Georg Simmel, the German philosopher and sociologist, was born in Berlin and resided there except for the last four years of his life. He was educated there, and in 1881 he received his doctorate from the University of Berlin.
Three years later he began to teach at that university as a Privatdozent and from 1900 he was associate professor without faculty status. Although successful as a lecturer and a writer, he was never promoted to a full professorship at Berlin, nor was he able to secure such a position at any other leading German university.
Only in 1914, when his career was almost ended, was he offered a chair in philosophy at the provincial University of Strasbourg. However, World War I disrupted university life there, so that Strasbourg benefited little from Simmel’s teaching. Just before the end of the war, Simmel died of cancer.
Simmel’s failure as an academic was connected with the nature of his interests, his style of lecturing and writing, and his philosophic position. He had many influential friends—he knew and corresponded with Max Weber, Heinrich Rickert, Edmund Husserl, Adolf von Harnack, and Rainer Maria Rilke—and his applications for openings were always well supported by the testimony of his crowded lecture halls and the success of his many writings, both technical and popular. However, from the straitlaced viewpoint of the German academic hierarchy Simmel was suspect.
He seemed to be interested in everything: He wrote books or essays on Rembrandt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, on Michelangelo, Auguste Rodin, and Stefan George; on Florence, Rome, Venice, and the Alps; on the philosophy of money, adventure, love, landscapes, and the actor; on ruins, handles, coquetry, and shame; as well as on the more standard philosophic subjects of ethics, philosophy of history, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and, at the end of his life, metaphysics.
Throughout his career Simmel made contributions of lasting importance to sociology, a subject that had not yet achieved academic respectability. His style, too, was not that expected of a professor of philosophy. It was insightful rather than expository; digressive rather than systematic; witty rather than solemn.
|Adolf von Harnack|
Because Simmel’s position on any particular point was frequently not easy to see, he was often considered to be a critic whose primary impulse was analytic, if not destructive. By some he was thought to have no philosophic position at all.
Other, more sympathetic, readers of his work called him a Kulturphilosoph, primarily on the basis of his preoccupation with the objects of culture. Yet because toward the end of his career Simmel began to sketch a philosophic position having a conception of human life at its center, he is also referred to as a Lebensphilosoph.
Both of these activities, however, are but two sides of the same lifelong dual concern: to illuminate the objects of culture by showing their relation to human experience and to shed light upon the nature of human life by seeing it in relation to its products.
Simmel conceived of human life as being a process and as being, necessarily, productive. By calling life a process (which he expressed by partially defining life as “more-life”), Simmel sought to convey the view that life has the characteristics of what the Greeks called “becoming”: It is continuous and continuously changing; strictly speaking, it can only be lived (experienced), not known.
However, this same life produces objects that are not in constant flux, that have form and hence are intelligible. (In virtue of this productiveness of human life, Simmel completed his definition by saying that life is “more-thanlife.”)
These products constitute the realm of culture and include not only works of science, history, and art, but social and political institutions and religious theories and practices as well.
These objects stand in a twofold relationship to human life: Their genesis lies in human experience and, once in existence, they are independently subject to being experienced in various ways. Simmel’s philosophy dealt in detail with both of these relationships.
To account for the existence of the objects of culture, Simmel made use, in his own particular way, of the categories of form and content. He posited a realm of contents (rather like George Santayana’s realm of essences) as the material that enters into all experience.
Contents, however, are not experienced as they are in themselves; they are shaped by the experiencing psyche. Experience (Simmel here followed Kant) is formative; to see how form arises thus requires an understanding of the natural history of experience.
|Rainer Maria Rilke|
Simmel conceived of a stage in human life in which all needs are instantly satisfied, in which there is no gap between desire and fulfillment. Such a stage of life would be prior to experience and hence prior to any differentiation of subject and object. In that stage there would be neither self nor sugar but only sweetness.
However, the world is clearly not so organized that life could actually be lived in this way, and in the gap between need and fulfillment both experience and form are born. In becoming conscious, we distinguish between ourselves as subject and that which we experience as objects.
