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Georg Simmel - Biography

Georg Simmel (1858 - 1918) is known for his contributions to sociology and philosophy. In 1881, Simmel received his Ph.D from the University of Berlin. In addition, Heidelberg granted Georg Simmel an honorary doctorate. His dissertation utilized the Kantian theory of monads as it pertained to the nature of matter. Much of the debate about whether or not to accept Georg Simmel’s dissertation arose from the numerous spelling errors and passages cited in foreign languages that his examining committee could not read.

From 1885 to 1914, the University of Berlin employed Georg Simmel as an unpaid lecturer and then an honorary professor. In 1914, the University of Strasbourg gave Simmel a paid professorship in philosophy. Simmel gained renown for his skill in lecturing. Georg Simmel was prolific in his production of articles that covered a variety of topics including sociology, art, esthetics, ethics, history, psychology, and literature. Unfortunately, Simmel’s prodigiousness opened him to the criticism of being a dabbler, perhaps lacking in overall expertise. This criticism and an anti-Semitic undercurrent in the academia of Germany hindered his professional development.

Despite Georg Simmel’s expertise in instruction, he felt that he would be "without spiritual heirs." With the exceptions of Max Weber and Simmel’s protégé Gyorgy Lukacs, Through Lukacs, Georg Simmel’s presence was felt in the Frankfurt School’s particular use of objectivity and rationality. Georg Simmel’s self-assessment has generally been proven to be true in that few people claim direct intellectual heritage from Simmel. His influence was felt in the Chicago/Ecological School of sociology, which combined ethnography and theory in an urban setting. But even though he did not found a school, great interest has been placed in his writings especially in the anglophile world in the 1950s once translations become more readily available.

From 1889 to 1909, Georg Simmel fostered the German Sociological Association into existence. However, he lamented that he was seen as a sociologist. Simmel considered sociology as an ancillary field of study to that of philosophy. He would return to his primary intellectual interest in 1905 when he revised The Problems of the Philosophy of History and then in 1907 when he tackled the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer in a treatise.

In 1887, Georg Simmel became the first instructor to teach sociological principles at a German university. Simmel attempted to plot a course in sociology that was distinct from the work of Auguste Comte or Herbert Spencer. Georg Simmel worked toward a more formal sociology that handled form and content separately. His critics identify Simmel’s insistence on dichotomy and a writing style which obscures the assertion he is trying to make. Also problematizing, Georg Simmel’s reputation is the spotty translations of his most important work, Soziologie: Untersuchungen uber die Formen der Vergesellschaftung.

In 1892, Georg Simmel’s Die Probleme de Geschichtsphilosophie (translated into English as The Problems of the Philosophy of History) was published. In this text, Simmel used a Kantian frame to investigate the contemporary world. Eight years later, Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes (The Philosophy of Money) was released.

Philosophie des Geldesis commonly seen as Simmel’s most pivotal work. In it Simmel utilizes his historical, psychological, political and social lenses to open the subject to as much scrutiny as possible while he looks for the substrata of the "historical materialism" of the subject. Simmel sees these undercurrents of the topic as a continuation of metaphysical machinery. Another significant aspect of Simmel’s project of Modernism is to continually renew and revise a concept. Such work counteracts what would develop into Modern skepticism and Post-Modern cynicism. In this work, Georg Simmel identifies currency as "a social function become a substance." He furthers this concept by locating the instability of money, its ability to be transmitted with the dissatisfaction and impulse for movement in Modernity. He argues that money is a cause and effect for the contemporary world. Ultimately, Simmel paradoxically identifies money as dependent on freedom but also as a source of estrangement. This work met with mixed reviews. Emile Durkheim derided the work as unsubstantiated, yet Max Weber praised the importance of the theory and observations.

Hegel influenced Georg Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes. However, Simmel as in much of his work uses synecdoche in a dialect in a single direction. This allows Simmel to better capture the ambiguity of Modernity. Simmel identified the cause of this ambiguousness as the uncertainty that arose from the processes of Modernization. For all of his Metaphysical urges, Georg Simmel’s ultimate project was not to find the essential nature behind his subjects but to align various disciplines to its study. However, this project does not exclude the desire for innate meaning of experience. Perhaps the tension between his troubled methodologies and his search for meaning in a fragmentary world is what breathes life into his work.

Some see Simmel as establishing a phenomenology, which is better suited for investigating the Modern individual’s nearly-but-not-quite awareness of the deprivation of essential meaning. In one characteristic passage, Elizabeth Goodstein quotes form Philosophie des Geldes, Simmel’s thought become apparent:

I believe that the secret agitation, the restless compulsion just below consciousness that drives the human being of today from socialism to Nietzsche, from Böcklin to Impressionism, from Hegel to Schopenhauer and back again is not simply a consequence of the external haste and excitement of modern life, but that on the contrary it is often the expression, the manifestation, the discharge of that most inner circumstance.

In "Georg Simmel Reapears: "The Aesthetic Significance of the Face," James T Siegel acknowledges that "It seems it is Simmel’s fate to be dismissed yet still to be recognized." Many view Simmel’s work is presented as having an as yet untapped potential. Despite the obfuscation of his writing, something important can be discerned. Even Max Weber, one of the few who have embraced Georg Simmel, acknowledges the writing and methodology are flawed. Siegel will argue that the innate power of Georg SImmel’s work is the power to suggest. More than this, Georg Simmel influenced a new style of reflection, opening subjects to new methods of philosophic interegation. Some readers, however, view his style as representing a Modern approach to philosophical writing. If true this interpretation would fit within the framework of Simmel’s philosophical view that Modernity was disconnection and fragmenting social identity from its traditional method. Georg Simmel felt that this change would need to be addressed. Some like Elizabeth Goodstein go so far as to argue that Simmel’s stylistics reach a Nietzschean fervor that balances with the content to better express the troubled spirit of the Modern age.

In her essay "Style as Substance: Georg Simmel’s Phenomonolgy of Culture," Elizabeth Goodstein argues that Simmel was able to link the superficial to the most profound movements. In putting what seems unimportant to examination, Simmel was able to give voice to the realities of a world in flux. His work was not concerned with the high or low cultural value assigned to a field of study. Georg Simmel’s frame of study insisted, true to his Kantian heritage, that the objects and states of modernity reflected on a more essential and deeper reality.

Outside of Georg Simmel’s professional life, he and his wife, Gertrude Kinel, offered their home to the thinkers of artists of Germany including Ranier Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salome, and Stefan George. Simmel also corresponded with former student, Martin Buber. Ernst Cassirer studied Immanuel Kant with Simmel. Walter Benjamin also took courses with Georg Simmel, whose work helped shaped Benjamin’s philosophy. It is obvious the Georg Simmel’s guidance helped many of the best minds of the early twentieth century find their voices. The social influence of Georg Simmel like his intellectual influence is both astounding in its scope but unclear in its directness.

The writings of Georg Simmel include Die Probleme de Geschichtsphilosophie, Einleitung in die Moralphilosophie: Eine Kritik der ethischen Grundbegriffe, Philosophie des Geldes, Soziologie: Untersuchungen uber die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, Uber soziale Differenzierung, Das Problem der Soziologie, Das Problem der Soziologie, and Lebensanschauung: Vier metaphysische Kapital.

Georg Simmel was a German Philosopher and Sociologist. (1858 - 1918)