Perhaps nothing so clearly
reveals Simmel's profound ambivalence toward contemporary culture
and society as his view of the drift of modern history. This view
is a compound of the apparently contradictory assessments of liberal
progressivism and cultural pessimism, as revealed in the writings
of Herbert Spencer and as reflected in German idealism since the
days of Schiller or Nietzsche.
The trend of
modern history appears to Simmel as a progressive liberation of
the individual from the bonds of exclusive attachment and personal
dependencies in spite of the increasing domination of man by cultural
products of his own creation. In premodern societies, Simmel argued,
man typically lived in a very limited number of relatively small
social circles. Such circles, whether kinship groups or guilds,
towns or villages, tightly surrounded the individual and held him
firmly in their grip. The total personality of the individual was
immersed in this group life. Thus, medieval organizational forms
"occupied the whole man; they did not only serve an objectively
determined purpose, but were rather a form of unification englobing
the total person of those who had gathered together in the pursuit
of that purpose." Associations in premodern societies were
not functionally specific or limited to clearly articulated purposes;
they bound the individual through undifferentiated dependencies
and loyalties. Moreover, subordination in premodern society typically
involved domination over the entire personality of the subordinate.
The lord of the manor was not only the political overlord of the
serf; he dominated the total person of the serf--economically, juridically,
and socially. Dependence, therefore, was al encompassing.
In such premodern
societies, the individuals were organized, as it were, in a number
of linked concentric circles. A man could be a member of a guild,
which in turn was part of a wider confederation of guilds. A burgher
may have been a citizen of a particular town and this town may have
belonged to a federation of towns, such as the Hanse. An individual
could not directly join a larger social circle but could become
involved in it by virtue of membership in a smaller one. A primitive
tribe does not consist of individual members but of clans, lineages,
or other groupings in which individuals participate directly.
of organization in the modern world is fundamentally different:
an individual is a member of many well-defined circles, no one of
which involves and controls his total personality. "The number
of different circles in which individuals move, is one of the indices
of cultural development." Modern man's family involvements
are separated from his occupational and religious activities. This
means that each individual occupies a distinct position in the intersection
of many circles. The greater the number of possible combinations
of membership, the more each individual tends toward a unique location
in the social sphere. Although he may share membership with other
individuals in one or several circles, he is less likely to be located
at exactly the same intersection as anyone else.
is transformed when membership in a single circle or in a few of
them is replaced by a social position at the intersection of a great
number of such circles. The personality is now highly segmented
through such multiple participation. In premodern societies, for
example, locality or kinship determined religious affiliation; one
could not coexist with men who did not share his religious beliefs,
for the religious community coincided with the territorial or kinship
community. In the modern world, in contrast, these allegiances are
separated. A man need not share the religious beliefs of his neighbors,
although he may be tied to them by other bonds. It does not follow,
however, that religion loses its force; it only becomes more specific.
Religious concerns are differentiated from other concerns and hence
become more individualized; they do not necessarily overlap with
a person's kinship or neighborhood ties.
involvement in a variety of circles contributes to increased self-consciousness.
As the individual escapes the domination of the small circle that
imprisons his personality within its confines, he becomes conscious
of a sense of liberation. The segmentation of group involvement
brings about a sense of uniqueness and of freedom. The intersection
of social circles is the precondition for the emergence of individualism.
Not only do men become more unlike one another; they are also afforded
the opportunity to move without effort in different social contexts.
The forms of
subordination and superordination also assume a novel character
in the modern world. No longer can the individual be totally dominated
by others; whatever domination continues to exist is functionally
specific and limited to a particular time and place. As compared
with the lord of the manor, the modern employer cannot dominate
the entire personalities of the workers in his factory; his power
over them is limited to a specifically economic context and a specified
number of hours. Once the workers leave the factory gates, they
are "free" to take part in other types of social relations
in other social circles. Although they may be subordinate in some
of these relations, they may well be superordinate in others, thus
compensating for their inferiority in one area by superiority in
It should be
clear that Simmel, in his original manner, is retracing the liberal
view of historical patterns that could be found in such otherwise
diverse thinkers as Spencer and Durkheim. Differentiation, in this
view, involves a shift from homogeneity to heterogeneity, from uniformity
to individualization, from absorption in the predictable routines
of a small world of tradition to participation in a wider world
of multifaceted involvements and open possibilities. The drift of
western history leads form status to contract, form mechanical solidarity
to organic solidarity, from societies in which custom is so rigid
that it militates against individuality to those in which the multiplicity
of involvements and contracts allows the emergence of uniqueness
and individual autonomy.
