Theory, Culture & Society

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Theory, Culture & Society

The online version of this article can be found at:


DOI: 10.1177/0263276407084474

 2007 24: 72

Theory Culture Society

Georg Simmel

The Metaphysics of Death



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The Metaphysics of Death

Georg Simmel


RANSLATORS’ NOTE: Originally published as Parts I and II of ‘Zur Meta-

physik des Todes’, Logos. Internationale Zeitschrift für Philosophie der

Kultur, Band I (Tübingen), April 1910: 57–70; also in Georg Simmel Gesam-

tausgabe, vol. 12, Rüdiger Krammer and Angela Rammstedt eds, Frankfurt am

Main: Suhrkamp (2001).

This essay anticipates Simmel’s later concerns with such ultimate philosophi-

cal questions as ‘being and becoming’, ‘autonomy and transcendence’, ‘embodiment

and immortality’. Simmel later revised this essay and combined it with a revised

version of ‘The Problem of Fate’ under the title ‘Tod und Unsterblichkeit’ (Death

and Immortality) which appears as the third chapter of one of his last published

books, Lebensanschauung: Vier metaphysische Kapitel (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot,

1918). The broadly metaphysical concerns of this work are sketched in its opening

chapter, ‘The Transcendent Character of Life’, where he argues that ‘Life in the

absolute sense is something which includes life in the relative sense and its respec-

tive opposite, or discloses itself to them as to its empirical phenomena’ (in Georg

Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms, Donald N. Levine trans., ed., Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1971, at p. 368). The distinctively social and cultural

dynamics of the issues addressed in these essays are outlined in ‘The Concept and

Tragedy of Culture’ (in David Frisby and Mike Featherstone eds, Simmel on Culture,

London: SAGE, 1997). Some of these ideas are also illustrated in the discussion of

‘Death’ in his 1916 monograph, Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art (Alan

Scott, Helmut Staubmann trans., ed., New York and London: Routledge, 2005).

As in the pieces on ‘The Social Boundary’ and ‘The Problem of Fate’, Simmel

plays on the range of meanings that the word ‘Grenze’ can have in German, includ-

ing the idea of a ‘boundary’, ‘barrier’, ‘border’ or ‘frontier’ with two sides, although

in Part I of the present essay he more frequently suggests the more restricted sense

of a ‘limit’ beyond which there is nothing, or which in transgressing one runs the

risk of non-existence or a loss of identity. The expression ‘das Ich’ used in Part II

has been consistently translated as ‘the I’, although it might also have been rendered

as ‘the Self’, especially in contexts where he discusses how subjective experience

is objectively recognized, or even in Freudian terms as ‘the ego’. Throughout the

essay Simmel implicitly leans on Hegel to develop a dialectics of existence where,

Theory, Culture & Society 2007 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore),

Vol. 24(7–8): 72–77

DOI: 10.1177/0263276407084474

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in the human imagination, (temporal) life and death exist apart as thesis and

antithesis, only to be sublimated in the experience of Life (which we occasionally

distinguish in this translation by capitalizing) as it exists in its immediacy and

unfolds in complete unity with its contents.

* * *


N EVERY age, the cultivation of the innermost dimension of life inter-

acts closely with the meaning it ascribes to death. How we perceive life

and death are merely two aspects of a fundamentally unified attitude.

Although the reflections offered here derive their abstractions from a variety

of different conceptualizations of death, the method of this endeavour is

meant to exemplify how a way of thinking that has its roots in contemporary

culture relates to these problems.


The inorganic body differs from the living one above all in this respect: that

the boundary of its form is determined from the outside. In general, it is

restricted, either by ceasing where another form begins, checks its expan-

sion, and bends or breaks it open, or as a result of molecular, chemical or

physical influences, as for example when the form of a rock is fixed through

erosion or lava through solidification. By contrast, the organic body derives

its form from the inside. It ceases to grow when innate forces of growth reach

their limits [Grenzen]. These innate forces determine the specific character

of its circumference at all times. Indeed, the conditions of its essence are

also those of its apparent form, whereas such conditions remain outside

inorganic bodies.

The secret of the form lies in its being a limit or boundary [Grenze]; it

is both the thing itself and that in which the thing terminates, that area in

which the being and being-no-more of a thing are one. In contrast to non-

living nature, organic nature does not need an other to set limits to it.

To be sure, its boundaries are not only spatial but also temporal.

Because the living thing must die, because dying is in its nature (whether

or not this is understood to occur out of necessity), its life is given a form

– one in which, of course, quantitative and qualitative meanings mix

differently than in the spatial form.

To understand death we must detach ourselves from the common image

of it which is expressed in the three ‘fates’ [Parzen]. It is as if there were a

specific moment at which the thread of life – which defined and was life

until that point – was suddenly ‘cut off’; as if death puts an end to life in

the same way that an inorganic body finds its spatial limit in being opposed

by another to which it is unrelated, which thereby determines its form, as

a ‘termination’ of its being. In such imagery, death appears to most humans

as a dark prophecy that hovers over their lives, but which only affects them

when it becomes a reality, not unlike the prophecy that one day Oedipus

will strike his father dead. In reality, however, life and death are from the

outset and inherently conjoined.

