公 法 评 论

et revelabitur quasi aqua iudicium et iustitia quasi torrens fortis


Postscript to a Collection of Essays

Translated by Mathieu Deflem

NOTE ON THE WEB VERSION: This translation is not
identical to the published version in Critical Inquiry.
Please consult the hard-copy version for the publication.*
* See Jürgen Habermas, "Georg Simmel on Philosophy and Culture:
Postscript to a Collection of Essays." Critical Inquiry 22(3):403-414.


The original version of this paper was published under the title"Simmel als Zeitdiagnostiker" ("Simmel as Diagnostician of the Times") as a postscript to Georg Simmel, Philosophische Kultur: Uber das Abenteuer, die Geschlechter, und die Krise der Moderne: Gesammelte Essais, p. 243-53. It was reprinted under the title "Georg Simmel Uber Philosophie und Kultur: Nachwort zu einer Sammlung von Essays," adopted in this translation, in Jurgen Habermas, Texte und Kontexte (Frankfort am Main, 1991), pp. 157-69. Footnotes referring to essays in the Simmel volume and to available English translations have been added for this translation. I would like to thank Jurgen Habermas and Suhrkamp Verlag for granting permission to publish this translation. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own. -Mathieu Deflem, translator.
Georg Simmel first published Philosophische Kultur (Philosophical Culture) in 1911; the third and last edition appeared in 1923. The fact that this collection of essays has not been available for over 60 years and only reappears today could be an indication for the fact that, in a strange way, Simmel as a critic of culture is both near to, and far away from, us.

To be sure, the two introductory volumes Hauptprobleme der Philosophie (Major Problems of Philosophy, which appeared in 1910 as the 500th anniversary G?schen-edition) and Grundfragen der Soziologie (Fundamental Questions of Sociology) are again accessible. Two of Simmel's most important books, Philosophie des Geldes (1900, The Philosophy of Money) and Soziologie (1908, Sociology) have also been reprinted. In addition, Michael Landmann energetically sought to renew an interest in Simmel, with a 'Festschrift' on the occasion of Simmel's hundredth birthday,1 and with the republication of two collections of essays.2 Only a few years ago Simmel was taken up in a glittering circle of classics in social theory.3 And in the USA, Kurt Wolff in the 1950s actually launched a discussion with a compilation of Simmel's sociological writings.4

But after the Second World War, the philosopher and sociologist Simmel did not acquire such a presence in Germany, nor in America, that it could have anticipated his contemporary influence. This cannot only be deduced from a comparison with Dilthey and Bergson, who initiated 'Lebensphilosophie' (philosophy of the subject). Above all, this holds good with reference to the founding fathers of sociology who are of the same age as Simmel. Simmel was born in 1858, the same year as Durkheim, and he was only few years older than George Herbert Mead (1863) and Max Weber (1864). In the early 1950s G. Lukács could treat Simmel's philosophy of the subject just as much as a closed chapter as R. Aron could Simmel's formal sociology,5 with which Hans Freyer could still entertain a lively theoretical debate in 1930.6 Simmel did not manage to become a classic - and for this he was, because of his intellectual orientation, also not predestined.

Simmel represents a different type. Despite his influence on the philosophical climate in the period before the First World War, despite his significance for German sociology and, almost even more so, for American sociology during their respective periods of formation, Simmel was an animating rather than a systematic thinker - a philosophical diagnostician of the times with a social-scientific bent, rather than a philosopher or sociologist solidly placed in the academic profession. Simmel, who because of his independent scientific achievements enjoyed high regard abroad, never had an undisturbed relationship with the world of the German universities. This was no coincidence. Zeller and Helmholtz had rejected his music-psychological work as a dissertation, and, instead, agreed to accept an additionally submitted prize work on Kant's philosophy of nature. Also, Simmel's 'Habilitationsschrift' was rejected with the explanation that it missed its theme. When Simmel then finally was accepted, he faltered during his trial lecture. The faculty delayed his appointment to 'Extraordinarius' for an exceptionally long time. During appointment proceedings, Simmel was always overlooked. In 1908 Max Weber proposed Simmel for a professorship in philosophy at Heidelberg - but the ministry did not appoint him. Finally, in 1914 the meanwhile 56-year old Simmel was ordained in Strassbourg; the departure from the urban milieu of his hometown Berlin was for Simmel hard to bear. In 1915 Rickert once more tried to get Simmel to Heidelberg - but again in vain.

