Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Georg Simmel, the Unknown Sociologist

I first encountered the name Georg Simmel in Jerry Muller's The Mind and the Market. I wrote about him in 2008 here. Simmel recognized that 19th century technologies "made for less labor in the household." This caused unease among middle-class women, who now sought activity outside the home.

Obviously, Simmel wrote, the public sphere, the world outside the home, in the short term would still be defined by men for men, but in the long term women would transform the public square to suit "a more feminine sensibility." So, feminists like Simone de Beauvoir that talked about the "independent woman" were talking nonsense. What really developed is what we see about us today, with conservative women trying to create a public square that celebrates love and marriage and children and men and work, and liberal women acting as high-school Mean Girls in a death spiral between their feminine natures and the ideological mandate to break glass ceilings, and enforcing their own feminization of the public square by naming and shaming.

Now, finally, I have actually got to read Simmel's sociology in a translation of his work. The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff is actually a compendium of material from three sources: Grundfragen der Soziologie (Individuum und Gesellschaft), written by Simmel in 1917, Soziologie, Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellshartung, written in 1908, and a lecture delivered in 1902-03.

I'm about half way through Sociology right now, and I admit to being blown away. My notion of Sociology has always been that it amounts to an apology for left-wing politics, that it tells its students what they need to know to operate as a ruling class in a social welfare state, or what they need to  understand as social welfare state dependents. You get class theory, domination, and an institutional view of modern society.

Sociology starts with Comte, who with his Positivisim was trying to create a "religion of humanity." And let's not forget Marx and Herbert Spencer. Then there was Max Weber and his brilliant insights; but Weber died with much of his work in draft form. There's Emile Durkheim, but I find him only fair. And then there are folks like Sombart and Tönnies. Then we come down to the moderns like Sumner, Mead, Dewey, Parsons. Everybody knows those names, but lost in the shuffle, for me, is the name of Georg Simmel.

I'll be discussing the details of Simmel's sociology in upcoming posts. They will include the following:
  1. The individual and the mass
  2. Social humans at play
  3. 18th and 19th century views of freedom
  4. Numbers and social life
  5. The individual and the "dyad" (i.e. two people)
  6. Expansion of the dyad (three's a crowd)
  7. Subordination under an Individual
  8. Subordination under a Plurality
  9. Subordination under a Principle
  10. Degrees of Domination
  11. Knowledge, Truth and Falsehood
  12. Types of Relationships and Reciprocal Knowledge
  13. Secrecy
  14. The Secret Society
  15. Faithfulness and Gratitude
  16. The Negatives of Collective Behavior
  17. The Stranger
  18. The Metropolis and Mental Life
  19. Wrapup
Before I start with the individual topics, let's look at Simmel on the individual and the mass. The point about the mass, he writes, is that people connect on a level that they can all relate. That inevitably means that on a mass level they relate on "lower and primitively more sensuous levels."

You can see right away that Simmel causes problems for the folks that practice what we might call the "religion of collectivism." When people associate primarily as individuals they can contribute their highest and best qualities. But when they are mixed into a crowd or a mass or an organization as rank and file then only the more primitive qualities apply.

Next: The individual and the mass

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