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  • Georg Simmel Reappears: “The Aesthetic Significance of the Face”
  • James T. Siegel (bio)

Michael Landmann, the editor of Georg Simmel’s collected works, tells this anecdote about him. Simmel had submitted a piece called “Psychological and Ethnological Studies on Music” as his doctoral dissertation. His examining committee refused to accept it. As the American translator of the piece retells Landmann’s anecdote, they

instead granted the degree for a previously written distinguished study on Kant’s monadology. While Zupitza [the committee’s chair] would have been willing to accept this study on music, if it were first “cleared of the numerous misspellings and stylistic errors,” Helmholtz was more skeptical: “Regardless of my other reservations, Simmel is entirely too confident in his conclusions. And the manner in which he presented the faculty with this piece which is so full of misspellings and stylistic superficialities, which evidently was not proofread, in which sentences which are cited from foreign languages can hardly be deciphered, does not attest to a great deal of reliability. Insofar, however, as he has quite a few illustrious predecessors for what he evidently takes to be the method or lack of method of scientific study, he may let them serve as some kind of personal excuse. I, however, believe that we will be doing him a greater service if we do not encourage him further in this direction.”

[Landmann 17]1

It seems it is Simmel’s fate to be dismissed yet still to be recognized, if not for the work at hand, for something else. Donald Levine, for instance, notes that in Talcott Parsons’s attempt to recuperate German and French sociology for the English-speaking world, there is no mention of Simmel. He says further that his studies of art “are not well known by art historians and critics” just as his work in the philosophy of history is ignored by historians. Simmel died in 1919, but there are still recurrent “discoveries” of Simmel, as witnessed by the sporadic bursts of translations into English. The Philosophy of Money, for instance, published in 1900, was not translated into English until 1978, the famous essay “The Stranger” in 1950, and so on. Just as Simmel left no students who worked in the way he did and no school of sociology, the revivals of Simmel, which usually are marked by a sense of anticipation (“now we will not only learn something; we will carry it forward”), tend to die away without leaving important (or at least recognizable) effects. [End Page 100]

It is difficult to quote Simmel and to carry on his work through the usual modifications of something already in place. There is, instead, the attempt to present him “nonetheless.” Thus Donald Levine, to whom the English-speaking world is much indebted for his translations and presentations of Simmel, says: “[t]he presentation of a coherent account of the whole of Simmel’s social thought is complicated by the fact that coherence is generally not considered to be one of the hallmarks of Simmel’s writing” [11]. Levine writes this sentence in a piece he entitles “The Structure of Simmel’s Social Thought.” There are indeed a number of attempts to say what it is that Simmel was trying to do, as though readers had decided that Simmel is unclear but that “nonetheless” we can discern something of great value—just as his thesis committee in refusing his dissertation decided “nonetheless” that another piece would do. If Simmel did not deserve a degree for a piece on the ethnology and psychology of music, surely he deserved it for a work on Kant’s monadology. It seems to be Simmel’s talent to divert interest from whatever he is saying to something else—and always to something of interest and importance. Hence the fact that his influence is much greater than appears from the relative lack of citations to him and the absence not merely of a school of scholarship but of a style of writing traceable to him. His influence disappears at the moment it is most strongly felt. And just when he seems to be out of sight, forgotten, or used up, he reappears. 2

Max Weber gives...