As always, such reservations were founded on sad sources. Simmel was reproached for a relativistic attitude towards Christianity; his unorthodox way of thinking and lecturing came across as provocative; his success with students and his influence on the public at large arose envy; and anti-Semitism went hand in hand with a resentment against literary intellectuals. Above all else, what created a distance with the academic world was Simmel's mentality which was characterized by a sensitive awareness for the typical charms of his days, for esthetic innovations, for spiritual shifts of disposition and changes of orientation in the attitudes to life concentrated in the metropolis, and for subpolitical transformations of inclination and barely tangible, diffuse, but treacherous phenomena of the everyday. In short, for Simmel the membranes for the spirit of the age were wide open. In Simmel's home sojourned literati and artists rather than Berlin colleagues. He entertained relationships with Rilke, Stefan George, Paul Ernst and Gundolf, with Max Weber, Troeltsch and Heinrich Rickert, and with Bergson who had influenced him profoundly since 1908. Younger people, like Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács, attended his private lectures. Reports of the lectures Simmel held in a public auditorium even appeared in the daily newspapers. Fitting with this were the compositional style of Simmel's thought and his choice for the essay as the preferred form of presentation.

Adorno complained about the "annoyingly agreeing" title under which Simmel published the present essays; but he too acknowledged what he owed to his early reading of Simmel's writings: "Georg Simmel... was the first, despite all psychologistic idealism, to accomplish the return of philosophy to concrete objects, which remained canonical for all who were not drawn to the banging of the critique of knowledge and of spiritual history."7 Bloch's Spuren (Traces), conceived between 1910 and 1929, betray the steps of the man who had led the way on this route. Bloch had copied the trifling on "Lamp and Closet" or on "The First Locomotive" from Simmel who philosophized on actors similarly as on the adventure, who had reflected on "Bridge and Door", to find in these exemplary entities the embodiment of the basic features of the human spirit. Simmel did not only encourage students, a generation earlier than Heidegger and Jaspers, to jump out of the channels of scholastic philosophy and to think "concretely"; his writings gave the onset, from Lukács to Adorno, to revitalize the form of the scientific essay.

Adorno, until recently the last of those philosophers who used the essay as the most supple instrument of expression, especially saw in this literary form a moment of liberation: "The essay cannot be dictated its province. Instead of achieving something scientific or creating something artistic, its effort mirrors the leisure of the child-like which inflames without scruples from what others have already done. It reflects what is loved and what is hated, instead of portraying the spirit after the model of an unrestricted work ethics as a creation out of nothing." (Ibid., p.10). Adorno, however, also mentioned the price that had to be paid for this release from methodical constraint: "for its affinity with open spiritual experience, the essay has to pay with a shortcoming on certitude, a shortcoming of which the norm of established thinking is scared to death" (p.21). Perhaps also a bit because of this scare, and not only because of the differentiated oral culture of the 19th century, a certain circumstantiality is attributed to the Simmelian style - as if Simmel had hesitated to embrace the rhythm and the relentless selectivity which the form of the essay requires.

Simmel's pieces sway between essay and scientific treatise; they roam around the crystallizing thought. Nothing indicates that the author ever asked the question whether not a single, more pointed sentence, in a dissertation of twenty pages on Rodin as "artistic personality", could seriously have competed with the one that "the antique sculpture, so to speak, searched for the logic of the body, as Rodin did for his psychology". The short esthetic pieces rather betray something of those similarities that exist between the condensed essay and the explosive aphorism. But even here a distance is revealed which warrants the out-dated title Philosophical Culture.

