Thursday, December 11, 2014

Georg Simmel: Types of Relationships by Reciprocal Knowledge

The thing about the "other" is that you don't know everything about him, and you don't want to know. And even in groups, people don't know everything about each other. So Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff devotes a chapter to the different kinds of groups and relationships between members of the groups.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

One type of group where the members know very little about each other is a political interest group. The members make monetary contributions to the group, but they are "psychologically anonymous" to each other. They don't need to know each other's personality; they don't want to know. This "increasing objectivization" is characteristic of our age.

This question of incomplete knowledge about other people in this objectivizing age raises the issue of "confidence" in other people. "[C]onfidence is intermediate between knowledge and ignorance about a man." If you know everything about a person you don't need confidence; if you know nothing, forget it. This is characteristic about the whole of modern society; we know only what we need to know about another party, whether in business, in scholarship, in politics. We only need to know what we "have to know for the sake of the relationship [we] wish to enter."

The point is that in modern society, the personal and the subjective is often replaced by the objective, even in personal relationships where "among educated strata" people relate only as "acquaintances." We know only what is appropriate to know about the other, and the deliberate "staying away" from other knowledge about someone is termed "discretion." There is a boundary, different with different people, beyond which we do not go. The question is what "the individual must know" about the other: the businessman in a long-term contract; the master employing a servant, the "superior who advances a subordinate." The telling opposite of discretion is indiscretion, the violation of boundaries, by betraying a secret thought, or prying into other peoples' lives, or taking advantage of the "slips and helplessnesses of the other."

This relationship at a distance clearly defines modern friendship and marriage. Although they would seem to require total immersion in the other in fact the relationship is usually differentiated. Maybe one friendship is based on affection, another on intellectual aspects, or religion. Such relationships require that people do not look beyond their mutual spheres of interest, in observance of appropriate discretion. In modern marriage, the question of confidence and discretion is difficult, because modern marriage is not a fixed "social and economic institution" but more freely erotic.  Of course, the "conventional or material motive" is still strong, but "the sociological idea of modern marriage is the commonness of all life-contents". A marriage may result in a happy and vital union, or the opposite when anticipated unity is disappointed. In fact, despite the idea of complete union, marriage, like other relationships in the modern age, needs "only a certain proportion of truth and error... and a certain proportion of distinctness and indistinctness in the image of our life-elements." We can give only what the other "may accept" and indistinctness and unclarity may be needed to keep mutual attractiveness alive. Confidence and discretion are needed to make modern marriage work.

Next: Secrecy

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