Writing about old ideas

A year with Georg Simmel

For several years I’d been trying to write a book on Georg Simmel’s social thought. Simmel is a tricky thinker to work with, he moves between topics, styles and disciplines, plus his writings are dense with ideas theories and speculations. Initially, around early 2014, I did some background work, secured a book contract and did a little bit of writing. I quickly realised that I couldn’t get my original plan to work. I wanted to look at a variety of ways in which Simmel’s theories were relevant today, but it got out of hand. I couldn’t work out how to make Simmel’s lively ideas containable in a single project. The bits of writing were shelved and I worked on some other projects for a while.

In November 2017 I submitted my book The Data Gaze. It was my fifth book and my third book about data, I realised I wanted a change of scenery. The time felt right to return to Simmel. Partly inspired from reading Stuart Elden’s book Foucault’s Last Decade, I formulated a new plan, something more manageable. At first I thought I’d simply write a book about Simmel’s final book The View of Life (published in 1918, the year Simmel died). It grew a bit from there. I started writing about that final book but decided I wanted to keep going. I expanded my focus to include the last four years of his writing. This then included his amazing book on Rembrandt and a range of essays. In the end I focused on 1914-1918. This covered the period from his move to Strasbourg, where he took up his first permanent academic post, to his final text. Many of the texts from that period get very little attention in sociology and the social sciences. This gave me a manageable focus and an area where I could potentially make a contribution.

I worked closely with a range of Simmel’s works. Using Tom Kemple’s excellent bibliography, I read through the available essays. The main focus was his two last major works — Rembrandt (1916) and The View of Life (1918). For those two key texts I checked some of the key phrases and conceptual formulations with the original German. Simmel’s letters are only currently available in German, so I worked on locating where Simmel was discussing these last two major works to give some extra background context. I wasn’t trying to capture exactly what Simmel meant in his works, but was focused more on what those works might be used to do. As such, the book isn’t deferential to Simmel, it draws out the limits and flaws in his works as well as the potential. As I was writing I commissioned an artwork for the cover, the artist Lesley Shaw produced the drypoint etching below.

It was great to pause and look backwards. In the rapid cycles of academia, social science is continually thrust forward. Much of my work to that point was trying to keep up with technological and media changes. By looking back, new vistas can be found from which to view contemporary issues. As I explain in Georg Simmel’s Concluding Thoughts, which is the title the book ended up with, it is not possible to lift ideas from one time and place and simply reapply them in a different time. But working with such older texts can open possibilities, offer fresh perspectives, suggest questions, and even provoke reflections on how we work or disrupt the solidified disciplinary boundaries that have come to contain our thoughts.

As I explore in the book, Simmel was an open thinker who drew upon eclectic resources. His 1916 book on Rembrandt’s art is particularly notable. Simmel was looking for inspiration, and Rembrandt’s art helped him to develop his own theories around life and the relations between the individual and the social. The ideas sparked from this encounter with Rembrandt were subsequently developed in his final book The View of Life. The second part of my book looks in detail at the four essays that make up that final book, the first part explores the texts that immediately led up to it. Those other texts covering only that short period engage in wide ranging questions of politics, culture, sociology and social psychology. From a short article on the future of the idea of Europe to pieces on the crisis of culture and the use concepts in history, Simmel’s thinking roams widely.

The book I’ve ended up with is one that poses lots of questions. Simmel’s final works suggest lots of possibilities but aren’t really intended to be definitive. They do however offer a series of angles for analysing, as I explore, the relations between worlds, lives and fragments. Simmel was focused on developing a relational account of the social world. Within this he was keen to avoid dissecting the bits that make up our lives, and to try instead to see how the many fragments relate to one another in the rhythms of what he calls ‘pulsating life’. His ideas about how the fragments we encounter and assemble fit into our concept of the world seems to be of particular relevance today.

Sociologists have given relatively little attention to Simmel’s later works. Part of the reason for this is that they have been seen and demarcated as being more philosophical in form. Yet Simmel was really working across disciplinary boundaries, and these late works may be a rich resource for anyone working across the social sciences or who has an interest in understanding culture and social life. Simmel’s works explore how boundaries are broken by the vitality of this ‘pulsating life’, at the same time it implies that the same should happen to disciplinary limits. Reading and working with Simmel’s later works forces us to think across conventions and limits. Simmel doesn’t necessarily provide an easy set of answers, but his work buzzes with ideas that call for the reader to question and consider the way we conceive of the relations, limits and boundaries of individual and social life. His approach not only demands that the reader ask such questions, it also implies that we need to be open, limitless and imaginative in how we might answer them. A number of the issues that Simmel was struggling with — how individuals conceive of lives and worlds, the crisis in culture, the transforming status of knowledge and so on — are just as pertinent now as they were a century ago.