It is the neo-Kantian notion of culture which signalizes what separates us from Simmel. Simmel is a child of the fin de siècle; he still belongs to that epoch for whose intellectual formation Kant and Hegel, or Schiller and Goethe were contemporaries - contemporaries, of course, who were already overshadowed by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The fundamental concepts of Kantian-Schillerian esthetics - freedom and necessity, spirit and nature, form and substance - are the ones with which Simmel elucidates Rodin's defeat of classicism and naturalism. With the glance of Romanticism Simmel deciphered the esthetic charm of the weather-beaten ruin as the vengeance of the stone of nature which at one time was only reluctantly subjected to the violent act of architectural building. Worringer's Abstraktion und Einfühlung (Abstraction and Empathy) provided Simmel with the categories of the natural esthetics of the landscapes of sea and alps; but Simmel did not recognize therein the clairvoyant anticipation of an expressionist painting understood in its origin.

Simmel still stood this side of the rupture which would open up between Rodin and Barlach, between Segantini and Kandinsky, between Lask and Lukács, Cassirer and Heidegger. He wrote about fashion differently than Benjamin. And yet it was Simmel who accomplished the connection between fashion and modernity, who impressed the young Lukács right up to the choice of his titles, who inspired Benjamin to observations on the overflow of charm, the closeness of contact, and the acceleration of movement in the space of experience of the metropolis, and who changed the mode of observation, the themes and the style of writing of a whole generation of intellectuals. How can one explain the potential for stimulation, which came to the fore during the time of the Weimar Republic, in a man whose roots were imbedded so deeply in the historically enlightened 19th century? I think that Simmel owes his astonishing, although often anonymous impact to the cultural-philosophically founded diagnosis of the times which he first developed in the final chapter of Philosophie des Geldes (1900, The Philosophy of Money). He continued this theory of the contemporary age in the essay on "Begriff und Trag?die der Kultur" ("The Concept and Tragedy of Culture"), and he subsumed it under a dubious metaphysics in his later presentation on "Conflict der modernen Kultur" ("The Conflict of Modern Culture").8


The essay on the tragedy of culture forms the center of the papers collected in this volume. Simmel herein develops a dynamic concept of culture. He conceives it as the process which is coupled between the "soul" and its "forms". Culture refers to both: the objectifications in which is externalized a life broken away from subjectivity, that is, objective spirit - as well as, conversely, the creation of a soul which works upward from nature to culture, that is, the formation of subjective spirit. Simmel follows the expressionist intellectual ideal which was exemplary from Herder, over Humboldt, to Hegel. Life in its totality is interpreted after the model of the creative method of production in which the ingenious artist creates the organic composition of his work and thereby unfolds the totality of his own essential powers. The goal of these formation processes is the improvement of individual life. In Simmel's version the subjective spirit retains the upper hand over the objective spirit, and the cultivation of the subject maintains priority over objective culture.

The risk for objective culture to substantiate over and above the individuals who had first created it is incorporated in this cultural process. For the objective spirit obeys to different laws than the subjective one. Simmel stresses with Rickert the stubbornness of the cultural value-spheres. Science and technology, and art and morality form thing-like contexts with stubborn validity claims, to which the productive, the creative, and the practically thinking and acting subject has to submit. A predominance of objective culture, however, will have to become unavoidable to the extent in which the subjective spirit follows the train of Western rationalism and penetrates ever deeper into the materialities of the objective spirit; thereby it differentiates and deepens the cultural value-spheres, it accelerates the development of culture, and it enhances the level of culture. To the same extent, namely, the spirit turns into the adversary of the soul: "The form of personal unity, to which consciousness connects the objective spiritual meaning of things, is of an incomparable value to us... Only here first develop those dark heat-beams of the mind for which the bright perfection of purely objectively determined ideas has no place and no heart. But this is also the case for the spirit, which, because of the reification of our intelligence, posits the soul as its object. The distance between the two grows to the same extent in which the object emanates from the specialized collaboration in labor between a growing number of personalities. Because it is exactly to this extent that it becomes possible to work and live the unity of personality into the product - a unity which is for us tied to the value, the warmth, and the uniqueness of the soul. The fact that the objective spirit lacks precisely this form of soulful vitality, because of the differentiated way in which it has come about,... is the final cause of the hostility with which very individualist and preoccupied natures are now so often confronting the "progress of culture"."9

