Georg Simmel

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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. (1918)
Money expresses all qualitative differences of things in terms of "how much?" Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values; irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability. All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money. All things lie on the same level and differ from one another only in the size of the area which they cover.

Georg Simmel (1 March 185828 September 1918) was a German sociologist, philosopher, and critic. Simmel was one of the first generation of German sociologists: his neo-Kantian approach laid the foundations for sociological antipositivism, asking 'What is society?' in a direct allusion to Kant's question 'What is nature?', presenting pioneering analyses of social individuality and fragmentation.


  • The brutality of a man purely motivated by monetary considerations … often does not appear to him at all as a moral delinquency, since he is aware only of a rigorously logical behavior, which draws the objective consequences of the situation.
    • “Domination” (1908), in On Individuality and Social Forms (1971), p. 110
  • The individual who is subordinate to an objective law feels himself determined by it, while he, in turn, in no way determines the law, and has no possibility of reacting to it in a manner which could influence it—quite in contrast to even the most miserable slave, who, in some fashion at last, can still in this sense react to his master.
    • “Domination” (1908), in On Individuality and Social Forms (1971), pp. 113-114
  • The social game has a deeper double meaning—that it is played not only in a society as its outward bearer but that with its help people actually "play" "society."
    • "Sociability" (1910) in On Individuality and Social Forms (1971), p. 134

Superiority and Subordination as Subject-matter of Sociology (1896)

Simmel (1896) "Superiority and Subordination as Subject-matter of Sociology". In: The American Journal of Sociology Vol 2. No 2. p. 167-189. (for part II see, Part II in Vol 2, Issue 3, pp. 392-415). Translation by Albion Woodbury Small
  • I understand the task of sociology to be description and determination of the historical-psychological origin of those forms in which interactions take place between human beings. The totality of these interactions, springing from the most diverse impulses, directed toward the most diverse objects, and aiming at the most diverse ends, constitutes "society."
    • p. 167
  • When one says, for example, that superiority and inferiority is a formation to be found in every human association, though the proposition certainly involves very profound insight into the essence of human nature and human relationship, yet the assertion is so general that it affords little knowledge of particular societary formations. In order to reach such particular knowledge we must study separate types of superiority and inferiority, and we must master the special features of their formation, which in proportion to their definiteness of course lose generality of application.
    • p. 169
  • Every social occurrence as such, consists of an interaction between individuals. In other words, each individual is at the same time an active and a passive agent in a transaction. In case of superiority and inferiority, however, the relation assumes the appearance of a one-sided operation ; the one party appears to exert, while the other seems merely to receive an influence.
    • p. 169
Georg Simmel (1903) Die Grosstädte und das Geistesleben, translated to "The Metropolis and Mental Life" by Kurt Wolff in: D. Weinstein ed (1950). The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950, pp. 409-424.
  • Die tiefsten Probleme des modernen Lebens quellen aus dem Anspruch des Individuums, die Selbständigkeit und Eigenart seines Daseins gegen die Übermächte der Gesellschaft, des geschichtlich Ererbten, der äußerlichen Kultur und Technik des Lebens zu bewahren - die letzterreichte Umgestaltung des Kampfes mit der Natur, den der primitive Mensch um seine leibliche Existenz zu führen hat.
    • The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. The fight with nature which primitive man has to wage for his bodily existence attains in this modern form its latest transformation.
    • p. 409
  • Mag das 18.Jahrhundert zur Befreiung von allen historisch erwachsenen Bindungen in Staat und Religion, in Moral und Wirtschaft aufrufen, damit die ursprünglich gute Natur, die in allen Menschen die gleiche ist, sich ungehemmt entwickele; mag das 19.Jahrhundert neben der bloßen Freiheit die arbeitsteilige Besonderheit des Menschen und seiner Leistung fordern, die den Einzelnen unvergleichlich und möglichst unentbehrlich macht, ihn dadurch aber um so enger auf die Ergänzung durch alle anderen anweist; mag Nietzsche in dem rücksichtslosesten Kampf der Einzelnen oder der Sozialismus gerade in dem Niederhalten aller Konkurrenz die Bedingung für die volle Entwicklung der Individuen sehen - in alledem wirkt das gleiche Grundmotiv: der Widerstand des Subjekts, in einem gesellschaftlich-technischen Mechanismus nivelliert und verbraucht zu werden.
    • The eighteenth century called upon man to free himself of all the historical bonds in the state and in religion, in morals and in economics. Man’s nature, originally good and common to all, should develop unhampered. In addition to more liberty, the nineteenth century demanded the functional specialization of man and his work; this specialization makes one individual incomparable to another, and each of them indispensable to the highest possible extent. However, this specialization makes each man the more directly dependent upon the supplementary activities of all others. Nietzsche sees the full development of the individual conditioned by the most ruthless struggle of individuals; socialism believes in the suppression of all competition for the same reason. Be that as it may, in all these positions the same basic motive is at work: the person resists to being leveled down and worn out by a social technological mechanism.
    • p. 409
  • Wo die Produkte des spezifisch modernen Lebens nach ihrer Innerlichkeit gefragt werden, sozusagen der Körper der Kultur nach seiner Seele - wie mir dies heut gegenüber unseren Großstädten obliegt - wird die Antwort der Gleichung nachforschen müssen, die solche Gebilde zwischen den individuellen und den überindividuellen Inhalten des Lebens stiften, den Anpassungen der Persönlichkeit, durch die sie sich mit den ihr äußeren Mächten abfindet.
    • An inquiry into the inner meaning of specifically modern life and its products, into the soul of the cultural body, so to speak, must seek to solve the equation which structures like the metropolis set up between the individual and the super-individual contents of life. Such an inquiry must answer the question of how the personality accommodates itself in the adjustments to external forces.
    • p. 409
  • Modern mind has become more and more calculating. The calculative exactness of practical life which the money economy has brought about corresponds to the ideal of natural science: to transform the world into an arithmetic problem, to fix every part of the world by mathematical formulas. Only money economy has filled the days of so many people with weighing, calculating, with numerical determinations, with a reduction of qualitative values to quantitative ones.
    • p. 414
  • Cities are, first of all, seats of the highest economic division of labor. They produce thereby such extreme phenomena as in Paris the remunerative occupation of the quatorzième. They are persons who identify themselves by signs on their residences and who are ready at the dinner hour in correct attire, so that they can be quickly called upon if a dinner party should consist of thirteen persons. In the measure of its expansion, the city offers more and more the decisive conditions of the division of labor. It offers a circle which through its size can absorb a highly diverse variety of services.
    • p. 420
  • The most profound reason... why the metropolis conduces to the urge for the most individual personal existence... appears to me to be the following: the development of modern culture is characterized by the preponderance of what one may call the "objective spirit" over the "subjective spirit."
    • p. 421 as cited in: Kenneth Allan (2009) Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World. p. 212
  • The individual is reduced to a negligible quantity, perhaps less in his consciousness than in his practice and in the totality of his obscure emotional states that are derived from this practice. The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of a purely objective life. It needs merely to be pointed out that the metropolis is the genuine arena of this culture which outgrows all personal life. Here in buildings and educational institutions, in the wonders and comforts of space-conquering technology, in the formations of community life, and in the visible institutions of the state, is offered such an overwhelming fullness of crystallized and impersonalized spirit that the personality, so to speak, cannot maintain itself under its impact.
    • p. 422
  • Money expresses all qualitative differences of things in terms of "how much?" Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values; irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability. All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money. All things lie on the same level and differ from one another only in the size of the area which they cover.

