Georg Simmel, 1858-1918

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Georg Simmel, 1858-1918

A Collection of Essays, with Translations and a Bibliography



















Publication Information: Book Title: Georg Simmel, 1858-1918: A Collection of Essays, with Translations and a Bibliography. Contributors: Kurt H. Wolff - editor. Publisher: Ohio State University Press. Place of Publication: Columbus, OH. Publication Year: 1959. Page Number: 119.


To sociologists and social philosophers alike, few problems have been as haunting, as challenging, as persistently intriguing as the problem of individuality. For in what, precisely, does individuality consist? In our difference from others, or in some intrinsic and essential quality or structure of the self? Even should we agree that individuality is bound up with social differences, we find ourselves enmeshed in new perplexities. And if we attempt to resolve these perplexities by appealing to history, we find that, with the passage of time, the dominant formulations of the problem have radically altered. Individuality in primitive society tends to be defined by the extent to which one approximates a social type. Social types are established by the cultural traditions of the community, and the more one realizes the type, the more individualized he is considered to be. It is not far from this point of view to that of the Greeks, who discard the notion that social types must be accepted uncritically as norms. Instead, they examine social relationships, isolate those which appear to be values, idealize them, and then consider that to be individual which most perfectly participates in the ideal. It is only with Aristotle that this approach is systematically transformed: attention is directed away from form as the agency of individual determination and is focused instead upon the individuating function of material content. This statement of the problem in turn foreshadowed the more modern view that conformity to type is a denial of individuality. We have been inclined to think that individuality is constituted by deviation from type, by nonconformity. The more we depart from established norms, the more we appear to stand out as distinctive. In time, however, such departures become stylized and conventional. Consequently, the demand for individuality is renewed and intensified.

Since the ideology of Western society is largely composed of notions stemming from Christianity, romanticism, and liberal-


ism (with their respective versions of religious, aesthetic, and political individualism), it has steadily insisted upon the incomparability, induplicability, and uniqueness of the individual human being. This insistence is frequently hortative rather than descriptive; it is not necessarily rooted in empirical observation of individual differences. In democratic societies, where pluralistic values are predominant, uniqueness is as readily imputed to the individual as is diversity to the group.

The individual can also be regarded as simply a chance intersection of social relationships, expendable as a means to some overriding social end, and duplicable if liquidated. Clearly, the affirmation or denial of essential personal differences is at the heart of many contemporary ideological controversies.

For the philosophically oriented social scientist, the problem of individuality is thus complicated by traditional disputes among theologians, metaphysicians, and political ideologists. All sorts of strands are here knotted up, and each seems to involve some exasperating dualism: universal vs. particular, general vs. specific, type vs. instance, law vs. case, norm vs. deviation, and so forth. In Simmel's philosophical sociology, some parts of the knot are unraveled; some are cut; and some remain as entangled as ever.

The construction of a theory of individuality might well begin with a metaphysical formulation of the problem, but in approaching Simmel's writings on the subject it may be more useful to turn first to the epistemological problem of how individuals come to be observed, and how the distinctive trait of individuality is discerned and identified. For as we originally understand these terms, an individual is a specific and concrete entity, while individuality is the characteristic attribute of all individuals.

There are many points of similarity between Simmel's approach to the problem of knowledge--especially knowledge of individuals--and the general theory of Verstehen as outlined by Dilthey. There are also significant similarities between Simmel and Bergson, although Simmel does not appear to be particularly perturbed by the seeming contradiction between "intuition" and "understanding." Most interesting, however,


is the contrast between the epistemological frameworks which Simmel and Bergson choose to emphasize. For if Bergson repeatedly asks that we admit the importance of time, Simmel is just as insistent in stressing the significance of space. If Bergson is concerned with passage and duration, with the movement and change of the object observed, Simmel is preoccupied with the object's stability. Bergson contemplates duration as an observer, standing idly on a bank, might watch a river sweep by: the observer is more or less fixed, the object flows on. Simmel views it as one might examine a cathedral: while one walks outside it, around it, within it, or looks down upon it, it endures.

