Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms

Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms

by Georg Simmel

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"Of those who created the intellectual capital used to launch the enterprise of professional sociology, Georg Simmel was perhaps the most original and fecund. In search of a subject matter for sociology that would distinguish it from all other social sciences and humanistic disciplines, he charted a new field for discovery and proceeded to explore a world of novel


"Of those who created the intellectual capital used to launch the enterprise of professional sociology, Georg Simmel was perhaps the most original and fecund. In search of a subject matter for sociology that would distinguish it from all other social sciences and humanistic disciplines, he charted a new field for discovery and proceeded to explore a world of novel topics in works that have guided and anticipated the thinking of generations of sociologists. Such distinctive concepts of contemporary sociology as social distance, marginality, urbanism as a way of life, role-playing, social behavior as exchange, conflict as an integrating process, dyadic encounter, circular interaction, reference groups as perspectives, and sociological ambivalence embody ideas which Simmel adumbrated more than six decades ago."—Donald N. Levine

Half of the material included in this edition of Simmel's writings represents new translations. This includes Simmel's important, lengthy, and previously untranslated "Group Expansion and Development of Individuality," as well as three selections from his most neglected work, Philosophy of Money; in addition, the introduction to Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie, chapter one of the Lebensanschauung, and three essays are translated for the first time.

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Georg Simmel

On Individuality and Social Forms

By Donald N. Levine

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1971 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92469-4




How does the raw material of immediate experience come to be the theoretical structure which we call history? The transformation in question is of a more radical sort than common sense usually assumes. To demonstrate this is to develop a critique of historical realism—of the view that the science of history should provide a mirror image of the past "as it really was." Such a view commits no less an error than does realism in art, which pretends to copy reality without being aware how thoroughly this act of "copying" in fact stylizes the contents of reality.

In the cognition of nature, the formative influence of the human mind is generally recognized. For history this influence is less easily perceived because the material of history is mind itself. When the human mind creates history, the independent character of the categories it uses and the way they mold the materials are less apparent than in natural science. What we must determine—not in detail, but as a matter of principle—is the a priori dimension of historical knowledge. Over against historical realism, which sees historiography as merely reproducing events, at most with some quantitative condensation, we must show the justification of asking, in the Kantian sense, How is history possible?

The answer Kant gave to his question—How is nature possible?—is of value for a philosophy of life. Its value has to do with the freedom the ego has won, thanks to Kant, over against nature. Inasmuch as the ego produces nature as its conception, and the general laws constitutive of nature are nothing other than the forms of our mind, natural existence has been subordinated to the sovereign ego. Not, to be sure, to the ego's arbitrariness and idiosyncratic vicissitudes, but to its being and the imperatives of that being—imperatives which do not stem from norms external to the ego, but make up its very life.

Kant's answer provides release from one of the two oppressions which threaten modern man, nature and history. Both appear to stifle the free, self-possessed personality: the former, because its mechanicism subjects the soul to the same blind forces as the falling stone and the sprouting stalk; the latter, because it makes of the soul a mere point of intersection of social threads spinning through history and reduces its whole creativity to a matter of administering the inheritance of the race. The imprisonment of our empirical existence by nature has, since Kant, been counteracted by the autonomy of mind: the picture of nature in our consciousness, the conceptualization of her forces and of what she can be for the soul, is the achievement of the soul itself.

Now, however, nature's shackles on the ego, sprung by the mind, have turned into an enchainment by mind itself. Although the necessity and superior might which history exerts upon individual personality may appear in the guise of freedom, since this history is of the human mind, in truth history—as something given, as a reality, a suprapersonal power—represents no less an oppression of the ego by an external agency. The temptation to regard as freedom what in reality is bondage through something alien is just more subtly at work here, since in this case what binds us is of the same essential substance as ourselves.

The liberation from naturalism which Kant achieved must now be won from historicism. Perhaps the same critique of knowledge will be successful: that here, too, the mind forms the picture of psychic existence which we call history in sovereign wise, through categories which inhere in the knower alone. Man, as something known, is made by nature and history; but man, as knower, makes nature and history.

That form in which all psychic reality comes to consciousness, which emerges as the history of every ego, is itself a product of the creative ego. Mind becomes aware of itself in the stream of becoming, but mind has already marked out the banks and currents of that stream and thereby made it into "history." The investigations which follow serve the general objective of preserving the freedom of the human spirit—that is, form-giving creativity—over against historicism in the same way that Kant did with respect to naturalism.




Kant asked and answered the fundamental question of his philosophy, "How is nature possible?" He could do so only because nature for him was nothing but the representation of nature. It was so not merely in the sense that "the world is my representation" and that we can therefore speak of nature too as only a content of consciousness, but also in the sense that what we call nature is the special way in which the mind assembles, orders, and shapes sense perceptions. These given perceptions of color, taste, tone, temperature, resistance, and smell pass through our consciousness in the accidental sequence of our subjective experience. In themselves, they are not yet nature. They rather become nature, and they do so through the activity of the mind which combines them into objects and series of objects, into substances and attributes, and into causal connections. In their immediate givenness, Kant held, the elements of the world do not have the interdependence which alone makes them intelligible as the unity of nature's laws. It is this interdependence which transforms the world fragments—in themselves incoherent and unstructured—into nature....

