Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary
Elizabeth S. Goodstein



Modernist Philosophy and the History of Theory

I know that I shall die without spiritual heirs (and it is a good thing). My legacy is like one in cold cash divided among many heirs, and each converts his portion into an enterprise of some sort that corresponds to his nature: whose provenance in that inheritance is not visible.

Georg Simmel1

Certain figures in the history of thought seem to derive their significance from their marginality. Never quite forgotten, often the objects of devoted scholarly followings yet largely unread by nonspecialists, they enjoy wider fame mainly in the form of cliché—thus Herodotus is said to be the father of lies, Montaigne the inventor of the essay, Musil the chronicler of a Vienna that perished in the Great War. So, too, Georg Simmel (1858–1918) is known, if at all, as one of the founding fathers of modern social science and the author of a single work, the Philosophy of Money, which remains by and large unread. This truncated form of memory contains in nuce the dynamic of marginalization: a complex intellectual legacy reduced to a work that is itself misunderstood when Simmel is celebrated as the first sociologist of modernity.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the human costs of progress were inescapably apparent. What we have come to think of as the founding texts of modern social science were part of a broader discourse on modern society and culture suffused with ambiguity and contradiction; they belong to the world that gave rise to Spengler and Nordau, Nietzsche and Weininger. The same ambivalence concerning the meaning and value of what has come to be called modernization also shaped efforts by Marx and Weber, Durkheim and Freud, to forge conceptual means for coming to terms with what was happening around them. The resulting tensions between analysis and interpretation, objectivity and critique, empiricism and moralism mark their work and inflect their methodological strategies and theoretical perspectives.

The complexity and nuance of what came to be canonical texts tend to be obscured when the story of the emergence of the social sciences is being told. In the case of Simmel, simplifying his highly multivalent undertakings into cliché allows a thinker who fits only with difficulty into the dominant disciplinary paradigm to be assimilated to the contemporary social sciences. At the same time, it obscures how the origins of sociology are related to a new kind of philosophical investigation both defined by and centered on specifically modern cultural circumstances.

Such clichés and misprisions are, then, not without interest for the history of thought in general and for reflection on the emergence of modern social and cultural theory in particular. Intellectual history lives from the reduction of ideas to sound bites—but also from the recovery of ambiguities flattened out by narratives that have lost their force. In the case of the history of modern social thought, questions about the philosophical status of reflection on social structures and mechanisms are, furthermore, imbricated with problems of historiography tout court. What constitutes the history of (cultural) theory? How can it be distinguished from the disciplinary histories of the social sciences? Where do silences, gaps, and obfuscations fit into the story? What, in the final account, is the meaning of marginality in theory?

The case of Georg Simmel underlines how epistemological questions concerning the status of social scientific concepts and methods are linked to historiographical concerns of both a general and a specific, institutional or disciplinary, nature. Simmel’s significance as a cultural and social theorist comprises both his philosophical achievements and a considerable, yet largely unrecognized, impact on his students and readers. His innovative approach to cultural interpretation brought the legacy of the German philosophical tradition into conversation with the phenomena of everyday modern life, and the influence of his ideas and modernist style of philosophizing extends through figures as diverse as Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, György Lukács, Robert Musil, and Robert Park.

But this very diversity—or put in another way, the absence of a “school” or doctrine of any sort—has helped to render Simmel’s intellectual influence virtually invisible. To write his conceptual and methodological innovations into the history of twentieth-century thought therefore requires not just an encounter with his writings but also an interrogation of the nature of his influence and of the reasons it has gone unrecognized. And it entails taking seriously Simmel’s insistence, expressed as early as 1899, that despite his reputation abroad, he was not, in fact, a sociologist: “I am a philosopher, see my life’s vocation in philosophy, and only pursue sociology as a sideline.”2 In a word, the case of Simmel foregrounds how fundamental questions about what used to be called the history of ideas are for understanding our own disciplinary context and intellectual world.

