American Journal of Sociology 2:167-189, 392-415. → Translation of an earlier and much shorter draft of “Uber- und Unterordmmg,” Chapter 3 of Simmel 1908b. An abridged version of the English translation appeared as “Superiority and Subordination in Social Relationships” in Borgatta and Meyer 1956.

1897-1898 The Persistence of Social Groups. American Journal of Sociology 3:662-698, 829-836; 4:35-60. → A translation of an earlier and much shorter draft of “Die Selbsterhaltung der sozialen Gruppe,” Chapter 8 of Simmel 1908b. An abridged version of the English translation appeared in Borgatta and Meyer 1956.

(1900a) 1958 Philosophic des Geldes. 6th ed. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

(1900b) 1924 Money and Freedom. Pages 552-553 in Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess (editors), Introduction to the Science of Sociology. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A translation of pages 351-352 of Simmel 1900a.

1902 The Number of Members as Determining the Sociological Form of the Group. American Journal of Sociology 8:1-46, 158-196. → Translation of an earlier and shorter draft of “Die quantitative Bestimmtheit der Gruppe,” Chapter 2 of Simmel 1908i>. An abridged version of the English translation appeared in Borgatta and Meyer 1956.

1904 The Sociology of Conflict. American Journal of Sociology 9:490-525, 672-689, 798-811. → A translation of an earlier and much shorter draft of Chapter 4 of Simmel 19086, entitled “Der Streit.”

1906 The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies. American Journal of Sociology 11:441-498. → Translation of an earlier and shorter draft of “Das Geheim-nis und die geheime Gesellschaft,” Chapter 5 of Simmel 1908b. An abridged version of the English translation appeared as “Knowledge About Others and Social Relationships” in Borgatta and Meyer 1956.

(1908a) 1955 Conflict and The Web of Group Affiliations. Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → These essays appeared originally as “Der Streit” and “Die Kreuzung sozialer Kreise” in Simmel 19086. “Conflict” was translated by Kurt H. Wolff; “The Web of Group Affiliations,” by Reinhard Bendix.

(1908b) 1958 Soziologie: Untersuchungen uber die Far-men der Vergesellschaftung. 4th ed. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

(1908c) 1924 The Sociological Significance of the “Stranger.” Pages 322-327 in Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess (editors), Introduction to the Science of Sociology. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A translation of pages 685-691 of Simmel 1908b.

(1908d) 1924 Sociology of the Senses: Visual Interaction. Pages 356-361 in Robert E. Park and ErnestW. Burgess (editors), Introduction to the Science of Sociology. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A translation of pages 646-651 of Simmel 1908b.

(1910) 1964 Hauptprobleme der Philosophie. 8th ed. Berlin: Gruyter.

(1917) 1920 Grundfragen der Soziologie (Individuum und Gesellschaff). 2d ed. Berlin and Leipzig: Verein-igung Wissenschaftlicher Verleger; Gruyter.

(1918a) 1922 Lebensanschauung: Vier metaphysische Kapitel. 2d ed. Munich and Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

(1918b) 1926 Der Konflikt der modernen Kultur: Ein Vortrag. 3d ed. Munich and Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

Philosophische Kultur: Gesammelte Essais. 3d ed. Potsdam: Kiepenheuer, 1923. → Contains works first published between 1902 and 1911.

The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Edited and translated by Kurt H. Wolff. Glencoe, III.: Free Press, 1950. → Contains translations, primarily of excerpts from Simmel 19086, but also of other items published between 1896 and 1917.


Borgatta, Edgar F.; and Meyer, Henry J. (editors) 1956 Sociological Theory: Present Day Sociology From the Past. New York: Knopf. → See especially pages 126-158, 180-226, 364-398 for extracts from translations of Simmel’s writings that first appeared in the American Journal of Sociology.

Coser, Lewis A. 1956 The Functions of Social Conflict. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Gassen, Kurt; and Landmann, Michael (editors) 1958 Buch des Dankes an Georg Simmel: Briefe, Erinnerungen, Bibliographie. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Lukacs, Gyorgy (1953) 1954 Die Zerstorung der Vernunft. Berlin: Aufbau. → First published in Hungarian.

Park, Robert E.; and Burgess, Ernest W. (editors) (1921) 1924 Introduction to the Science of Sociology. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Includes a number of translations of Simmel’s writings.

Spykman, Nicholas J. (1925) 1964 The Social Theory of Georg Simmel. New York: Russell.