Simmel – The Metaphysics of Death


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Here I do not consider the biological dispute over whether one-celled

life-forms are immortal because they always divide into other one-celled

life-forms without leaving behind a dead corpse (unless they meet with

violence from without); this would mean that death comes into being only

with multicellular life-forms. Nor do I consider whether in the end some

kind of death affects one-celled organisms either as a whole or in part. Here,

we are concerned only with those beings in whose nature it is to die and

whose life stands in intimate connection with death, while other life-forms

may not share this restricted condition.

The attunement of our lives with death is hardly refuted by the fact

that ordinary life surges upward for a while and becomes more ‘alive’, so to

speak. Only after reaching a highpoint of its development – which to a

certain extent appears to be further away from death than any earlier point

– do the first signs of decline set in. However, that very life which is

becoming fuller and stronger must be seen in the overall context that is

defined by death. Even if the advancement of death were not to be found in

progressive signs such as the hardening of blood vessels, ‘pro rata’ as it

were, life would be different if it were not placed in a line that unmistak-

ably moves towards death. Just as the cause of success need not live on or

persist substantially in its intrinsic form, and just as one structure may

produce a qualitatively different condition in another, so too may death be

seen from another direction as linked from the outset with life, even if it –

or a part of it – cannot be identified as a reality at each moment. However,

in every single moment of life we are those who must die, and each moment

would be different if this were not in effect our predetermined condition.

Just as we are hardly already present at the moment of our birth, but rather

something is continuously being born from us, so too do we hardly die only

in our last moment.

These considerations simply clarify the form-giving significance of

death. Death limits, that is, it gives form to life, not just in the hour of

death, but also in continually colouring all of life’s contents. The limitations

of life’s totality by death influence each of life’s contents and moments; the

quality of each would be different were it to extend beyond this immanent


It is one of the tremendous paradoxes of Christianity to remove this a

priori significance from death and to place life, from the outset, under the

aspect of its own eternity. In fact, the soul’s eternal fortune [Geschick]

depends upon the whole sequence of life’s contents and is not just connected

to earthly life in its last moment as its prolongation. The ethical significance

of each one of these contents is extended into the infinite as a determining

factor of our transcendental future and thus breaks through its inherent

limitation. Here, death can be viewed as having been overcome, not only

because life (as a line that extends through time) reaches beyond the formal

limitation of its end, but also because it denies death as that which acts

from within and which limits all individual moments of life by virtue of the

eternal consequences of each of these moments.


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But viewed from the other side, death also appears to give shape to life.

Organisms can stay alive moment to moment within their given worlds only

through continuous adaptation (in the widest sense of the term). A failure to

adapt would mean death. Just as any automatic or voluntary movement can

be interpreted as a desire for life (and for more life), it can also be inter-

preted as a flight from death. In this respect, each one of our movements can

be viewed symbolically as an arithmetical sum arrived at by adding on from

below or subtracting from above. Or perhaps the essence of our activity

presents us with a mysterious unity which, like so many others, we can only

comprehend by reducing it to the dualism of conquering life or fleeing from

death. Each of life’s steps is revealed only as a temporal approximation of

death, but is positively and a priori shaped through death as a real element

of Life. And this shaping is co-determined precisely by an aversion from

death, insofar as earning a living and enjoyment, work and rest, and all other

activities considered to be natural, are instinctively or consciously flights

from death. The life that we use up as we approach death is used up to flee

death. We are like people who walk in the opposite direction of a moving

ship: as they walk towards the south, the ground on which they are doing

so is being carried to the north. These two directions of their movement

determine their respective position in space.


Up to this point in the discussion, this shaping of life in its entire course

by death has been developed in an illustrative way that does not lead to any

conclusions. At issue so far has been to replace the common idea of death

as a life-ending cut, like the fates, with a more organic conceptualization in

which death is understood as a shaping moment of the continual course of

life from its beginning. Without death, even beyond its plain appearance in

the hour of death, life would be completely and unfathomably different.

Whether one sees life’s biotic dispersal [enbiotische Verbreitung] as a prior

effect or foreshadowing of the singular event of death, or as the indigenous

shaping or colouring of each of life’s moments, along with the urgency of

death this dispersal substantiates a set of metaphysical conceptualizations

of the essence and fate of the soul. Here I do not explicitly differentiate

those variations in meaning which either way of conceiving death may

contribute to the following reflections; it would be a simple matter to distin-

guish what these ideas have in common.

The Hegelian formulation according to which something demands its

opposite and joins it in a higher synthesis – where, on the one hand, it

is sublated [aufgehoben], and on the other hand, it ‘comes to itself’ –

reveals its deeper meaning in the relationship between life and death.

