The Social Thought of Georg Simmel


Horst J. Helle

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  • Social Thinkers Series

    Series Editor

    A. Javier Treviño

    Wheaton College, Norton, MA


    The Social Thought of Georg Simmel

    By Horst J. Helle

    The Social Thought of Émile Durkheim

    By Alexander Riley

    The Social Thought of C. Wright Mills

    By A. Javier Treviño


    The Social Thought of Karl Marx

    By Justin P. Holt

    The Social Thought of Erving Goffman

    By Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Søren Kristiansen

    The Social Thought of Talcott Parsons

    By Helmut Staubmann


    View Copyright Page

    Series Editor's Foreword

    The SAGE Social Thinkers series is dedicated to making available compact, reader-friendly paperbacks that examine the thought of major figures from within and beyond sociology. The books in this series provide concise introductions to the work, life, and influences of the most prominent social thinkers. Written in an accessible and provocative prose, these books are designed for advanced undergraduate and graduate students of sociology, politics, economics, and social philosophy, as well as for scholars and socially curious general readers.

    The first few volumes in the series are devoted to the “classical” thinkers—Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, George Hebert Mead, Talcott Parsons, and C. Wright Mills—who, through their seminal writings, laid the foundation for much of current social thought. Subsequent books will feature more “contemporary” scholars as well as those not yet adequately represented in the canon: Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Harold Garfinkel, Norbert Elias, Jean Baudrillard, and Pierre Bourdieu. Particular attention is paid to those aspects of the social thinker's personal background and intellectual influences that most impacted his or her approach to better understanding individuals and society.

    Consistent with SAGE's distinguished track record of publishing high-quality textbooks in sociology, the carefully assembled volumes in the Social Thinkers series are authored by respected scholars committed to disseminating the discipline's rich heritage of social thought and to helping students comprehend key concepts. The information offered in these books will be invaluable for making sense of the complexities of contemporary social life and various issues that have become central concerns of the human condition: Inequality, social order, social control, deviance, the social self, rationality, reflexivity, and so on.

    These books in the series can be used as self-contained volumes or in conjunction with textbooks in sociological theory. Each volume concludes with a Further Readings chapter intended to facilitate additional study and research. As a collection, the Social Thinkers series will stand as a testament to the robustness of contemporary social thought. Our hope is that these books on the great social thinkers will give students a deeper understanding of modern and postmodern Western social thought and encourage them to engage in sociological dialogue.

    Premised on Newton's aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (an aphorism, incidentally, that was introduced into sociology by Robert K. Merton, himself a towering figure in the discipline), the Social Thinkers series aims to place its readers on the shoulders of the giants of 19th- and 20th-century social thought.


    The following pages are dedicated to the women and men who want to understand how culture and society change. Among them are my former students and my colleagues who challenged me over the years with their questions and with the role model they gave me. More recently, I was asked to lecture about Simmel in China. There, the role model decidedly included the students whose interest in and knowledge of the history, philosophy, and sociology of “The West” repeatedly made me feel ashamed about how little I know about the 5,000 years of Chinese culture and history: Chinese intellectuals know so much more about us Westerners than we know about them. Continuing this trend, they wanted to study Simmel.

    Simmel was way ahead of his time in realizing that the world is becoming more and more unified. InCreasingly, what must have appeared visionary in his days has become a reality. The Simmel scholars who, in a wider sense, were my teachers were typically marginal men who did not depend on translations to read Simmel. Kurt Wolff, Reinhard Bendix, Everett C. Hughes, and Herbert Blumer were among them. This book is published in their memory and as a grateful acknowledgment of their scholarship, wisdom, and kindness.

