Monday, December 8, 2014

Georg Simmel: Knowledge Truth and Falsehood

In order to live and thrive as social animals we humans have to have knowledge about each other, writes Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff. That knowledge can be expressed by the price of a merchant's goods, his knowledge of his customers, by the teacher challenging her students, knowing their capabilities. Of course, we do not know the full truth about other people; much of other people is hidden from us. Failing perfection, we assemble a "personal unity" out of the "fragments" that other persons permit us to see, knowing also that often they deliberately conceal parts of themselves. Still, we know enough to get on.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

The interaction between individuals is "based upon the pictures which they acquire of one another." But it is the very interaction between individuals under which the conception each has of the other takes shape and is legitimated. In science this is called circular logic; but between people it is life. We act based upon our overall knowledge of people and reality, yet our knowledge is shot through with error and distortion. Not only is complete truth impossible but untruth, even the Noble Lie and conscious self-deception, seems necessary in order to maintain life. It seems "we obtain the exact amounts of error and truth which constitute the basic of the conduct required of us, error and truth are psychologically coordinate".

The question of truth and deception have particular importance in relation to "the inner life of the individual with whom we interact. He may, intentionally, either reveal the truth about himself to us, or deceive us by lie and concealment." Our own inner lives, anyway, are a "chaotic whirling of images and ideas" of which we are rarely conscious, and we are even more selective about what we reveal of our inner life to others. "Whatever we say... is never an immediate and faithful presentation of what really occurs in us... but is a transformation of this inner reality... stylized by selection and arrangement." All interactions between humans necessarily lie somewhere on a line between "sincere revelations and mendacious concealments."

So we come to the lie, "the fact that the liar hides his true idea from the other." This is particularly important in modern society. No doubt lies have always been a part of human interaction, but in the primitive face-to-face society it is much harder to bring off. In our modern society of strangers we are less able to evaluate the truth of others' discourse, yet we rely enormously "upon the faith in the honesty of the other", for instance in the economy and its credit system, in science where scientists take for granted the ideas of other scientists. The lie in the modern world is a big deal, "for modern life is a "credit economy" in a much broader than economic sense."

Yet the lie also is permissible. The intellectually stronger tend to club the intellectually weaker with the lie, and the retail trade uses the arts of of the lie in boosting its merchandise. And even the most intimate relations, defined by nearness, "lose the attractiveness, even the content of their intimacy, as soon as the close relationship does not also contain, simultaneously and alternatively, distances and intermissions." All "relationships... presuppose a certain ignorance and a measure of mutual concealment". The lie thus occupies the aggressive end of a whole spectrum of social actions "attained by mere secrecy and concealment."

Thus social humans do not just live by communication and cooperation; social relations also necessarily involve distance, concealment, and at the extreme, the lie.

Next: Types of Relationship and Reciprocal Knowledge

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