Bergson relies upon an illustration drawn from motion-picture photography: Movement is fundamentally unanalyzable; it can be reduced only to specious units, each without motion; and these units, when viewed sequentially and properly phased, re-create merely the illusion of movement. Bergson's cameraman is stable, whereas Simmel's, mounted on a mobile crane, is in constant movement, for Simmel is more concerned with the spatiality of the observed object than with its temporally phased fluctuations. The process of observation itself becomes dynamic, entailing as it does a constant search for new viewpoints: now pressing forward for a close-up, now bearing down still more for a microscopic scrutiny of some intimate detail, now pulling suddenly back for a broader perspective or an aerial view.

This restless movement of the observer causes a continual shifting of focus. For a moment, all is blurred; he adjusts himself to the changed conditions of observation; all becomes clear again. From each moment of clarified vision, where an organized field can be envisaged, individuality emerges. It is not that the object is completely individualized and that we simply learn more about it from each new vantage point. Rather, the object exists as a permanent condition of infinitely individualized, infinitely varied experiences. Individuality is a characteristic of the experiential transaction involving subject and object, although usually, in our confusion, we attribute it now to the one component, now to the other.

The house seen from a distance of three yards is the same object when seen from a distance of thirty yards, but in each case the optical representation is singularly different. Each ordered


experience is an individual. The relationships of which it is composed are unique to it and cannot be transposed with those of another individual since every change in distance involves a change in proportion. Simmel's epistemology does not deny the existence of the object itself, either as the condition for the emergence of individualized experiences or as a limit of scientific abstraction. Nevertheless, there is a tendency in Simmel to permit the object to become remote, a kind of Kantian Ding an sich, whereas the real objects of knowledge become the structured relationships of our experience.

Every standpoint is privileged to disclose relationships visible from no other standpoint:

If A and B have different conceptions of M, this by no means necessarily implies incompleteness or deception. Rather, in view of the relation in which A stands to M, A's nature and the total circumstances being what they are, A's picture of M is true for him in the same manner in which, for B, a different picture is true. It would be quite erroneous to say that, above these two pictures, there is the objectively correct knowledge about M, and that A's and B's images are legitimated to the extent to which they coincide with this objective knowledge. Rather, the ideal truth which the picture of M in the conception of A approaches--to be sure, only asymptotically--is something different, even as an ideal, from that of B. It contains as an integrating, form-giving precondition the psychological peculiarity of A and the particular relation into which A and M are brought by their specific characters and destinies. 1

Simmel maintains that what is involved here is a "structural principle" of the relativity and equivalent correctness of all perspectives in so far as they are able to bring the field of visualization into focus. Given a constant, stable object, there are innumerable variables--for example, the psychology of the observer, his relative distance--which contribute to and compose the individual that emerges in experience.

Yet, paradoxically, if the object is to be viewed "in perspective," it must be seen from more than a single point of view. We need both distance and nearness. Also, we need "inside knowledge" as well as an understanding of the external factors (pp. 7, 97 n.). Gradually, a curious reversal occurs. In the initial ob-


servation, the object is subordinated to the individuality of the experience. But every additional observation contributes to the construction of the individuality of the object. This abstracted individuality is a composite pattern of relationships as discerned from a variety of perspectives. It is not necessarily more "correct" than the individuality of any direct observation from a single standpoint. It may, however, have a depth or fullness which single observations often lack.

Thus far, little has been said about the sensitivity of the observer. Yet what we call individuality is partially determined by our sensitivity to individual differences. When these differences are relatively great, an acute observer is not needed to discern them; but when they are slight, we often become sensitized to them, as inhabitants of a jungle become accustomed to noting innumerable minor variations of greenness. It follows, then, that if our threshhold of sensitivity increases as the differences among perceived individuals diminish, the experienced differentiation appears to be negligible. The smaller the differences, the more they are magnified. In this sense, a shrinking universe might not necessarily appear to be shrinking to its inhabitants, and a society of individuals who were becoming increasingly uniform might appear to them absolutely unchanged in its variety.

An individual is a unified set of relationships in the field of visualization. A society, a style, an epoch, a person, a physical thing, an experience--these can all be individuals. It is not that they are wholly subjective or wholly objective. Independent of observation, the relationships of which such individuals are composed may already be patterned to a pronounced degree. But the individualized structure or form is rounded out in the act of intellectual understanding. Another way of putting this might be to say that, for Simmel, individuality is neither wholly discovered nor wholly invented. It is produced, although it is not so much a product as a natural production. Yet it cannot be denied that Simmel wavers in his formulation of individuality. Now he views the individual as an intellectual synthesis, now as a category of the understanding, now as a structure at least partially objective. His intent, apparently, is to suggest that individualization is both a basic mental habit and a tendency to


distinctiveness and discreteness in events. What becomes individuated in experience we call an individual, but our concept only makes more pronounced a structure that was already immanent. Simmel believes that scientific understanding requires the disclosure of individuals, for it is essentially an abstractive process concerned with the discovery of structural unities. This is why he is able to remark that individuals are "the immediate, concrete data of all historical reality" (p. 40): apparently we have no better way of organizing our experience so as to make it comprehensible.

