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  • The Stranger as Self and Other:Georg Simmel, Hermann Cohen, and the Significance of Jewish Difference
  • Adam Sutcliffe

In his landmark 1908 essay "The Stranger," Georg Simmel links the Jews to his signature sociological type almost only in passing. In identifying the Jews as the "classic example" of an intruding outsider group that specializes in trade because all the productive economic niches in their host society are "already occupied," he makes clear that he considers this minority the strangers of history par excellence.1 He also associates the outsider stranger, in highly positive terms, with intellectual acuity and objectivity. He equates this objectivity with freedom, noting that the stranger, precisely because of his separation from the social world surrounding him, "is not bound by ties which could prejudice his perception, his understanding, and his perception of data."2

Objectivity was the most cherished intellectual value of the founding generation of German sociologists, among whom Simmel stood in the first rank. Alongside his colleagues Max Weber, Werner Sombart, and Ferdinand Tönnies, Simmel was deeply committed to establishing the credentials of this new discipline as an authentically scientific and "value-free" form of expert inquiry.3 In this context, Simmel's valorization of the objectivity of the stranger, as well as his association of this figure with the Jew, carried particular significance. Issues of ethnic and racial difference, which were attracting considerable attention in German public debate at [End Page 300] this time, posed a considerable challenge to the scientific aspirations of these early sociologists. Sombart and Weber argued that they could not neglect these topics—and in his The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911), Sombart controversially engaged directly with them—while Simmel advocated a more cautiously aloof approach.4 Simmel absolutely did not want to argue directly for the exceptionalism of any particular ethnic group, and most certainly not of Jews. In his "Stranger" essay, he approached this topic obliquely and in a manner that was, on the surface, rigorously detached: he presents the Jewish case as simply one instance of the stranger phenomenon, straightforwardly explained by historical circumstances. Beyond this primary analysis, however, Simmel's essay also invites a highly personal reading. In associating the stranger with his own highest professional values, as well as with his ethnicity, Simmel theorized not only Jewish traders and financiers but also Jewish intellectuals such as himself. An unstated implication of the "The Stranger" is that Jews are particularly likely to be excellent sociologists—and perhaps especially baptized secular Jews such as Simmel, who were, in a sense, "double strangers," not fully belonging among either Jews or Christians.

Simmel had already more extensively analyzed Jews as stranger traders eight years earlier, in his Philosophy of Money (1900). As a trading people in medieval Europe, he argued, the Jews were mentally shaped by their cultural isolation and their dependency on finance. This sharpened their logical faculties at the expense of their creative ones.5 Money, Simmel centrally argued in this book, promoted calculating, intellectual, "supra-personal" modes of thought. The Jews acquired this core characteristic of modernity precociously and with particular intensity. The "most brilliant example of this," he wrote, was Spinoza, whose philosophy gave expression to the most perfect objectivity of outlook: "nowhere are the incalculabilities of individuality allowed to break through the logical-mathematical structure of the unity of the world."6 Like many other secular Jewish intellectuals of his generation, Simmel identified with Spinoza, whose social position as a renegade Jew and highly original thinker in late seventeenth-century Holland seemed to foreshadow his own. Fascination with Spinoza's "Marrano" outsider [End Page 301] background and the association of this with the acuity and modernity of his insights has a long and enduring history.7 Standing firmly within this tradition, the heroization of Spinoza adorns Simmel's theory of Jewish distinctiveness, in which he combines a softly melancholy acceptance of inevitable cultural isolation and vulnerability with a discreet but nonetheless unmistakable assertion of intellectual superiority.

The figure of the stranger features very differently in the almost contemporaneous work of another leading German Jewish thinker: Hermann Cohen. In his Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, published posthumously in...


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