The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies (1906)

Georg Simmel & Albion Woodbury Small transl. (1906) "The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies". In: American Journal of Sociology, Volume 11, Issue 4 (Jan., 1906), pp. 441-498.
  • All relationships of people to each other rest, as a matter of course, upon the precondition that they know something about each other. The merchant knows that his correspondent wants to buy at the lowest price and to sell at the highest price. The teacher knows that he may credit to the pupil a certain quality and quantity of information. Within each social stratum the individual knows approximately what measure of culture he has to presuppose in each other individual.
    • p. 441: First lines of the article.
  • Every relationship between two individuals or two groups will be characterized by the ratio of secrecy that is involved in it. Even when one of the parties does not notice the secret factor, yet the attitude of the concealer, and consequently the whole relationship, will be modified by it.
    • p. 462
  • In the presence of the total reality upon which our conduct is founded, our knowledge is characterized by peculiar limitations and aberrations. We cannot say in principle that "error is life and knowledge is death," because a being involved in persistent errors would continually act wide of the purpose, and would thus inevitably perish.
    • p. 444

The Stranger (1908)

Georg Simmel & Kurt Wolff (Trans.) (1906) "The Stranger". In: The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950, pp. 402-408.
  • If wandering is the liberation from every given point in space, and thus the conceptional opposite to fixation at such a point, the sociological form of the "stranger" presents the unity, as it were, of these two characteristics.
    • p. 402; Opening line.
  • Objectivity does not simply involve passivity and detachment; it is a particular structure composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement.
    • p. 403
  • Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given.
    • p. 403
  • Der Fremde ist uns nah, insofern wir Gleichheiten nationaler oder sozialer, berufsmäßiger oder allgemein menschlicher Art zwischen ihm und uns fühlen; er ist uns fern, insofern diese Gleichheiten über ihn und uns hinausreichen und uns beide nur verbinden, weil sie überhaupt sehr Viele verbinden.
    • The Stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people.
    • p. 405

The View of Life (1918)

Georg Simmel (1918) Lebensanschauung. München: Duncker & Humblot. Translation: John A. Y. Andrews & Donald N. Levine. (2011) in The View of Life: Four Metaphysical Essays with Journal Aphorisms. University of Chicago Press.
  • 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.
    • p. 1. Opening line of first essay "Life as Transcendence"
  • 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.
    • p. 5-6 part of the first essay "Life as Transcendence"

Quotes about Georg Simmel

  • One of the first theorists to acknowledge the deep and important impact of urbanization on social life was the German scholar, Georg Simmel. Simmel developed a sociology that focused on the special ways that forms, such as the number of people in groups, influenced social life. His effort to understand the nature of urbanization and, in particular, the metropolis of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, displayed his characteristic method of analysis.
    • George Ritzer (2004) Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Vol.1-2. p. 854
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