We must understand, however, that our emphasis upon individuals cannot deny reality to that which is not individualized. This is true whether the non-individual is content (as compared to form) or background (as compared to pattern). Simmel does not preoccupy himself too greatly, however, with the futile problem of whether individuals are ultimately more real than that of which they are composed or that against which they stand out.

Certainly, the figure-ground opposition is an important conceptual instrument for Simmel, for he often speaks of individuality as a pattern whose pronouncedness must be seen against the background of what it is not--of what contrasts with, or even contradicts, it. (This chiaroscuro technique makes quite plausible his interest in Rembrandt--especially since Rembrandt used that technique for the purpose of intense individualization.) The individual stands over against the common or the general; the individualized experience contrasts with the ordinary, commonplace experience. We prize the individual in this sense, not because of its intrinsic value, but because it occurs in a context of triviality, monotony, mediocrity. We value the rare, fresh, spontaneous relationships which stand in such contrast to the insipid dreariness of ordinary relationships. The greater the routinization of the world, the more the genuine individual stands boldly in relief against it. The commonplace modestly withdraws to the background, but without it the pattern of individuality could not emerge.

Of equal or perhaps greater importance for Simmel is the form-content distinction. Contents are common, indiscriminate, undifferentiated; forms alone are individualized. A form may


be taken to be a pattern or Gestalt in terms of which contents have been ordered. But individuality may also consist in the quality--the Gestaltqualität--of that pattern.

Change, activity, flux--these exist in the passage or flow of contents, although each content is what it is: unchanging, yet passing on. Forms themselves remain the same, forever independent of alteration. Bureaucracies differ, marriages differ, secrets differ, but not the forms of bureaucracy, marriage, or secrecy. The more things change, the more they remain formally the same.

This is still an oversimplification. First, because contents-the material, Simmel calls it (pp. 40-42), of individuality--already have a tendency to form. We might call it a matrix. Second, because to the extent that matrices exist, contents become unchanging. Digestion is a process that has gradually developed with life. To the extent that it distinguishes itself from non-digestive processes, it attains the matrix of form. But only with the full-fledged emergence of form can we speak of the emergence of individuality. One becomes an individual when one functions as an autonomous and integrated whole, which can if necessary become subordinate to a segment of itself.

For example, there are innumerable impulses, drives, movements, and interests in biological existence. Some of these may develop into a "mating tendency." As yet, this is only the matrix of form. There is a further development into what we call marriage, and marriage has thus far persevered as an institution because it has transcended its instrumental function and become an end in itself. People avoid divorce "so as to preserve the marriage." Similarly, random pleasurable movements become play, and playfulness is an ingredient in the development of art, but art is a form which has value in itself: one may devote oneself to art, live for art. It becomes autonomous.

It is in this manner that one develops the form of individuality. Each person may have differently organized the raw materials of life--impulses, drives, tendencies. But until that organization persists for its own sake, mastering the separate activities so that they can contribute to the perseveration of the whole, and the whole can subserve the part, one has not yet


achieved individuality. Differentiation may have been a natural result of the struggle for survival, but the appearance of individuality means that one now survives in order to be differentiated, unified, and autonomous. Contents may be individuated, but only forms are individualized, having transcended the conditions of their origin.

