Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary

Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary

by Elizabeth S. Goodstein


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ISBN-13: 9781503600737
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/04/2017
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth S. Goodstein is Professor of Liberal Arts at Emory University and the author of the award-winning Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity (Stanford, 2005).

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Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary

By Elizabeth S. Goodstein


Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5036-0073-7


Introduction: Simmel's Modernity

Marginality at the Center: Georg Simmel in Berlin Georg Simmel's marginality began during his lifetime, with an academic career that combined international fame with a long series of rejections and professional slights at the hands of the German professoriate. The author of more than two dozen books and hundreds of articles — an oeuvre comprising everything from thick tomes on moral philosophy and sociology to feuilletonistic fluff — Simmel published best-selling works of metaphysical speculation as well as a remarkably diverse range of essays on art historical, literary, sociological, and cultural topics. The critical edition of his works runs to twenty-four volumes, including two of letters, which by no means capture the original breadth of his correspondence, much of which has been lost forever. With his capacious and flexible mind and wide-ranging interdisciplinary interests came notable rhetorical talent, and Simmel enjoyed considerable fame in his own lifetime as a writer and speaker both in Germany and abroad. Significantly, though, he remained at the margins of the academic establishment.

Simmel was a philosopher and sociologist of recognized scholarly stature; he was also what we would today call a public intellectual. Recent research has underlined his impact beyond academic circles, including on key figures in the new social movements of the day, such as the feminist Helen Stöcker and the expressionist writer and pathbreaking homosexual rights activist Kurt Hiller. He was also a fabled conversationalist, whose circles extended from Marianne and Max Weber to Rainer Maria Rilke, from Edmund Husserl and Heinrich Rickert to Auguste Rodin and Stefan George. George Santayana called him "the brightest man in Europe."

For many years one of Berlin's Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität's most prominent intellectual figures, Simmel was a popular and influential teacher in the philosophy department (where he had also studied) from 1885 to 1914. His lecture courses, ranging over all five branches of philosophy — metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and logic — in addition to sociology, became a "Berlin tradition." Hearers came from far and wide to experience a thinker who, in the words of one of the many eulogies published at his death, fostered the "rehabilitation of philosophy" and "exercised a more powerful influence on the spiritual development of the younger generation than the majority of his colleagues in the philosophical chairs of Germany."

With his vibrantly embodied delivery, Simmel appeared to be thinking aloud, and he was able to convey the most abstract ideas in such an animated fashion that, as the literary critic Paul Fechter recalled, "the listener's thinking along also came to life and understanding arose of its own accord." According to his admirers, Simmel's popularity was not due merely to his rhetorical brilliance. In the presence of this "genuinely cosmopolitan intellect," the philosopher Karl Joël wrote, one felt that "the zeitgeist itself had come to life." For Fechter, he had a Zeitinstinkt, an instinctive feel for the times, that allowed him to give form to the intellectual and social transformations under way and provide what his hearers most needed, "an interpretation of the era [Zeitdeutung] starting from the modern."

Many others remembered him in similar terms. Simmel's unusually public success as a philosopher was grounded in a cosmopolitan sensibility that resonated powerfully with his Berlin audiences. Skeptical, analytical, and highly sensitive, he experienced the modern world with visceral intensity — and strove to capture that experience and make it intelligible in speech and writing. Simmel regarded a wide range of hitherto unexamined phenomena as worthy of philosophical attention, and he was often accused of uncritically embracing all things new. In fact, his analytic attitude was considerably more ambivalent. If his contemporaries saw him as a personification of the zeitgeist, it was not simply because he epitomized the hypersensitive modern urban subject, but also on account of his deep awareness of the cultural costs of freedom and of the intimate losses suffered in pursuit of subjective autonomy.

Simmel's cosmopolitan sensibility, a distinctive combination of immersion in and distanced reflection upon the complex and contradictory achievements of modern society, provided the lived foundation for what I call his modernist style of philosophizing. His texts do not, as has so often been asserted, simply affirm or uncritically register modern experience, with all its fragmentation and contradictoriness, but embody a mode of reflection deliberately shaped by the striving to make the modern world intelligible on its own terms. From his genuinely cosmopolitan, that is to say, reflective and self-reflective, perspective, the fascination of the moment, the allure of the particular, provided an occasion, not an end, for thought. But the philosophical sophistication of Simmel's approach to the contradictory plenitude of modern experience has gone largely unrecognized, with even his advocates tending to overemphasize moments of apparent immediacy, of immersion in particularity, while downplaying and neglecting the countervailing movements of negation and distancing that also mark his style of thought.

