The Sociology of the Sociology of Money: Simmel and the Contemporary Battle of the Classics

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in Journal of Classical Sociology 3(1):67-96, 2003.
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Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2003. “The Sociology of the Sociology of Money: Simmel and the Contemporary Battle of the Classics.” Journal of Classical Sociology 3(1):67-96.


I offer a discussion of Simmel’s Philosophy of Money in comparison with the analyses of money in the writings of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Based on this analysis, I argue that Simmel’s ambiguous status as a classic can be accounted for by some of the characteristics of his approach as well as the historical (non-)reception of his work. Simmel’s relative neglect in sociology for the better part of the century as well as his recent revival with the rise of the new cultural studies and the postmodern paradigm shift hint at an important interdependence between the history and systematics of sociological theory. The theme of money has not managed to be accepted as an undisputed topic of sociological reflection because of its non-independent status in most social theories (apart from Simmel’s) as well as the factual resistance to such totalizing accounts (like Simmel’s) in the history of sociology. Recent transformations in social theory, however, indicate that money may, and to some extent already has, become a more autonomous topic of inquiry. In conclusion, I argue that Simmel’s work does lend itself to be taken up in postmodern perspectives and that the sociological study of money can likewise be appropriated by the new cultural studies. However, these new perspectives will have to come to terms with the modernist resistance of Simmel and the other sociological classics’ remaining influence in contemporary sociological theory.

I am grateful to Eve Darian-Smith, Donald Levine, Gary Marx, Leonard Pinto, and anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on a previous draft. 

Key words: Georg Simmel, money, sociological theory, Weber, Marx, Durkheim, modernity

“I know that I shall die without intellectual heirs, and that is as it should be. My legacy will be, as it were, in cash, distributed to many heirs, each transforming his part into use conformed to his nature: a use which will reveal no longer its indebtedness to its heritage.”
—Georg Simmel.

This paper takes as a point of departure Georg Simmel’s study of money in his famous book, Philosophie des Geldes (The Philosophy of Money, Simmel, 1900, 1989, 1990). Against the background of this work, I will examine how the theme of money was reflected upon in the social theories of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim. This comparative investigation will serve to uncover some of the underlying theoretical assumptions that account for the similarities and differences in the particular perspectives of these classics. While Simmel’s work has regularly been evaluated in comparison to any one of the sociological classics (e.g., Beilharz, 1996; Deutschmann, 1996; Faught 1985), it has not been assessed in terms of its (dis)associations with the classics as a unity. On the basis of an analysis of the money theme, therefore, this paper will position and discuss Simmel as a classic among the classics.

While not pretending to offer an in-depth investigation of the many intricacies involved with comparing Simmel with Weber, Marx, and Durkheim, this paper will serve to elucidate the status and reception of Simmel’s work as one of the building-blocks in the founding of sociology. Based on the insight that such an endeavor has implications for the formation as well as reception of sociological theory (Alexander, 1987), I will orient my discussion, next to an examination of the sociological study of money proper, also to the social context of Simmel’s writings, to consider how Simmel’s work has been received and evaluated in sociology. This paper, then, will advance some theoretical ideas on the sociology of money as well as present a chapter in the sociology of sociology.

I develop my arguments as follows. First, I briefly review the main theses of Simmel’s work on money and relate it to his broader intellectual and sociological project. Then, I discuss themes of a sociology of money in the writings of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, and evaluate their work in comparison to Simmel’s. Finally, I suggest how the reception of Simmel’s work and some of its assumptions have affected, and may continue to shape, the sociological study of money.


The work of Georg Simmel is most commonly analyzed in terms of its innovative contribution to the study of society, that is, as a distinct mode of sociological thinking. In Simmel’s substantive discussions of society, which have not been ignored, his work on the social significance of money has generally not received the attention his other studies of modernity have come to enjoy. To usefully present Simmel’s analysis of money, I will discuss the basic themes of his theoretical perspective, present a brief description of the various elements in his sociology of money, and relate these back to his general sociological outlook.

A Picture of Simmel’s Sociology

Central to Simmel’s social theory are his conceptions of formal sociology and notion of sociation, which are situated in a more encompassing distinction between general, formal and philosophical sociology (Simmel, 1964, 1971: 1-40; see also Frisby, 1985, 1992: 5-41; Levine, 1971; Wolff, 1964: xxvii-xl). Simmel conceives of sociology in the first place as a method, a point of view from which to take a picture of its field of study. The three divisions of general, formal, and philosophical sociology demarcate different viewpoints of sociological photography. General sociology investigates the whole of historical life inasmuch as it is societally formed. Historical developments can be perceived from different perspectives, each of which represents a particular frame of analysis or category of thought in order to lay bare the objective, individual (subjective), and/or social point of view. The social viewpoint is evidently central to sociology, although the link with the other perspectives is for Simmel essential. In this respect, Simmel devotes most attention to the relationships and differences between individual and social life, especially as they extend the historical narratives on particular groups (Simmel, 1964: 26-39).

Formal sociology is concerned with the study of societal forms that result out of the sum of interactions among living humans. These forms of life must be distinct from their content, Simmel argues, since groups with different substantive content (referring to the relatively variable ‘what’ of social life) may exhibit similar, even identical forms, while the form of groups (referring to the relatively stable ‘how’ of social action) can differ though their contents are the same. The content of social life refer to the drives, interests, purposes, inclinations, and psychic states around which individuals come together in interactions that take on certain forms (Simmel, 1964: 40-42). Typical for Simmel’s study of formal sociology, for example, are his discussions of sociability, superordination and subordination, competition and other associational forms as informing social life through any historical concreteness of the specific manifestations of such principles (e.g., Simmel, 1964: 40-57 on sociability). Philosophical sociology, finally, deals with the epistemology of the special social sciences (engaged in the study of any one particular manifestation of social life) and the metaphysics of their specific topics of investigation. As such, philosophical sociology is the science of social science. In Simmel’s work, philosophical sociology is, as Wolff (1964: xl) has argued, not of central concern apart from its programmatic announcement to develop an epistemology of sociology and its indirect treatment through a study of intellectual history, for example on individualism in social thought from the 18th to the 19th century (Simmel, 1964: 58-84).

Formal sociology is Simmel’s favored domain, because Simmel’s considers it to provide the most distinct sociological response to the critique of historians that the study of society would inevitably be bound to the various concrete, distinct and always diverse historical forms of social life. The field of formal sociology is closely linked to Simmel’s conception of individual and society, and the form/content distinction in individual-social relationships. With the study of social formations Simmel wants to overcome the problems associated with methodological individualism, stressing the primacy of the individual, and holism or sociologism, emphasizing the social. According to Simmel, neither one, society nor individual, is thinkable without the other. Central to the field of sociology are precisely those social formations which overcome the individual/social dualism: individuals engage with one another and thereby constitute the social. Society is not just the sum total of individual acts, but refers to individuals interconnected through social interaction.