It is usually believed that individuality is reduced when the individual participates in a group. Simmel does not contradict this impression--he even accentuates it. In the group, individuality tends to be reduced not merely to the average but to the lowest, moral feelings, the most primitive or superficial thoughts. The larger the group, the lower the moral and intellectual level of those who compose it is likely to be (pp. 36-39). Yet this is only one consequence of group membership; there are compensatory consequences. To affiliate oneself with a group is to determine and define oneself more precisely in respect to it. One becomes, or is seen as, similar to others in the group but dissimilar to the totality of individuals outside it. To belong to a second group further limits one's similarity to others and increases one's dissimilarity. Thus the greater the number of groups to which one belongs, the less likely it is that the totality of one's affiliations will be identical with anyone else's totality. The cumulative effect of group affiliation turns out to be increasing differentiation and individualization. Simmel asserts that "the larger the number of groups to which an individual belongs, the more improbable is it that other persons will exhibit the same combination of group-affiliations, that these particular groups will 'intersect' once again (in a second individual)." 2

There is a certain hazard in such a statement. In a society that is highly conventional, group affiliations may be so rigorously prescribed that one may belong to a large number of groups without perceptibly increasing one's differences from others. Yet Simmel reminds us that it is not, after all, the mere sum of one's affiliations which helps to constitute one's singularity: it is the unique pattern of those affiliations. Quantitative changes in a sociological structure do result in distinct qualitative differences (pp. 115-17). The addition or subtraction of a single, apparently insignificant element may utterly transform


the quality of the whole. An individual's uniqueness may therefore result from an uncharacteristic affiliation which nevertheless radically alters the whole of his character.

Just as group membership can both diminish and enhance individuality, so the establishment of universals in the social order has a double-edged effect. Thus Simmel asserts that the rise of a money economy in which a universal means of exchange was substituted for diversified particular means was to a considerable degree responsible for the rise of individualism. Yet the individualizing power which money confers has its other side: such power is achieved at the cost of de-individualizing other beings, whom one tends to evaluate in monetary terms. Here we confront the Nietzschean belief that there is a world economy of individuality, with the result that its increase in the few takes place at the expense of the depersonalized many.

The positive side, however, is also inescapable. Universals can function subserviently to all individuals, heightening their uniqueness. When, for example, we assert that all men have equal and identical rights, the universality we stipulate does not constrain men's individuality but liberates it, especially if we insist that all men have the identical right to be treated as individuals. In Simmel's writings, universality represents a necessary condition for humanity, while individuality represents a sufficient condition.

The secret of individuality, therefore, lies in the transmutation of the impersonal, general, necessary conditions of life into the personalized, differentiated, sufficient conditions of being alive as a human individual. For example, while sexual relationships form the general condition of all marriages, genuine marriage involves more than sexuality.

It follows that the general conditions of social life require the establishment of norms. In a large society, obedience to a norm is not an individualizing form of conduct, whereas we do become distinctive once we violate the norm. "Greeting somebody in the street proves no esteem whatever, but failure to do so conclusively proves the opposite" (p. 400). In a smaller society, however, where there is a large number of particular norms, conformity to norms is taken as a sign of individuality and distinction. In a complex mass society, made up of highly


differentiated individuals, norms must be general rather than specific, few rather than many. If in seeking to allow greater freedom to its members, a smaller society crystallizes norms in a wide variety of specific forms that seem to be appropriate to individual needs, it is, on the other hand, likely to permit less differentiation than it would if the lack of freedom were confined to only very general and pervasive features. Simmel remarks that democratic societies initiate relatively simple, general measures, whereas aristocracies try to do justice to the peculiarities of individual elements (p. 143 ). If modern individuality arose under the despotisms of the Italian Renaissance, it was because the political character of the individual could be factored out and repressed, while the development of all other aspects of his individuality could be encouraged and stimulated (p. 204 ). Simmel here touches upon the antinomy between freedom and individuality which is entailed in the contrast between democracy and aristocracy.

Central to Simmel's presentation of the problem of individuality is his analysis of the contrast between the philosophical outlook of the eighteenth century and that of the nineteenth.

The Enlightenment sought to emancipate man from the historical bonds of traditional institutions. In liberating men from servitude to the past, it believed it was liberating a human nature that was common to all, identical in each human being. Human freedom could be achieved simply by releasing men from the conditions which caused inequality. In this sense, the eighteenth century stood for a break with one's predecessors.

Individualism in the nineteenth century, on the other hand, meant a break with one's contemporaries. Especially under the impetus of the romantic movement, men were stimulated to differentiate themselves. Individuals had to be liberated from custom and convention so as to be most truly themselves. Freedom was thought to be the consequence of encouraging men to be infinitely differentiated and diversified, even if this entailed drastic inequalities. In short, Simmel remarks, " Eighteenthcentury liberalism put the individual on his own feet: in the nineteenth, he was allowed to go as far as they would carry him" (p. 83)


What the eighteenth century failed to understand was that the emancipation of men from an oppressive social system, in the name of equality, would lead directly to the oppression of men by one another, also in the name of equality. Unless the freedom of the strong is restricted (through law or the ethics of fraternalism), the strong restrict the freedom of the weak. An equal measure of freedom for all, therefore, leads to inequality, to the concentration of power and the monopolization of opportunities.

