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Georg Simmel

German Sociologist


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Narrated by Michael Prichard

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Kant could propose and answer the fundamental question of his philosophy, How is nature possible?, only because for him nature was nothing but the representation of nature. This does not mean merely that "the world is my representation," that we thus can speak of nature only so far as it is a content of our consciousness, but that what we call nature is a special way in which our intellect assembles, orders, and forms the sense-perceptions. These "given" perceptions, of color, taste, tone, temperature, resistance, smell, which in the accidental sequence of subjective experience course through our consciousness, are in and of themselves not yet "nature;" but they become "nature" through the activity of the mind, which combines them into objects and series of objects, into substances and attributes and into causal coherences. As the elements of the world are given to us immediately, there does not exist among them, according to Kant, that coherence which alone can make out of them the intelligible regular unity of nature; or rather, which signifies precisely the being-nature of those in themselves incoherently and irregularly emerging world-fragments. Thus the Kantian world-picture grows in the most peculiar reflection. Our sense impressions are for this process purely subjective, since they depend upon the physico-psychical organization, which in other beings might be different, but they become "objects" since they are taken up by the forms of our intellect, and by these are fashioned into fixed regularities and into a coherent picture of "nature."

Nature is for Kant a definite sort of cognition, a picture growing through and in our cognitive categories. The question then, How is nature possible?, i. e., what are the conditions which must be present in order that a "nature" may be given, is resolved by him through discovery of the forms which constitute the essence of our intellect and therewith bring into being "nature" as such.

It is at once suggested that it is possible to treat in an analogous fashion the question of the aprioristic conditions on the basis of which society is possible. Here too individual elements are given which in a certain sense always remain in their discreteness, as is the case with the sense-perceptions, and they undergo their synthesis into the unity of a society only through a process of consciousness which puts the individual existence of the several elements into relationship with that of the others in definite forms and in accordance with definite laws. The decisive difference between the unity of a society and that of nature, however, is this: the latter, according to the Kantian standpoint here presupposed, comes to existence exclusively in the contemplating unity, it is produced exclusively by that mind upon and out of the sense materials which are not in themselves interconnected.

On the contrary, the societary unity is realized by its elements without further mediation, and with no need of an observer, because these elements are consciously and synthetically active. The Kantian theorem, Connection can never inhere in the things, since it is only brought into existence by the mind, is not true of the societary connection, which is rather immediately realized in the "things"-namely, in this case the individuals. Moreover, this societary connection as synthesis, remains something purely psychical and without parallels with space-structures and their reactions.

The question, How is Society possible?, has a wholly different methodological bearing from the question, How is nature possible? The latter question is to be answered by the forms of cognition, through which the mind synthesizes given elements into "nature." The former question is answered by the conditions residing a priori in the elements themselves, through which they combine themselves actually into the synthesis "society." The function of achieving the synthetic unity, which with reference to nature resides in the observing mind, with reference to society passes over to the societary elements themselves. The consciousness of constituting society is not to be sure, in the abstract, present in the individual; everyone always knows that the others are connected with himself, although this knowing about the other as the associated, this recognizing of the whole complex as a society usually occurs with reference to particular concrete contents. Now, the question is: What lies then, universally and a priori at the basis, what presuppositions must be operative, in order that the particular concrete procedures in the individual consciousness may actually be processes of socialization; what elements are contained in them which make it possible that the product of the elements is, abstractly expressed, the construction of the individual into a societary unity?

Society is a structure of unlike elements. Even where democratic or socialistic movements plan an "equality," and partially attain it, the thing that is really in question is a like valuation of persons, of performances, of positions, while an equality of persons, in composition, in life-contents, and in fortunes cannot come into consideration. And where, on the other hand, an enslaved population constitutes only a mass, as in the great oriental despotisms, this equality of each always concerns only certain sides of existence, say the political or the economic, but never the whole of the same, the transmitted qualities, of which, personal relationships, experiences, not merely within the subjective aspect of life but also on the side of its reactions with other existences, will unavoidably have a certain' sort of peculiarity and untransferability. If we posit society as a purely objective scheme, it appears as an ordering of contents and performances which in space, time, concepts, values are concerned with one another, and as to which we may in so far perform an abstraction from the personality, from the Ego-form, which is the vehicle of its dynamic. If that inequality of the elements now presents every performance or equality within this order as individually marked and in its place unequivocally established, at the same time society appears as a cosmos whose manifoldness in being and in movement is boundless, in which, however, each point can be composed and can develop itself only in that particular way, the structure is not to be changed.