Sociation (Vergesellschaftung) is a crucial concept in Simmel’s formal sociology. Sociation constitutes the process that ties the parts to the whole, individuals to one another and society. “Sociation is the form (realized in innumerably different ways) in which individuals grow together into a unity and within which their interests are realized. And it is on the basis of their interests ... that individuals from such unities (Simmel, 1971: 24). Most famous in respect of Simmel’s notion of sociation is his perspective that conflict, rather than implying any disconnectness, implies an association between the parties involved (e.g., Simmel, 1964: 162-169). The inherent mutual implication of society and individual suggests Simmel’s dialectical approach and its manifestations across social and cultural forms (see Coser, 1977: 183-186). In his analysis of the picture frame, for instance, Simmel (1994) likens the simultaneous wholeness of a work of art and it being a unified whole with its surroundings to the “general difficulty of life that the elements of totalities [groups] nevertheless lay claim to being autonomous totalities [individuals] themselves” (p. 17). In the many concrete instances of social life, also, sociation functions as a binding principle even and especially when groups are relatively confined, as is in the case with the secret society (Simmel, 1964: 345-376). Writes Simmel, “sociation offers each of [the members of a secret society] psychological support against the temptation of disclosure. Sociation counterbalances the isolating and individualizing effect of the secret” (Simmel, 1964: 355).

Social interaction, then, can be studied from the twofold perspective of content and form, with the latter as the dominant theme in Simmel’s work. Separated from the content of action, the forms of social life follow a logic of their own. Behind every social formation there are forces at work which should be isolated from the content of their manifestation —their analysis points to the value of abstract or ‘pure’ sociology. A logical consequence of these premises, Simmel studied all kinds of social phenomena; for no matter how much they differ, behind and in them, forms of social life operate in society as a whole. The wide variety of topics discussed by Simmel (fashion, law, space, women, poverty, secrecy, the city, art, money) is justified by his premise that the study of any one particular topic of sociological reflection inevitably implies its relatedness to other manifestations of social life. Any sociology of particularities is at once a ‘total’ sociology.

Snapshots of The Philosophy of Money

Simmel published his Philosophie des Geldes originally in 1900, and republished in 1907, the book was expanded to some 700 pages (Simmel, 1989 [reprint of Simmel, 1907], 1901-1902 [reprinted in Simmel, 1989: 719-723]). Divided over two parts, three chapters each, Simmel relates money to just about every imaginable social phenomenon and, indeed, argues for the inextricable links between money, the individual and, ultimately, modern society in its totality. It is this characteristic of total ‘relationalism’ that is so clearly obvious in Simmel’s work on money (Turner, 1986).

The first part of Simmel’s book is analytical, and aims at studying the being (Wesen) of money out of the preconditions of social life. Most fundamentally, Simmel proposes a study of money that transcends a purely economic approach. The point, Simmel argues, is to go beyond money’s place in the market by linking it to culture and society in order to understand the deeper “valuations and currents of psychological, yes, even metaphysical presuppositions” (Simmel, 1989: 13). First, Simmel analyzes the relationship of money to value (Wert), arguing that, while value has an objective side to it (the value transgressing the boundaries of social and individual realizations), it is through money that subjective values (that people attach to particular objects) become objectified. Values can be differently attached to one and the same object, and they are closely connected to objective value (since they build up subjective values), but only in money can any subjective value find full objective expression or manifestation. The desired object —while located at a distance from the individual— can be captured through a monetary exchange relation. The value is determined by the desire that people have to obtain an object, not the use-value of the object. Trade is, according to Simmel, essential to the constitution of money’s value, for trade allows objects to become exchangeable with a value that can be expressed in monetary terms.

Money represents the objectified articulation (verselbständigte Ausdruck) of exchange relationships, because separated from all other goods it is the transformer of objects into commodities. Money in modern society becomes more and more functional: it establishes relationships, and ties people to one another by the flow of goods and services. The price of a product in this exchange, Simmel contends, is “the measure of exchangeability that exists between it and the totality of other products” (Ibid.: 123). Money represents the relatedness and heterogeneity of objects: “money expresses the general element contained in all exchangeable objects,... it is incapable of expressing the individual element in them” (Simmel, 1964: 390-391). Importantly, the substance of money itself does no longer play a role in its function in exchange. Where once money did have substance-value (e.g. gold and silver coins), it has become a pure symbol to determine qualities quantitatively. Money is an instrument entering into nearly all of people’s social interactions. Never a purpose in itself (an sich), money has sheer infinite capacities of applicability in exchange relations. At the same time, however, money can become a purpose for itself (für sich), precisely because of its unlimited potentials as a means: quantities of money become significant qualities. Economic consciousness, the need to acquire, and monetary greed increase fundamentally in significance, not only in the market but in most every sphere of social life, a process Simmel describes as the commodification of interactions or the general reduction of quality to quantity.

The second, synthetic part of Philosophie des Geldes Simmel directs at unfolding the workings of money for the world, that is, the world of the individual, culture, and society. This leads Simmel to analyze money in relation to individual liberty. Simmel argues that money frees the person because the obligation to use money (Geldverpflichtung) is only related to the product of labor or to the buyer/seller on the market, but never to the whole person. Simmel expresses this well in an analysis of superordination and subordination, where he writes: “Money has carried to its extreme the separation... between man as a personality and man as the instrument of a special performance or significance” (Simmel, 1964: 293). Through the formation of ties among innumerable individuals money secures personal liberty. In such relationships, money allows for the movement of property, and property itself becomes an act, an engagement in interactions. Freedom, then, refers intimately to property, the possession of goods or money, allowing for the establishment of ever more relations: “The meditating concept for this correlation between money on the one hand, and the enlargement of circles [of social interaction], as well as the differentiation of individuals on the other, is often private property as such” (Simmel, 1989: 473). Money can overcome the physical and social distance between individuals, Simmel argues, because of its capacity to be absolutely transferable, combined with a process of individualization. At the same time, however, persons are in society valued more exclusively in terms of money. People can be measured in an objective and absolute way according to the monetary value that entering a relationship with them represents. As such, money exerts its influence in a variety of social domains: legal rights transform into monetary claims, and labor relations become useful only inasmuch as they involve monetary gains (wages).

Finally, Simmel debates how money also determines culture and the whole rhythm of life. Modern life becomes an intellectual endeavor excluding emotional considerations in favor of calculability. The culture of things replaces the culture of persons, and the creativity of mind is subject to a process of reification (Vergegenständlichung) in terms of calculable matter. A process of rational intellectualization goes hand in hand with money’s capacity of transforming objects into interchangeable commodities, both principles finding their most extreme realization in the metropolis, “the seat of the money economy, [where] in rational relations man is reckoned with like a number” (Simmel, 1964: 411). The emergence of romantic ideals and strong emotions, Simmel maintains, is but a reaction against this monetarization of culture: money and intellect are exchangeable, people and culture can be bought. Through money, all can be bought, all is related, all is in constant motion —the world is in total flux.