The eighteenth century may have had some fleeting faith that the spirit of fraternity would resolve this antinomy between equality and freedom. But it pinned its hopes on the notion of law. The individual is to be conceived of as an instance of a general rule. That which differentiates the particular case is merely accidental, external, trivial. The essence of man, his humanity, lives in each individual, is an atomic unit, everywhere alike, and absolutely amenable to universal law. Because this unconditionally identical core in all men finds its freedom in submitting to the requirements of universality, in lawful rather than lawless behavior, men themselves achieve freedom by liberating the humanity within them. To be moral is to deny yourself privileges which you might ordinarily take on the grounds that you are different from others. In this view, articulated most clearly in Kant, to be moral is to submit oneself to universal law, and to be lawful is to be free.

In brief, the attitude of the eighteenth century was that individuals are homogeneous and basically undifferentiated. The atomic individuals who constitute society are bound together solely by means of law, which applies indiscriminately to one and all since one and all are essentially alike. This is a quantitative individualism that treats the individual as a unit, as a separate entity. Simmel calls it the individualism of singleness (Einzelheit).

In contrast, the following century developed a qualitative emphasis which may be called the individualism of uniqueness (Einzigkeit). As single, one attains the freedom that is permitted to whatever falls within the law. As unique, one is free by falling outside the law. As single, one is an instance, an exemplification, of mankind. As unique, one's context is society, which


exists as the background against which one stands out: one's fellow men conveniently provide one with innumerable points of unlikeness.

The romantic feels that his self is absolutely specific and irreplaceable. Individuality becomes precious because it is incomparable; priceless, because matchless. Yet one's uniqueness escapes possession. It remains an ideal to be longed for: the individual seeks his self "as if he did not yet have it" (p. 79).

This, then, is the qualitative individuality of the romantic period, originating in Herder and Rousseau. It will be recalled that Rousseau, at the very beginning of his Confessions, asserts that he may not be better than other men but at least he is different. This voices precisely the essence of the interpretation of individuality as uniqueness. The doctrine was elaborated by Schlegel and Schleiermacher. In the latter (as afterward in Royce), the realization of one's uniqueness becomes a moral duty, that which one is called to do because the absolute can live only in the individual--hence one's responsibility to become a unique monad mirroring the universe.

The radical shift in the interpretation of individuality which was introduced with romanticism was also reflected in social and economic developments. The rigid class structure of the ancien régime had enforced social distinctions regardless of merit. Such injustice seemed to liberals of the time a denial, not of legitimate individual differences, but of the fundamental similarity and equality of all human beings. However, their nineteenth-century successors attempted to construct a social order which would take individual differences into account. The institutions entrusted with the legitimation and enforcement of differences were competition and the division of labor. Although free competition would seem to be associated with the individualism of difference, Simmel suggests that it is really a product of eighteenth-century liberalism, according to which such competition naturally promoted the welfare of all social interests. The doctrine more closely aligned with the individualism of difference was the theory of the division of labor. By this means, the nineteenth century (culminating in Durkheim) sought to maintain and guarantee the existence of precise differences among individuals.


Simmel recognized that unlimited competition and occupational specialization have not been outstandingly successful in promoting individuality. How individuality might be more suitably enhanced, he does not specifically indicate, and his skeptical attitude toward socialism suggests that he did not expect a solution to come from this quarter. Yet he hoped for a higher synthesis, a form which would transcend both the individual and society, blending greater diversities with new unities, thereby realizing and celebrating the idealized possibilities of humanity itself (p. 84 ). He looked ahead to those "highest types of development" in which there are

social structures which precisely when they have attained a very large size and a perfect organization, can grant the individual the greatest freedom to live his life according to his own particular norms and in the most individualized form. And on the other hand, there are groups which reach their greatest strength only when their members have attained the most intense and differentiated individualism (p. 110).

Simmel's profound commitment to the nineteenth-century conception of differentiated individuality is here very much in evidence.

