Simmel's Writing Career

In contrast to all theother sociologists discussed so far, Simmel's interest in currentaffairs and in social and political issues was minimal. Occasionally hewould comment in newspaper articles on questions of the day--socialmedicine, the position of women, or criminal insanity--but such topicalconcerns were clearly peripheral to him. There is one major exception,however. With the outbreak of the war Simmel threw himself into warpropaganda with passionate intensity. "I love Germany," he wrote then,"and therefore want it to live--to hell with all 'objective'justification of this will in terms of culture, ethics, history, or Godknows what else." Some of Simmel's wartime writings are rather painfulto read, exuding a kind of superpatriotism so alien to his previousdetached stance. They represent a desperate effort by a man who hadalways regarded himself as a "stranger" in the land to become immersedin the patriotic community. His young friend Ernst Bloch told him: "You avoided decision throughout your life--Tertium datur--nowyou find the absolute in the trenches." Throughout his career Simmelhad managed to preserve a distance that enabled him to view events withcool rationality; in the last years of his life he succumbed to thedesire for nearness and communion. Perhaps it was a failure of nerve.

Simmel was a most prolific writer. More than two hundred of hisarticles appeared in a great variety of journals, newspapers, andmagazines during his lifetime, and several more were publishedposthumously. He wrote fifteen major works in the fields of philosophy,ethics, sociology, and cultural criticism, and another five or six lesssignificant works. After his dissertation, his first publication,entitled On Social Differentiation (1890), was devoted tosociological problems, but for a number of years thereafter he publishedmainly in the field of ethics and the philosophy of history, returningto sociology only at a later date. His two major early works, TheProblems of the Philosophy of History and the two volumes of the Introductionto the Science of Ethics, were published in 1892-93; these werefollowed in 1900 by his seminal work, The Philosophy of Money, abook on the borderline between philosophy and sociology. After severalsmaller volumes on religion, on Kant and Goethe, and on Nietzsche andSchopenhauer, Simmel produced his major sociological work, Sociology:Investigations on the Forms of Sociation, in 1908. Much of itscontent had already been published previously in journal articles. Hethen turned away from sociological questions for almost a decade, but hereturned to them in the small volume published in 1917, FundamentalQuestions of Sociology. His other books in the last period of hislife dealt with cultural criticism (Philosophische Kultur,1911), with literary and art criticism (Goethe, 1913, and Rembrandt,1916), and with the history of philosophy (Hauptprobleme derPhilosophie, 1910). His last publication, Lebensanschauung(1918), set forth the vitalistic philosophy he had elaborated toward theend of his life.

Because he was unable to develop a consistentsociological or philosophical system, it is not altogether surprisingthat Simmel did not succeed in creating a "school" or that he left fewdirect disciples. With his accustomed lucidity and self-consciousness,he noted in his diary shortly before his death: "I know that I shalldie without intellectual heirs, and that is as it should be. My legacywill be, as it were, in cash, distributed to many heirs, eachtransforming his part into use conformed to his nature: a usewhich will reveal no longer its indebtedness to this heritage." Thisis indeed what happened. Simmel's influence on the further developmentof both philosophy and sociology, whether acknowledged or not, has beendiffuse yet pervasive, even during those periods when his fame seemed tohave been eclipsed. Robert K. Merton once called him "that man ofinnumerable seminal ideas" and Ortega y Gasset compared him to a kind ofphilosophical squirrel, jumping from one nut to the other, scarcelybothering to nibble much at any of them, mainly concerned withperforming his splendid exercises as he leaped from branch to branch,and rejoicing in the sheer gracefulness of his acrobatic leaps. Simmelattracted generation after generation of enthralled listeners, buthardly anyone who would call himself a disciple.

Among Americanswho sat at his feet was Robert Park. No one who reads Park's work canoverlook Simmel's profound impact. Continentals who derived majorinspiration from his lectures include such dissimilar figures as theMarxist philosophers Georg Lukacs and Ernst Bloch, the existentialistphilosopher-theologian Martin Buber, the philosopher-sociologist MaxScheler, and the social historian Bernhard Groethuysen. Germansociologists Karl Mannheim, Alfred Vierkandt, Hans Freyer and Leopoldvon Wiese also were influenced by Simmel's work. Theodor Adorno, MaxHorkheimer, and the other representatives of the Frankfort school ofneo-Marxist sociology owe his a great deal, especially in theircriticism of mass culture and mass society. Modern German philosophersfrom Nicolai Hartmann to Martin Heidegger were also indebted to him. Itis not an exaggeration to state that hardly a German intellectual fromthe 1890's to World War I and after managed to escape the powerfulthrusts of Simmel's rhetorical and dialectical skills.

From Coser, 1977:197-199.


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