Experience, however, is not all of a piece: We experience in different modes. It is one thing to know an object, another to appreciate it as beautiful, and still another to revere it as an object of worship.
|Johann Wolfgang von Goethe|
In Simmel’s view, the contents experienced in each of the three cases may be the same, although they are not the same in experience. The objects of the three experiences differ in that the contents are given shape—are objectified—by means of three different ways of experiencing. The same contents differ in form.
For the most part, people act to fulfill their needs. Their experience gives shape to contents only to the extent to which the immediate requirements of a situation demand it. In the scholastic language Simmel sometimes adopted, both the terminus a quo (the origin) and the terminus ad quem (the goal) of the objects produced by ordinary experience—of whatever mode—remain within the biography of the individual producing them.
As a result of this subservience to the needs of individuals, form in ordinary experience is not pure, and the objects that are formed in this way are not yet properly the objects of culture.
|terminus a quo|
As long as life sets the goals of action (characteristic of the phase of life Simmel called teleological or pragmatic), knowledge is tentative and limited—not yet science; art is homespun and primitive—not yet fully aesthetic; religion is simple and sporadic—not yet embodied in a theology and in institutions. The form is proto-form and the objects are proto-culture.
However, the bonds of the teleology of life can be broken. The terminus ad quem of people’s actions need not reside within their lives: They can act for the sake of a form, a type of action Simmel called free action. Instead of knowing for the sake of acting, some people act in order to know; instead of seeing for the sake of living, some people—artists—live in order to see.
In acting for the sake of a form, experience in the relevant form is refined; the structure inchoate in ordinary experience is made explicit and worked out. Form proper is born and the objects of culture are produced.
There are many kinds of form; there is and can be no definitive list. Knowledge, art, religion, value, and philosophy are among the important forms (or “world forms,” as Simmel called them) by means of which men have shaped the realm of contents.
Reality, too, is only one such form and enjoys no privileged status; the objects of reality constitute the world of practice—those objects which we perceive and manipulate in our daily lives. There are other forms and other worlds, however; one of the tasks of the philosopher is to distinguish and analyze them.
Human life is not self-sufficient; it needs things outside itself to exist and to continue to exist. The objects life forms first come into being to meet its needs; but, because they are objects, they continue to exist independently of life and to make their demands upon the race that has produced them. Humans work out the forms implicit in the various modes of ordinary experience; they become artists, historians, philosophers, and scientists.
|the realm of contents|
But once works of art, history, philosophy, or science exist, they make a second demand upon humans: they are the objects by whose assimilation individuals become cultivated. Here Simmel saw a source of inevitable conflict. People differ from each other, and the way in which each person can fulfill himself is peculiar to him.
Thus, to fulfill himself each person must utilize a different selection of already existing objects of culture. However, not every road, not just any selection, leads to the assimilation of these objects.
To properly understand the objects an individual requires in order to become cultivated, he may need to learn to apprehend a vast number of other objects not so required. In order to serve life, his life, an individual may have to make his own needs subservient to those of forms. This is the tragedy of culture.
|Neither Being nor Becoming|
In his philosophic position Simmel attempted to do justice to the antitheses that have occupied philosophers since the pre-Socratics. Life as a process is the pole of flux and becoming; it can be lived, but not known. Form is stable and has structure; it is the pole of being and is intelligible. Life is one; experience in all modes is the experience of the same subject.
Forms and worlds are many; they are severed from the life that produced them and take on existence independent of it. Neither Being nor Becoming, neither the One nor the Many, holds exclusive sway. The tension between the poles of these antitheses is a permanent feature of the world.
This position underlies the greatest part of Simmel’s work. His writings in Kulturphilosophie are explorations into the nature of different forms and of different works, whether of philosophy or of art.
They are investigations into the relationships between the lives and works of men like Rembrandt and Goethe. In sum, his essays in the philosophy of culture are a series of applications of his philosophy of life.