If Simmel admired the nineteenth century for its understanding of the substance of individuality, he admired the eighteenth century for its grasp of its structure. He found that two quite different frames of reference were involved. For the quantitative, universalistic view, the framework is mankind, humanity. For the qualitative, particularistic view, the framework is society.

That mankind and society are extremely different contexts is a concept which Simmel finds most clearly worked out in Kant and Nietzsche. The values of the individual as a human being are not the same as his values as a social being. One's values as a human being are purely personal qualities, independent of social relationships. Human values are autonomous, intrinsic, and immediate. One's personal worth lies in his "good will," as Kant would say. Society, on the other hand, is chiefly interested in our actions and in the consequences of what we do. It judges us pragmatically, on the grounds of our social utility, whereas humanity judges us by our contributions to the development of


mankind, by the extent to which humanity is enriched by our existence.

The stipulation of humanity that we should act to realize human ideals is often in sharp contrast to society's frequent demand that we conform to the average and mediocre. Of course, we should not too hastily assent to Simmel's contention (which links him with the liberalism of de Tocqueville and Mill) that society generally cultivates mediocrity (p. 37 ). For society may wish to encourage a situation in which diversity and variety are prevalent. After all, mere variety is no threat to it, and perhaps social controls are most effective when the constituents of society are effectively divided among themselves. On such a dead level of diversity, all persons can be equally insignificant and impotent. In fact, it might even be maintained that what is distinctive about twentieth-century society is that it simultaneously encourages the contradictory ideals of social conformity and individual differentiation, so that individuality becomes more than ever an insoluble dilemma.

Empirically, we note that men are similar to one another in some respects, different in other respects. As fact or as tendency, says Simmel, difference is of neither greater nor lesser importance than likeness. But this is not the case with our psychological and sociological interpretations of individuality. "If something is objectively of equal importance in terms of both similarity with a type and differentiation from it, we will be more conscious of the differentiation" (p. 31). We are more interested (at present, at any rate) in the way we differ from others than in the way we resemble them. One comes to think that he is significant only to the extent that he can contrast himself with others. As a matter of fact, Simmel observes that "where such a contrast does not exist, he may even artificially create it" (p. 31). Simmel here moves from the consideration of individuality as such to the analysis of the ways in which we are fascinated by it.

It is tempting to assume that different interpretations of individuality have their appeal for us because they represent alternative modes of achieving ultimate values, such as freedom or happiness. Simmel cautions us, however, against assuming


that the choice of interpretation is a purely instrumental choice, seeking merely to adjust means to ends. Instead, the decision of each man as to whether he is, or wants, or ought to be, like or unlike his fellow man is bound to come from the depths of his being. This decision is of the utmost gravity to each individual: "It expresses the existence of man, the substance of his essence" (p. 74). It is not the result of an appraisal of means and ends but the ultimate ground on which all one's other decisions are built. Either we feel, in some ultimate, foundational sense, that we are the same as all other men, or we feel, with equal conviction, that we are basically unique. This choice is at the heart of our civilization. For, as the existentialists would say, the sort of societies we create and the manner of men we are to be will depend on the choice we make.

Again, interpretations of individuality vacillate between the notion that an individual is an elementary unit of some larger complex and the notion that an individual is a single composite organization of parts. If we examine the consequences of the latter assumption, we note that an almost magical transposition can take place. Man has the capacity to decompose himself into parts and to feel any one of these as his proper self, Simmel remarks. The part can stand for, or be interpreted as, the whole. A person can come to believe that his true self consists in some portion of his self. It is this psychological alchemy that enables men to devote themselves so whole-heartedly to separate segments of their lives.

Similarly, the individual may rebel against the feeling that he is merely an atomic member of society. If we take the point of view of the part (either the fragmentary motif of personality or the individual member of society), we insist upon the equivalence of part to whole, or we insist that only in the part is reality to be found. If we take the point of view of the whole (either the whole individual or the whole society), we maintain that the whole is greater than any of its parts, and greater than the sum of its parts.

Although this antinomy cannot be resolved on its own terms, it does not preclude a third interpretation--one that Simmel finds in Goethe and Nietzsche--which is that the individual can best perfect and fulfill himself when he devotes himself to the


service of some objective ideal, when he dedicates himself to be the instrument of a cause greater than himself. This ideal cause need not be identical with society or with the aims of society. One becomes the agent of an ultimate value: for the artist, beauty; for the scientist, truth; and so on. The conflict between society and the individual is resolved only by transcending both, by surmounting the vacillations of egoism and altruism and rising to the objectivity of idealized endeavor.