Simmel first describes how the increase in the complexity of culture confronts the soul, which instigated this movement, with the paradoxical question whether it is "still the boss in its own house, or whether it can at least achieve, between its most inner life and that which it has to incorporate as impersonal substances, a harmony with respect to height, meaning and rhythm" (Ibid., p.529). He then tries to discover the mechanism which explains why this increase of an ever more removed objective culture is unavoidable; and he places it solidly in the medium of money. In his Philosophy of Money Simmel transfers the concept of culture from the level of spiritual creation over to the societal and material process of life as a whole. As with Max Weber, the human orders of economy, state and family acquire an independence similar to the cultural value-spheres of science, art and morality; society too meets the soul as a component of objective culture. The market in modern societies now obviously plays the role of a complexity-generating mechanism. With the medium of money the market pushes ahead the social division of labor and thereby the increase in complexity of culture as a whole. In the end, of course, money is only one of the "forms" in which the subjective spirit, in search for the soul after its own model, objectifies. This is why a "philosophy of money" should accomplish the program which Simmel set up in the introduction. It should "build a floor underneath historical materialism, in such a way that the explanatory value of the inclusion of economic life in the causes of spiritual culture is preserved, but also that those economic forms themselves are recognized as the result of deeper valuations and currents of psychological, and, yes, metaphysical presuppositions" (Ibid., p.VIII). Lukács thereby wryly remarks that economic social laws lose their concrete substance and their revolutionary thrust as soon as they are understood as the expression of a general "cosmic" relationship.10

In his passionate reckoning with Simmel, a generation after his death, Lukács did of course not deal with the historical impact of Simmel's diagnosis of the times, which concerned not least of all Lukács himself. Simmel did not just work with handy formulas, like the one on the retardation of the culture of people behind the enhanced culture of things; he was also influential with his phenomenologically precise description of the modern way of life: "The process of the objectification of cultural contents, which... causes between the subject and its creations an ever increasing strangeness, now finally lifts down into the intimacies of everyday life" (Ibid., p.519). In the forms of interaction of metropolitan relationships Simmel discovers structurally similar shifts as in the experience of nature, in advertising, or in marriage relationships. To the same extent in which human relationships objectify, subjectivism releases unbound energies of the soul. Opposite this fragmented, formless internality of the subjects, the cultural and societal objects coagulate into estranged and at the same time autonomous powers. Money is of an exemplary nature: it portrays the objectivity of exchange relationships in pure abstraction, and yet it is at the same time the basis for the development of a subjectivity which differentiates both in its calculating intellectual powers and in its wandering drives.


Social theories which are constructed as diagnoses of the times, and which - originating in Weber - lead, on the one hand, via Lukács to Horkheimer and Adorno, and, on the other hand, via Freyer to Gehlen and Schelsky, all draw from the reservoir of the Simmelian philosophy of culture. Max Weber developed in his famous Zwischenbetrachtungen (Intermediate Reflections) a paradox of rationalization which was founded on the neo-Kantian elements of the Simmelian diagnosis, specifically the conflict potentials of stubbornly differentiated value-spheres and social orders. In his Geschichte und Klassenbewu?tsein (History and Class Consciousness) Lukács was able to comprehend the deformations of civil everyday life and its culture in a materialist way, that is, as phenomena of objectification, only because Simmel had followed the opposite route and treated the abstractions of estranged industrial labor as a special case of the estrangement of creative subjectivity from its cultural objects.11 Horkheimer and Adorno, too, offered with their theory of mass culture only a variation on a Simmelian theme. And with their Dialektik der Aufkl?rung (Dialectic of Enlightenment), in which the process of objectification evaporates into the generality of a world-historical process of rationalization, they took up the following thesis of Simmel: "From the perspective of the outward objectivity and visibility, the increasing domination is indeed on the side of people; but this does not at all determine whether the subjective reflex, that is, the inwardly thrown meaning of this historical fact, could not proceed in the opposite direction... The thesis that we control nature by serving it has as its frightful reverse that we serve it to the degree in which we control it." (Ibid., p.549).

