Martin Woessner — The Sociologists and the Squirrel — Review of “Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary”


by Martin Woessner

Review of Elizabeth S. Goodstein, Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2017).

Georg Simmel only began to be recognized as one of the founding figures of modern sociology shortly before his death in 1918.  The recognition came too late and generally amounted to the backhanded compliment in which scholars specialize: Simmel was brilliant, but. As an academic discipline in continental Europe and North America, sociology was still in the process of finding its methodological and institutional footing at the time.  It had neither the heritage nor the prestige of philosophy, but modernity was on its side.  It was the discipline of the future.  Sociologists were rigorous, scientific, and systematic—everything that Simmel supposedly was not.  Especially in comparison to Durkheim and Weber, Simmel’s work seemed dilettantish, more subjective and speculative than objective or empirical; more like poetry, in other words, than sociology.  It was a strange complaint to make of somebody who wrote a tome like The Philosophy of Money, which was hundreds of pages long and chock full of concrete examples. But it stuck.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, as sociology became ever more scientific, Simmel’s fame became that of the negative example.  Neither his methodological preoccupations, which were wide-ranging, nor his intellectual style, which shunned footnotes and bibliographies, fit within the narrowing confines of academic sociology. He thus had to be written into and out of the discipline simultaneously.  In a 1936 survey of social thought across the Rhine, Raymond Aron conceded that “the development of sociology as an autonomous discipline can, in fact, scarcely be explained without taking his work into account,” but then proceeded to dispatch Simmel in just a few short pages, as if he were some kind of embarrassing distant relative who had to be acknowledged, but not necessarily celebrated.[1]  Another, perhaps more poetic but no less dismissive portrait came from Jose Ortega y Gasset, who likened Simmel to a “philosophical squirrel,” more content to leap from branch to branch, indeed from tree to tree, than to harvest the insights of any one particular area of inquiry.[2]

Simmel may have ended up a squirrel by necessity rather than by choice.  Unable to secure a fully funded academic post until very late in his career, and then only in out-of-the-way Strasbourg—rather than, say, Heidelberg, where, with the help of Weber, he had hoped to obtain an appointment, or Berlin, where he lived and studied and taught as an unsalaried lecturer for most of his life—Simmel never enjoyed the academic security that might have lent itself to less squirrelish, more scientific pursuits.  His Berlin lectures were fabled performances—attended by everyone from Rainer Maria Rilke to George Santayana, who praised them to his Harvard colleague William James—but he nevertheless “remained,” as Elizabeth Goodstein argues in her new book, Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary, “at the margins of the academic establishment.”[3]

Goodstein revisits Simmel’s marginality because she thinks it is the key to understanding not just his career, which was simultaneously storied and tenuous, but also his curious absence from academic debates today.  Something essential about Simmel has been lost, she argues, in the narrative that transformed Simmel into a sociological ancestor, in the “decoupling” of his more sociological work from its philosophical foundations.[4]  Indeed, as David Frisby pointed out some time ago, Simmel never really thought of himself as a sociologist anyhow.[5]  There was a reason he didn’t call it The Sociology of Money.  Writing to a French colleague already in 1899, Simmel confessed that “it is altogether rather painful for me that abroad I am only known as a sociologist—whereas I am a philosopher, see my life’s vocation in philosophy, and only pursue sociology as a sideline.”[6]

Heeding this remark, Goodstein urges us to see Simmel more as he saw himself: a marginalized figure, caught between ascendant “social science” on the one hand and “a kind of philosophy that was passing away” on the other.[7]   If we do so, we might begin to appreciate how very relevant Simmel’s work is to contemporary debates not just in sociology, but also across the humanities and social sciences more generally. In the vicissitudes of Simmel’s career and legacy, in other words, Goodstein sees a parable or two for the current intellectual epoch, in which academic disciplines seem to be in the process of reforming themselves along new and sometimes competing lines of inquiry.

Instead of presenting us with Simmel as squirrel, then, Goodstein offers us a portrait of Simmel as conflicted interdisciplinarian.  It is reassuring, I suppose, to think that what our academic colleagues dismiss as our most evident weaknesses might one day be viewed as our greatest strengths, that what seems scatterbrained now may be heralded as innovative in the future.  For those of us who work in the amorphous field of interdisciplinary studies, Goodstein’s book might serve as both legitimation and justification—a defense of our squirreliness to our colleagues over in the harder sciences maybe.  Still, it is difficult to shake the idea that interdisciplinarity is, like disciplinarity was a century ago, just another fad, another way to demonstrate to society that what we academics do behind closed doors is valuable and worthy of recognition, if not also funding.