Writing in the Hannoverscher Kurier on the tenth anniversary of his teacher's death, the philosopher, critic, and literary scholar Ludwig Marcuse attempted to capture what made him stand out as a philosopher, "and not only among those of this century." Recalling Simmel's objection to "imprison[ing] the fullness of life in a symmetrical systematic," he powerfully evokes an intellectual style that combined "a maximum of receptivity, of experiential breadth and depth with a maximum of intellectuality, scholasticism, Talmudism, addiction to rationalization," adding that Simmel's "sensual-soulful sensitivity created an uncommonly rich substance for his possession by thought" (BdD, 189).

Marcuse goes on to describe Simmel's distinctive form of dialectical thought, his "relativism," as lived experience: "We loved in Simmel the fascinating event that a human being of enormous experiential capacity repeatedly penetrated through all conceptual boundaries into unconceived spaces of the soul," then captured them in concepts only to find these in turn "left behind by new experiencing" (BdD, 189–90). Writing for an audience that shared this living memory of the teacher and philosopher, Marcuse invoked and affirmed Simmel's posthumously published prediction: "Why did he die without spiritual heirs? Because he was (as Rickert once called him) the systematizer of the unsystematic." However, Marcuse writes, "Only the dogmatic concept can become tradition" (BdD, 190).

Simmel's cosmopolitan fascination with emerging forms of individual and collective experience gave rise to a new "relativist" approach to philosophizing, to new kinds of cultural inquiry and modes of reflection on the phenomena of everyday life. Such investigations always had high theoretical stakes: Simmel was striving to modernize philosophy, to achieve reflective traction on the historical and philosophical situation of modern western Europe and on the lived experience of those inhabiting and constituting that world.

Yet it is a mistake to think of this modernist philosopher as a philosopher of modern experience. For Simmel the entire relation between philosophy and experience was at stake, as it was for Kant and Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche before and Husserl and Heidegger after him.While emphasizing philosophical problems that had gained particular urgency under modern historical and sociocultural circumstances, he did not develop a philosophy, much less a sociology, of modernity. Beginning with the phenomena of everyday life, Simmel led his listeners to timeless questions using a distinctive synecdochic logic that anchored the most abstract ideas in historical particularity. As the testimony of contemporaries shows, it was most of all this gift for making philosophical questions relevant to human existence that accounted for his appeal.

Like Hegel, that other great master of synecdoche, Simmel found philosophical entrée in the most insignificant features of everyday life. The novelist Frank Thiess recalled his "incredible ability to concretize an abstract process" and knack for discovering "the most inspired examples": "in two years of study in Berlin, I never heard an hour that was more interesting, riveting, animated, and exciting, than Simmel's "logic" lectures" (BdD, 177).

Simmel's modernist pedagogy opened up new vistas for thought. For the novelist Georg Hermann, he was an "anatomist of the ultimate stirrings of the soul that in others took place deep in the darkness of the subconscious," the "idol of youth" who became "the greatest experience of our years at the university" (BdD, 163). Simmel "proclaimed a 'turning away from mere thought' and believed that the immediacy of existence could be experienced 'only in its own profundity,'" Ludwig Marcuse recalled. This thinker who "abhorred the robustness of manipulable formulations" thus lived on in the memory of his students as "the original image of a philosopher" (BdD, 190–91).

Simmel's rhetorical brilliance and his gift for connecting philosophizing to lived experience were, then, placed at the service of the most intimate, yet most traditional, of pedagogical ends. In the words of the twentieth-century Dutch American geostrategist Nicholas Spykman, Simmel "aided his students in finding themselves" rather than propagating a doctrine of his own (BdD, 187). His private seminars were formative philosophical experiences for thinkers as diverse as Ernst Bloch, Martin Buber, Bernhard Groethuysen, György Lukács, Karl Mannheim, Gustav Radbruch, Max Scheler, Margarete Susman, and Leopold von Wiese.