Money and the Photography of Society

In the preface to Philosophie des Geldes Simmel states that his study of money is meant as an example of the broader intent of his sociological enterprise to study through “every singularity of life, the totality of its meaning” (Simmel, 1989: 12). As Poggi (1993) argues, money is for Simmel the central structure and symbol in the historical formation of modern society. As such, Simmel’s analysis of money is exemplary for his sociological approach. Indeed, the main themes of Simmel’s sociological perspective can be retrieved in the book (see Frisby, 1990b: 5-13; Turner, 1986).

The most outstanding characteristic of Simmel’s sociology in his discussion on money is the relatedness (Wechselwirkung) of money to other social phenomena. As Bryan Turner (1986: 95) remarks, in Simmel’s work “any item of culture can be the starting point for sociological research into the nature of the totality... Nothing is trivial because everything is related”. This relationalism is typified by his examination of money as a social institution, which can only be understood within the total social framework within which it is imbedded. Money points to the interdependencies of social life, the way in which all events, things and individuals are related. Money has no intrinsic meaning but derives its significance from its relatedness to money-vested objects and the money-needy subjects that want to acquire these objects.

Money is also an important medium in the creation of social ties between people. Society is not just a collection of individuals, and neither one can be conceived without the other. Through money, relationships between people are established. At the same time, however, these relations are reified into impersonal cost-benefit alliances that are able to transgress social and physical boundaries. The intellectualization process accompanying the expansion of the money economy involves a disintegration of substance into impersonal ties. A general tendency to calculability and quantitative control, leading social interactions to become dictated more by the money people have or represent, to Simmel appears unavoidable, particularly with money’s tendency to become an end in itself. Yet, personal freedom is preserved, can even be enhanced, on the basis of property to be used in relations of calculable exchange. Referring to popular German expressions for money, Simmel uses the notions of coal (Kohle) and dough (Knete) to clarify the freedom-enhancing qualities of money (see Frerichs 2001). The poor by necessity have to use whatever little money they have as coal, burning through it as they spend it for specific purposes. The rich, however, have the opportunity to reshape the purpose of money, as if it is malleable like dough, and can spend, save, or invest money to accumulate wealth. To Simmel, also, money has emancipatory effects because it frees the individual from membership restricted to any one collectivity to a web of group affiliations with a plurality of individuals across social categories and groups. Money in this way creates freedom (as lack of constraint), albeit a freedom which dialectically implies a relative absence of enjoyment, of sense, of quality. Writes Simmel, “money produces both a previously unknown impersonality in all economic ownership and an equally enhanced independence and autonomy of the personality” (Simmel, 1896 [1991]: 18). Money alienates and separates but it also creates bonds among the members of the network where it circulates.

Finally, while Simmel’s differentiation between general, formal and philosophical sociology was not explicitly developed until after the publication of Philosophie des Geldes, both formal and philosophical components can be discerned in Simmel’s work. Most clearly, in seeking to go beyond the presuppositions of monetary economics, Simmel presents a chapter in philosophical sociology. He seeks to uncover the ontology of money’s role in society through “an inquiry into the nature of reality suggested by social phenomena” (Wolff, 1964: xxxiv). This philosophical aspiration is at the same time imbedded in the formalism of Simmel’s sociology. The central concept of sociation in Simmel’s formal sociology is not present in Philosophie des Geldes, but other characteristics of the formal approach underscore Simmel’s analysis. For example, the form/content separation, which Simmel sees more and more manifested in modern times, is exemplified by money’s evolution from a substance-value (in gold or silver) to a purely functional device (paper money). Money thus manages to reify all that social life —including the economy but also culture— entails as content, transforming qualitative worth into quantifiable functionality. Through the formal qualities of its operation, money enables exchange at a distance and an extreme abstractness that fragments people into formal properties, each of which carries a price-tag.


The analysis of Simmel’s study on money in this paper is intended to position and discuss Simmel’s work in relation to the other sociological classics. I therefore separately review the treatment of money in the works of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, to indicate those elements in the work of these classics that offer useful points for a comparison with Simmel’s discussion of money. Although the sociological trinity did not study money as an independent topic of inquiry, there are distinct elements of a monetary theory that can nonetheless be deduced from their respective writings.

Marx: Money and the Contradictions of Capitalism

In at least three of his writings, Marx paid specific attention to the functions of money in society (see, also, Arnon, 1984; De Brunhoff, 1976; Ingham, 1998; Lavoie, 1986; Morris, 1967). First, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx (1978) devotes a chapter to ‘The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society’. Marx argues that money represents the abstract relationships of private property which have become detached from human relations of exchange. Money is the epitome of man’s alienation: “That which is for me through the medium of money —that for which I can pay (i.e. which money can buy)— that am I, the possessor of the money” (p. 103). Money is the ultimate good, since it can buy all other goods, but it transforms the real powers of man and nature into alien abstractions reified in relations of exchange. In On the Jewish Question, the alienating force of money Marx attributes particularly to the (Jewish) culture of materialism: “Money is the jealous god of Israel, beside which no other god may exist” (Marx, 1978: 50).

The humanistic approach to alienation is further elaborated by Marx in his crucial work Grundrisse, though here a more strictly economic analysis of capitalism’s internal contradictions is also presented (Marx, 1973). Money is considered in connection to capital-labor relations, and the focus is more exclusively on wages and the formation of capital, rather than on money as such. The accumulation of the means of production, and the transformation of money into capital cause it to become an independent force that determines the mode of production. In this broader process, Marx argues, money becomes increasingly detached from the social relations which paradoxically have initially given rise to the formation of those relationships. This element Marx particularly identifies in relation to wage-labor: “The capitalist, it seems, therefore, buys their [the workers’] labour with money. They sell him their labour for money” (Marx, 1978: 204). Thus money reflects and reifies social relations, and these relations become external to, and independent from, the people that engage in them.

Marx’s speculations on the capitalist economy become fully matured in his work Capital (Marx, 1978: 294-442). Stripped of the Hegelian language that still dominated his early works, Marx now develops a detailed economic analysis and argues that the value of money is determined by the forces of production and not by the market conditions of supply and demand. In the chapter on ‘Commodities and Money’ (Marx, 1978: 302-329), specifically, Marx argues that to become a commodity, a good must be transferable into any other one, and money is the medium that enables this transfer of commodities. In the next chapter of Capital discusses the importance of the transformation of money into capital through the transformation of money into commodities and back into money. The change from money to capital, however, does not occur in money itself. Instead, in order for money to be converted into capital, a special commodity must exist whose consumption is an embodiment of labor and a creation of value —this, Marx contends, can only be labor-power. This labor-theory of value is based on Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism as the unquestioned belief that goods possess value as an inherent property. Marx writes, “to find an analogy, we must have resource to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities” (Marx, 1978:321). Unmasking this fetishism, Marx’s historical materialism unveiled that a commodity has exchange value only because it stands in a particular relation to human labour and production.