  • Glossary

    • Alienation (1) Due to alienation, something loses its original beneficial purpose and starts leading a dubious life of its own. (2) in the theory of Karl Marx: A person produces a good but is then not considered the owner of it. (3) in the context of ancient Roman law: Conferring property rights from one owner to another owner.
    • Ancient Greek philosophy Can be divided between (a) the pre-Socratic philosophers (Thales, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus) and (b) Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It extended in time between about 600 and 300 BCE. It raised the question of being (Do we just dream of it or does it really exist?) and developed the concept of nature as a self-ordering system (Thales).
    • Comte, Auguste (1798–1857) French philosopher who invented the term sociology.
    • Content To Simmel, any one of those driving forces that move individual persons to interact with others. Examples he mentions are impulses, interests, inclinations, and psychological conditions of a person that cause humans to turn toward one another. Other illustrations of content are hunger, love, and religiosity (See also Form).
    • Cultural evolution A theory describing how a culture evolves over time, applied to phenomena such as language, religious creeds, forms of music, poetry, and social and political organizations (See also Evolutionary theory).
    • Dilthey, Wilhelm (1833–1911) German philosopher.
    • Dynamic ethics Rules for behavior that change over time.
    • Emotions Strong drives from within the person determining the process of cognition (What do I want to know?) and the course of action taken (What do I want to do?).
    • Equality Individuals seen as (a) equipped with identical qualities, so one of them can replace the other, or (b) related to the same value context (as fellow countrymen or children of God), so each must be regarded as equally valuable.
    • Evolutionary theory Biological theory that explains the process of physical change in plants and animals over time (See also Cultural evolution).
    • Exclusivity A system of ethics that stresses the superiority of a certain group of people over all others (See also Universalism).
    • Family types Distinguished by determining (a) who is in charge of the clan: matriarchal (rule of the mother) or patriarchal (rule of the father); or (b) from whom do my relatives and I descend: matrilineal (from a common mother), patrilineal (from a common father), or bilateral (from common parents).
    • Form The mode of interaction among individuals by which content (e.g., love, religiosity, or admiration of aesthetic beauty) achieves social reality (e.g., marriage gives love a form, a church gives religiosity a form, art gives the drive toward aesthetic beauty a form; see also Content).
    • Humanities The study of the history and philosophy of the human condition.
    • Individualization As the decisive trait of modernization, individualization requires recognizing and developing to the fullest the innate potential of each person. Fulfillment of this task hinges on the courage of the individual to be different from others and to deviate from expectations imposed on him or her, to the point of becoming a stranger.
    • Interpretive sociology Also called Verstehen or humanistic sociology. From the perspective of this approach, the objects of knowledge are the mental operations of acting persons (i.e., the cognitive and emotional procedures within human beings whose behavior is being studied). It is these cognitive and emotional procedures that the researcher attempts to reconstruct. Whether or not he can successfully accomplish this can only be determined if interpretation (Verstehen) is possible (i.e., if the sociologist can successfully take the attitude of the other).
    • Modernization (a) The liberation from the narrow, village-type order of social relationships that provide security because of their limited number, or (b) the basis for initiating contacts with human beings who live far away and in different cultural contexts, with the tendency toward a cosmopolitan or global orientation.
    • Physics of the social An earlier name for sociology.
    • Poor person A person not seen as someone belonging to a statistical category with a certain below-level income, but as someone who is dealt with by others as being poor (labeling).
    • Pragmatism The philosophy of action. Action, as Socrates requires, is to be guided by rational knowledge. In ancient Greek, this applies in the moral and political sphere in the same way as in the sphere of craftsmanship and technology. Simmel derives his principles of pragmatism from Plato's Socrates.
    • Processual thinking A mental orientation describing how a culture evolves over time (See also Cultural evolution).
    • Qualities of relationships The primary reality is what goes on between people. It is not this person's unique abilities or that person's characteristic moods; rather it is the special quality of the relationship between two or more persons. Sociology is the study of the qualities of relationships as fundamental social realities.
    • Secret An indispensible means for distinguishing between people who are close and others who are kept at a distance. The person closest to us knows everything about us because we tell them everything. The greater the distance, the more we withhold knowledge from others, because the respective information is “none of their business.” Accordingly, we distinguish by distance and are unable and unwilling to treat all our contacts equally with regard to supplying information.
    • Social construction of reality Society consists of a sum of interactions. In the course of such interactions, reality is socially constructed. It follows from this construction process that competing views of reality result and that there are alternative perspectives from which social reality can be looked at.
    • Social movements Collective action taken by the masses and classes motivated by political, religious, or other value orientation with the goal to initiate political change.
    • Social structure The forms ascribed to inequality in society as classes or other social strata. Those can be seen as (a) existing as some form of physical reality or (b) merely as mental concepts that produce certain patterns of conduct. To deal with society as objective reality and as an integrated structural whole is to regard it as a system, and as a consequence, one must then regard the individual as a function of the system, as Durkheim did. Simmel does not see it that way. To him, social structure is an assembly of social constructions.
    • Stranger The person who represents an unknown culture and country and who is usually welcomed and even protected under strict rules of hospitality. Simmel sees him not as a person representing strangeness, but as a participant in a strange relationship.
    • Universalism A system of ethics that emphasizes brotherly closeness among all humans (See also Exclusivity).
    • Western civilization Civilization that developed around the Mediterranean in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire as a synthesis of Greek philosophy and religious ideas from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Its path through history led from antiquity via the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment to modern natural sciences, the Industrial Revolution, and political ideas of Marxism and democracy. Its regional identity has shifted from the countries around the Mediterranean to include all of Europe, North America, and South America.


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    About the Author

    Horst J. Helle is a native and resident of Germany. He has an MBA from the University of Kansas. Before and after his graduate work there, he studied at the university in his hometown of Hamburg. There he received another business degree, a doctorate of philosophy in sociology, and the license to teach sociology as Privatdozent. Then he held tenured professorships at the Aachen Institute of Technology, the University of Vienna, and the University of Munich. Throughout his career he has worked in other countries, including spending a year as a research fellow at The University of Chicago and, since 1996, teaching in mainland China. For additional information and a list of his publications, see

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