Volume 10 Number 1 1997

Simmel and Since - Essays on Georg Simmel's Social Theory, David Frisby, Routledge, 1992, vii + 214 pages, 10.99 paperback.

David Frisby's view is that "our traditional conception of Simmel has been that of a formal sociologist who made a surprising number of contributions to a disparate range of themes in sociology" (p. 78). The argument of this stimulating volume by one of Britain's foremost commentators on Simmel is that by taking fully into account Simmel's untranslated works these apparently unconnected themes can in fact be shown to be connected. The connecting link, according to Frisby, is Simmel's concern with modernity, thus casting Simmel's work in a substantially different light than hitherto. Furthermore, since Simmel was also centrally concerned with the avante garde, and regarded the flux and fragmentation of modern society as one of the master themes of modernity, his work also deals with many of the themes which recently have become part of the stock in trade of theories of post-modernity. Hence, in Frisby's view, Simmel's work is not only about modernity, it connects directly with our contemporary concerns.

The volume consists of nine essays, divided into three sections. Five of the pieces have been published previously; four are new. The first section - `Societies and Individuals' - consists of two chapters locating Simmel's theorising in general terms. The second section contains six essays, dealing specifically with aspects of Simmel's analysis of modernity. The final section - a single chapter - identifies broad affinities between Simmel's viewpoint and contemporary discussions of `post-modernity'. Generally speaking, the essays hang together well, without too much repetition, and provide a readable, coherent and ultimately highly convincing argument that Simmel's work has central relevance in sociological understanding of modernity and its debates.

Of the two essays which make up the first section of the book, the second, on `Simmel and Social Psychology', is somewhat less central to the main themes of the volume. However, it is valuable in indicating that Simmel's early reputation was as much as a psychologist as a sociologist and in documenting the sources of this `psychology'. In his earlier work, Simmel's analysis built from `drives and purposes' to an understanding of social forms, an approach which tended to individualism and psychologism. What Frisby's account spells out is how in the analysis of social `forms' which grounds Simmel's subsequent more `purely' sociological analysis, psychological dimensions figure merely as presuppositions of the social, or else as non-generalisable elements of `content'. The earlier psychological phase in Simmel's work had the advantage, however, that it led Simmel to investigate many different forms of social interaction. It also meant that in his more fully sociological work he persisted with an approach to macro-sociology which did not understate individuality while grounding it socially in interaction.

The second essay in the first section deals with the interrelation of the individual and the collective in Simmel's mature work by consideration of what Frisby identifies as four conceptions of `society' found within Simmel's work. These four conceptions, not necessarily mutually exclusive, are `society as a totality', `as sociation', `as (individual) experience and everyday knowledge', and `as aesthetic object' (p. 6). All four conceptions presuppose or are grounded in - a pervasive concept running throughout Simmel's work - the conception of interaction or reciprocal effect. Simmel's well-known excursus How is Society Possible? provides, as Frisby suggests, "a non-Kantian answer" to a Kantian question (p. 14), in that no "external observer" is required for "the unity of society". Instead Simmel's answer to the question - one fully compatible with modern `phenomenological' approaches in sociology emphasised the consciousness of interacting individual actors. Thus, `social structure' is an a priori and counterfactual assumption of social interaction. This means that the first of Simmel's conceptions of society 'society as totality' - operates only in the context of the second and third. Furthermore, Simmel's fourth conception of society - as an aesthetic object - also links with the first, in that society can be conceived both by social actors and social theorists as `aesthetic totality'. Simmel's wider analysis of social forms, for example in the identification of conceptually `pure' social forms, also stresses an aesthetic dimension to analysis. Frisby sees "unresolved problems" in reconciling Simmel's four concept approach. For example, without a more concrete concept of society, the comparative and historical investigation which Simmel wished to promote is inhibited. It is because of this that the discussion of developmental tendencies within Simmel's sociology remains relatively fragmented and often particular forms of sociation "are not theorised as a part of a general theory of society" (p. 19). Whatever the weakness, however, Simmel's approach to theory is seen as retaining major strengths.