Congruent with Marx’s theory of value, money is intimately tied up with labor and a concept of value based on labor and, therefore, labor products. To Marx, money is itself a commodity but one that in abstract form also represents the value of other commodities. As such, money is not just a medium of exchange, but also a means of domination. For as a universal measure for value (and the labor it entails), money symbolizes the capitalist mode of production and its social relations of exploitation. It is on the basis of this labor-theory of value that Marx goes on to construct his theories of labor power, the creation of surplus-value, and the expropriation of the worker. The specific but relatively limited role Marx attributes to money in his explanation of the contradictions of capitalism are clear: the division of labor, the accumulation of capital, the opposition between bourgeoisie and proletariat, and the inherently contradictory mode of capitalist production are the central elements that account for industrialized society. The study of money to Marx only makes sense as part of a more encompassing analysis of capitalism.

Weber: Money and the Rationalization of Society

Max Weber’s treatment of the role of money in society forms part of his sociological discussions on the rationalization processes in industrial society. In The Protestant Ethic, Weber (1976) argues that the ethic of Protestantism has as its summum bonum “the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life” (p. 53). The acquisition of wealth is an end in itself, and the Protestant is preoccupied by the making of money, albeit in an ascetic way. It is this methodical attitude which Weber holds responsible for the formal-rational conduct to life that he considers so important in the development of capitalism. The irrational accumulation of wealth (irrational, because money is denied its very reason for existence, namely exchange) accelerates the rationalization of the capitalist money economy. The ethics of Protestantism thus contributed to the rise of capitalism by its “amazingly good, we may even say a pharisaically good, conscience in the acquisition of money, so long as it took place legally” (Ibid.: 176).

Weber also discusses the role of the money economy throughout his later works, particularly in the posthumous collection Economy and Society (Weber, 1954, 1958, 1962). Basically, Weber outlines the characteristics of rationalized, modern society in several social domains, and the money economy is thereby seen as one of the driving forces. In the paper ‘Religious Rejections of the World and Their Direction’, for instance, Weber (1958: 323-359) elaborates on the theme of The Protestant Ethic, and argues that the calculable method of life, characteristic for the rational economy of capitalism, finds in money “the most abstract and ‘impersonal’ element that exists in human life” (Weber, 1958: 331). Elsewhere, Weber (1954, 1962) similarly argues for the social significance of money in creating the possibility of rational calculability, the possibility of assigning money values to all goods and services, which creates impersonal relations of exchange between the participants on the market because money is the accepted means of exchange. The money economy is also seen to determine the structure of bureaucracies, in that it is necessary to provide the income to maintain them (based on a system of taxation) since they cannot be derived from private profits (Weber, 1958: 204-209). Weber’s definition of class, finally, essentially refers to the possession of goods and the opportunities for (monetary) income (Weber, 1958: 181-183). But, of course, while Weber in his work emphasizes the role of the money economy in the development of nearly all facets of modernity, he also pays considerable attention to cultural, religious, political, technological, and legal processes of rationalization in the formation of modern society. The ‘elective affinity’ (Wahlverwantschaft) between these factors is precisely one of Weber’s most fundamental methodological claims, so that he treats money always in relation to other social forces.

Durkheim: Money and the Morality of the Social Order

Of all the classics, Durkheim is probably the one who addressed least of all the issue of money in his sociological work. Attempting to reconstruct a Durkheimian monetary theory, it is to be noted that Durkheim’s doctoral dissertation on the social division of labor includes but very minimal discussions of the money economy (Durkheim, 1984). Instead, the emphasis in Durkheim’s study is on modern society’s capacity to maintain solidarity in light of growing trends of individualization. He outlines an evolutionary model from mechanical to organic solidarity, whereby the nature of solidarity is seen to shift from one between identical, substitutable elements to one between distinct, functionally specialized parts. The latter refers primarily to the division of labor between workers, but also includes social relations established through monetary exchange. But Durkheim does not discuss economic forces as such, instead placing premium on the social regulations, the collective beliefs and sentiments that underlie these processes —they are in the final analysis responsible for a society’s cohesion (or lack thereof as a result of anomie).

Additionally, in Suicide, Durkheim (1951) employs a similar argument to account for the rise in suicide-rates whenever there is a positive or negative, but always abrupt, transition in economic life, and because of the chronic state of anomie in the world of trade and industry. Economic crises lead to a sudden weakening of social regulations, which brings about a disruption of the social limits set to man’s desires. Such desires can include the need to acquire more and more money, and the economic crises may refer to monetary losses or gains. Durkheim specifically mentions prices of the most necessary foods and the fact that world expositions “Bring more money into the country and are thought to increase public prosperity” (pp. 244-245). The lack of regulations in the economic world, responsible for suicide as a regular factor, consists in the freeing of industrial relations from all constraints on (monetary) needs. However, Durkheim conceives of the morality of the social order that can and should guide economic forces as the crucial theme of sociological reflection, not the economy or money as such.


It is apparent that Marx, Weber, and Durkheim did not pay as much exclusive attention to money as an autonomous domain of sociological inquiry as Simmel did, although none of them entirely denied the significance of money in their respective analyses. Simmel’s approach to money diverges from each of the other classics’ in ways that can be explained with reference to their respective general theoretical perspectives. On the one hand, of course, Marx’s influence on Simmel, Durkheim, and Weber may indicate a centrality of the influence of historical materialism or at least an elective affinity among the classics in their development of sociological theory from the second half of the 19th century onwards. On the other hand, the concentration on the money theme in Simmel’s work also licenses a thematically more delineated approach that can identify the theoretical concerns that distinguish Simmel’s work from that of the other classics.

The Age of Sociology

Since Parsons (1937) as well as some of his critics (e.g., Giddens, 1971), the history of sociological thought has firmly been established in the major transformations of society in the 19th century (Collins, 1994; Holton, 1996). Building on the centrality of social change, the classics thereby also converged their thinking, or at least transformed their thought in substantial respects. The transformation from or rift between the younger and older Marx is well documented. In Durkheim, the anti-voluntaristic orientation of the early period of social realism was refashioned in his later work on religion. And Weber’s influences from German idealism and romanticism place meaning and interpretation completely at the center of his methodology.

In the work of Simmel, similar themes and transformations are at work (see Coser, 1977; Frisby, 1987: 423-424; Levine, 1997; Scaff, 1988: 3-7). Among Simmel’s most important initial intellectual influences are German Völkerpsychologie, particularly the notion that social totality historically antecedes the individual, but also the idea that there is an evolutionary trend toward the development of individuality. The emphasis on individuality in Simmel’s writings until the late 1880s leads Simmel himself to refer to his work as psychological contributions. Thereafter, however, he explicitly proclaimed sociological objectives, with a peculiar interest in philosophically grounding the sociological project. Particularly in the last decade of the 19th century Simmel was heavily involved in sociological work and his contribution to establish sociology as an independent science. During this period, he wrote most of his explicitly sociological work and was among the first to teach a course in sociology. However, although this task was a decade later in an institutional sense accomplished (as sociology had become a discipline with its own journals and institutionalization in the academic world), Simmel’s programmatic formulations of a new science of society had not (for him and in his intent) produced the results to which he had aspired. Disillusioned, Simmel turned to philosophical, metaphysical matters. As I will discuss in more detail later, Simmel’s turn away from sociology in the stricter sense of the term was never complete, but mostly because of efforts on the part of his students (especially Albion Small’s successful endeavors to bring Simmel’s work to the attention of American sociologists [see Levine, 1997: 181-183]).