In the pages that follow, I hope to avoid both the Scylla of overspecialization—taking Simmel’s importance for granted and treating his texts as canonical ends in themselves—and the Charybdis of appropriation—making the case for Simmel’s significance by situating his oeuvre in relation to a metanarrative defined by contemporary interests tangential or even foreign to his self-professed understanding of his work. In the first instance, it is a matter of taking seriously the question of how to read him. Simmel was a lavishly published author, not only of sociological treatises but also of popular works on philosophy, meditations on canonical and contemporary artists and writers, scores of essays on cultural phenomena from fashion to cities to femininity—and criticism, poetry, and fiction to boot. The sheer complexity of his texts makes demands on the reader that call for more thorough conceptualization, while the diversity and range of his oeuvre (or to put it less generously, his lack of clearly defined disciplinary identity) pose challenges of another order.

This book does not attempt to give a comprehensive account of this formidable body of work, let alone an exhaustive one. Rather, by approaching Simmel as a modernist philosopher—by foregrounding his innovative style of thought and drawing attention to the affinity between his methods of interpretation and broader modernist cultural developments—I hope to persuade my own readers to (re)turn to the texts themselves in a new way. To approach Simmel as a modernist in this writerly sense decenters not only received accounts of his significance as a thinker but also of the fin de siècle origins of modern social thought and cultural theory in general and of the discipline of sociology in particular. Embracing rather than erasing his marginality, I reframe the question of how to read this multiform oeuvre in relation to the disciplinary traditions that have shaped Simmel’s reception. Attending to the legacy of his style of thought casts new light on the history of social and cultural theory, enabling us to ask anew what constitutes rigorous inquiry into the constitutive structures of collective existence in the modern world.

My project depends on a body of specialized scholarship—most notably on the work of those who labored over more than two decades on the historical-critical edition of his works—of which it cannot, properly speaking, form a part. To be sure, it is grounded in textual and contextual evidence amassed, often for the first time, in the Georg Simmel Gesamtausgabe (GSG) realized under the general editorship of Otthein Rammstedt between 1989 and 2015. However, my project parts ways, of necessity, with the philological objectives and hermeneutic principles that define a historical-critical edition as such and that make faithful reconstruction and historical contexualization ends in themselves. Insisting on the importance of critical and theoretical self-reflection on the categories and perspectives in and through which such (canonizing) reconstruction and narrative contextualization take place, this book aims to liberate resources in Simmel’s oeuvre for our own time and for the future.

In the final instance, the plausibility of my interpretation depends on a vision of the tasks of thought in modernity that cannot, sensu strictu, be derived from empirical evidence. Historical-critical contextualization is important. But giving a plausible account of Simmel’s intellectual contributions entails imaginatively reconstructing a vision of philosophy and an approach to philosophizing in many ways quite foreign to contemporary sensibilities. Representation and understanding are intertwined, for the thinker cannot be entirely separated from the thought.

We cannot simply return to the texts themselves to disclose what Simmel might have called “the individual law” of his oeuvre. Another history, that of generations of interpretation, stands between the reader and this thinking. To determine what his texts mean for us, we must first free them—and Simmel himself—from the effects of a reception history that has obscured much of what is most interesting and important about his work. The historical and sociological task of contextualization and the hermeneutic and philosophical challenges of interpretation intermingle.

Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary thus sets out onto the territory disclosed by the historical and critical work of the Georg Simmel Gesamtausgabe, but it explores that terrain to very different and often diametrically—or dialectically—opposed ends. The critical edition has established Simmel’s place in what one of the most distinguished members of the editorial group, the late Klaus Chistian Köhnke, called “the classical period [Klassik] of the human and social sciences.”3 Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary returns him to his historical and cultural context with the aspiration of helping to disclose the unrealized and as it were unclassical potential of his texts and practices. In calling attention to the ways in which unrecognized investments of the “cold cash” of Simmel’s legacy have shaped our contemporary intellectual landscape, my object is to draw attention to what institutionalized modes of commemorating the “founding father” exclude or forget: the Simmel who did not and perhaps could not become a “classic” in the canonical sense, whose oeuvre arguably calls into question the institutional framework of canonicity itself.