Of the six essays dealing directly with modernity, two set the general scene, one by locating Simmel's treatment of modernity alongside that of Toennies and Weber, the other by providing a general summary of Simmel's overall theory of modernity, doing so in terms previously presented in Frisby's earlier work Fragments of Modernity (1986). Of the four further essays in the book's second section, two deal with familiar topics in Simmel's work - `the Philosophy of Money' and the `Metropolis' - and two with topics which are perhaps rather less familiar - leisure, and the aesthetics of modern life.

As Frisby sees it, the central elements in Simmel's analysis of modernity compared with Toennies and Weber (or Marx and Durkheim) are a greater emphasis on modernity's transitory elements, on sources of flux as against linear development, and a far greater emphasis on microprocesses, the subjective, individual experiences, the emotions and the `life world', and aesthetic judgements. For Frisby, a special strength of Simmel's analysis of modernity is that "modes of experiencing the new" are central in his analysis.

According to Frisby, it is a virtue of Simmel's particular analysis of money that it centres especially on its non-economic as well as economic implications. It is an analysis that arises from a critical engagement with but not a replacement of historical materialism. For Simmel the metropolis and the mature money economy constitute the two main intersecting sites of modernity. The metropolis is "the point of concentration of modernity", while the mature money economy (which also has its focal point in the metropolis) is responsible for "the diffusion of modernity throughout society" (p. 69). The outcome of these twin influences - and a central feature of Simmel's focus on modernity often anticipating elements of the later perspectives of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse - is a tendency for the objective and subjective to be prised apart, a fragmentation of individual experience (a "chaos of impressions and interactions") and retreat from objective culture as well as a tendency for the "culture of human beings" to become "the culture of things". Simmel's analysis involves rather less cultural pessimism than the critical theorists, but such pessimism clearly remains as a strong element in his work.

A further crucial dimension to Simmel's work which again chimes well with currently fashionable sociological concerns is that it is sociation which defines `space'. It is the development of the mature economy which enables an increasing emancipation from space, and it is the metropolis which provides `social space' for the development of individual independence, though also often leading to anonymity.

Simmel's writings on leisure grow directly from his general concerns with modernity and demonstrate why leisure is central not marginal in modern societies. Fashion, for example, is seen as above all a phenomenon of the metropolis, a reaction against social levelling as well as anonymity, which can give us such a strong sense of the present but can also underline the fleeting and changeable character of modern social life. More generally, modern leisure is seen as particularly associated with the move from non-commodified relations to commodification and consumption. The `thirst for new leisure forms' that so much typifies modern society is plainly a phenomenon that combines the influence of the metropolis and the money economy. While such processes sometimes enrich the individual, equally, they can also lead to passivity and to mechanical, alienated forms of leisure such as the slot machine. The argument is advanced, with complete plausibility, by Frisby, that Simmel was the first major sociologist to offer a satisfactory analysis of leisure, demonstrating especially that leisure must be analysed as an activity `framed' in contrast with workaday life. Such a focus, including an emphasis on an escape from the mundane, is uppermost, for example, in Simmel's accounts of `sociability'. The `adventure' (including amorous adventures), comprises travel, exhibitions and places of' entertainment, as well as fashion. Frisby suggests that the incessant capacity of the world of commodities to ideologically incorporate leisure forms would be no surprise to Simmel.

Simmel's treatment of the aesthetic dimension of modern life is perhaps furthest removed from previously conventional sociological analysis. Once again, however, the relevance of his discussion in these terms has increased in recent decades, given the aesthetic dimension is now becoming prominent in contemporary sociological discussions of the `post-modern' experience. In this and in other ways, Frisby's contention that "Simmel opened up specific areas of sociological analysis . . . that are only now being fully developed" (p.79) is thoroughly vindicated by this volume.

David Jary
Staffordshire University


Copyright David Jary 1997



Back HOME