Yet Simmel warns us that the cultivated individual is something more than a specialist, for specialization is usually the result of devoting oneself to a single ideal. Of course, when an individual places himself in the service of an ideal cause, his individuality is not reduced as much as when he becomes a member of a group. But just as he gains individuality by an increasing variety of group participations, so his individuality increases if he dedicates himself to a plurality of ideals.

Since the model of individuality which Simmel constructs relies so frequently upon spatial or geometrical imagery, it is not surprising that he should note two conflicting interpretations of the boundaries of the individual. These interpretations correspond to two contrasting modes of vision, as suggested by Wölfflin. In one case, we see things as having sharply defined outlines; in the other, the outlines are blurred and indistinct. Illustrations of this contrast are to be found in the paintings of the classic Renaissance artists as opposed to works done in the baroque style. For Simmel, the individual takes shape as a tangible entity, but one's sharp raw edges (if one is too peculiar, too eccentric) can be abrasive or destructive in social intercourse. One needs to be in touch with one's neighbors in a more sociable, more harmonious manner; hence one develops tact, which is a self-regulatory function aimed at maintaining the smooth flow of interpersonal conduct. To be tactful is thus to suppress one's most personal, most intimate, most unique characteristics for the sake of integrating and blending easily with the group. Tact therefore blurs the edges of the individual. It softens his contours and surrounds him with an aura of approachability and permeability so as to make him less formidable than the tactless individualist.

Every individual is surrounded by an ideal sphere, a zone of


personal "honor" which it is considered indiscreet to trespass upon. Discretion is, thus, a recognition of social distance. It is also a recognition of the private, unbreachable innerness of the individual. If to be tactful means the courteous inhibition of one's own unique eccentricities, to be discreet means the awareness of another individual's privacy and distinctiveness.

Simmel's treatment of such topics as tact, discretion, confidence, reserve, and secrecy are at the core of his sociology of intimate relations. It can be seen that in this "internal sociology" he tends to accept the nineteenth-century interpretation of individuality as definitive. Repeatedly, he emphasizes the uniqueness that springs from internal complexity and external incomparability rather than the individuality that is associated with atomic discreteness and subservience to universal law.

Whereas the atomic individual is united to his fellow men by identity of interests, the unique individual is bound to them by a harmony of interests. When interests are taken for granted as being largely identical, individuals can confront one another totally. The subtleties of intimate rapports do not have to be utilized. The preservation of one's individuality does not require the use of devious, ambiguous stratagems of conduct, such as simultaneous disclosure and secrecy.

On the other hand, unique individuals can engage one another only at odd points or at rare intervals. Like meshed gears, they can touch only at limited segments of their perimeters. Thus, as differentiation among individuals increases, intimacy becomes increasingly difficult to achieve and increasingly precarious once accomplished. Modern man, Simmel observes, "has too much to hide to sustain a friendship in the ancient sense" (p. 326). Once again, we see in Simmel the figure-ground mode of analysis: what the individual discloses of himself must always be seen against the dark background of what he conceals. There is a strong analogy here with G. H. Mead's notion that our understanding of an action must be in terms of its contrast with the actions which might have taken place but were inhibited. For Simmel, that which the individual conceals remains his private psychological property, which the intimate acquaintance honors and respects, acknowledging "the right to question to be limited by the right to secrecy" (p. 329).


However, although modern friendships between unique individuals entail connection in only one or only several respects, it is nevertheless possible that each connection entails the total individual. For as we have already seen, a person may treat a portion of his self as though it were the whole. The inner complexity of the highly developed, highly differentiated individual reveals itself in a multiplicity of specialized facets, through each of which he can express the unity of his inner nature, even though he conceals from each friend other segments of his personality. 3 One can speak here of a division of intimacy as one speaks of a division of labor. In modern man there has developed a type of specialization which permits the absolute sharing of oneself with another in a single, limited respect, instead of the restricted sharing of experience in a variety of respects.

We see, then, that what the individual fails to disclose to others is a primary element of individualization (p. 334). With the growth of the metropolis, there has also developed a greater need for reserve and discretion so as to guard one's inner traits from others. Also, one becomes blasé, channeling one's perception of others so as to become unaware of, or anesthetized to, their personal distinctiveness.