It is very suggestive to treat as an analogous matter the question of the aprioristic conditions under which society is possible. Here, also, we find individual elements. In a certain sense, they too, like sense perceptions, stay forever isolated from one another. They, likewise, are synthesized into the unity of society only by means of a conscious process which correlates the individual existence of the single element with that of the other, and which does so in certain forms and according to certain rules. However, there is a decisive difference between the unity of a society and the unity of nature. It is this: In the Kantian view (which we follow here), the unity of nature emerges in the observing subject exclusively; it is produced exclusively by him in the sense materials, and on the basis of sense materials, which are in themselves heterogeneous. By contrast, the unity of society needs no observer. It is directly realized by its own elements because these elements are themselves conscious and synthesizing units.

Kant's axiom that connection, since it is the exclusive product of the subject, cannot inhere in things themselves, does not apply here. For societal connection immediately occurs in the "things," that is, the individuals. As a synthesis, it too, of course, remains something purely psychological. It has no parallels with spatial things and their interaction. Societal unification needs no factors outside its own component elements, the individuals. Each of them exercises the function which the psychic energy of the observer exercises in regard to external nature: the consciousness of constituting with the others a unity is actually all there is to this unity. This does not mean, of course, that each member of a society is conscious of such an abstract notion of unity. It means that he is absorbed in innumerable, specific relations and in the feeling and the knowledge of determining others and of being determined by them. On the other hand, it should be noted that it is quite possible for an observing outsider to perform an additional synthesis of the persons making up the society. The synthesis would proceed as if these persons were spatial elements, but it is based only upon the observer himself. The determination of which aspect of the externally observable is to be comprehended as a unity depends not only on the immediate and strictly objective content of the observable but also upon the categories and the cognitive requirements of the subjective psyche. Again, however, society, by contrast, is the objective unit which needs no outside observer....

Owing to these circumstances, the question of how society is possible implies a methodology which is wholly different from that for the question of how nature is possible. The latter question is answered by the forms of cognition, through which the subject synthesizes the given elements into nature. By contrast, the former is answered by the conditions which reside a priori in the elements themselves, through which they combine, in reality, into the synthesis, society. In a certain sense, the entire content of this book [Soziologie], as it is developed on the basis of the principle enunciated, is the beginning of the answer to this question. For it inquires into the processes—those which, ultimately, take place in the individuals themselves—that condition the existence of the individuals as society. It investigates these processes, not as antecedent causes of this result, but as part of the synthesis to which we give the inclusive name of "society."

But the question of how society is possible must be understood in a still more fundamental sense. I said that, in the case of nature, the achieving of the synthetic unity is a function of the observing mind, whereas, in the case of society, that function is an aspect of society itself. To be sure, consciousness of the abstract principle that he is forming society is not present in the individual. Nevertheless, every individual knows that the other is tied to him—however much this knowledge of the other as fellow sociate, this grasp of the whole complex as society, is usually realized only on the basis of particular, concrete contents. Perhaps, however, this is not different from the "unity of cognition." As far as our conscious processes are concerned, we proceed by arranging one concrete content alongside another, and we are distinctly conscious of the unity itself only in rare and later abstractions. The questions, then, are these: What, quite generally and a priori, is the basis or presupposition of the fact that particular, concrete processes in the individual consciousness are actually processes of sociation? Which elements in them account for the fact that (to put it abstractly) their achievement is the production of a societal unit out of individuals?

The sociological apriorities envisaged are likely to have the same twofold significance as those which make nature possible. On the one hand, they more or less completely determine the actual processes of sociation as functions or energies of psychological processes. On the other hand, they are the ideational, logical presuppositions for the perfect society (which is perhaps never realized in this perfection, however). We find a parallel in the law of causation. On the one hand, it inheres and is effective in the actual processes of cognition. On the other hand, it constitutes truth as the ideal system of perfect cognition. And it does so irrespective of whether or not this truth obtains in the temporal and relatively accidental psychological dynamics in which causation actually operates—irrespective, that is, of the greater or lesser degree to which the actual, consciously held truth approximates the ideally valid truth....

