March 1, 2013
“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.” George Simmel (1858 – 1918) “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” 1903.
Georg Simmel was a seminal thinker about how society works, and his works on money, on secrecy, and the interaction of the individual and the group had significant impact. But he was an outsider in the academic world, and his work has received scant notice compared to some of his contemporaries like Max Weber.
He was born on Mar. 1, 1858, in Berlin, Germany, the youngest of seven children. His father owned a chocolate factory, who died when Simmel was 16, and a family friend, the owner of a music publishing business, was appointed his guardian. Simmel was born into a Jewish family, his father converted to Roman Catholic, his mother converted to Lutheran, and young Simmel was baptized a Protestant.
Simmel studied at broad range of subjects at the University of Berlin, and received a doctorate in philosophy in 1881.
With the security of an inheritance from his father and his guardian, Simmel was able to take a position as a Privatdozent, a lecturer who earns their income from student fees and not a university salary. The position also allowed him to lecture on a wide range of subjects; he taught logic, the history of philosophy, ethics, social psychology and sociology.
Though his lectures were popular with students and some of the more intellectual residents of Berlin, he was not accepted into the academic community of the university. It was not until 1901 that the University of Berlin acknowledged him with the title of Ausserordentlicher (extraordinary) Professor, an honorific that conveyed no authority in the academic affairs of the school.
The lack of academic standing was not an impediment to his writing, and perhaps because he wrote more a general audience than an academic one, his peers were reluctant to accept him; he published hundreds of essays for magazines and newspapers and wrote more than a dozen books.
In 1914, he gained an appointment as full professor at the University of Strassburg, arriving just as World War I caused the school to stop teaching activities. Though most of his writing focused on theoretical problems and rarely on contemporary affairs, when war erupted Simmel showed a decidedly patriotic streak writing war propaganda for Germany. Biographers speculate that Simmel, the eternal outsider in Berlin, both by choice as the rational observer of society, and by birth as a Jew, was striving to be included during the frightening times of war. He died from liver cancer on Sept. 28, 1918.
Simmel wrote on a wide range of topics, and for more than a decade wrote little on sociology, which blunted his impact on the field. But his works had lasting impact, especially his 1900 book, “The Philosophy of Money,” which examined the impact of money on our lives, outlining how our society changes because of the way money works. Simmel argued that the effect of money is to make our personal interactions more impersonal, which increases personal freedom, increases social differentiation, and displaces the natural groupings of society, like family, and allows us to have a quantitatively rational approach to life.
“The calculative exactness of practical life which the money economy has brought about corresponds to the ideal of natural science: to transform the world by mathematical formulas. Only money economy has filled the days of so many people with weighing, calculating, with numerical determinations, with a reduction of qualitative values to quantitative ones.”