- Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary by Elizabeth Goodstein
After having lingered for a long time in the disciplinary margins, Georg Simmel is today widely appreciated as both a founding father of sociology and the author of a staggering range of ideas, concepts, and hypotheses that suggest new avenues of research. Simmel has also become a key classical reference for relational sociology, network analysis, and for studies on money, trust, space, or individuality. It is therefore no longer possible to speak of Simmel as a neglected figure whose work remains largely unrecognized. This is particularly evident in the current year, 2018, the centenary of Simmel's death, during the course of which a number of conferences, workshops, edited volumes, special issues, and monographs dedicated to his work are planned.
The increasing interest in Simmel's thinking has been coupled with a more comprehensive appreciation of his work. While his thought had previously been understood in a strikingly uneven and partial manner, especially among the Anglophone readership, recent scholarship has stressed the importance of (re)reading [End Page 637] his individual writings in the context of his entire oeuvre and situating them in the historical, cultural, and theoretical currents of his day.
This is also how Elizabeth Goodstein approaches Simmel in her monumental Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary. Like many other authors belonging to the new wave of Simmel scholarship, Goodstein insists, rejecting the disparaging labels of his work as unsystematic and fragmentary, that Simmel's writings make up a connected whole. What is more, she also wishes to correct the one-sided reception that his work has enjoyed. Against the grain of canonizing Simmel as a founding figure of sociology, Goodstein reads him as a modernist philosopher. That Simmel's sociological writings cannot be detached from his philosophical concerns and stakes has been maintained by others as well, but in foregrounding Simmel's philosophy Goodstein does not merely state that his philosophical thought has relevance for his sociology or that Simmel was "really" a philosopher. She insists that the whole question of whether Simmel was a philosopher or a sociologist is a badly stated problem. This is because what for us today appear as stabilized, institutionalized, and even naturalized disciplinary divisions were only emerging in his lifetime. What is deeply original in Goodstein's book is the way in which it casts light on the formation of our own contemporary disciplinary order by looking at Simmel's liminal position in the academia of his day. The book mixes detailed textual reconstruction, intellectual biography, and critical rereading of Simmel's reception with a genealogy of the present disciplinary imaginary. It succeeds in problematizing the institutionalized disciplinary ways of ordering knowledge and thought that so often seem stable, natural, and unquestionable today.
The problem of disciplinarity is the leitmotif of the entire book, running through all of its three parts. Part 1 explores the emerging disciplinary landscape in which Simmel wrote and how his reception has largely set aside the philosophical questions that preoccupied him. The second part reads Simmel's Philosophy of Money (1900) as an exemplar of modernist philosophy, and as "both symptom and mirror of an era that was culturally and historically decisive for our own ways of seeing and understanding social and cultural life" (162). Part 3, finally, argues that Simmel's marginality is best understood in terms of theoretical and methodological "liminality," which Goodstein examines in historical, cultural, biographical, and institutional terms.
What is most fascinating in Goodstein's genealogy of disciplinarity is her way of writing it through Simmel's position and self-understanding: she zooms in on how Simmel's views of his intellectual commitments and position evolved and changed, and how he came to define his work when struggling to fit in. Here Goodstein makes good use of Simmel's letters, published as two hefty volumes as part of Simmel's collected works. While Simmel was somewhat reluctant to express his position in his publications, in the letters, his relation to his contemporaries as well as...