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Robert E. Park
“Although Simmel has written the most profound and stimulating book in sociology, in my opinion, that has ever been written, he was not in the first instance a sociologist but a philosopher.”
Published in 1918, The View of Life is Georg Simmel’s final work. Famously deemed “the brightest man in Europe” by George Santayana, Simmel addressed diverse topics across his essayistic writings, which influenced scholars in aesthetics, epistemology, and sociology. Nevertheless, certain core issues emerged over the course of his career—the genesis, structure, and transcendence of social and cultural forms, and the nature and conditions of authentic individuality, including the role of mindfulness regarding ...
Published in 1918, The View of Life is Georg Simmel’s final work. Famously deemed “the brightest man in Europe” by George Santayana, Simmel addressed diverse topics across his essayistic writings, which influenced scholars in aesthetics, epistemology, and sociology. Nevertheless, certain core issues emerged over the course of his career—the genesis, structure, and transcendence of social and cultural forms, and the nature and conditions of authentic individuality, including the role of mindfulness regarding mortality. Composed not long before his death, The View of Life was, Simmel wrote, his “testament,” a capstone work of profound metaphysical inquiry intended to formulate his conception of life in its entirety.
Now Anglophone readers can at last read in full the work that shaped the argument of Heidegger’s Being and Time and whose extraordinary impact on European intellectual life between the wars was extolled by Jürgen Habermas. Presented alongside these seminal essays are aphoristic fragments from Simmel’s last journal, providing a beguiling look into the mind of one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers.
Man's position in the world is defined by the fact that in every dimension of his being and behavior he finds himself at every moment between two boundaries. This condition appears as the formal structure of our existence, filled always with different contents in life's diverse provinces, activities, and destinies. We feel that the content and value of every hour stands between a higher and a lower; every thought between a wiser and a more foolish; every possession between a more extended and a more limited; every deed between a greater and a lesser measure of meaning, adequacy, and morality. We are continually orienting ourselves, even when we do not employ abstract concepts, to an "over us" and an "under us," to a right and a left, to a more or less, a tighter or looser, a better or worse. The boundary, above and below, is our means for finding direction in the infinite space of our worlds. Along with the fact that we have boundaries always and everywhere, so also we are boundaries. For insofar as every content of life—every feeling, experience, deed, or thought—possesses a specific intensity, a specific hue, a specific quantity, and a specific position in some order of things, there proceeds from each content a continuum in two directions, toward its two poles; content itself thus participates in each of these two continua, which collide in it and which it delimits. This participation in realities, tendencies, and ideas that are a plus and a minus, a this-side and a that-side of our here and now, may well be obscure and fragmentary; but it gives life two complementary, if also often colliding, values: richness and determinacy. For these continua by which we are bounded and whose segments we ourselves bound form a sort of coordinate system through which, as it were, the locus of every part and content of our life is identified.
For the most decisive meaning of the constitution of our existence through boundaries, however, this property of determinacy forms only the point of departure. For although the boundary as such is necessary, yet every single specific boundary can be stepped over, every fixity can be displaced, every enclosure can be burst, and every such act, of course, finds or creates a new boundary. The pair of statements—that the boundary is unconditional in that its existence is constitutive of our given position in the world, but that no boundary is unconditional since every one can in principle be altered, reached over, gotten around—this pair of statements appears as the explication of the inner unity of vital action. Out of countless cases I shall name merely one that is very characteristic of the turbulence of this process and of the persistence of our life through it: knowing and not knowing about the consequences of our actions. We are all like the chess player in this regard: if he did not know with a reasonable degree of probability what consequences would result from a certain move, the game would be impossible; but it would also be impossible if this foresight extended indefinitely. Plato's definition of the philosopher as he who stands between knowing and not-knowing holds for man in general; the slightest consideration shows how every step of our life without exception is determined and made possible by the fact that we perceive its consequences, and likewise because we perceive them only up to a certain point, beyond which they become confused and finally escape our vision altogether. Moreover, it is not only the fact that we stand on this border between knowledge and ignorance that makes our life what we know it to be; life would be completely different if the boundary were definitive in each instance, if with advancing life (both in general and in regard to every individual undertaking) the uncertain did not become more certain, and that which is most surely believed more questionable. The inherent displaceability and displacement of our boundaries means that we are able to express our essence with a paradox: we are bounded in every direction, and we are bounded in no direction.