As Louis Menand and others have argued, talk of interdisciplinarity is, at root, an expression of anxiety.[8]  In the academy today there is certainly plenty to be anxious about, but, like Menand, I’m not sure that the discourse of interdisciplinarity adequately addresses any of it.  Interdisciplinarity does not address budget crises, crumbling infrastructure, or the increasingly contingent nature of academic labor.  In fact, it may even exacerbate these problems, insofar as it questions the rationale for having distinct disciplinary departments in the first place: why not collapse two or three different programs in the humanities into one, cut half their staff, and run a leaner, cheaper interdisciplinary program instead?  If we are all doing “theory” anyways, what difference does it make if we are attached to a literature department, a philosophy department, or a sociology department?

That sounds paranoid, I know.  Interdisciplinarity is not an evil conspiracy concocted by greedy administrators.  It is simply the academic buzzword of our times.  But like all buzzwords, it says a lot without saying anything of substance, really.  It repackages what we already do and sells it back to us.  Like any fashion or fad, it is unique enough to seem innovative, but not so unique as to be truly independent.  Well over a century ago Simmel suggested that fashion trends were reflections of our competing desires for both “imitation” and “differentiation.”[9]  Interdisciplinarity’s fashionable status in the contemporary academy suggests that these desires have found a home in higher education.  In an effort to differentiate ourselves from our colleagues, we try to imitate the innovators.  We buy into the trend.  Interdisciplinary programs, built around interdisciplinary pedagogy, now produce and promote interdisciplinary research and scholarship, the end results of which are interdisciplinary curricula, conferences, journals, and textbooks.  All of them come at a price.  None of them, it seems to me, are worth it.

When viewed from this perspective at least, Goodstein’s book isn’t about Simmel at all.  It is about what has been done to Simmel by the changing tides of academic fashion.  The reception of his work becomes, in Goodstein’s hands, a cautionary tale about the plight of disciplinary thinking in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries.  The first section of the book, which investigates the way in which Simmel became a “(mostly) forgotten founding father” of modern sociology, shows how “Simmel’s oeuvre came to be understood as simultaneously foundational for and marginal to the modern social sciences.”[10]  Insofar as he made social types (including “the stranger” and “the adventurer”) and forms of social interaction (such as “exchange” and “conflict,” but also including “sociability” itself) topics worthy of academic scrutiny Simmel proved indispensible; insofar as he did so in an impressionistic as opposed to empirical or quantitative style he was expendable.  He was both imitated and ignored.  Simmel helped make the discipline of sociology possible, but he would remain forever a stranger to it—“a philosophical Monet,” as his student György Lukács described him, surrounded by conventional realists.[11]

Goodstein uses the Simmel case to warn against the dangers of what now gets called, in those overpriced textbooks, “disciplinary reductionism.”  She doesn’t use that term, but she is not immune to similar sounding jargon, which is part and parcel of interdisciplinary branding.  “In exploring the history of Simmel’s representation as (proto)sociologist,” she writes, “I render more visible the highly tendentious background narratives on which the plausibility of that metadisciplinary (imagined, lived) order as a whole depends—and call into question the (largely tacit) equation of the differentiation and specialization knowledge practices with intellectual progress.”[12]  An explanatory footnote tacked on to this sentence doesn’t clarify things all that much: “My purpose is not to argue against the value disciplines or to discount the modes of knowing they embody and perpetuate, but to emphasize that meta-, inter-, pre-, trans-, and even anti-disciplinary approaches are not just supplements or correctives to disciplinary knowledge practices but are themselves valuable constitutive features of a vibrant intellectual culture.”[13]  Sounds squirrely to me, and not necessarily in a good way.

If Simmel’s reception in academic sociology serves as a cautionary tale about the limits of disciplinary knowledge for Goodstein, his writings represent something else entirely: a light of inspiration at the end of the disciplinary tunnel.  They offer “an alternative vision of inquiry into human cultural or social life as a whole,” one that rejects the narrow tunnel-vision of specialized, compartmentalized, disciplinary frameworks.[14]  It is a vision that might also help us to think critically about interdisciplinarity as well, for as Goodstein points out later in the book, in a more critical voice, “the contemporary turn to interdisciplinarity remains situated in a discursive space shaped and reinforced by disciplinary divisions.”[15]

The middle section of Goodstein’s book is devoted to a close reading of The Philosophy of Money.  Its three chapters argue, each from a slightly different angle, that Simmel’s magnum opus substantiates just such an “alternative vision.”  Here Simmel is presented not as the academic as which sociologists came to portray him, but as what he so desperately wanted to be seen, namely a philosopher.  Goodstein argues that Simmel should be understood as a  “modernist philosopher,” a kind of missing link, as it were, between Nietzsche on the one side and Husserl and Heidegger on the other.  Simmel takes from Nietzsche the importance of post-Cartesian perspectivism, and, in applying it to social and cultural life, anticipates not just the phenomenology of Husserl and the existential philosophy of Heidegger, but also the critical theory of Lukács, and, later, the Frankfurt School.  This is the theory you have been waiting for, the one that brings it all together.