Simmel's cosmopolitan approach attracted a cosmopolitan audience. From early in his career, his lectures and private seminars drew admirers from afar — from North and South America as well as eastern and western Europe and Japan. Before the turn of the century, his lecture courses had already taken on the character of public events and were held in the largest auditoria of the Berlin University. But Simmel's popularity and the diversity of his audience were a source of suspicion. In a fateful denunciatory letter, the historian Dieter Schäfer, a student of the nationalist Heinrich von Treitschke's, called attention, not only to the large numbers of women attending Simmel's lectures, but to many listeners from "the Oriental world ... streaming toward [Berlin] out of eastern lands" among his audience.

If Simmel's public success reflected the rhetorical talent that made him an unusually gifted teacher and lecturer, it nonetheless rested on solid academic credentials. In no small part due to his attempts to lay the theoretical groundwork of sociology, Simmel gained international scholarly recognition well before the publication of his masterwork, Philosophie des Geldes (translated as The Philosophy of Money), in 1900. The earliest commentaries on his work appeared not in Germany but in France, the first in 1894 — a full twenty years before he finally received a regular professorship. The first book-length monograph on his work (likewise in French) was published the same year he left Berlin for Strasbourg, but well before 1914, Simmel's intellectual impact had been reflected in literature in Czech, Russian, and Italian as well, and his work had been translated into an even wider range of languages, including Danish and Polish. The earliest English translation was an excerpt from his Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft (Introduction to Moral Science) that appeared in the International Journal of Ethics in 1893, shortly after the German original was published.

The efforts of Simmel and his supporters to secure him a position commensurate with his talents and achievements were nevertheless repeatedly rebuffed. In the charged atmosphere of fin de siècle Berlin, his public success only exacerbated his status as academic outsider. By 1910, he had acquired a certain ironic resignation, writing a colleague: "German officialdom takes me for a kind of 'corrupter of the young,' and I shall thus surely never receive a professorship — even when, as happened two years ago, the Heidelberg department, indeed, the whole university (as the rector at the time put it), supported me in a way that had not happened for any appointment in years."

Simmel added that he enjoyed great pedagogical success — "numerically speaking" among the best in the country — and that "the area of my philosophical activity is about the most extensive of any German professor. It encompasses the entire history of philosophy, logic and psychology, ethics and aesthetics, the philosophy of religion, sociology, and the philosophy of right." But neither his success as a teacher nor the breadth of his course offerings necessarily accrued to his advantage. There was considerable hostility to Simmel, as well as to what he represented — not only the entry of Jews into the university, but also unconventional scholarship that questioned established assumptions and even institutions.

Correspondence with the aforementioned rector of Heidelberg University, the legal philosopher Georg Jellinek, in early 1908 illustrates Simmel's considerable insight into the difficulty of his position. His appointment to the Heidelberg chair formerly held by Kuno Fischer initially seemed virtually assured — he was in the second position on the list sent to the ministry in February, and Heinrich Rickert, whose name was first, wanted to remain in Freiburg. Upon learning that the minister of culture "was reconsidering the matter for various reasons," Simmel responded with considerable equanimity, treating the delay as a routine bureaucratic development and proceeding to put forward tentative plans for taking up the post in Heidelberg in the coming semester.

But a conversation with an unnamed official of his acquaintance awakened familiar concerns and prompted him to write to Jellinek again the following day. Simmel was widely regarded, he had been told, as "a purely critical spirit, who teaches students only the critique of everything and thus has a destructive effect, tending toward mere negation" — an "opinion," the man had assured him, that was "consistently joined with the greatest recognition of your professional achievement." Palpably alarmed, Simmel continued,

As I heard these words, it suddenly went through my head — with the conviction that we sometimes have for entirely unproven things — that the minister's reservations of which you hinted to me can be traced to this, probably only to this "opinion." He will have heard from someone or other that I am a hypercritical, merely analytical thinker who corrupts the young in a properly Socratic way.

His letter attempts both to explain and to combat the putative charge.