From the beginning, Simmel’s thought transgressed disciplinary and institutional strictures. In the course of the twentieth century, as the contours of the contemporary disciplines emerged, what is known in German as the Wirkungsgeschichte—literally, the history of effects—of his work in sociology took on contours that obscured the breadth and complexity of his philosophical and theoretical achievement, particularly in the Anglophone world. To appreciate the significance of the new vistas on Simmel’s oeuvre opened up by the critical edition, it will be necessary to clarify how his reception has been shaped by a disciplinary ordering of knowledge practices that we take for granted today—in particular, by the very different modes of reading and understanding both texts and historical evidence proper to social scientific as opposed to humanistic inquiry. Simmel’s identification as a (mostly forgotten) founding father of sociology has given him a role in modern intellectual history at the cost of obscuring his substantial philosophical contributions. But this is getting ahead of the story.

Simmel is often classified as a neo-Kantian. His concern to link epistemological and ethical frames of reference and his distinctive approach to the problem of form speak for such a contextualization of his thought, as do his many books and essays dealing directly with Kant’s philosophy, which he taught throughout his entire career, and, indeed, his long friendship with Heinrich Rickert.4 Even if Simmel cannot properly be regarded as belonging to a neo-Kantian “school,”5 his work is in many ways recognizably and undeniably Kantian in inspiration. The signs of Simmel’s allegiance to a Kantian idiom and sensibility are pervasive: his emphasis on the epistemological foundations of inquiry and on the ethical self-determination of the individual; his recurrent invocation of the tenet of the ultimate inaccessibility of the thing in itself; even the division of the Philosophy of Money into “analytic” and “synthetic” parts.

And yet, as the existence of a radically different competing characterization of Simmel as a Lebensphilosoph, a “philosopher of life,”6 underlines, this is hardly the whole story. In a 1908 letter to Hermann Graf Keyserling, Simmel confessed that he had again become embroiled in the sort of “epistemological-metaphysical questions” that had occupied him earlier in his career,

once again with the feeling that we are just going round like squirrels on a wheel in this whole epistemology that rests on Kantian presuppositions. What a thing this man did to the world by declaring it to be a representation! When will the genius come along who frees us from the spell of the subject as Kant freed us from that of the object? And what will “the third” be?7

To pigeon-hole Simmel as a neo-Kantian is to discount the depth and significance of this epistemological crisis. It entails ignoring his flirtation with irrationalism; his recurrent attention to materiality, embodiment, and the emotions; his fascination with historical specificity and cultural difference, with the challenges of thinking a world gripped in flux.

In a word, Simmel is as much a reader of Nietzsche as of Kant. Indeed, as I shall show, he is one of the greatest and most subtly influential readers of Nietzsche altogether, for in his modernist approach to culture the inherited resources of the philosophical tradition are transformed before our eyes. As in the case of Kant, Simmel creatively and constructively appropriates his predecessor’s insights and strategies of thought. The significance for his work of what Nietzsche called the death of God can hardly be overestimated; Simmel’s metaphysical relativism and emphasis on the perspectival nature of truth and his distinctive approach to ethics are clearly Nietzschean in inspiration; and his sociology involves, among other things, a rethinking of genealogy itself.

Like Nietzsche, Simmel was profoundly concerned with the question of the future of European culture in general in light of the rise of modern science—and with the problem of the future of Bildung, of the cultural task of education, in the post-1871 German university in particular. Like Nietzsche, he was profoundly influenced by Goethe as a thinker and artist and as the exemplar of a specifically human vitality and integrity. In a 1913 monograph, Simmel described his life as a “flowing unity”: “Goethe’s unceasing experimenting and reformulating of possible standpoints, the development that flowed through all the contradictions of his long life” permits endless possible “interpretations of that unity and totality”; it also provides a model for integrating multiple, changing perspectives and development through contradiction without sublation.8 Not least, Simmel, too, found inspiration in the (Goethean, but also romantic) fascination with synecdoche and developed philosophical strategies that elevated fragments into windows onto sociocultural and historical wholes.