Weingartner, Rudolph H. 1962 Experience and Culture: The Philosophy of Georg Simmel. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press.

Wolff, Kurt H. (editor) 1959 Georg Simmel, 1858-1918: A Collection of Essays, With Translations and a BIBLIOGRAPHY. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

Simmel, Georg

views updated May 14 2018


The German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel was born in Berlin on 1 March 1858 to assimilated Jewish parents. Between 1876 and 1881 Simmel studied history and philosophy in Berlin. His doctoral thesis (1881) and post-doctoral dissertation (1885) both dealt with Immanual Kant. His rhetorical gift proved to be successful with academic and nonacademic audiences alike, and his lectures became social events. In 1890 he married the writer Gertrud Kinel. A year later they had their only son, Hans. In 1894 he published the essay "The Problem of Sociology," which inaugurated a separate social science. Simmel and his wife were at the center of cultural circles in Berlin; their friends included the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George as well as the sculptor Auguste Rodin. In 1903 his essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life" constituted an early study of urban modernity. Latent anti-Semitism, reservations about the academic validity of sociological studies, and envy of Simmel's social popularity hindered his professional progress in Berlin, and in 1914 he accepted a call to the university in Strasbourg, where he died on 26 September 1918.

Simmel's discussion of fashion, significant for its early date within academic discourse, its conceptual rigor, as well as its metaphysical breadth are defined by his simultaneous adherence to philosophical tradition and the formation of a sociological methodology. Accordingly, he viewed fashion both as an abstract concept that generates and influences cultural perception and as a defining factor in social and interpersonal relations. Simmel's beginnings as a neo-Kantian philosopher prepared his view of cognition as a biological process of adaptation by human beings to their environment, a view which is not only situated in a scientific (neo-Darwinian) discourse but also extended to culture—intellectual as well as sensory— within a contemporary (modern and urban) environment. Simmel defined the truth within expressions of reality pragmatically through its appropriateness for living practice. This led him to the emerging discipline of sociology, which developed the ground for direct application of such concepts to sociopolitical existence. His precursors herein were Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Gabriel Tarde, and among his contemporaries were Ferdinand Tönnies, Werner Sombart, Émile Durkheim, and Marcel Mauss.

Early Investigations

The methodological mix of metaphysics, economics, and social theory generated for Simmel an interest in fashion, which he viewed as a theoretical and material field of investigation that offered space for emphatic, almost literary, evocations of clothing but also for a formal description of (dress) codes as visual and structural primers for social groups and settings. He began to investigate the topic in an 1895 essay titled "Zur Psychologie der Mode" (On the psychology of fashion). In this essay, Kantian heritage accounts for a philosophical focus on the subject-object relation. Simmel asks where cognition is founded, in the objects of cognition or in the cognitive subject itself. He applies the question to fashion: Is cognition founded in the clothes we choose to wear, or is it the human mind that chooses the clothes? In this, his first essay about fashion, cognition and self-awareness are regarded as creative achievements of the subject, aided by guidelines extracted from the conglomerate of experience.

In his book The Philosophy of Money, Simmel returned to the progressive division of subject and object in modernity, this time applying socioeconomic criteria. In this work Simmel devotes a telling passage to fashion, describing how "the radical opposition between subject and object has been reconciled in theory by making the object part of the subject's perception," partly through a practice that produces the object by a single subject for a single subject. In modernity, mass production—with its division of labor—renders such reconciliation impossible. The analogy that Simmel draws here is "the difference … between the modern clothing store, geared towards utmost specialisation, and the work of the tailor whom one used to invite into one's home" (Simmel, p. 457). The example is indicative of Simmel's approach. Not only does the object of fashion—more than any other object of consumption that must remain at a distance from the body— allow for an introduction of sensuality and haptic experience within theory, but it also applies abstract concepts directly to corporeality. In discussing the production and consumption of fashion, Simmel leads the reader directly back to his or her own experience as a wearer of clothes and as a modern consumer, thus generating an important link to personal experience that coined contemporary philosophy (Simmel's subsequent term Lebensphilosophie [metaphysics of existence] would follow French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson's élan vital, or nature's creative impulse).

In 1904–1905 two extended essays by Simmel were published—one in English under the simple heading "Fashion" and one in German titled "Philosophie der Mode" (Philosophy of fashion). They share a similar structure, but the former set an empiricist or rationalist tone that would determine Simmel's reception in Anglo-Saxon social sciences as a formal sociologist and precursor to the Chicago school of empiricist, urban sociology.

