Symposium, Nov. 11-12, to celebrate reflections of forgotten philosopher Georg Simmel

Susan Allen
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesUniversity Communications

Some figures in the history of philosophy and sociology are household names: Heidegger, Durkheim, Weber. What organizers of an upcoming symposium want to stress is the importance of a once central – and later marginal and plagiarized – figure. 

Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was “one of the founders of the discipline of sociology, influenced directly – or by plagiarism – a huge number of intellectual currents, and was deeply in touch with some [issues] that are just now playing out,” said conference organizer Don Levine, Peter B. Ritzma Professor Emeritus of Sociology.

Set for Friday, Nov. 11 and Saturday, Nov. 12, the symposium, "Georg Simmel:  Life, Self, Culture, Society," is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Franke Institute for the Humanities, the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Divinity School, the divisions of the Humanities and the Social Sciences, and the departments of Germanic Studies, Music, Philosophy and Sociology. 

The direct catalyst for this event is the first full English translation of Simmel’s final work, The View of Life: Four Metaphysical Essays with Journal Aphorisms. Ultimately, said Levine, it will be a “double healing.” Those who have paid attention to Simmel have usually focused either on his sociology or on his philosophy, rarely both. 

More to the point, the topics Simmel reflected on during his career also spanned art, music, theater, morals, history, and money. This symposium, the first major international conference on Simmel in the United States, will provide scholars with an opportunity to meet colleagues who have studied “other aspects of Simmel’s work that they probably haven’t paid much attention to.”

Some of Simmel’s reflections that may have eluded many scholars, particularly those who only consider him a sociologist, are his thoughts on death and immortality. “In 1919,” said Levine, “Heidegger gave a public lecture acknowledging Simmel’s important ideas about time and death and historicity and being. Then in 1927, Being and Time came out, and there’s no mention of Simmel, except for one disparaging footnote.” Levine said Heidegger and later writers took many ideas directly from Simmel, usually without giving him proper credit or even mentioning him as their source.

Ryan Coyne, assistant professor of the philosophy of religions and theology at the Divinity School, will present a paper arguing that, to some extent, Heidegger may not only be derivative of Simmel, but Simmel may also serve as a correction to some problems in Heidegger’s later work. 

He also generated “an amazing analysis of the modern money economy and the philosophy of money.” Alessandro Cavalli, an Italian scholar, will give a talk showing how Simmel fosters an understanding of today’s Euro crisis. 

“He also was the first one to use the term ‘religiosity,’’’added Levine—focusing on religion as its own domain of experience. “I think that [Simmel] still has an enormous amount to teach us about both life in general and, in particular, modernity.”

Megan Doherty, PhD'10, received her doctoral degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School.