Notes on Georg Simmel

I want to return to something I wrote about the inability to understand other people or even oneself. According to Georg Simmel (1858-1918), the inability to actually know another person creates, sort of paradoxically, the condition for social relations. Society has created categories, types, or generalizations to facilitate social interaction. For example, when a student talks to a teacher, the student relies on a generalized concept or image of teachers. But the role of “teacher” doesn’t tell us much about the person who plays that role. Yet, the student and the teacher are aware of the behavioral expectations or norms associated with teachers and students, and it makes communication simpler if both individuals more or less reproduce those norms. This actually simplifies things. The student and teacher don’t need to know anything about the other’s personal life or thoughts–the individual psyches remain black boxes. All of that is excluded from the interaction system.

The images we produce of each other are distortions. Here is a passage from Simmel,

Simmel argues that the 18th-century movement for liberty and equality sprang from the idea of natural law. In this view, all humans by nature are the same, just as members of any species are the same. As for liberty, the idea was that everyone should be left alone to follow their human nature. With the aid of a division of labor and laissez-faire competition, social order would be created.

The problem was that laissez-faire led to new inequality, which was addressed by the third element of the French Enlightenment–fraternity. Despite the unequal distribution of wealth, a sense of brotherhood is supposed to preserve the common culture–or the idea of “the people.” Things like public education and equality under the law counteract the threat of an ever-increasing division of labor or specialization that the modern economy would otherwise create.

As for individualism or individuality, this was to be cultivated. Human beings may be created equal by nature but through education, including acquiring good taste, a new kind individuality could be reproduced. Simmel gives the example a pear tree: In the wild, a pear tree produces poor tasting fruit, but under cultivation the tree produces improved fruit. But that better tasting pear could not have been produced from a piece of driftwood. There must be a natural potential.

Thus, in the 19th century, we have a new distinction, as a distinction re-enters the distinction that differentiated the individual out of the species. Simmel calls the new kind of individualism qualitative individualism, as distinguished from numerical individualism:

Qualitative individualism is associated with the differentiated personality. In this view, people have various aptitudes and interests, and the division of labor is consistent with these differences. Emile Durkheim, however, argued that some of these differences are natural; thus women are suited for child-rearing and men are suited for public life. Gabriel Tarde disagreed, observing that education and new technologies bring more women into traditionally male occupation and public life.

Below Simmel speaks of 18th-century individualism, which is traceable to the individualism of Hobbes. The “doctrine of freedom and equality is the basis of free competition; and the doctrine of differentiated personality is the basis for the division of labor”:

Since unlimited competition and division of labor are not foundations of a just society, brotherhood, as mentioned previously, was added to equality and liberty.


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