This is only
one of the two perspectives Simmel used to consider the past and
present cultural situation. His other view owes more to Marx and
to German cultural pessimism than to the optimism of British and
French progressive thought. From this perspective, Simmel writes
of the ineradicable dualism inherent in the relation between individuals
and objective cultural values. An individual can attain cultivation
only by appropriating the cultural values that surround him. But
these values threaten to engulf and to subjugate the individual.
More specifically, the division of labor, while it is the origin
of a differentiated cultural life, in its way also subjugates and
enslaves the individual. More specifically, the division of labor,
while it is the origin of a differentiated cultural life, in its
way also subjugates and enslaves the individual.
The human mind
creates a variety of products that have an existence independent
of their creator as well as of those who receive or reject them.
The individual is perpetually confronted with a world of cultural
objects, from religion to morality, from customs to science, which,
although internalized, remain alien powers. They attain a fixed
and coagulated form and tend to appear as "otherness"
to the individual. Hence, there is a perennial contradiction "between
subjective life, which is restless but limited and time-bound, and
its contents which, once created, are . . . timelessly valid."
needs and science and religion and law in order to attain autonomy
and to realize his own purposes. He needs to internalize these cultural
values, making them part of himself. Individual excellence can be
attained only through absorption of external values. And yet the
fetishistic character that Marx attributed to the economic realm
in the epoch of commodity production constitutes only a special
case of the general fate of cultural contents. These contents are,
particularly in more developed cultural epochs, involved in a peculiar
paradox: they have been created by people and they were intended
for people, but they attain an objective form and follow an immanent
logic of development, becoming alienated from their origin as well
as from their purpose.
that may express more pathos than analytical understanding, Simmel
sees modern man as surrounded by a world of objects that constrain
and dominate his needs and desires. Technology creates "unnecessary"
knowledge, that is, knowledge that is of no particular value but
is simply the by-product of the autonomous expansion of scientific
As a result
of these trends, modern man finds himself in a deeply problematical
situation: he is surrounded by a multiplicity of cultural elements,
which, although they are not meaningless to him, are not fundamentally
meaningful either. They oppress the individual because he cannot
fully assimilate them. But he cannot reject them because they belong
at least potentially to the sphere of his own cultural development.
"The cultural objects become more and more linked to each other
in a self-contained world which has increasingly fewer contacts
with the subjective psyche and its desires and sensibilities."
Simmel, like Marx, exemplifies this process by reference to the
division of labor. Once this division is highly developed, "the
perfection of the product is attained at the cost of the development
of the producer. The increase in physical and psychical energies
and skills which accompanies one-sided activities hardly benefits
the total personality; in fact it often leads to atrophy because
it sucks away those forces that are necessary for the harmonious
development of the full personality." The division of labor
severs the creator from the creation so that the latter attains
an autonomy of its own. This process of reification of the cultural
products, accentuated, though not originated, by the division of
labor, causes increasing alienation between the person and his products.
Unlike the artist, the producer can no longer find himself within
his product; he loses himself in it.
universe is made by men, yet each individual perceives it as a world
he never made. Thus, progress in the development of objective cultural
products leads to an increasing impoverishment of the creating individuals.
The producers and consumers of objective culture tend to atrophy
in their individual capacities even though they depend on it for
their own cultivation.
in one facet of his Weltanschauung to the progressive liberal vision
of those French and English thinkers who influenced him deeply,
Simmel is equally bound to a tragic vision of culture. He combines
in an original, though not fully resolved, way the uncomplicated
evolutionary faith in the perfectibility of man of a Condorcet with
the metaphysical pathos of a Schiller or a Nietzsche. Unable to
relinquish the vision of a progressive liberation of the individual
from the bonds of tradition and subjugation, Simmel yet foretells,
with a sense of impending doom, "a cage of the future"
(to use Max Weber's term), in which individuals will be frozen into
social functions and in which the price of the objective perfection
of the world will be the atrophy of the human soul.