These shifts in Simmel’s work are significant especially in the context of Philosophie des Geldes. For it is in this work that Simmel shifts from a sociological analysis of social forms to an emphasis on moral autonomy, individuality, existential responsibility, and personal experience (Levine, 1997:183; Holton 1996: 45-47). Intimately part of this orientation towards a philosophy of culture is the notion, which figures so prominently in Philosophie des Geldes, that a major evolutionary trend in modern society is the development of increasing individuality. As Levine (1997) has shown, for the notion of an increasing individual subjectivity Simmel found intellectual support in the work of Nietzsche and, more broadly, Hegel’s perspective of self-consciousness. More broadly, he general evolutionary orientation was of course no stranger to sociological theorizing of the later half of the 19th century, finding expression, most clearly, in the works of Durkheim and, especially, Spencer (which had initially stimulated Simmel to sociological investigations). The centrality of individuality comes to the foreground most clearly in Philosophie des Geldes with its emphasis on money as a universal impersonal measure of value that also enables new and expanded subjective experiences. In other words, Simmel maintains that as much as it is true that there are de-personalization trends in modernity, it also and still allows for individuals to react creatively and make one’s own world in the money economy, for “the metropolitan individual is not simply a passive victim of consumerism” (Holton, 1996: 46). Let us now consider how the centrality of the money theme in Simmel’s work relates more specifically to the other sociological classics.

Simmel and Marx

In the preface to his study on money, Simmel claims that he wants to adjust historical materialism by looking at economic processes as the result of deeper presuppositions, while preserving the explanatory model of the influence of economic life upon culture (Simmel, 1989: 13). Simmel’s relation to Marx in the study of money thus comprises both similarities and differences in approach (see Deutschmann, 1996; Frankel, 1977: 17-27; Turner, 1986: 100-104). Indeed, on the one hand, some of the themes in Marx’s work reappear in some form in Simmel’s study. First, there is the evolutionary sketch of money from simple barter to the more complex and more complete existence of money as paper money. In addition, both Simmel and Marx use religious analogies to denote the impersonal nature of money (the Holy Grail, money as fetish), and this theme of impersonalization through money is apparent in the writings of both authors. Although Marx’s Grundrisse were not yet discovered during Simmel’s life, he unwittingly reconstructed some of the classical Marxist themes of objectification and alienation (Turner, 1986: 101-103). Money is by both Simmel and Marx seen as the purest form of reification; it is the technically most perfected medium of modern economic exchange that transforms all quality into quantity, that alienates people from their true existence, and fragments their personalities into formal properties.

On the other hand, Simmel’s approach is in several respects antagonistic to Marx’s throughout Philosophie des Geldes. The main difference in their respective approaches is that Marx holds the capitalist mode of production responsible for the contradictions of modern, industrialized society, while for Simmel it is the money economy as such which is the cause of the impersonalization of social relations. Marx’s theory is primarily concerned with the capitalist sphere of production and the relation between money, labor, and capital, while Simmel concentrates on the distribution and circulation of goods, which are held to constitute a value-creating sphere of exchange. Seeking to move deeper than historical materialism to reach at the psychological and metaphysical meanings of the concrete historical manifestations of economic forms, Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes is a fundamental critique of Marx’s political economy. While in Marx’s work, too, money has different functions (as a measure of value, a medium of exchange, and a means of accumulating wealth), it is always of central concern to Marx that money “embodied abstract labour and that the value of money was determined by the conditions of production” (Turner, 1986: 109). Opposing most critically this economicization of money, Simmel locates money resolutely in the broad realm of human experience. In Simmel, money is only loosely tied to its material basis and instead represents a sociological phenomenon, a form of human interaction. Therefore, also, exchange is for Simmel a crucial form of sociation, whereas the economy is only one special form of exchange (see Frisby, 1985: 59-60). Whereas Marx’s theory of value is based on the productive relations of the human subject with nature through labor, Simmel presents a relativist theory of value that posits that the value of things rests on a subjective judgment, on valuation. Therefore, especially those goods which are difficult to obtain for the individual who wants them —within certain limits of feasibility— will be the most valuable (Sassatelli, 2000).

The differences between Simmel’s formal-philosophical sociology, in search for the universals of humanity, and Marx’s concrete economic-historical analysis, aimed at the general laws of capitalism, are manifested in their respective value theories. Also, as far as the problematic sides of money are concerned (reification, fragmentation), Marx’s analysis is, in however paradoxical a way, more optimistic, since capitalism, he argues, will one day undermine itself. Simmel’s analysis instead points to the role of money as a world of its own, driven by the nature of human life, which cannot just be overthrown. Conversely, along with the growth of money as a pure symbol, Simmel defines freedom in relation to the possession of money as providing the means to engage in social interactions. For Marx this potential of increased freedom and individualization is of course far more problematic: the freedom of some can only be maintained by the unfreedom of many others. Underlying these differences in approach, Simmel’s discontent with socialist ideology can be discerned. To Simmel, socialism cannot eradicate all distinctions between people, at least not without destroying their freedom (see Simmel, 1964: 73-78).

Simmel and Weber

The relationship between Simmel and Weber is a peculiar one. Simmel and Weber were close friends, but the intellectual influences between them are not very clear and have been a topic of considerable scholarly debate (see Abel, 1970: 112-114; Faught, 1985; Léger, 1986; Levine, 1972, Lichtblau, 1991; Nedelmann, 1988; Scaff, 1987, 1988; Turner, 1986: 104-110; C. Turner, 1989). On the one hand, there are affinities between Simmel’s and Weber’s work. They generally share a methodological concern for the role of understanding (Verstehen), and the accompanying concepts of sociation and social interaction. Also, Simmel’s identification of the form of social action may have inspired Weber’s development of the ideal-types (although the former has metaphysical status, while the latter is a methodological device). As members of the intellectual life of Berlin, they both had first-hand access to the achievements of modern, metropolitan culture. Although for the Protestant Weber this primarily meant an inquiry into subjective and objective culture, while the Jewish Simmel was more attracted to the new aesthetics of modernity, they both expressed a fatalistic theme in their sociology and identified the fate of culture into cold-hearted objectification.

The impersonal nature of money in exchange relations identified by Simmel corresponds closely to Weber’s notion of bureaucratization in terms of purposive rationality (Zweckrationalität). Both Simmel and Weber concentrate on the role of money in modern society as enabling an increasing quantification of relations and fragmentation of the human person into functional partitions. Money is seen to transform personal bonds into calculable instrumental ties. Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes may well have been a direct source of inspiration for Weber’s analysis of modern bureaucratization (Weber read the book after a period of illness around 1902). Weber’s analyses of the methodical conduct of life, the rational calculation and intellectualization, the dominance of bureaucratic control, and the growing process of secularization into the iron cage of modernity presuppose a rational money system, and similar themes are discussed in Simmel’s study on money.