Yet Simmel’s writing, like Nietzsche’s, is self-consciously situated at a moment when the rationalist pieties of nineteenth-century Wissenschaft were coming into crisis: when the realities of industrialization were undermining faith in technological progress, and Goethean holism and organicism were beginning to give way to more sinister forms of longing for totality. It is in this broader intellectual-historical context that the question of whether and in what sense Simmel ought to be characterized as a philosopher of life must be posed. This question is imbricated with the more general issue of his place in intellectual history altogether—and especially with the implications of Simmel’s thinking for the return to the topos of life in contemporary theoretical work. Here, too, his modernist style of thought, with its self-reflexive relation to problems of life and form, lends Simmel’s writing a new actuality.

In her incisive monograph Die geistige gestalt Georg Simmels (Georg Simmel [as] Spiritual Gestalt), the philosopher and poet Margarete Susman (Margarete von Bendemann) (1872–1966), a former student who belonged to Simmel’s close circle of friends, highlights his striving to find a new way of philosophizing beyond dualities: “With his disinclination for the system, which was grounded for him in the essence of thinking itself, Simmel never represented the three and the third in systematic form. Nonetheless it permeates his philosophy. Always it is something unreachable, for which he seeks names and concepts.”9

Susman goes on to cite the first aphorism in Simmel’s posthumously published journal, where he takes issue with the received view that we must belong either to “the natural” or “the transcendent” world. Rather, Simmel writes, “we belong to a third, unutterable [world], of which the natural and the transcendent alike are mirrorings, discharges, falsifications, interpretations” (GSG 20: 261). According to Susman, “All of Simmel’s efforts as a thinker are to be understood as such mirrorings and interpretations of a third. Subject and object, life and death, being and duty [Sein und Sollen], reality and idea are to be reconciled in a third, still undiscovered, yet to be discovered spirit- and life-form [noch zu entdeckenden Geistes- und Lebensform].”

In recent years, Simmel has become increasingly recognized as a key avatar of a thinking of the “third,” and in this there is still much to be learned from him.10 Yet his vision of spiritual and cultural renewal belong to a world utterly lost to us. As Susman underlined, “Simmel’s death at the end of the First World War marks the boundary at which a new form of thinking commences.” Looking back, she reflected on its origins: “in the two great wars the human being had lost its countenance,” and thus “Western philosophy as a whole had really arrived at its end. A new thinking and a new language were needed to express the thinking of a new time.”11

It is misleading to think of Simmel either as a sociologist who also philosophized or as a philosopher who happened to participate in the emergent discipline of sociology. Both views project into the past a professionalized disciplinary order that was still being constituted during his lifetime. Simmel’s vision of the tasks of thought in the modern world led him to make significant practical as well as theoretical contributions to the founding of the modern social sciences. But these contributions were by no means as extrinsic to his philosophical agenda as they appear from contemporary, disciplinary perspectives. Rather, Simmel’s preoccupation with the status and nature of sociology is a constitutive feature of the modernist approach to philosophizing that evolved out of his early proto-positivist conviction that philosophy was becoming obsolete in a world where “the science of man has become the science of human society.”12 Placing that intellectual evolution in the context of the global shifts in modes of inquiry and in rhetorics of reflection under way in this period will throw seemingly self-evident distinctions between social science and philosophy, and more generally between empirical and theoretical inquiry, into relief.

With the canonizers, then, I urge a return to Simmel’s oeuvre as the crucial repository of largely forgotten resources for social and cultural theory. One of the principal objects of this book is to uncover something of the history of effects through which, in the course of the twentieth century, Simmel’s ideas and strategies of thought were absorbed and transformed in ways that not only rendered their origins illegible but also squandered their full theoretical and practical potential for reflection on modern life. If we are to recover that potential, we need to understand the larger philosophical project from which even the most sophisticated readings of Simmel as sociologist abstract his ideas and methods. We cannot brush away ambiguity by returning to “the texts themselves,” because an adequate account of Simmel’s thought must also explain the peculiarities of his reception, including the fact that the same texts are regularly understood to substantiate diametrically opposed positions and methodological commitments.