The source of the problem lay, Simmel thought, in a work he had published sixteen years earlier, Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaft, "admittedly a critical book. Since then I have been cursed for only offering negativities, and everything positive that I have done since then has been unable to eliminate this aliquid haerens [thing sticking to me]." But he had long since left behind his youthful stance: "I don't believe that there can be a book more averse to mere critique and more positively oriented toward the understanding of history and life than the Philosophy of Money." As for his teaching, one could dispute the worth of his lectures, but to call them merely critical would be nothing less than a "falsification of the facts," for he shared "Nietzsche's view: 'where you don't love, you should pass over.'"

Simmel had correctly discerned that his seemingly certain appointment in Heidelberg was endangered. He wrote Max Weber the same day, beginning by rehearsing the accusation that he was "an exclusively critical, even destructive spirit and that [his] lectures lead only to negation" and continuing:

Probably I don't need to tell you that this is a terrible falsehood. Like all of my work, my lecture courses have for many years been directed exclusively toward the positive, toward the establishment of a deeper understanding of world and spirit, with a complete abstention from polemic and critique with respect to other positions and theories. Anyone who understands my lectures and books at all can only understand them thus.

Beneath his exasperation at the idea that the professional judgment of the Heidelberg philosophical faculty might be set aside on the basis of deliberate distortions of the record, Simmel was clearly beginning to come to terms with the possibility that this prestigious and seemingly assured professorial appointment would come to nought. He closed on a high note, remarking that however things turned out, what the whole process had revealed was "a thousand times more valuable to me than any sort of external success can be, the respect and love of so many and of such people."


Excerpted from Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary by Elizabeth S. Goodstein. Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

List of Abbreviations ix

Prologue: Modernist Philosophy and the History of Theory 1

Part I Cold Cash and the Modern Classic

1 Introduction: Simmel's Modernity 15

Marginatity at the Center: Georg Simmel in Berlin 15

Modern Culture and the Problem of Disciplinarity 25

Disciplining Simmel 35

Simmers Philosophical Modernism and the History of Theory 48

2 Simmel as Classic: Representation and the Rhetoric of Disciplinarity 52

A Modern Classic? 53

Simmel's Self-(Re)Presentation 61

Simmel's "Formalism" 66

Form in Context: Theorizing Culture 78

Modernist Identity and the Self-Overcoming of Relativism 83

3 Memory/Legacy: Georg Simmel as (Mostly) Forgotten Founding Father 96

Simmel in America: The Disciplinary (Pre-)History 96

Discipline/History: Theorizing Misrecognition 104

Rereading Misreading: "Simmnel" in America 113

Styles of Thought and the Rhetoric of Disciplinarity 121

Disciplining Culture 125

Part II Philosophy of Money as Modernist Philosophy

4 Style as Substance: Simmel's Modernism and the Disciplinary Imaginary 137

Reading Simmel's Philosophy of Money 140

Simmel's Philosophical Modernism 146

Rethinking thinking: Culture, Relativism, and das Geistesleben 156

5 Performing Relativity: Money and Modernist Philosophy 168

From a Psychology to a Philosophy of Money 172

Money in Action: Value, Life, Form 179

Money, Representation, and "the Cultural Process" 186

Money and Metaphysics: Relativism as Modernist Method 199

6 Disciplining the Philosophy of Money 211

A Disciplinary Rorschach: Early Responses to the Philosophy of Money 212

The Philosophy of Money as "Social Theory" 221

Interdisciplinariry before Disciplines: Simmel's Phenomenology of Culture 226

Metaphysical Relativism and Modernist Praxis 234

Part III The Case of Simmel

7 Thinking Liminality, Rethinking Disciplinarity 249

Method and Change: Thinking Liminality 249

Beyond the (Philosophy of the) Subject: Thinking Relatively and the "Problem of Sociology" 259

Laws, Norms, and the Relativity of Being 272

Form, Figuration, and the Disciplinary Imaginary 278

Canonization Reprised 284

8 The Stranger and the Sociological Imagination 296

Reading Simmel: Appropriation by Fragments 300

Rereading Rereading: Estranging the Stranger 306

Becoming Social, Figuring Strangeness 310

Disciplinarity and the Cultural Process 321

Epilogue: Georg Simmel as Modernist Philosopher 331

Simmel in Strasbourg 337

Select Bibliography 347

Index 359

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