Weber in his writings hardly ever referred to Simmel’s work and, when he did, he was quite critical about some of Simmel’s intentions. Weber wrote a critique of Simmel’s sociological approach, including his analysis of money, but, probably because Simmel had difficulties acquiring a full professorship, Weber never finished the paper (Weber, 1972). Still, the unfinished manuscript does indicate some of the differences in their perspectives. Weber argues that, while Simmel has advanced some important theoretical ideas and made subtle empirical observations, there are numerous unacceptable aspects in his methodology. Most critically, Weber refutes Simmel’s methodological approach and his notion of interaction. Weber criticizes Simmel’s interpretive method for proceeding largely on the basis of analogy, which to the specialist is a method devoid of any sense. With respect to Simmel’s notion of interaction, Weber argues that it is so vague and broad that it is not possible to “conceive of an influence of one person by another that would be purely ‘one-sided’, i.e., not containing a certain element of ‘interaction’” (Weber, 1972:163).

In some of Weber’s other works, more of his disagreements with Simmel’s approach are revealed. Thematically most interesting is that Weber in The Protestant Ethic specifically criticizes Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes. While he calls it a “brilliant analysis”, he also maintains that Simmel does not sufficiently distinguish between the money economy in general and capitalism in particular “to the detriment of his concrete analysis” (Weber, 1976: 193,185). Weber in his work indeed paid attention to the structural conditions of the capitalist money economy, whereas Simmel developed a phenomenology of money as a medium of the human experience of reality as such. Weber sought to look beyond the formalism of social action, and wanted to unveil its psycho-cultural dimension (why people act), while Simmel argued to go beyond substantivism in order to understand social interactions in terms of the form they have (how people act).

From a methodological viewpoint, Weber maintains in Economy and Society that his work “departs from Simmel’s method (in Soziologie and Philosophie des Geldes) in drawing a sharp distinction between subjectively intended and objectively valid ‘meanings’; two different things which Simmel not only fails to distinguish but often deliberately treats as belonging together” (Weber, cited in Frisby, 1990b: 14). As Levine (1997: 178-179) clarifies, Simmel developed an explicit interest in Verstehen only after 1900. This may have been due to, or at least harmonizes with, the fact that Simmel for strategic reasons did not wish to be explicit about his opposition Wilhelm Dilthey’s hermeneutics. For in contrast to the Diltheyan Verstehen method that conceived of society as singular meaningful events, Simmel in his work seeks to construct general propositions that can account for manifold historical events (Dahme, 1990: 14-19). This methodological conflict was meaningful in a professional sense because Dilthey hindered Simmel’s career opportunities at Berlin.

Once Simmel had clarified his methodology more explicitly, it was influential for Weber’s approach but mostly as a negative model (see Frisby, 1987: 425-427; Lichtblau, 1991; Scaff, 1988:13-17; Turner, 1986: 104-105). In particular, Weber sought to depart from Simmel’s methodology in formulating a cognitive rational interpretation of motives, rather than a psychological theory of consciousness. For Simmel it was undisputable “that all social events... are rooted in souls, that sociation is a psychological phenomenon” (Simmel cited in Nedelmann, 1988:20). Against this psychologism, Weber’s method of understanding of action has to be restricted to the subjective intentions of human agents, and is clearly distinguished from, if also related to, causal explanations (in the sense of causal pluralism and Wahlverwantschaft) of the social structures in which actions are imbedded (see Gerth and Mills, 1958: 55-61). Echoing the famous connection Weber draws between understanding and explanation, he criticizes Simmel for not clearly distinguishing the interpretation of motives of actors and the socio-historical context of meaning.

Simmel and Durkheim

Durkheim was quite well acquainted with Simmel’s work and published two review articles on books by Simmel, including a review of Philosophie des Geldes (Durkheim, 1900-1901, 1902-1903). Durkheim also discussed Simmel’s sociological theory at some length in two other papers (Durkheim, 1964, 1982; see also Abel, 1970: 108-112; Bentley, 1926; Frisby, 1990a: xvii-xviii; Maffesoli, 1988; Mestrovic, 1991: 54-74; Naegele, 1958; Thompson, 1982; Wolff, 1958). As far as Simmel’s general sociological theory is concerned, Durkheim strongly disagrees with Simmel’s a-historical formalism. According to Durkheim, form only applies to social morphology (an approach which he rejected, particularly in Suicide), and the separation of form and content rests on nothing but Simmel’s idiosyncratic arbitrary judgment. Durkheim asserts that the special social sciences, concerned with the processes or variable contents of human existence, are just as much sociological as is the study of the external forms of the collectivity. The forms and substance of relationships are social facts, that is, for both it holds that “one cannot but feel present the hand of society, which organises them and whose stamp they plainly bear” (Durkheim, 1982: 191). Contrary to Simmel’s view of society as being essentially involved with the sociation of individuals, Durkheim emphasizes that society is a moral milieu that serves a function of integration, referring to the (formal) attachment of people to society, but that also exhibits a particular regulatory force, referring to (substantive) moral codes and rules.

Simmel’s conception of the relationship between society and individual is markedly different from Durkheim’s. Of course, as analysts of the fin de siècle, they share the ideas of a force sui generis (Simmel’s metaphysics versus Durkheim’s collective conscience) and a historical account of a process into modernity that is characterized by a general impersonalization and functional compartmentalization of social relations. But Durkheim’s identification of social facts exerting their influence over individuals and having a life of its own regardless of individual manifestations cannot be easily reconciled with Simmel’s notion of sociation and stress on individual differences in social interactions.

Durkheim’s specific objections to Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes fit well within this general critique. Durkheim (1900-1901) argues that Simmel’s book (as the title indicates) presents a social philosophy and is not sociology sensu stricto. For Simmel discusses just about every conceivable fact and thought related to money, especially in the second synthetic part, and the facts he there presents are often imprecise and unwarranted. Too many diverse questions are dealt with, Durkheim argues, and, lacking any analysis, Simmel fails to see that the force of money does not derive from any of its presumed intrinsic values. What is far more important to Durkheim is “the presence or absence of the regulation to which [money] is submitted, and the nature of that regulation” (Durkheim, 1900-1901: 145). Unlike Simmel’s identification of alienation and the fragmentation of personality into functional parts as a result of the essence of money, Durkheim held that the division of labor is not pathological as such, but only when it lacks a developed system of solidary organizations and the necessary regulations concerning how these organizations should come together. In sum, Durkheim cannot agree with Simmel’s abstract approach: money cannot have such a profound moral influence solely on the grounds of its formal characteristics. What matters to Durkheim is the moral regulation through which money is controlled, not money as such.


This analysis of Simmel in relation to the other classics has revealed some of the underlying distinctions between these different perspectives in classical theory. However, this confrontation by itself does not suffice to evaluate Simmel as a sociological classic and assess the influence of his work for the sociological study of money. Sociological theory-building is not only the result of conceptual argumentation and debate, but just as much of the actual reception of a body of knowledge in the sociological community (Alexander, 1987; Lamont, 1987). Any judgment of sociological theories necessarily implies, and should take into account, a clarification of the historical dimension in theory formation.