To be sure, Simmel has been read selectively; misleading and even distorting appropriations have decisively shaped his reception. Yet doing justice to his internally complex oeuvre entails more than correcting errors. The question—as with Freud, Durkheim, or Weber, for that matter—is how to come to terms with the ambiguity and opacity that mark the path of thought that has not yet solidified into certainty regarding the meaning or even the nature of its objects. In Simmel’s case, this difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that his modernist approach to philosophizing entails a radical openness to interpretation. The multivocity of Simmel’s texts reflects a sophisticated awareness of the relativity of thought and of the challenges of capturing symbolically and intersubjectively constructed realities in concepts.

Simmel was acutely aware of the limits and contingency of his own insights and approach, yet he was explicitly committed to a vision of thought as exceeding its own time. As a self-consciously historical thinker of the social, he strove to develop methods of analysis and strategies of interpretation that could be extracted from their contexts of origin and put to use for quite different purposes. However important and necessary it is to identify some of the unmarked bills of Simmel’s legacy, this is not the same thing as coming to terms with his oeuvre itself.

The mature Simmel embraced a perspectival relativism that feels very contemporary today—yet, by its very nature, we cannot simply adopt it. For he wrote in ways that invite, indeed, demand, reflection on the relativity and contingency of his own claims. His texts are modernist in drawing attention to their own writtenness so as to catalyze awareness of the constitutive role of perspective in human understanding—and hence of the relativity of every knowledge claim, including Simmel’s own. To address texts that formally evoke reflection on the relativity of perspectives in this way, methodological and theoretical discussions must be enriched by critical and historical modes of thinking about form. Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary attempts, then, both to clarify how and why Simmel arrived at his relativist understanding of culture, society, and the human and to grasp the strategies of thought and writing through which he inscribed openness to multiple interpretations in his philosophizing.

To read Simmel not only as a modern thinker, or even a thinker of modernity, but as a modernist entails reconceiving the relationship between his oeuvre and its historical, cultural, and theoretical context. To do justice to the historicity as well as the philosophical seriousness of his modernist conception of form also requires a broader reconsideration of received narratives about the emergence of modern social science. My examination of Simmel’s reception reveals how the genealogy that bifurcates those disciplines from their origins in philosophy and history also severs the methodological questions that animate today’s social sciences from the concerns of “theory” as understood in the contemporary humanistic disciplines. To draw attention to the synthetic features of Simmel’s thought is to underline the continuity of his approach to theorizing the social with the practices of interpretation and representation that defined modernist culture more broadly—and thereby to illuminate the prehistory of the contemporary disciplinary imaginary.

Simmel’s oeuvre is situated at what were during his lifetime relatively permeable boundaries between philosophy and social science, academic and popular writing. His thinking was shaped by a perspectival relativism that, even as it draws attention to its own conditions of possibility in the phenomenon of subjective experience, exposes the supplementary relations between the knowledge practices of distinct disciplines, particularly between philosophical modes of reflection and social scientific ways of knowing. Read with sensitivity to their historical, cultural, and intellectual context—that is, to the past of our own theoretical practices—Simmel’s writings cast a fresh light on the contemporary disciplinary landscape, providing new perspective on the categories and conceptual divisions that came to structure Western intellectual culture and shape quotidian understandings of modern life in the course of the twentieth century.

The network of assumptions and practices that frame readings of Simmel in disciplinary terms blockades recognition of this wider, transdisciplinary theoretical and historical significance of his work. Not only do we miss a great deal that is of interest when we slice up his oeuvre into disciplinary “parts”; we reinforce a fragmentation of scholarly life that presents very real institutional and conceptual barriers to meeting the intellectual and cultural challenges of the twenty-first century.

My objective, then, is not simply to show that what have been categorized as Simmel’s “sociological” works have implications for philosophy and humanistically oriented social and cultural inquiry more generally. Thinking his liminal position can open a new and urgently needed perspective on the contemporary intellectual world, where disciplinary divisions of dubious ontological purchase have become deeply naturalized features of our mental and institutional landscapes. Consider, to take two current trends as examples, that efforts to bring together psychological and philosophical perspectives on the self or to integrate biological perspectives into social science are commonly taken for cutting-edge scholarly innovations. Without historical awareness, such efforts to bring together ideas from different disciplinary spheres all too often culminate in what amounts, as in these cases, to the rediscovery of the wheel—that is, to work that uncovers the shared problematics lurking behind different idioms and methods of intellectual traditions that in fact have common origins.