Akin to set theory, Simmel describes in his sociology the developmental process of social differentiation as a confluence of the homogeneous segments of heterogeneous circles. In modern (especially urban) culture both psychological and social differentiation are geared to minimizing physical friction and channeling the energy of personal collisions into dynamic movement as an economic principle (e.g., competition). Fashion exemplifies this process acutely. The complex mix within modern dressing between invention and imitation, between socially sanctioned conformity for societal survival and necessary independence for personal gratification and the formation of the self (even cognition), is found in all clothing rituals and codification. The abstract and generalized tone with which fashion is debated makes Simmel's analyses still pertinent in the twenty-first century, because he eschewed historicity, romanticism, or concreteness vis-à-vis sartorial styles.

Key Observations about Fashion

Two sets of his observations, in particular, render fashion a generic model both for the recognition of societal procedures and a phenomenology of modernity itself. The first is the import of fashion by strangers from out-side a given set or circle. Here the term "role-playing," which would become so significant for modern sociology, is prefigured. In his essays Simmel analyzes how a style or appearance of dress undergoes a developmental process of rejection to acceptance. "Because of their external origin," he wrote in 1904, "these imported fashions create a special and significant form of socialization, which arises through mutual relation to a point without the circle. It sometimes appears as though social elements, just like the axes of vision, converge best at a point that is not too near.… Paris modes are frequently created with the sole intention of setting a fashion elsewhere" (Simmel; 1904, p. 136). The methodological move from anthropology to economics here is characteristic for the formation of early social theory. Also, the strong interest in temporal structures (partly influenced through Bergson's durée, the natural milieu of a person's "deep self, or the true foundation of one's spiritual identity") and accelerated rhythm of modernity leads Simmel to a contemplation of sartorial transitoriness.

In the last of his four essays on fashion, "Die Mode" (Fashion, 1911), he explains how wider acceptance and distribution of a fashion herald its demise, since a widely accepted dress code no longer poses to the individual a challenge that is associated with the constitutive process of fractious assimilation. Accordingly, a novel form or style of clothing needs to be introduced to generate anew the dualities of innovation and imitation, social separation and inclusion. As soon as fashion manages to determine the totality of a group's appearance—which has to be its ultimate creative and economic aim—fashion will, owing to the logical contradiction inherent in its characteristics, die and become replaced. And the more subjective and individualized a style of clothing is, the quicker it perishes. For Simmel, this transitory character of fashion remains its essence and elevates its material objects to transhistorical significance. "The question of fashion is not 'to be or not to be'," he concluded in 1911, "… but it always stands on the watershed between past and future" (Simmel: 1911, p. 41).

See alsoBenjamin, Walter; Fashion, Theories of .


Böhringer, Hannes, and Karlfried Gründer, eds. Ästhetik und Soziologie um die Jahrhundertwende: Georg Simmel. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Vittorio Klostermann Verlag, 1976.

Dahme, Heinz-Jürgen, and Otthein Rammstedt, eds. Georg Simmel und die Moderne. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1984.

Frisby, David. Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer, and Benjamin. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1985.

——. Sociological Impressionism: A Reassessment of Georg Simmel's Social Theory. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1992.

Kaern, Michael, Bernard S. Phillips, and Robert S. Cohen, eds. Georg Simmel and Contemporary Sociology. Dordrecht, Germany: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Lehmann, Ulrich. Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.

Lichtblau, Klaus. Kulturkrise und Soziologie um die Jahrhundertwende. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1996.

Rammstedt, Otthein, ed. Simmel und die frühen Soziologen: Nähe und Distanz zu Durkheim, Tönnies, und Max Weber. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1988.

Remy, Jean, ed. Georg Simmel: Ville et modernité. Paris: Éditions L'Harmattan, 1995.

Simmel, Georg. On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings. Edited by Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

——. Georg Simmel on Women, Sexuality, and Love. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

——. Gesamtausgabe. Edited by Ottheim Rammstedt. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Suhrkamp, 1989–2002.

Wolff, Kurt H., ed. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1950.

Ulrich Lehmann

Simmel, Georg

views updated May 29 2018

Simmel, Georg (1858–1918) Simmel is generally considered to be the most neglected of the founders of modern sociology (although more so in Britain than in the United States). He published some twenty-five volumes and over three hundred essays during his lifetime. Born a Jew, but later baptized into Christianity, he spent most of his life in Berlin, gaining full professorship at Strasburg only four years before his death. This late recognition of such a prolific scholar signposts his maverick nature—as well as a certain anti-semitism on the part of some of his peers. He was one of a number of talented artists, scholars, and intellectuals who would meet regularly at Max Weber's house in Heidelberg.