While the Marxists cling on to an expressivist intellectual ideal, but gain a materialist reading from the reification of the objective spirit, the bourgeois critique of culture distances itself step by step from the claim for reconciliation of the philosophy of the subject, and renders affirmative the thesis on the estrangement of the objective spirit. Hans Freyer and Joachim Ritter saw in the dynamic of the objectification of culture and society only the backside of the constitution of a realm of desirable subjective freedom. Simmel still observed with skepticism this "ideal of painful separation" through which life "becomes more and more thing-like and impersonal, so that its non-objectifiable residue could become more personal, and a more undisputable property of the self" (Ibid., p.532). From this perspective, Gehlen's critique of the expansion of an empty subjectivity, cut loose from all thing-like imperatives, is more akin to Simmel. On the other hand, Gehlen's neo-conservative adoration of "cultural crystallizations" (an expression, by the way, taken from Simmel) already pointed in the direction of Luhmann's functionalism, which has retained from Simmel only the objectifications which have evaporated into systems, while letting the subjects themselves diffuse into systems. Systems-functionalism mutely sealed "the end of the individual", which Adorno encompassed in a negative-dialectical way, to denounce it as a self-evident fate.

Taking into account the historical influences of the Simmelian diagnosis of the times, one can ascribe to it what Gehlen once maintained about the enlightenment: its premises are dead, only its consequences live on. All parties seem to agree on the consequences, although some criticize as negative totality what others celebrate as crystallization, and some denounce as objectification what others technocratically safeguard as materialities. The signature of modernity is agreeingly seen in the fact "that the objects have their own logic of development - no conceptual or natural development, but only their development as human works, which in their consequences divert from the direction with which they were able to insert themselves into the personal development of human souls."12 But Lukács, Horkheimer and Adorno therein saw the disastrous price of a capitalist modernization of society; Freyer, Ritter and Schelsky conceived it in terms of the side-effects of societal processes of rationalization which did after all remain in need of compensation; and Gehlen and Luhmann, finally, perceived it as the welcome equivalent of the natural growth potentials of large-scale institutions. Gehlen was the first to liquidate the premise which the others were still holding on to: that concrete culture could only be achieved through the "weaving" of subjectivity with thing-like elements - and, by catching up the objectifications in the intellectual process and the social relationships of subjects, the reconciliation of the soul with its forms. Luhmann can then already assume as trivial that personal and societal systems build environments for eachother.


From this consequence it is revealed that the painful phenomena, from which once the discourse of modernity had ignited in the end disappear without a trace, unless we, instead of leaving everything over to oblivion, revise the fundamental concepts of the philosophy of the subject, its perspective of reconciliation, and its expressivist intellectual ideal. The phenomena of objectification in the end have to retreat from a perspective in which the soul and the forms interact immediately and in which the creative subject meets its externalized essential powers only as objects. The systemically induced distortion of communicatively structured social relationships only comes to the fore when the violent stubbornness of the vulnerable intersubjectivity of our daily praxis of understanding has been refurbished in a completely non-metaphysical way. The cultural and societal objects, if we can still speak of "objects" in this case, are already embedded in the medium of this praxis - and so are the in formation and in transformation understood, highly fragile identities of "subjects", subjects which are equally threatened by coercive integration and isolation.13

