School of
Social Sciences
___Introduction to Sociology
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Georg Simmel -
Simmel's Ambivalent View Of Modern Culture

 


The Person  
Introduction A Virtuoso On The Platform
The Academic Outsider Simmel's Writing Career
   
The Work  
Introduction The Significance Of Numbers For Social Life
Formal Sociology Simmel's Ambivalent View Of Modern Culture
Social Types A Note On The Philosophy Of Money
The Dialectical Method In Simmel's Sociology  

Perhaps nothing so clearly reveals Simmel's profound ambivalence toward contemporary culture and society as his view of the drift of modern history. This view is a compound of the apparently contradictory assessments of liberal progressivism and cultural pessimism, as revealed in the writings of Herbert Spencer and as reflected in German idealism since the days of Schiller or Nietzsche.

The trend of modern history appears to Simmel as a progressive liberation of the individual from the bonds of exclusive attachment and personal dependencies in spite of the increasing domination of man by cultural products of his own creation. In premodern societies, Simmel argued, man typically lived in a very limited number of relatively small social circles. Such circles, whether kinship groups or guilds, towns or villages, tightly surrounded the individual and held him firmly in their grip. The total personality of the individual was immersed in this group life. Thus, medieval organizational forms "occupied the whole man; they did not only serve an objectively determined purpose, but were rather a form of unification englobing the total person of those who had gathered together in the pursuit of that purpose." Associations in premodern societies were not functionally specific or limited to clearly articulated purposes; they bound the individual through undifferentiated dependencies and loyalties. Moreover, subordination in premodern society typically involved domination over the entire personality of the subordinate. The lord of the manor was not only the political overlord of the serf; he dominated the total person of the serf--economically, juridically, and socially. Dependence, therefore, was al encompassing.

In such premodern societies, the individuals were organized, as it were, in a number of linked concentric circles. A man could be a member of a guild, which in turn was part of a wider confederation of guilds. A burgher may have been a citizen of a particular town and this town may have belonged to a federation of towns, such as the Hanse. An individual could not directly join a larger social circle but could become involved in it by virtue of membership in a smaller one. A primitive tribe does not consist of individual members but of clans, lineages, or other groupings in which individuals participate directly.

The principle of organization in the modern world is fundamentally different: an individual is a member of many well-defined circles, no one of which involves and controls his total personality. "The number of different circles in which individuals move, is one of the indices of cultural development." Modern man's family involvements are separated from his occupational and religious activities. This means that each individual occupies a distinct position in the intersection of many circles. The greater the number of possible combinations of membership, the more each individual tends toward a unique location in the social sphere. Although he may share membership with other individuals in one or several circles, he is less likely to be located at exactly the same intersection as anyone else.

Human personality is transformed when membership in a single circle or in a few of them is replaced by a social position at the intersection of a great number of such circles. The personality is now highly segmented through such multiple participation. In premodern societies, for example, locality or kinship determined religious affiliation; one could not coexist with men who did not share his religious beliefs, for the religious community coincided with the territorial or kinship community. In the modern world, in contrast, these allegiances are separated. A man need not share the religious beliefs of his neighbors, although he may be tied to them by other bonds. It does not follow, however, that religion loses its force; it only becomes more specific. Religious concerns are differentiated from other concerns and hence become more individualized; they do not necessarily overlap with a person's kinship or neighborhood ties.

Multifaceted involvement in a variety of circles contributes to increased self-consciousness. As the individual escapes the domination of the small circle that imprisons his personality within its confines, he becomes conscious of a sense of liberation. The segmentation of group involvement brings about a sense of uniqueness and of freedom. The intersection of social circles is the precondition for the emergence of individualism. Not only do men become more unlike one another; they are also afforded the opportunity to move without effort in different social contexts.

The forms of subordination and superordination also assume a novel character in the modern world. No longer can the individual be totally dominated by others; whatever domination continues to exist is functionally specific and limited to a particular time and place. As compared with the lord of the manor, the modern employer cannot dominate the entire personalities of the workers in his factory; his power over them is limited to a specifically economic context and a specified number of hours. Once the workers leave the factory gates, they are "free" to take part in other types of social relations in other social circles. Although they may be subordinate in some of these relations, they may well be superordinate in others, thus compensating for their inferiority in one area by superiority in another.