Simmel's work is almost impossible to summarize or systematize and he was himself opposed to such attempts. In many ways he is a sociologist who seems dismayed by the very possibility of sociology. His style and approach differs from that of the other classical sociologists by virtue of its fragmentary and piecemeal character. Simmel wrote short essays, vignettes of social life, rich and textured in their detail of the microscopic order, but wholly unsystematic and often unfinished. His range of inquiry was vast and varied: from books on Kant and Goethe, through studies of art and culture, and on to major analyses of religion, money, capitalism, gender, groups, urbanism, and morality. Even love is among his many topics. Details, rather than abstract generalization, are given prime position in Simmel's work: he argued that, whilst it was not possible to understand the whole or the totality in itself, any fragment of study may lead one to grasp the whole. Thus, in The Philosophy of Money (1900), he proclaims ‘the possibility … of finding in each of life's details the totality of its meaning’. He saw this particular work as providing a more secure foundation for historical materialism and he was a major influence on the work of the Marxist philosopher György Lukács.

For Simmel there are three kinds of sociology. General sociology is a programme of method—‘the whole of historical life in so far as it is formed societally’. Formal sociology studies ‘the societal forms themselves’—the ‘forms of sociation’. Finally, there is philosophical sociology, which he defines as ‘the epistemology of the social sciences’. He wrote most often about the second of these, formal sociology, which is best seen as the centre of his enterprise. The ‘forms of sociation’ are the forms in which our interaction develops. His most famous short essays—‘The Stranger’, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, and his essay on social conflict (all in D. N. Levine ( ed.) , Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms, 1971)
—are part of his formal sociology, and this is the sociology that has been most influential in the United States.

Simmel's work was enormously influential in the development of early North American sociology. Paul Rock, in The Making of Symbolic Interactionism (1979), identifies him as one of the key founders of symbolic interactionism. Certainly he was an important mentor for Robert Park and other members of the Chicago School. Some of Simmel's ideas may also be found in the functionalism of Robert Merton (particularly his reference group theory and role theory) and of Lewis Coser (notably his theory of social conflict).

Simmel came to see social forms as dominating the life process, as a form of alienation, and his development of his own very individual method—and indeed of the essay form itself—was an attempt to resist this. In this respect he has been likened to the impressionists in the world of art—constantly trying to create new forms which are closer to our experience of the flux of life. It is no surprise that he has been seen as a precursor of post-modernism.

Almost any of David Frisby's numerous publications about Simmel give a good account of his sociological significance and relative neglect (see, for example, his Georg Simmel, 1984

Simmel, Georg

views updated Jun 11 2018


SIMMEL, GEORG (1858–1918), German sociologist.

Georg Simmel is now primarily known as one of the founders of sociology and as a brilliant commentator on the emergence of modernity in nineteenth-century Europe. He was born into a Jewish middle class family in Berlin, a city where he spent most of his life and that he deeply loved. While very much appreciated by his contemporaries, Simmel had a notoriously difficult academic career.

At the University of Berlin, Simmel studied ethnography, history, philosophy, psychology, and art history. Both his first dissertation (1881) and his second dissertation to qualify as a lecturer (Habilitation; 1885) were on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. From 1885 to 1914, when he finally succeeded in getting a full professorship at the somewhat marginal University of Strasbourg (in philosophy), Simmel worked as an unpaid lecturer at the University of Berlin. Although he was soon known all over Europe as well as in the United States, his colleagues at the University of Berlin kept blocking Simmel's academic career. One important reason for this was their anti-Semitism; other reasons were that Simmel refused to attach himself to a single academic discipline and that he had little taste for academic formalities. As an example of the latter, it is often mentioned that his books and articles typically lack references and footnotes.

Simmel wrote in a variety of fields and on a variety of topics, and altogether he produced more than twenty books and two hundred articles. The topics that he covered ranged from Rembrandt, Goethe, and Nietzsche to psychology, moral philosophy, and philosophy of history. One central theme in many of these writings is Simmel's fascination with the work of Immanuel Kant, especially his epistemology. Kant's notion that one should distinguish between the forms of the human mind and its contents plays a major role not only in Simmel's philosophy but also in his sociology and his approach to modern culture. Another important theme in Simmel's work is his emphasis on the individual and his belief that the true meaning of culture is to develop the individual.