The growth of democracy has led to increasing publicity in public affairs, but there has also developed a trend toward even greater secrecy in individual matters. 4 As political authority becomes demystified and rationalized, as secularization increases, the remaining zone of mystery is the individual. What is not apparent in his behavior, we take to be concealed. This may lead to the endowment of the individual with a mystical charisma (especially in liberal democracies) which is referred to as his uniqueness.

On the other hand, if a secret society is created, the whole of it becomes charismatically endowed with uniqueness, while in each member there occurs a loss of self, a de-individualizing, and a heightened emphasis upon similarity (p. 373). The advantage of this de-individualization is that it replaces personal responsibility with collective irresponsibility (p. 374). In such a society, one is held personally responsible only when one's


actions are contrary to the explicitly permitted behavior within the group.

A discussion of Simmel's conception of individuality cannot conclude without some reference to the aesthetic dimension of individuality. Individuality may be enhanced by the ornaments with which one chooses to adorn oneself, but such enhancement requires the stylization of ornament, its lack of individual distinctiveness, and its stress, instead, upon a style that is broadly historical or socially oriented. In contrast, we appreciate the work of art precisely because of its incomparability, its transcendence of style, and the manner in which it suggests both the uniqueness of its creator and that of the individual to whom it appeals. Through this deeper realization of the meaning of the non-personal individuality of the work of art, we come to a more profound understanding of the significance of personal individuality in the human being.

How can Simmel's contribution to our understanding of individuality be evaluated? Probably we must acknowledge that he sheds on the problem only a fitful light. His reliance upon a spatial (or pseudospatial) frame of interpretation tends to emphasize the static and extended aspect of the self but neglects those more dynamic aspects, less readily visualized, which are also essential to a just conception of individuality: only cursorily or obliquely does Simmel confront such problems as power, integrity, productivity, and growth.

What is undeniable, certainly, is the sensitivity Simmel shows to the delicate nuances and intricate complexities of the concept of individuality. This sensitivity is particularly fruitful in his explorations of the epistemological, historical, and sociological contexts of the problem. True, the epistemology contains intimations of a metaphysic; the historical account is chiefly a historical application of the sociology of knowledge; and the sociology is tightly interwoven with psychology and aesthetics. But this is because Simmel prefers to follow his insights rather than limit himself to any single discipline or perspective.

Perhaps it is unjust to demand of Simmel a solution to the contradiction between the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century views of individuality. It is a relatively simple matter to say


that the conflict is merely between two modes of interpretation. In the one case, individuality refers to whatever is separable, quantitatively isolable. Individuality here is determined by the act of segregation. However, it can also be determined by the act of distinguishing between qualities. Hence the antinomy appears: individuality defined as separateness or as distinctiveness.

Did Simmel wish to formulate a paradox? Or was he seeking to demonstrate that individuality entails a fundamental ambivalence, an equivocality which makes it susceptible of several modes of interpretation? Or did he really believe in the possibility of some higher synthesis? These three theories appear equally plausible as interpretations of Simmel's intent. But the second with its suggestion of the subtle, ambiguous depths of the self, may be the most fruitful for future inquiry.


Kurt H. Wolff (ed.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois, 1950), p. 309. Page numbers in parentheses refer to this work.


Reinhard Bendix (trans.), "The Web of Group-Affiliations," in Georg Simmel's Conflict and The Web of Group-Affiliations (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois, 1955), p. 140.


Apparently, for Simmel, the most fundamental level of individuality is reached when one observes oneself as a whole by means of a facet of oneself acting as the whole.


Although modern life has in some ways decreased in privacy, we have simply invented new modes of reserve and discretion, new techniques of secretiveness. The growth of mass societies does not destroy arcana but causes them to flourish. We can recognize this in the insatiable curiosity that is stimulated in democratic societies concerning the private affairs of individuals. Yet we should not be too sure that the balance between the public and the private has been upset, for as we reveal an increasing amount of what was traditionally secret to the eyes and ears of the profane, more and more of what in the past was public knowledge becomes problematical. The outward signs of wealth and power become increasingly inconspicuous. The locus of power is getting to be an enigma. Even work becomes more private as it becomes more specialized; hence one thinks it of little interest to others and is reticent about it. Gossip, on the other hand, deals with those features of human behavior or motivation which are common to all; consequently, it becomes more and more prominent as a major cultural form.


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