Georg Simmel

The Person

Georg Simmelwas born on March 1, 1858, in the very heart of Berlin, the corner ofLeipzigerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse. This was a curiousbirthplace--it would correspond to Times Square in New York--but itseems symbolically fitting for a man who throughout his life lived inthe intersection of many movements, intensely affected by thecross-currents of intellectual traffic and by a multiplicity of moraldirections. Simmel was a modern urban man, without roots in traditionalfolk culture. Upon reading Simmel's first book, F. Toennies wrote to afriend: "The book is shrewd but it has the flavor of the metropolis." Like "the stranger" he described in his brilliant essay of the samename, he was near and far at the same time, a "potential wanderer;although he [had] not moved on, he [had] not quite overcome the freedomof coming and going." One of the major theorists to emerge in Germanphilosophy and social science around the turn of the century, he remainsatypical, a perturbing and fascinating figure to his more organicallyrooted contemporaries.

Simmel was the youngest of seven children. His father, a prosperous Jewish businessman who had converted toChristianity, died when Simmel was still young. A friend of the family,the owner of a music publishing house, was appointed the boy's guardian. Simmel's relation to his domineering mother was rather distant; heseems not to have had any roots in a secure family environment, and asense of marginality and insecurity came early to the young Simmel.

After graduating from Gymnasium, Simmel studied history andphilosophy at the University of Berlin with some of the most importantacademic figures of the day: the historians Mommsen, Treitschke, Sybeland Droysen, the philosophers Harms and Zeller, the art historianHermann Grimm, the anthropologists Lazarus and Steinthal (who were thefounders of Voelkerpsychologie), and the psychologist Bastian. By the time he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1881 (his thesiswas entitled "The Nature of Matter According to Kant's PhysicalMonadology"), Simmel was familiar with vast field of knowledge extendingfrom history to philosophy and from psychology to the social sciences. This catholicity of tastes and interests marked his entire subsequentcareer.

Deeply tied to the intellectual milieu of Berlin, bothinside and outside the university, Simmel did not follow the example ofmost German academic men who typically moved from one university toanother both during their studies and after; instead, he decided to stayat the University of Berlin, where he became a Privatdozent (an unpaidlecturer dependent on student fees) in 1885. His courses ranged fromlogic and the history of philosophy to ethics, social psychology, andsociology. He lectured on Kant, Schopenhauer, Darwin, and Nietzsche,among many others. Often during a single academic year he would surveynew trends in sociology as well as in metaphysics. He was a verypopular lecturer and his lectures soon became leading intellectualevents, not only for students but for the cultural elite of Berlin. Inspite of the fascination he called forth, however, his academic careerturned out to be unfortunate, even tragic.

From Coser, 1977:194-195.


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