In a strange way Simmel is nowadays both near to, and far away from, us. To be sure, the closeness of Simmel is not only due to the instructive historical path of the influences of his diagnosis of the times, but also to a constellation through which the sparkle of the philosophy of the subject could ignite in a contagious rather than in a clarifying manner. To those "perplexed urges underlying the current of consciousness" (Philosophie des Geldes, op.cit., p.551) Simmel's philosophy of culture offers an expression "which drives contemporary people from socialism to Nietzsche, and from Hegel to Schopenhauer", and, three generations later, from Marcuse to Heidegger, and from the railroad timetable to the bankruptcy note. Simmel speaks of a tragedy of culture; he disconnects the pathologies which are exposed in the modern life style from their historical connections, and attributes them to a tendency, imbedded within the process of life, towards the estrangement between the soul and its forms. A strangeness which is so deeply rooted in metaphysics takes away from the diagnosis of the times the power and courage of political-practical conclusions. Of course, Simmel's sympathies are easily revealed. At one time he mentioned the reform movement, initiated by Morris and Ruskin, which wanted to rejuvenate the formal imperative of craftsmanship against the ugliness of industrial mass production. And the yearning for undifferentiated, overseeable totalities, which embrace the social reformers' experiments on the Monte Verità and elsewhere, is at least in consonant with Simmel's pursuit for "concrete culture" - Rudolf Steiner, after all, was Simmel's contemporary. But, in the end, Simmel reacted to only one movement - the emancipation movement of the bourgeois women before World War I.

The essays collected in this volume dealing with the problem of the sexes and female culture will still find resonance today - in those parts of the women's movement which found their hopes and claims on the specifically feminine and specifically maternal qualities. Of course, the "essential a priori" of the woman which is unveiled by Simmel is not exactly free from male phantasies; for the rest, it relies on the brave ontologization of contemporary phenomena. Again the woman is situated closer to the side of the essential causes and subjectivity, closer to ahistoricalness and passivity, and closer to closedness and totality, than the man. This explains Simmel's interest in the women's movement: a female culture (which is not only sycophantically characterized) to him appears to be the remedy against the estrangement of living subjectivity by the solidified objectifications of a "male labor of culture" which unjustly vindicates the worth of general humanity.


1. K. Gassen and M. Landmann (eds), Buch des Dankes an Georg Simmel, Berlin, 1958.
2. G. Simmel, Brücke und Tür, Stuttgart, 1957; G. Simmel, Das individuelle Gesetz, Frankfurt am Main, 1968.

3. P.E. Schnabel, Georg Simmel, In: D. K?sler (ed.), Klassiker des Soziologischen Denkens, Volume 1, München, 1976, pp.267ff.

4. K. H. Wolff (ed.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Glencoe, IL, 1950; for the reception in the USA, see Schnabel, op.cit., pp.276ff.

5. G. Lukács, Die Zerst?rung der Vernunft, Berlin, 1955, pp.350ff; R. Aron, Die deutsche Soziologie der Gegenwart, Stuttgart, 1953.

6. H. Freyer, Soziologie als Wirklichkeitswissenschaft, Darmstadt, 1964, pp.46ff.

7. T. Adorno, "Henkel, Krug und frühe Erfahrung", in: T. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. II, Frankfurt am Main, 1974, p.558.

8. In: G. Simmel, Das individuelle Gesetz, op.cit., pp.148ff.

9. G. Simmel, Philosophie des Geldes, Berlin, 1977, p.528. [English translation: The Philosophy of Money, Translated by T. Bottomore and D. Frisby, 2nd edition, London, New York, 1990].

10. G. Lukács, Die Zerst?rung der Vernunft, op. cit., p.358.

11. "The fact that labor becomes a commodity is only one aspect of the wide-spread process of differentiation which detaches from the personality its individual constituents in order to confront it as an object with independent determination and movement." (Philosophie des Geldes, op.cit., p.515).

12. Georg Simmel, Philosophische Kultur: über das Abenteuer, die Geschlechter und die Krise der Moderne, Gesammelte Essays, Berlin, 1983, p.203.

13. J. Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, Frankfurt am Main, 1981, Vol. II, Chapter 8. [English translation: The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 2, Translated by T. McCarthy, Boston, 1987].

Mathieu Deflem
[email protected]