Failure to reflect on the contingency and perspectival specificity of (naturalized) disciplinary perspectives thus compounds the sort of epistemic errors that Marx and Nietzsche both criticized as the consequence of forgetting (or willfully ignoring) that the conceptual structures and standards that organize our world are themselves produced by human beings. That is, the apparent stability (and institutional reality) of disciplinary categories depends on the same ahistorical confusion of concepts with realities, subjectivity with the world, that issues in the embarrassing spectacles skewered by Nietzsche as analogous to the practice of seeking out “truths” behind the very shrubbery where one has hidden them. To forget the significance of the subject in the creation of objects in this way is both epistemologically and ethically suspect. As Nietzsche puts it, “at bottom the searcher after such truths seeks the metamorphosis of the world into the human being” and, in failing to recognize the difference that separates us from the nonhuman, “wins at best a feeling of assimilation.”13

Like both Nietzsche and Marx, Simmel believed that the necessary first step in moving philosophy beyond such anthropomorphic circling and toward a more adequate, historically and culturally articulated conception of truth was to expose the historicity and contingency of our ways of seeing. While his dialectical strategies of interpretation were deeply inflected by Hegel’s phenomenological approach to philosophizing, Simmel did not aspire to overcome contingency by creating a system, but rather maintained a Kantian modesty about the limits of human understanding and self-understanding. Like Nietzsche but unlike Marx, rather than attempting, even imaginatively, to overcome contingency and individuality in an integrative totality, he espoused a perspectival view of truth that affirmed the radical difference and multiplicity of situated points of view. As we shall see, Simmel’s efforts to reconcile this historicist commitment to a perspectival understanding of reality with an old-fashioned aspiration to higher truths animates his evolving conception of his work—and the shifting disciplinary identifications that accompanied it. Along the way, he developed strategies of thought that remain of considerable interest in an intellectual context where fundamental questions about knowledge and identity, culture and perspective, have lost none of their urgency in the intervening generations.

Even though frankly old-fashioned historical questions about Simmel’s intellectual accomplishments and the vicissitudes of his influence over time play a central role in my arguments, the present project is thus far from being what Nietzsche called “antiquarian” in intent. Indeed, quite in the spirit of a man whose work often flouted scholarly conventions, including, not coincidentally, the footnote,14 it advocates an appropriation of his thought for present needs. Such appropriation should not be conflated with a collapse of scholarly horizons. It is essential to attend to the differences between his intellectual and cultural starting points and our own. In returning to his texts, it is just as crucial to ask what cannot or should not be appropriated as to discover what can. The pages that follow call for a return to Simmel, but by no means for an uncritical one. Indeed, aspects of his work that are of the greatest interest from a historical perspective—his conception of culture, his reflections on gender—underline the distance between his philosophical perspectives and contemporary points of departure.

As appealing and timely as many of Simmel’s writings remain, and as important as it is to attend not only to his many substantive contributions but also to his methodological achievements, we may in fact have the most to learn from him where the distance is greatest. Simmel’s writing is remarkable in its reflective openness to the sociocultural transformations under way in his lifetime and its author’s wholehearted efforts to discover genuinely new strategies of reflection adequate to the shifting realities of modern life. But the similarities and indeed continuities between the circumstances of our own dawning century and the previous one notwithstanding, there can be no question of identifying our modernity with Simmel’s. Even if the encounter with his ideas can do much to clarify what is at stake today, neither his questions nor his answers can finally be ours.

Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary attempts to return to his oeuvre with an awareness of this historical and conceptual distance. It sets out, to be sure, to examine seriously and thoroughly what remains an underappreciated theoretical and philosophical legacy, to identify Simmel’s recognized and unrecognized contributions to the theoretical and cultural debates of the twentieth century, and to demonstrate the continuing relevance of his methods of cultural analysis. But my guiding purpose is neither to defend his philosophy nor to make the case for the timeliness of his ideas. Instead, I want to ask what we might learn from Simmel about what we most need to know: how to find ways to think differently.