Simmel’s (Lack of) Influence in Sociology

The influence of Simmel’s work in sociology is marked by an ambivalence which seems to have haunted Simmel throughout his life (see Coser, 1958, 1977: 194-199; Frisby, 1990a: xv-xxv; Gerth and Mills, 1958: 21). While Simmel had good connections with Berlin’s cultural and intellectual elite at the turn of the century, he was long time excluded from influential university positions. He remained a lecturer (Privatdozent) and honorary professor at the University of Berlin, and had to move to Strasbourg to become full professor only in 1914. The slow progression in Simmel’s career was likely the result of anti-Semite sentiments, but his eclectic theories also caused him to remain somewhat of an outsider in the scholarly environment. Still, during his days Simmel’s work got quite some attention, as can for instance be seen from the large number of, mostly positive, reviews of Philosophie des Geldes (e.g. Altmann, 1903; Duprat, 1900; Mead, 1901; Meyer, 1901).

The ambivalent reception of Simmel’s work during his days also conditioned his early influence in the United States (Frisby, 1992: 155-162; Levine, 1991; Levine et al., 1976; Wolff 1964: xxiv-xxv). Early issues of The American Journal of Sociology contained some 15 papers by Simmel and generally paid a lot of attention to the German scholar (several Chicago sociologists had studied in Germany). In the later development of American sociology, however, Simmel’s work seems to have been largely ignored. George Herbert Mead (1901) wrote a (very positive) review of Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes in an economic journal, but to the present day Simmel’s influence in economics is really nonexistent. Other American sociologists (Park, Burgess, Spykman) published on Simmel, and offered translations of his work to the American readership, but with only moderate success. When Parsons (1937) published his first systematic social theory, referring abundantly to European sociologists, Simmel was excluded apart from some scant references (Parsons drafted a chapter on Simmel and Tönnies but did not include it in his book; see Parsons, 1998). With the subsequent rise of functionalism, little attention was paid to Simmel’s sociology (Saiedi, 1987). The rise of Parsonian functionalism mainly led to marginalize the work of Simmel, and the post-functionalist attack on Parsons likewise did little to revive Simmel (Alexander, 1987: 34-46). As late as 1976, a review paper could be published on the influence of Simmel’s work for substantive areas in American sociological research, without, quite rightly, mentioning the theme of money (Levine et al., 1976).

Apart from unfavorable historical conditions, there are also theoretical causes for Simmel’s poor reception. There are good reasons to say that any social theory, however complex, simplifies reality by ordering modern civilization in an encompassing explanatory model. As my review of the money theme in the work of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim has shown, their studies took into account money as an element of sociological inquiry only within a more encompassing perspective aimed at unfolding the central, in this way unifying, theme to analyze (and criticize) modern industrialized societies. Marx focused on money within a more encompassing study of the capitalist mode of production; Weber discussed the money economy in relation to the broader trends of societal rationalization; and Durkheim concentrated on the moral regulatory structures in which money is socially imbedded. Capitalism, rationalization, and social morality are the respective key-words, providing unity to the traditions of sociological theory and diversity to theoretical sociology. Such a clear-cut approach is not what characterizes Simmel’s sociology of everything, which is resistant to be pindowned into one or the other determining category of sociological thought. It is for these reasons that Simmel has often been called a “talented essayist” with a striking “love of details” (see Levine, 1997:173; Dahme, 1990: 17). Also, unlike the other classics of sociology, Simmel did not hold industrialism to be the central turning point in the evolution to modern society. Rather, Simmel considered the money economy in general, without it being specifically tied up to capitalism or the division of labor in industrialism, as decisive for the ‘Great Transformation’ into modernity (Lawrence, 1980: 182-183). Simmel did offer a unique characterization of modernity, and provided new basic tools for its sociological study (separation of form and content, relationalism, the possibility of social order). Still, his disinclination to specialize and his refusal to argue for one clear-cut driving force in the evolution to modernity have lead his work not to be indisputably classified as classic (see Frisby, 1992: 45-63).

Past, Present, and Future of the Sociology of Money

Over the past decades, Simmel’s social theory has witnessed a notable revival, especially with the advent of the new cultural studies and the discussions on modernity and postmodernity (see, e.g., Backhaus, 1998; Blegvad, 1989; Dahme, 1990; Featherstone, 1991; Gross, 2001; Scaff, 1988; C. Turner, 1989; Weinstein and Weinstein, 1990, 1993). The sociology of money, too, has been the subject of renewed sociological interest (e.g., Baker and Jimerson, 1992; Condominas, 1989; Ingham, 1998; Singh, 2000; Zelizer 1994). Of course, the money theme was never totally absent from sociology. Noteworthy are Parsons and Smelser’s functional analysis of money as a generalized medium of interaction (Parsons and Smelser, 1956; Smelser, 1963), Luhmann’s autopoietic notion of money (Luhmann, 1985), Habermas’s thesis of the monetary colonization of the lifeworld (Habermas, 1981), and Giddens’ discussions of money and trust in his structuration theory of modernity (Giddens, 1990, 1991). However, none of these renowned authors base their theories on Simmel. Habermas, for instance, develops his concept of money out of a critical reappraisal of Parsons, and he quotes Simmel only three times in his analysis of theories of modernity (Habermas, 1985: 170, 298, 371). To Habermas (1983, 1996) Simmel’s philosophy of the subject (Lebensphilosophie) is unacceptable from the standpoint of post-metaphysical communication-theory. Likewise, Giddens, though claiming that The Philosophy of Money is “the most far-reaching and sophisticated account of the connections between money and modernity” (Giddens, 1991: 22), only shortly discusses Simmel’s notions of trust and space (Giddens, 1990: 18, 1991: 22-29).

Next to the analysis of money in the works of these ‘contemporary’ classics, money has recently gained a more accepted status as a topic of sociological inquiry (see, for instance, Dodd, 1994; Doyle, 1992; Ganßmann, 1988; Ingham, 1994, 1996; Smelt, 1980; Zelizer, 1989). Some scholars have even begun to develop sociological analyses of money in contemporary society explicitly on the basis of Simmel’s ground-breaking work (e.g., Deutschman, 2000; Ritzer, 2001; Sassatelli, 2000). Christoph Deutschman (2000), most clearly, has developed an alternative to a functionalist sociology of money by arguing that Simmel’s conceptualization of money as an ‘absolute means’ allows for a useful perspective of money’s role in modern society in relation to broader currents of individualization and modernization.
Apart from the historical fact that sociologists have mostly neglected money (Ingham, 1998; Pixley, 1999), two tensions continue to trouble the reception of the sociological study of money. First, sociologies of money cannot find way into economic studies where monetary theories are largely developed on the basis of discussions of Keynes, Smith, Ricardo, or Marx. This lack of multi-disciplinary collaboration is regrettable since economics is after all essentially concerned with the study of money. Also because any sociology of money should clarify the specific sociological contribution, debate with economic monetary theories seems indispensable. And, second, the historical negligence of money in sociology —indicative is the fact that Simmel’s Philosophie des Geldes was translated into English nearly 80 years after the German original— cannot be overcome overnight. Regardless of whether or not money is theoretically considered a suitable topic for sociological investigation, sociology’s history de facto constraints money’s receptiveness into the field. The vagueness and internal inconsistencies that mark most contemporary sociological studies of money, not surprisingly therefore, all to clearly confirm that “there is no systematic sociology of money” (Zelizer, 1991: 1304).

