Simmel was born on March 1, 1858, in the very heart of Berlin, the
corner of Leipzigerstrasse and Friedrichstrasse. This was a curious
birthplace--it would correspond to Times Square in New York--but
it seems symbolically fitting for a man who throughout his life
lived in the intersection of many movements, intensely affected
by the cross-currents of intellectual traffic and by a multiplicity
of moral directions. Simmel was a modern urban man, without roots
in traditional folk culture. Upon reading Simmel's first book, F.
Toennies wrote to a friend: "The book is shrewd but it has
the flavor of the metropolis." Like "the stranger"
he described in his brilliant essay of the same name, he was near
and far at the same time, a "potential wanderer; although he
[had] not moved on, he [had] not quite overcome the freedom of coming
and going." One of the major theorists to emerge in German
philosophy and social science around the turn of the century, he
remains atypical, a perturbing and fascinating figure to his more
organically rooted contemporaries.
was the youngest of seven children. His father, a prosperous Jewish
businessman who had converted to Christianity, 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; he seems not to have had
any roots in a secure family environment, and a sense of marginality
and insecurity came early to the young Simmel.
graduating from Gymnasium, Simmel studied history and philosophy
at the University of Berlin with some of the most important academic
figures of the day: the historians Mommsen, Treitschke, Sybel and
Droysen, the philosophers Harms and Zeller, the art historian Hermann
Grimm, the anthropologists Lazarus and Steinthal (who were the founders
of Voelkerpsychologie), and the psychologist Bastian. By the time
he received his doctorate in philosophy in 1881 (his thesis was
entitled "The Nature of Matter According to Kant's Physical
Monadology"), Simmel was familiar with vast field of knowledge
extending from history to philosophy and from psychology to the
social sciences. This catholicity of tastes and interests marked
his entire subsequent career.
tied to the intellectual milieu of Berlin, both inside and outside
the university, Simmel did not follow the example of most German
academic men who typically moved from one university to another
both during their studies and after; instead, he decided to stay
at the University of Berlin, where he became a Privatdozent (an
unpaid lecturer dependent on student fees) in 1885. His courses
ranged from logic and the history of philosophy to ethics, social
psychology, and sociology. He lectured on Kant, Schopenhauer, Darwin,
and Nietzsche, among many others. Often during a single academic
year he would survey new trends in sociology as well as in metaphysics.
He was a very popular lecturer and his lectures soon became leading
intellectual events, not only for students but for the cultural
elite of Berlin. In spite of the fascination he called forth, however,
his academic career turned out to be unfortunate, even tragic.