In This Article Georg Simmel

  • Introduction

Sociology Georg Simmel
by
Jukka Gronow, Olli Pyyhtinen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0180

Introduction

Georg Simmel (b. 1858–d. 1918) was a German sociologist, cultural theorist, and modernist philosopher. Simmel’s vast oeuvre, containing approximately twenty books and two hundred smaller pieces, includes fundamental contributions to sociology and several scholarly works on philosophers, among them Kant, Bergson, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, but he also treated such mundane phenomena as fashion, the senses, the picture frame, secrecy, money, and emotions. From these seemingly insignificant and banal objects Simmel tries to extract a deeper meaning; he thinks that from the superficialities of daily life disregarded by scholars until then a “plumb line” can be dropped into profound metaphysical realities. With its emphasis on relations of Wechselwirkung (“reciprocal effect,” “reciprocal causation,” or “reciprocity”) and processes of association, Vergesellschaftung, Simmel’s sociological work initiates a relational mode of thought against reifying substantialist assumptions. Whereas the latter conceive the world in terms of more or less discrete and static entities, Simmel’s thinking places relations into the heart of sociology. But his work also tackles the problem of how to think—both sociologically and philosophically—in the modern world of flux, where no secure philosophical foundation is available any longer, and one thus easily falls into nihilism or bottomless subjectivism and skepticism. Simmel was born 1 March 1858 in Berlin as the youngest child to a family of seven children. Both his parents were of Jewish origin, yet his father Edward converted to Catholicism late in life, and mother Flora had been baptised as an Evangelical when she was young. Simmel began his studies at the University of Berlin in 1876 at the age of eighteen. In addition to history and philosophy, he also studied psychology and Italian. After his first dissertation on the origins of music had been rejected in December 1880, Simmel obtained his doctorate in 1881 with a work on Kant’s conception of matter and completed his habilitation in 1884. In 1885 Simmel was appointed as Privatdozent, an unpaid lecturer, on the philosophical faculty of the University of Berlin. In his lifetime, Simmel was one of the key figures of Berlin intelligentsia. First of all, he was a famous lecturer whose lectures were popular events covered in newspapers. Simmel was also one of the first to welcome women to his lectures, which was a concern for some of his conservative colleagues. Second, Simmel had also active mutual relations with such prominent figures as Max Weber and his wife Marianne, philosophers Edmund Husserl and Heinrich Rickert, poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Stephan George, as well as with philosopher Henri Bergson and sculptor Auguste Rodin in France. Third, Simmel’s books had considerable success. Several of Simmel’s writings also appeared as translations soon after their publication. In his lifetime he was translated for example into English, French, Italian, and Russian. Simmel’s academic career, however, was anything but a success story. He suffered from constant setbacks: his first doctoral dissertation as well as his habilitation lecture were rejected; he remained in the unpaid Privatdozent position for an unusually long period of fifteen years and thirteen years as Ausserordentlich Professor (“extraordinary professor,” an honorary title to which Simmel promoted in 1901), and he had no success in securing himself a permanent position at German universities until 1914, when he received a full professorship in philosophy from the Kaiser Wilhelm University in Strasbourg at the age of fifty-six, four years before his death. Although his sociological writings cover only a part of his oeuvre, Simmel’s sociology is by far the best-known area of his work. In this bibliography, our main focus is on the English translations of his works, but we have also included some original German texts that in our view best reveal his theoretical position and are the most significant in relation to his sociology and philosophy as well as some secondary literature on Simmel, both in English and in German.

Simmel’s Works in German

From the long list of Simmel’s publications, now available in the complete German edition of his collected works, we have selected for this article those works that are most relevant to the understanding of his sociological and philosophical thinking and that have not been translated into English.

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