Since his death, Simmel has mainly been cast as a sociologist, and his two works The Philosophy of Money (1900) and Sociology (1908) are today regarded as classics in the field of sociology. The most important of these is Sociology, which contains Simmel's famous program for sociology as well as a dazzling set of illustrations of what a sociological analysis may look like. Sociology is more than seven hundred pages long and covers the topics of faithfulness, fashion, adornment, the stranger, and much, much more.

In the introductory theoretical chapter to Sociology, Simmel states that sociology should deal with interaction and in particular with the social forms that these interactions create. The content of these forms has to be taken into account but is primarily studied by the other social sciences, such as economics, history, and psychology. As examples of forms of interaction, Simmel mentions conflict, sociability, and subordination and superordination. A concrete phenomenon usually consists of several forms of interactions.

One of the most famous chapters in Sociology is entitled "The Quantitative Determination of Groups"; Simmel here suggests that numbers may influence the social structure of groups. When a group, for example, goes from having two members (a dyad) to three members (a triad), it changes dramatically. A majority can now be formed, and one member may play the other two members against each other (tertius gaudens). Modern network analysis often includes Simmel among its founders.

The Philosophy of Money can be characterized as a mixture of philosophy, cultural analysis, and economic sociology. According to Simmel, money is closely related to the cultural temper of modern society, which he characterizes as relativistic and restless. Money equalizes all values and also sets things in perpetual motion. Sociological insights in The Philosophy of Money include the observation that trust is central to the modern economy and that money is only as valid as the political authority that vouches for its value.

Simmel's work is extremely rich in ideas and highly enjoyable to read. While Simmel had few disciples in the ordinary sense of the word, he nonetheless influenced many intellectuals. He was well aware of the special influence he had on other thinkers, and has famously characterized it in the following way:

I know that I shall die without spiritual heirs (and that is good). The estate I leave is like cash distributed among many heirs, each of which puts his share to use in some trade that is compatible with his nature but which can no longer be recognized as coming from that estate.

See alsoDurkheim, Émile; Modernism; Sociology; Weber, Max.


Frisby, David. Georg Simmel. London, 2002.

Frisby, David, ed. Georg Simmel: Critical Assessments. 3 vols. 1994, London.

Köhnke, Klaus Christian. Der junge Simmel. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1996.

Poggi, Gianfranco. Money and the Modern Mind: Georg Simmel's Philosophy of Money. Berkeley, Calif., 1993.

Richard Swedberg

Simmel, Georg

views updated May 08 2018


SIMMEL, GEORG (1858–1918), German philosopher and sociologist. Born in Berlin of converted parents, in 1885 Simmel became a lecturer at Berlin, but his appointment as professor (extracurricular) at Strasbourg was delayed until 1911 because of his Jewish origin and because he followed no religion. In 1914 he finally became full professor. In his early work Ueber soziale Differenzierung (1890) Simmel sees the essence of the modern development in the dissolution of the substance of society in a sum of interrelationships of participating individuals. Another early book, Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft (1892), which he later rejected, sought to construct a system of morals describing man's moral life psychologically without evaluating it. Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie (also 1892), greatly altered by Simmel in later editions, had considerable influence. In this work Simmel postulates that events must be distinguished from history. The philosophy of history seeks out those a priori assumptions of historical consciousness, the foundations on which "the historical world is built." Simmel pursued this idea in "Das Problem der historischen Zeit" ("The Problem of Historical Time") and "Vom Wesen des historischen Verstehens" ("The Essence of Historical Comprehension"), which are included in the collection Bruecke und Tuer (1957). He suggests there is no road to objective reality itself, only diverse subjective worlds, dependent on their categorical assumptions.

Simmel's relativism reached its peak in Philosophie des Geldes (1900), in which he tried to discover the relation of money to all spheres of our life – its influences on all branches of culture – and expose the spiritual, moral, and religious assumptions of historical materialism in order to overcome it. He especially emphasized the intellectual character of monetary economy. Simmel published his research on Kant in his book Kant (1904). Besides Kant's expression of intellectuality, others, no less true, are possible, as Simmel indicated in Schopenhauer und Nietzsche (1907), Goethe (1913), and Rembrandt (1916). Influenced by the antipsychological views of the neo-Kantians and Husserl, Simmel saw culture as a process itself, an objective view through which the contents moved from the soul into an objective framework having its own laws. Cultural values have autonomous validity separated from their creator's spiritual source. The soul's or life's essence is to produce the objective contents of culture from itself. "Life is more than life." Thus objective culture becomes the soul's path back to itself.