Simmel and the Quest for Sociological Theory

An assessment of Simmel’s sociological theory also includes considerations on relevant aspects in the history of theory formation. The factual resistance against Simmel’s sociology and the study of money as a theme of its own will also condition an evaluation of the merits of his work. From this perspective, the recent revival of Simmel in postmodern theories deserves attention, minimally because Simmel handed down the interconnected particularities of his writings and because they have inspired the current debate on postmodernity. This issue calls for a more profound investigation than I can offer here, but the discussion of Simmel’s study of money and the confrontation with the other classics offer important elements for a useful assessment of Simmel today.

Apart from the obvious fact that the neglect of Simmel’s sociology has always been more relative than absolute, it should be noted that the contemporary (re)appraisal of his work is not the exclusive property of postmodern theories. Simmel’s discussion of small-group interaction has gained an established place in symbolic interactionism and, to a lesser extent, in social psychology. Also, the inspiration of Simmel’s work on culture is regularly manifested in cultural sociology, which is surely not the exclusive domain of postmodern theorizing. In addition, attempting to construct a synthesis in theoretical sociology, Simmel’s sociology has also been related to the work of social theorists with a more accepted status (see, e.g., Levine, 1991, 2000 on Simmel and Parsons).

Most remarkable is the fact that Simmel’s work has over the last decade been revived because of its appropriation in postmodern theories. David Frisby has offered insightful material to systematically assess Simmel’s relation to postmodernity (Frisby, 1985, 1990c, 1992: 64-79, 155-174). Frisby describes Simmel’s work as characterized by essentially modernist aspirations. Simmel’s conception of modernity is closely akin to Baudelaire’s formulation of the modern as the mode of experiencing the new as transitory. This is demonstrated by Simmel’s emphasis on the fluidity of forms of action and the interrelatedness of all manifestations of modern culture.

Paradoxically, however, Simmel’s analysis of modernity has been a major source of inspiration for theories of the postmodern. Frisby (1992: 169-174) discusses Simmel’s notion of pure exchange, his emphasis on culture, and the primacy of the aesthetic experience as decisive in this regard. I would add that Simmel’s relationalist approach and his manifold studies of the dyad, the triad, the nobility, the metropolis, silence, secrecy, the stranger, landscapes, sociability, and so forth, may well fit with the postmodern claim for order out of chaos. Simmel’s discussions of the interrelatedness of the fragments of modernity, particularly his Philosophie des Geldes in which he makes excursions into just about every conceivable topic connected to money, ironically fit well with the postmodernist contention that the only thing left to discuss is everything. Yet, it makes sense to argue, as Sassatelli (2000) does, that Simmel’s insistence on relationalism and sociation, in his Philosophie des Geldes as well as across the rest of his oeuvre, should be conceived as “the most perilous interdisciplinary pursuit within modern episteme” (p. 209). To what extent the postmodern appropriation of Simmel’s work can indeed be upheld, particularly given the fact that Simmel’s work had modernist aspirations, how it will come to terms with the persisting influence of the other classics in sociology, and to what extent it may be the case that Simmel’s sociology will be judged not by its original intentions but by the meaning it is ascribed to today, are the central questions theorists will have to address.


I have evaluated Simmel’s study of money in confrontation with the other sociological classics to indicate the markedly ambivalent place of his writings in the history of sociological thought. Although there may be limitations to this discussion of the selected classics, my examination revealed that a striking element in Simmel’s writings, as compared to Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, is his refusal to locate any underlying pivotal force in the course to modernity. The totality of formally interrelated parts is modernity, not its explanation through reference to the capitalist economy (Marx), the mutual influence of culture and economy (Weber), or the changing nature of morality in light of industrialism (Durkheim). Therefore, Simmel can study money ‘as such’, while for Marx, Weber and Durkheim it would make little sense if a monetary theory is not part of, and clarified in relation to, a more broadly explanatory theory of society. In light of these methodological considerations and given the recent reception of Simmel’s work in postmodern theories, there are reasons to argue that Simmel today is a postmodern theorist, precisely to the extent in which he is recognized as such by contemporary commentators. This historical condition at once poses serious theoretical challenges to both sides of the modern-postmodern spectrum. In light of my review of Simmel’s theory in relation to the other classics of sociology, some indications can be given on the directions this debate could take. On the one hand, the present postmodern appraisal of Simmel’s work calls for Simmelian sociologists of a different persuasion to clarify the modernist core of Simmel’s work —how to reconcile such a position with Simmel’s “great indeterminacy” and sheer “enumeration” (Durkheim, 1902-1903: 649), the “diffidence and even indifference” (Frisby, 1987: 423), the emphasis on aesthetics (see Böhringer, 1984; Hübner-Funk, 1984), and his leveling down of society to culture, and how to account for, offer counterweight to, the postmodernist appropriation of his sociology. This may prove a difficult endeavor, given Simmel’s preoccupation to lay bare the non-causal sense of society’s totality through an analysis of its multiplicities, his preoccupation with the forms of social life, and, above all (in light of today’s plurality of lifeworlds), his metaphysical contentions, which, by his own premises, are not just hypothetical statements, but appeal to the “presuppositions of knowledge as such” (“Voraussetzungen des Erkennens überhaupt”, Simmel, 1989: 9).

However, postmodern interpretations of Simmel will have to come to terms with the remaining persistence of the other sociological classics as well as with (the interpretations of) Simmel’s notion of modernity. With regard to the study of money this especially calls for a clarification of Simmel’s analysis vis-a-vis the study of money from a materialist (Marx), multi-causal (Weber), and sociologistic (Durkheim) perspective. Whatever the shortcomings of the perspectives of these theorists may be, each of them, and unlike Simmel’s, have provided a yardstick by which the empirical facts of social life can be systematically ordered with an encompassing but differentiating social theory. With their flight into aesthetic prose and pose, postmodern theories, however, essentially refuse to aspire any longer to this conception of theoretical access to the world. It is the tragedy of their fate that they are nevertheless confronted with their modernist counterparts and the extent to which the latter rely on the classics as contemporaries. Postmodern sociologist thereby will have to address the criticism that they obscure rather than clarify complex societies and prevent an insightful sociological understanding, for instance of the money theme. Ironically, then, given the postmodern appropriation of Simmel, the first sociologist of modernity may well become the first to be judged by an evaluation of its most relentless critics.


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