Life demands death as its opposite, its ‘other’, which this something

becomes and without which it would not have its specific meaning and

form. To this extent, life and death occupy one level of being as thesis

and antithesis. Something higher must therefore emerge, values and

tensions in our existence which exist beyond life and death and which

Simmel – The Metaphysics of Death


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are not affected by their opposition, and in which life truly comes to itself

in its highest meaning.

The basis for this way of thinking is that Life as it exists in its

immediacy is a process that unfolds in complete unity with its contents. This

factual unity can only be lived rather than mastered intellectually. However,

the analytic capacity of reason dissects this unity into these two elements

through a line of demarcation that need not correspond to the objective

structure of the object any less than to the emotionally grounded unity of

experience (albeit on another level of reality).

However, the objective as well as psychological possibility of this

separation seems to me to reside only in the fact that its carrier [Träger], its

process, is subject to death, especially among certain highest values. Were

we to live eternally, life would likely remain fused with its values and

contents, and there would be no real impetus to think of them outside the

only form in which we may know and often experience them in their infinity.

We must die, however, and thus we experience life as something acciden-

tal, transient and which could be otherwise, so to speak. From this probably

emerged the idea that the contents of life need not share the fate of its

process, that one may be attentive to the validity of certain contents that are

independent of these fluctuations and terminal points beyond life and death.

Only the experience of death will have severed this fusion, this solidarity

of life’s contents with life.

Nevertheless, it is through these timelessly meaningful contents that

temporal life reaches its own purest heights. As life absorbs or flows into

these contents that exceed it, it moves beyond itself without losing itself but

rather while attaining itself. Only in this way can its development, under-

stood as a process, achieve meaning and value and come to know why it

exists. Life must first be able to separate its contents ideally so that it can

consciously rise toward them, and it achieves this separation with respect

to death, which can annul the process of life but cannot attack the meaning

of its contents.

While the separation between life and its content that takes place in

death may let the contents survive, the same emphasis may be placed on

the other side of the demarcation line as well. Through its development, the

life-process of the soul in its entirety reveals ever more clearly a certain

structure that one may call the I [das Ich]. At issue is the essence and the

value, the rhythm and the inner meaning that accommodate our existence

as a special part of the world. This I is what we are from the beginning, but

also not quite yet in the fullest sense. It stands in a peculiar category which

still needs to be defined more clearly, a third term beyond any given reality

and any unreal ideal value which is merely demanded.

However, at the beginning of its development, the I is intimately fused

with the individual contents of the life process with respect to both its

subjective consciousness and its objective being. Just as this life-process

separates its contents from itself (as we just saw) and remains significant

beyond the dynamism of its experience of becoming [Erlebtwerdens], in the


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same way it releases, on its other side, as it were, the I from within itself.

In a certain sense, this I differentiates itself in one stroke (uno actu) from

the life process, and detaches itself as a particular meaning, value, exist-

ence and challenge from these contents, which exclusively fill the naive

consciousness at first. The more we experience, the more decisively the I

demarcates itself as a unity and continuity among all the pendulous

fluctuations of fate and views of the world. Not only in a psychological sense

does the perception of what is similar and persistent become easier as the

appearance of dissimilarity numerically increases, but also in an objective

sense the I gathers itself more purely as it crystallizes out of the fleeting

accidents of experience and develops toward its own sense and idea with

increasingly more assurance and independence.

Here is where the idea of immortality emerges. As death allows life to

subside (as in the case mentioned above) in order to free the timelessness

of its contents, so from another point of view does death put an end to a

series of experiences with particular contents. This does not mean that the

demand that the I must eternally fulfil itself or continue to exist (the opposite

of that timelessness) would be cut off as a consequence. Immortality, which

many sincere human beings long for, means that the I may fully accomplish

its separation from the contingency of individual contents.

Within religion, immortality appears to have a different meaning.

Most often it entails a possession: the soul desires blessedness or a vision

of God or perhaps merely a continued existence. Or, given a stronger ethical

sublimation, the soul might want one of its qualities: to be saved, justified

or purified. However, none of this applies to the present meaning of im-

mortality as a state in which the soul is devoid of lived experience, in which

its being is no longer achieved through a content situated outside itself. As

long as we live, we experience objects. Although the I increasingly emerges

through the advance and consolidation of the years as a pure process – as

invariable, persistent and above the multitude of passing contents – it never-

theless remains fused with these contents. The soul which stands out as an

I is itself an asymptotic approximation of the I which exists not by means

of something else but only in itself. Among people who believe in im-

mortality and reject (as either ethically superficial or merely unknowable)

the notion that any material content can serve as a means to immortality –

where, as it were, pure immortality is sought – death will tend to appear as

the boundary beyond which all identifiable contents of life fall away from

the I, and where its being or its process is a pure belonging-to-itself, a pure

determination by itself.

Translated by Ulrich Teucher and Thomas M. Kemple

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