Yet the essential fluidity of our boundaries immediately implies or signifies something further: that we also know our boundaries as such—first the particular boundaries and then the general ones. For only someone who stands outside his boundary in some sense knows that he stands within it; that is, knows it as a boundary at all. Kaspar Hauser did not know that he was in prison until he came into the open and could see the walls from without. In the theoretical realm, for example, our direct experience and our introspective imaginative representations can only identify graduated phenomena within certain magnitudes. Beyond a certain degree, speed and slowness are not actually conceivable for us; we have no real picture of the speed of light or of the slowness with which a stalactite grows because we cannot project ourselves into such tempi; nor can we effectively imagine temperatures of 1,000 degrees or absolute zero; what lies beyond red and violet in the solar spectrum is not optically accessible to us at all; and so forth. Our imagination and primary apprehension stake out areas from the infinite fullness of reality and the infinite modes of apprehending it, probably so that the magnitude of stimuli that are thereby delimited suffices as a basis for our practical conduct. But this very reference to such boundaries shows that we can somehow step over them, that we have stepped over them. Concept and speculation, construction and calculation induce us to move beyond the world that we have, so to speak, in sensible reality, thereby revealing this world to us as bounded, by enabling us to look at its boundaries from the outside. Our concrete, immediate life posits an area that lies between an upper and a lower boundary; but consciousness of this account depends on the fact that life has become more abstract and advanced, thus transcending its boundary, and thereby confirming the reality of a boundary. Life holds the boundary fast, stands on this side of it—and in the same act stands on the other side of it and views it simultaneously from within and from without. The two aspects belong equally to its establishment, and just as the boundary itself partakes of both its "this side" and its "that side," so the unified act of life includes both boundedness and the transcendence of boundary, despite the fact that this, considered as a whole, seems to present a logical contradiction.
This self-transcendence of the spirit occurs not only in individual episodes, around whose quantitative limit we occasionally impose a broader boundary so as to recognize it as a true limit for the first time by bursting it. This process also governs the most dominant principles of consciousness. To illustrate, one of the most enormous steps mankind has made to go beyond a boundary, which at once results in an otherwise unattainable knowledge of our boundedness, lies in the broadening of our sensible world by the invention of the telescope and the microscope. Formerly, man had a world defined and limited by the natural use of the senses, a world thus harmonious with his total organization. But since we have built eyes which see at billions of kilometers what we normally observe only at very short distances, and others which disclose the finest structures of objects at an enlargement that would have no place in our natural perception of space, this harmony has been disrupted. A most thoughtful biologist put it this way:
A being whose eyes had the structure of a giant telescope would be formed quite differently from us in other regards, too. It would possess completely different faculties for making practical use of what it would see. It would fashion new objects, and above all would have a vastly longer life span than ours. Perhaps even its conception of time would be fundamentally different. As soon as we become aware of the disproportion between the space and time relations in such worlds and those of our own existence, we need only to remind ourselves that we could not walk on stilts a half kilometer long. But whether we enlarge our sense organs or our locomotive organs beyond their due is in principle the same: in both cases we break through the natural fitness of our organism.