Today, as at the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, inherited strategies of thought have come to seem increasingly inadequate—culturally, politically, theoretically. Simmel, whose fame rested in no small part on his emphatic embrace of modern life, found ways of moving forward without rejecting the achievements of the past. The wager of this book is that his significance as a thinker cannot be captured by a straightforwardly historicist or antiquarian approach—that we must ask, instead, whether Simmel’s oeuvre can provide a model of innovation, a touchstone in our efforts to come to terms with the very different challenges of our own rapidly changing world.

Scholarly enterprise began to take on its contemporary disciplinary contours in the world where he was an internationally famous philosopher and pioneering theorist of the social. To return—in medias res—to Simmel’s texts in search of what has not yet been read into the canonical interpretations entails reflecting on the origins and limitations of our own intuitions and self-understandings in an era when the Western world was being transformed at least as rapidly as it is today—when the organization of knowledge and practices of inquiry, the meaning of art, science, culture, indeed of life itself, already seemed quite radically unsettled.

Part I addresses the relation between history and disciplinarity, exploring how Simmel became who he was—how he came to be represented and understood as a figure at once canonical and marginal in and through a reception that indeed resembles a diffusion of “cold cash.” As I demonstrate, the very process that established his canonical position as a founding figure of modern social science also obscured the way his work addresses (rather than simply describing) the philosophical dilemmas of that complex, liminal moment when the modern disciplinary imaginary was coming into being. Focusing on the tensions in Simmel’s reception history between attempts to draw attention to his status as a major thinker and innovator and a persistent pattern of selective reading and textual distortion, Part I analyzes how problematic strategies of reading have been made productive for a tradition of thought with which Simmel himself ultimately declined to identify.

In delineating what it means to read him as a (modernist) philosopher rather than a sociologist (of modernity), Part I lays the groundwork for a return in Part II to his 1900 masterpiece, the Philosophy of Money, situating this pivotal work—“one of the few after Nietzsche that does or will belong to the canon” of philosophy, according to Hans Blumenberg15—in the larger arc of Simmel’s intellectual and professional development. In the first extended philosophical treatment of the work to appear in English, I demonstrate that Simmel’s phenomenologically articulated, self-consciously relativist approach to the study of social and cultural life remains a valuable theoretical resource for the twenty-first century. Finally, Part III reconsiders the larger meaning of Simmel’s place in the Western scholarly imaginary, reading the reception of his sociology against the grain to illuminate the historical ordering of inquiry today and reveal undisclosed possibilities in the liminal moment before the distinctions between diverse knowledge practices had ossified into the lived boundaries we call “disciplines.”

1. This is the epigraph to a collection of aphorisms that the poet and art historian Gertrud Kantorowicz, Georg Simmel’s lover, presented as selections from his “diary” (my trans.; unless otherwise noted, translations throughout this book are my own). At Simmel’s request, Kantorowicz traveled to Strasbourg in August 1918, and in the final weeks of his life, she worked with him there on editing papers that were to be published posthumously. Selections first appeared in Logos in December 1919 and were reprinted with other material from Simmel’s papers in Fragmente und Aufsätze: Aus dem Nachlaß und Veröffentlichungen der letzen Jahre, ed. Gertrud Kantorowicz (Munich: Drei-Masken, 1923). The “diary” is included in the Georg Simmel Gesamtausgabe (henceforth GSG), ed. Otthein Rammstedt (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989–2015), 20: 261–96; quotation here from p. 261. The original manuscript has been lost, and as the editors of the critical edition of the “diary” remark, “Since [Kantorowicz] does not provide an account of her interventions in the text, no conclusions can be drawn concerning its original form (GSG 20: 546). Simmel’s (incomplete) correspondence is collected in GSG vols. 22 and 23, but a number of additional letters are included with other documents in vol. 24.

2. Simmel to Célestin Bouglé, December 13, 1899 (GSG 22: 342–44). Simmel would use stronger words on other occasions, as when he wrote Georg Jellinek that it was an “idiocy” to regard him as a sociologist (March 20, 1908; GSG 22: 617).