In Goodstein’s view, The Philosophy of Money attempts nothing less than an inquiry into all social and cultural life through the subject of money relations. As such, it is neither “inter- or transdisciplinary.”  “It is,” she writes, “metadisciplinary.”[16]  It operates at a level all its own.  It uses the phenomena associated with money—abstraction, valuation, and signification, for example—to explore larger questions associated with epistemology, ethics, and even metaphysics more generally.  It shuttles back and forth between the most concrete and immediate observations to the most far-reaching speculations.  It helps us understand how calculation, objectivity, and relativity, for example, become the defining features of modernity.  It shows us how seemingly objective social and cultural forms—from artistic styles to legal and political norms—emerge out of intimate, subjective experience.  But it also shows how these forms come to reify the forms of life out of which they initially sprang.[17]

In Simmel’s hands, money becomes a synecdoche—the “synecdoche of synecdoche” Goodstein repeats, one too many times—for social and cultural life as a whole.[18]  What Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit did for history, The Philosophy of Money does for cold, hard cash.  In this regard, at least, Goodstein’s efforts to re-categorize Simmel as a “modernist philosopher”—to put the philosophy back into the book, as it were—are insightful.  Still, as I read Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary, I couldn’t help but wonder if it might not be more valuable these days to put some of the money back into it instead.  Given all the ways in which interdisciplinarity has been sold to us, and given the neoliberal reforms that are sweeping through the academy, now might be the time to focus on money as money, and not merely as synecdoche.

The problems we face today, both within and beyond the academy, are tremendous.  We live in an age, as Goodstein puts it, of “accelerating ecological, economic, and sociopolitical crises.”[19]  No matter what its promotional materials suggest, interdisciplinarity will not rescue us from any of them.  Goodstein eventually admits as much: “the proliferation of increasingly differentiated inter-, trans-, and post-disciplinary practices reinforces rather than challenges the philosophical—ethical, but also metaphysical—insufficiencies of the modern disciplinary imaginary.”[20]  In the final section of her book she emphasizes not so much the disciplining of Simmel’s work by those narrow-minded sociologists as the liberating theoretical potential of his “practices of thought,” which “even today do not comfortably fit into existing institutional frameworks.”[21]  After depicting Simmel as a victim of academic rationalization, Goodstein now presents him as a potential savior—a way out of the mess of disciplinarity altogether.

Attractive as that sounds, I’m not sure that Simmel’s “modernist philosophy” will rescue us, either.  In fact, I’m not sure that any philosophical or theoretical framework will, by itself, give us what we need to confront the challenges we face.  Worrying about finding the right intellectual perspective may not be as important as worrying about where, in our society, the money comes from and where—and to whom—it goes at the end of the day.  We need some advocacy to go along with our philosophy, and fretting over the merits of inter-, trans-, post-, meta-, anti-disciplinarity may just get in the way of it.

Simmel predicted that he would “die without spiritual heirs,” which was, in his opinion, “a good thing.”  In a revealing quotation that serves as the guiding leitmotif of Goodstein’s book, he likened his intellectual legacy to “cold cash divided among many heirs, and each converts his portion into an enterprise of some sort that corresponds to his nature; whose provenance in that inheritance is not visible.”[22]  Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imagination goes a long way towards reestablishing that provenance.  Maybe it’s about time we start calling for an inheritance tax to be imposed upon the current practitioners and proponents of interdisciplinarity, who have turned that cold cash into gold.

Martin Woessner is Associate Professor of History & Society at The City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education.  He is the author of Heidegger in America (Cambridge UP, 2011).


[1] Raymond Aron, German Sociology, trans. Mary and Thomas Bottomore (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), 5 n.1.  Aron’s text was first published in French in 1936.

[2] Quoted in Lewis Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, Second Edition (Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1997), 199.

[3] Goodstein, Georg Simmel, 15.

[4] Ibid., 112.

[5] David Frisby, Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986), 64.

[6] Goodstein, Georg Simmel, 41.

[7] Ibid., 29.

[8] Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: Norton, 2010), 97.

[9] Georg Simmel, “Fashion,” in On Individuality and Social Forms, edited and with an introduction by Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 296.

[10] Goodstein, Georg Simmel, 106.

[11] “Introduction to the Translation,” in Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby, from a first draft by Kaethe Mengelberg (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), 29.

[12] Goodstein, Georg Simmel, 33.

[13] Ibid., note 43.

[14] Ibid., 67.

[15] Ibid., 131.

[16] Ibid., 155.

[17] This point is emphasized in Simmel’s final work, The View of Life: Four Metaphysical Essays with Journal Aphorisms, trans. John A.Y. Andrews and Donald N. Levine, with an introduction by Donald N. Levine and Daniel Silver, and an appendix, “Journal Aphorisms, with an Introduction” edited, translated, and with an introduction by John A.Y. Andrews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 351-352.

[18] Goodstein, Georg Simmel, 171.

[19] Ibid., 329.

[20] Ibid., 258.

[21] Ibid., 254.

[22] Ibid., 1.


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