We have thus transcended the compass of our natural being in certain directions; that is, the adaptation between our total organization and our world of perception. We now have around us a world that, if we consider man a unified being whose several parts are in appropriate relation to one another, is no longer "ours." Looking back from this world, however, which was won by transcending our being through its own powers, we regard ourselves in a hitherto unheard of cosmic diminution. As we push our boundaries out into the realm of the measureless, our relations to such vast spaces and times press us back in our consciousness to the magnitude boundary of an infinitesimal point. A similar situation applies with respect to the overall structure of our cognition. If we assume that the determination of truth depends on the fact that a priori categories form the given material of the world into objects of knowledge, what is "given" must nevertheless be able to be formed by these categories. Now either we conclude that our mind is so arranged that nothing at all can be "given" to it which does not fit these categories, or we determine the way in which a "givenness" can take place from the outset. Whether this determination of fact takes place one way or another, there exists no guarantee that the given (be it given in the sensible or the metaphysical manner) will even actually enter completely into the forms of our genuine or definitive cognition. Just as little as everything that is given us from the world enters into the forms of art, just as little as religion can possess itself of every content of life, so little perhaps is the totality of the given accommodated by these forms or categories of cognition. However, the fact that, as knowing beings and within the possibilities of cognition itself, we can even conceive that all the world might not enter the forms of our cognition; the fact that, even in a purely problematical way, we can imagine that there might be a given something in the world that we simply cannot think of—this represents a movement of the mental life beyond itself; a breakthrough and attainment of something beyond not only a single boundary, but beyond the mind's limits altogether; an act of self-transcendence, which alone sets the immanent limits of cognition, no matter whether these limits are actual or only possible. This formula holds no less true for each particular version of the general principle. The one-sidedness of the great philosophies expresses most unambiguously the relation between the infinite ambiguity of the world and our limited interpretive capacities. The fact that we know this one-sidedness as such, however—and not only individual instances of it, but one-sidedness as a necessity in principle—this places us above it. We deny the boundary the moment we know its one-sidedness, without ceasing thereby to stand within it. This is the only thing that allows us to be released from our despair about it, about our finiteness and mortality: that we do not simply stand within these boundaries, but by virtue of our awareness of them have passed beyond them. That we ourselves know our knowing and not-knowing, and that we again know this more embracing knowledge, and its infinite potential—this is the real infinity of the mind's vital movement. Every limit is herewith transcended, but of course only through the fact that it is set; that is, that there exists something to transcend. It is only with this self-transcending movement that the mind shows itself to be something absolutely vital. This carries over into the realm of ethics expressed in the idea, which has arisen ever again in numerous forms, that the moral task of man is to overcome himself. This notion appears all the way from a completely individualistic form:
Von der Gewalt, die alle Wesen bindet, Befreit der Mensch sich, der sich überwindet. [From the force all creatures heed He who transcends himself is freed.]
to that of the philosophy of history:
Der Mensch ist etwas, das überwinden werden soll. [Man is something that is to be overcome.]
Logically considered, this, too, presents a contradiction: he who overcomes himself is admittedly the victor, but he is also the defeated. The ego succumbs to itself, when it wins; it achieves victory, when it suffers defeat. Yet the contradiction only arises when the two aspects of this unity are hardened into opposed, mutually exclusive conceptions. It is precisely the fully unified process of the moral life which overcomes and surpasses every lower state by achieving a higher one, and again transcends this latter state through one still higher. That man overcomes himself means that he reaches out beyond the bounds that the moment sets for him. There must be something at hand to be overcome, but it is only there in order to be overcome. Thus even as an ethical agent, man is the limited being that has no limit. This hasty sketch of a very general and not especially profound aspect of life may serve to prepare the way for the conception of life to be developed here. As a point of departure, I will take up a consideration of time.
Taking the term in its full logical strictness, the present does not encompass more than the absolute unextendedness of a moment; it is as little time as the point is space. It denotes exclusively the collision of past and future, which alone make up amounts of time; that is, time as such. But since the one is no longer, and the other not yet, reality adheres to the present alone; this means that reality is not at all something temporal; the concept of time can be applied to reality's contents only if the atemporality they possess as present has become a "no more" or a "not yet," at any rate a nothing. Time is not in reality, and reality is not time. We acknowledge the force of this paradox, however, only for the logically observed object. The subjectively lived life will not adjust to it; the latter is felt, no matter whether or not it is logically justified, to be something real in a temporal dimension. Common usage indicates this, if in an inexact and superficial way, by understanding of the term"present"not only the mere punctuality of its conceptual sense, but also always a bit of the past and a somewhat smaller bit of the future. (These "bits" vary greatly in size according to whether the present in question is of a personal or political, cultural or geological nature.)
Excerpted from The View of Life by GEORG SIMMEL Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Note on the Translation
I. Life as Transcendence
II. The Turn toward Ideas
III. Death and Immortality
IV. The Law of the Individual
Appendix: Journal Aphorisms, with an Introduction