What has been asserted of the structure of the world in general, viz., that no grain of sand could have another form or place from that which now belongs to it, except upon the presupposition and with the consequence of a change of all being-the same recurs in the case of the structure of society regarded as a web of qualitatively determined phenomena. An analogy as in the case of a miniature, greatly simplified and conventionalized, is to be found for the picture of society thus conceived as a whole, in a body of officials, which as such consists of a definite ordering of "positions," of a preordination of performances, which, detached from their personnel of a given moment, present an ideal correlation. Within the same, every newcomer finds an unequivocally assigned place, which has waited for him, as it were, and with which his energies must harmonize. That which in this case is a conscious, systematic assignment of functions, is in the totality of society of course an inextricable tangle of functions; the positions in it are not given by a constructive will, but they are discernible only through the actual doing and experiencing of individuals. And in spite of this enormous difference, in spite of everything that is irrational, imperfect, and from the viewpoint of evaluation to be condemned, in historical society, its phenomenological structure -the sum and the relationship of the sort of existence and performances actually presented by all the elements of objectively historical society is an order of elements, each of which occupies an individually determined place, a co-ordination of functions and of functioning centers, which are objective and in their social significance full of meaning if not always full of value. At the same time, the purely personal aspect, the subjectively productive, the impulses and reflexes of the essential ego remain entirely out of consideration. Or, otherwise expressed, the life of society runs its course-not psychologically, but phenomenologically, regarded purely with respect to its social contents — as though each element were predetermined for its place in this whole. In the case of every break in the harmony of the ideal demands, it runs as though all the members of this whole stood in a relation of unity, which relation, precisely because each member is his particular self, refers him to all the others and all the others to him.

From this point, then, the apriori is visible which should be now in question, and which signifies to the individual a foundation and a "possibility" of belonging to a society. That each individual, by virtue of his own quality, is automatically referred to a determined position within his social milieu, that this position ideally belonging to him is also actually present in the social whole — this is the presupposition from which, as a basis, the individual leads his societary life, and which we may characterize as the universal value of the individuality. It is independent of the fact that it works itself up toward clear conceptional consciousness, but also of the contingent possibility of finding realization in the actual course of life-as the apriority of the law of causation, as one of the normative preconditions of all cognition, is independent of whether the consciousness formulates it in detached concepts, and whether the psychological reality always proceeds in accordance with it or not. Our cognitive life rests on the presupposition of a pre-established harmony between our spiritual energies, even the most individual of them, and external objective existence, for the latter remains always the expression of the immediate phenomenon, whether or not it can be traced back metaphysically or psychologically to the production of the reality by the intellect itself.

Thus societary life as such is posited upon the presupposition of a fundamental harmony between the individual and the social whole, little as this hinders the crass dissonances of the ethical and the eudaemonistic life. If the social reality were unrestrictedly and infallibly given by this preconditional principle, we should have the perfect society-again not in the sense of ethical or eudaemonistic but of conceptual perfection. More fully expressed, we should have, so to speak, not the perfect society, but the perfect society. So far as the individual finds, or does not find, realization of this apriori of his social existence, i. e., the thoroughgoing correlation of his individual being with the surrounding circles, the integrating necessity of his particularity, determined by his subjective personal life, for the life of the whole, the socialization is incomplete; the society has stopped short of being that gapless reciprocality which its concept foretells.

The causal interdependence which weaves each social element into the being and doing of every other, and thus brings into existence the external network of society, is transformed into a teleological interdependence, so soon as it is considered from the side of its individual bearers, its producers, who feel themselves to be egos, and whose attitude grows out of the soil of the personality which is self-existing and self-determining. That a phenomenal wholeness of such character accommodates itself to the purpose of these individualities which approach it from without, so to speak, that it offers a station for their subjectively determined life-process, at which point the peculiarity of the same becomes a necessary member in the life of the whole — this, as a fundamental category, gives to the consciousness of the individual the form which distinguishes the individual as a social element!

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