His studies on art, religion, and philosophy tried to show that each is a world in itself, not a derivative of another, because it depends on special subjective functions of life. In his books Soziologie (1908) and Grundfragen der Soziologie (1917), as well as in numerous essays, Simmel analyzes all processes of association and dissociation as psychic phenomena, but he also constitutes the science of sociology by separating the forms of association from their content in such a way that purely formal concepts of relationships become generalizable and thereby scientific in character. They remain constant in a multitude of concrete events. In this sense, Simmel has analyzed the formal nature and significance of numbers ("The Dyad and the Triad"), space, conflict, poverty, fashion, adornment, secret societies, and a host of other formal relationships, always recognizing the dialectical interplay of the individual and the group as the essence of all relationships. But he has not arrived at a systematic ordering of these relationships. Buber, in turn stimulated by Simmel, described Jewish existence as manifesting itself not so much in substance but in relationships, that is, as essentially social in character. In this fashion, Simmel's approach to sociology has become a cornerstone of the sociology of the Jews.


H. Liebeschuetz, Von G. Simmel zu F. Rosenzweig (1970); L. Coser, Georg Simmel (Eng., 1965), incl. list of his works; R.H. Weingartner, Experience and Culture: the Philosophy of Georg Simmel (1962), incl. bibl.; K.H. Wolf (ed.), Georg Simmel, 18581918: A Collection of Essays with Translations and a Bibliography (1959); M. Susman, Die geistige Gestalt G. Simmels (1959); K. Gassen and M. Landmann (ed.), Buch des Dankes an Georg Simmel (1958).

[Samuel Hugo Bergman and

Werner J. Cahnman]

Georg Simmel

views updated May 17 2018

Georg Simmel

The German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel (1858-1918) wrote important studies of urban sociology, social conflict theory, and small-group relationships.

Georg Simmel was born on March 1, 1858, in Berlin, the youngest of seven children. His father was a prosperous Jewish businessman who became a Roman Catholic. His mother, also of Jewish forebears, was a Lutheran. Georg was baptized a Lutheran but later withdrew from that Church, although he always retained a philosophical interest in religion.

His father died when Georg was very young. A family friend and music publisher became his guardian and left him an inheritance when he died which enabled Simmel to pursue a scholarly career for many years without a salaried position. He studied history and philosophy at the University of Berlin, earning a doctoral degree in 1881. He was a lecturer at the University of Berlin from 1885 to 1900 and professor extraordinary until 1914. He then accepted his only salaried professorship at the provincial University of Strassburg. There he died on Sept. 26, 1918.

Simmel's wide interests in philosophy, sociology, art, and religion contrasted sharply with those of his more narrowly disciplined colleagues. Eschewing pure philosophy, he preferred to apply it functionally as the philosophy of culture, of money, of the sexes, of religion, and of art. Similarly in sociology, the field of his lasting renown, he favored isolating multiple factors. In 1910 he helped found the German Sociological Association. His sociological writings were on alienation and on urban stresses and strains; his philosophical writings foreshadowed modern existentialism.

Although a popular and even brilliant lecturer, academic advancement eluded Simmel. The reasons for this include prewar Germany's latent anti-Semitism, the unorthodox variety of subjects he pursued rather than following a more acceptable narrow discipline, and perhaps jealousy at his sparkling originality. Ortega y Gasset compared him to a philosophical squirrel, gracefully acrobatic in leaping from one branch of knowledge to another. Unable or unwilling to develop consistent sociological or philosophical systems, Simmel founded no school and left few disciples. "I know that I shall die without intellectual heirs," he wrote in his diary. "My legacy will be, as it were in cash, distributed to many heirs, each transforming his part into use conformed to his nature…." This diffusion occurred, and his ideas have since pervaded sociological thought. His insightful writings still stimulate while more systematic contemporaries are less read. Robert K. Merton called Simmel a "man of innumerable seminal ideas."

Further Reading

The best biographies and analyses of Simmel's writings are by Kurt H. Wolff, ed., Georg Simmel, 1858-1918 (1959), and Lewis A. Coser, ed., Georg Simmel (1965).

Additional Sources

Formal sociology: the sociology of Georg Simmel, Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, Vt., USA: E. Elgar, 1991.

Frisby, David, Georg Simmel, Chichester: E. Horwood; London;New York: Tavistock Publications, 1984.

Georg Simmel and contemporary sociology, Dordrecht; Boston:Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990.

Jaworski, Gary D., Georg Simmel and the American prospect, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. □