It should be clear that Simmel, in his original manner, is retracing the liberal view of historical patterns that could be found in such otherwise diverse thinkers as Spencer and Durkheim. Differentiation, in this view, involves a shift from homogeneity to heterogeneity, from uniformity to individualization, from absorption in the predictable routines of a small world of tradition to participation in a wider world of multifaceted involvements and open possibilities. The drift of western history leads form status to contract, form mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, from societies in which custom is so rigid that it militates against individuality to those in which the multiplicity of involvements and contracts allows the emergence of uniqueness and individual autonomy.

This is only one of the two perspectives Simmel used to consider the past and present cultural situation. His other view owes more to Marx and to German cultural pessimism than to the optimism of British and French progressive thought. From this perspective, Simmel writes of the ineradicable dualism inherent in the relation between individuals and objective cultural values. An individual can attain cultivation only by appropriating the cultural values that surround him. But these values threaten to engulf and to subjugate the individual. More specifically, the division of labor, while it is the origin of a differentiated cultural life, in its way also subjugates and enslaves the individual. More specifically, the division of labor, while it is the origin of a differentiated cultural life, in its way also subjugates and enslaves the individual.

The human mind creates a variety of products that have an existence independent of their creator as well as of those who receive or reject them. The individual is perpetually confronted with a world of cultural objects, from religion to morality, from customs to science, which, although internalized, remain alien powers. They attain a fixed and coagulated form and tend to appear as "otherness" to the individual. Hence, there is a perennial contradiction "between subjective life, which is restless but limited and time-bound, and its contents which, once created, are . . . timelessly valid."

The individual needs and science and religion and law in order to attain autonomy and to realize his own purposes. He needs to internalize these cultural values, making them part of himself. Individual excellence can be attained only through absorption of external values. And yet the fetishistic character that Marx attributed to the economic realm in the epoch of commodity production constitutes only a special case of the general fate of cultural contents. These contents are, particularly in more developed cultural epochs, involved in a peculiar paradox: they have been created by people and they were intended for people, but they attain an objective form and follow an immanent logic of development, becoming alienated from their origin as well as from their purpose.

In passages that may express more pathos than analytical understanding, Simmel sees modern man as surrounded by a world of objects that constrain and dominate his needs and desires. Technology creates "unnecessary" knowledge, that is, knowledge that is of no particular value but is simply the by-product of the autonomous expansion of scientific activities.

As a result of these trends, modern man finds himself in a deeply problematical situation: he is surrounded by a multiplicity of cultural elements, which, although they are not meaningless to him, are not fundamentally meaningful either. They oppress the individual because he cannot fully assimilate them. But he cannot reject them because they belong at least potentially to the sphere of his own cultural development. "The cultural objects become more and more linked to each other in a self-contained world which has increasingly fewer contacts with the subjective psyche and its desires and sensibilities." Simmel, like Marx, exemplifies this process by reference to the division of labor. Once this division is highly developed, "the perfection of the product is attained at the cost of the development of the producer. The increase in physical and psychical energies and skills which accompanies one-sided activities hardly benefits the total personality; in fact it often leads to atrophy because it sucks away those forces that are necessary for the harmonious development of the full personality." The division of labor severs the creator from the creation so that the latter attains an autonomy of its own. This process of reification of the cultural products, accentuated, though not originated, by the division of labor, causes increasing alienation between the person and his products. Unlike the artist, the producer can no longer find himself within his product; he loses himself in it.

The cultural universe is made by men, yet each individual perceives it as a world he never made. Thus, progress in the development of objective cultural products leads to an increasing impoverishment of the creating individuals. The producers and consumers of objective culture tend to atrophy in their individual capacities even though they depend on it for their own cultivation.

Although committed in one facet of his Weltanschauung to the progressive liberal vision of those French and English thinkers who influenced him deeply, Simmel is equally bound to a tragic vision of culture. He combines in an original, though not fully resolved, way the uncomplicated evolutionary faith in the perfectibility of man of a Condorcet with the metaphysical pathos of a Schiller or a Nietzsche. Unable to relinquish the vision of a progressive liberation of the individual from the bonds of tradition and subjugation, Simmel yet foretells, with a sense of impending doom, "a cage of the future" (to use Max Weber's term), in which individuals will be frozen into social functions and in which the price of the objective perfection of the world will be the atrophy of the human soul.

From Coser, 1977:189-193.



Work By Simmel  
Conflict And Society The Problem Of Sociology (External Link)
How Is Society Possible? (External Link) The Stranger
The Philosophy Of Value (External Link)  



These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010