(1) The picture of another man that a man gains through personal contact with him is based on certain distortions. These are not simple mistakes resulting from incomplete experience, defective vision, or sympathetic or antipathetic prejudices. They are fundamental changes in the quality of the actual object perceived, and they are of two types. We see the other person generalized, in some measure. This is so, perhaps, because we cannot fully represent to ourselves an individuality which deviates from our own. Any re-creation of a person is determined by one's similarity to him. To be sure, similarity is by no means the only condition of psychological insight, for dissimilarity, too, seems required in order to gain distance and objectivity. In addition, aside from the question of similarity or dissimilarity, an intellectual capacity is needed. Nevertheless, perfect cognition presupposes perfect identity. It seems, however, that every individual has in himself a core of individuality which cannot be re-created by anybody else whose core differs qualitatively from his own. And the challenge to re-create is logically incompatible with psychological distance and objective judgment which are also bases for representing another. We cannot know completely the individuality of another.

All relations among men are determined by the varying degrees of this incompleteness. Whatever the cause of this incompleteness, its consequence is a generalization of the psychological picture that we have of another, a generalization that results in a blurring of contours which adds a relation to other pictures to the uniqueness of this one. We conceive of each man—and this is a fact which has a specific effect upon our practical behavior toward him—as being the human type which is suggested by his individuality. We think of him in terms not only of his singularity but also in terms of a general category. This category, of course, does not fully cover him, nor does he fully cover it. It is this peculiarly incomplete coincidence which distinguishes the relation between a human category and a human singularity from the relation which usually exists between a general concept and the particular instance it covers. In order to know a man, we see him not in terms of his pure individuality, but carried, lifted up or lowered, by the general type under which we classify him. Even when this transformation from the singular to the typical is so imperceptible that we cannot recognize it immediately; even when all the ordinary characterological concepts such as "moral" or "immoral," "free" or "unfree," "lordly" or "slavish," and so on, clearly appear inadequate, we privately persist in labeling a man according to an unverbalized type, a type which does not coincide with his pure, individual being.

This leads to a further step. It is precisely because of the utter uniqueness of any given personality that we form a picture which is not identical with its reality but which at the same time does not coincide with a general type. The picture we form is the one the personality would show if the individual were truly himself, so to speak, if he realized, toward a good or toward a bad side, for better or worse, his ideal possibility, the possibility which lies in every individual. All of us are fragments, not only of general man, but also of ourselves. We are outlines not only of the types "man," "good," "bad," and the like but also of the individuality and uniqueness of ourselves. Although this individuality cannot, on principle, be identified by any name, it surrounds our perceptible reality as if traced in ideal lines. It is supplemented by the other's view of us, which results in something that we never are purely and wholly. It is impossible for this view to see anything but juxtaposed fragments, which nevertheless are all that really exist. However, just as we compensate for a blind spot in our field of vision so that we are no longer aware of it, so a fragmentary structure is transformed by another's view into the completeness of an individuality. The practice of life urges us to make the picture of a man only from the real pieces that we empirically know of him, but it is precisely the practice of life which is based on those modifications and supplementations, on the transformation of the given fragments into the generality of a type and into the completeness of the ideal personality.

In practice, this fundamental process is only rarely carried to completion. Nevertheless, within an existing society it operates as the a priori condition of additional interactions that arise among individuals. Every member of a group which is held together by some common occupation or interest sees every other member not just empirically, but on the basis of an aprioric principle which the group imposes on every one of its participants. Among officers, church members, employees, scholars, or members of a family, every member regards the other with the unquestioned assumption that he is a member of "my group." Such assumptions arise from some common basis of life. By virtue of it, people look at one another as if through a veil. This veil does not simply hide the peculiarity of the person; it gives it a new form. Its purely individual, real nature and its group nature fuse into a new, autonomous phenomenon. We see the other not simply as an individual but as a colleague or comrade or fellow party member—in short, as a cohabitant of the same specific world. And this inevitable, quite automatic assumption is one of the means by which one's personality and reality assume, in the imagination of another, the quality and form required by sociability.

Evidently, this is true also of the relations of members who belong to different groups. The civilian who meets an officer cannot free himself from his knowledge of the fact that this individual is an officer. And although his officership may be a part of this particular individuality, it is certainly not so stereotypical as the civilian's prejudicial image would have it. And the same goes for the Protestant in regard to the Catholic, the businessman in regard to the bureaucrat, the layman in regard to the priest, and so on. In all these cases, reality is veiled by social generalization, which, in a highly differentiated society, makes discovering it altogether impossible. Man distorts the picture of another. He both detracts and supplements, since generalization is always both less and more than individuality is. The distortions derive from all these a priori, operative categories: from the individual's type as man, from the idea of his perfection, and from the general society to which he belongs. Beyond all of these, there is, as a heuristic principle of knowledge, the idea of his real, unconditionally individual nature. It seems as if only the apprehension of this nature could furnish the basis for an entirely correct relation to him. But the very alterations and new formations which preclude this ideal knowledge of him are, actually, the conditions which make possible the sort of relations we call social. The phenomenon recalls Kant's conception of the categories: they form immediate data into new objects, but they alone make the given world into a knowable world.


Excerpted from Georg Simmel by Donald N. Levine. Copyright © 1971 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Donald N. Levine is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Flight from Ambiguity: Essays in Social and Cultural Theory, Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, and Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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