3. Klaus Christian Köhnke, Der junge Simmel in Theoriebeziehungen und sozialen Bewegungen [The Young Simmel in Theoretical Relations and Social Movements] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996), 23.

4. However, Rickert complained to Emil Lask (unpublished letter of July 13, 1902, cited in editorial notes to Simmel’s letter to Rickert of June 23, 1902, GSG 22: 422) about Simmel’s “arrogance,” saying: “As much as I recognize Simmel’s superiority . . . I also think that I objectively deserve a bit more respect than Simmel is inclined to dispense to me from his infinite height.”

5. See Klaus Christian Köhnke, Entstehung und Aufstieg des Neukantianismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986), 305.

6. In the first (and still most recent) book in English on Simmel as philosopher, Rudolph Weingartner writes, “Simmel’s philosophy is but one of life—human life—and its products: culture.” Weingartner, Experience and Culture: The Philosophy of Georg Simmel (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1962), 12.

7. Simmel to Keyserling, October 13, 1908 (GSG 22: 666). Simmel has sometimes been portrayed as a Bergsonian, so it is worth noting that immediately before the passage just cited, he remarks that since Keyserling and others had suggested that Bergson’s tournure d’esprit [“mind-set”; in French in the original], was “related to my own,” he would “try to incorporate” his work “despite having “quite enough of myself through the daily 24-hour-long being-myself.” Gregor Fitzi dates the beginning of closer contact between Bergson and Simmel to this period (1908–9), when Simmel had long since reached his mature views, but notes that “they had opportunities to become aware of one another earlier through the mediation of Léon’s journal [i.e., the Revue de métaphysique et de morale—EG] and through international philosophical congresses” (Fitzi, Soziale Erfahrung und Lebensphilosophie: Georg Simmels Beziehung zu Henri Bergson [Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, 2002], 50).

8. In his Goethe, Simmel set out to “project the Goethean life, this restlessness of self-development and productivity, onto the plane of the timelessly significant thought” by exploring what he identified as “a third” distinct from both the life and the work in which it found expression: “the pure meaning, the rhythm and significance of the essence,” analogous to “a concept, which is realized both in the soul that thinks it and in the thing whose content it defines.” Riffing on Goethe’s characterization of his own oeuvre, Simmel admits that such a writing of “this third, this ‘idea Goethe’” must become “the exegete’s own confession” (GSG 15: 7–270; all citations here from pp. 9–10).

9. Margarete Susman, Die geistige Gestalt Georg Simmels (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1959), quoted here from pp. 4–5. See also

10. See Thomas Bedorf, Joachim Fischer, and Gesa Lindemann, eds., Theorien des Dritten. Innovation in Soziologie und Sozialphilosophie (Munich: Fink, 2010), and my “Simmel’s Stranger and the Third as Imaginative Form,” Colloquia Germanica 45, nos. 3–4 (2012): 239–63.

11. Susman, Die geistige Gestalt Georg Simmels, 35–36.

12. “Die Wissenschaft vom Menschen ist Wissenschaft von der menschlichen Gesellschaft geworden” (“Das Problem der Sociologie [1894], GSG 5: 52–61; here p. 52). I generally translate Mensch as “human being” but defer to the (sexist) tradition in this case to avoid obscuring the historiographical and theoretical resonance of the phrase.

13. Friedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1999), 1: 883.

14. In Simmel’s defense, as Anthony Grafton writes, “the intellectuals of the nineteenth century did not view [footnotes] with the unmixed admiration and affection one might expect. Hegel, for example, clearly rebelled against the idea that a philosopher’s text should use footnotes to exemplify and carry on a dialectical argument” (Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997], 97).

15. Hans Blumenberg, “Geld oder Leben. Eine metaphorologische Studie zur Konsistenz der Philosophie Georg Simmels,” in Äesthetik und Soziologie um die Jahrhundertwende: Georg Simmel (henceforth AuS), ed. Hannes Böhringer and Karlfried Gründer (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1976), 130.