March 1, 2011
Of the five Grand Men of classic sociology — the others being Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Auguste Comte, and Karl Marx — GEORG SIMMEL (1858-1918) was clearly the most fun. No rigid positivism, and virtually no brooding focus on depressing topics like suicide or modes of domination, alienation, and exploitation — Simmel instead used his sharp eye and a playful, philosophical mind (equal parts Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche) to telescope between microsociological encounters and world-historical backdrops. Where Marx would begin with modern capitalism’s economic class structure, Simmel might start by studying the on-the-street pas de deux between a passer-by on his way to work and a beggar asking for money. His great subject was the Großstadt — Metropolis, or literally, Big City — especially his own rapidly transforming Berlin. The foundation of Simmel’s work was individual human experience, beginning with the city’s bombardment of the senses. From there, he tried to explain both new modes of being and new social structures. His literary, phenomenological style and powerful interpretations of phenomena as wide-ranging as money, urbanization, and modern art influenced thinkers from Walter Benjamin, György Lukács, and Martin Heidegger (all students of Simmel’s) to Robert K. Merton, Talcott Parsons, Erving Goffman, and Ortega y Gasset. None of them pulled off the impossible balancing act between critic, writer, philosopher, and social scientist as artfully as Simmel.
On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Harry Belafonte.
READ MORE about members of the Plutonian generation (1854-63).