Georg Simmel Research Paper

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Georg Simmel was born in the heart of Berlin on March 1, 1858. He was the youngest son of Flora (born Bodstein) and Eduard Simmel, who, although coming from Jewish families, had been baptized into Christianity (he as a Catholic, she as a Protestant). Following the early death of Simmel’s father in 1874, the family suffered serious financial difficulties, which, where the young Georg was concerned, were overcome thanks to Julius Friedlander, a friend of the family (co-founder of the music publishing company ‘Peters’). Friedlander felt a strong sympathy for the young Simmel, and indeed took him under his wing as his protege. Thus, Georg could attend high school and then university in Berlin, where he studied philosophy, history, art history, and social psychology (Volkerpsychologie). Simmel received his degree as Doctor of Philosophy in 1881, but not without difficulty: his first attempt at a doctoral thesis, ‘Psychological and Ethnological Studies on the Origins of Music,’ was not accepted, and he had instead to submit his previous work on Kant, On the Essence of Matter—Das Wesen der Materie nach Kant’s Physischer Monadologie, which had earned him a prize (Kohnke 1996). The Habilitation (postdoctoral qualification to lecture) came next in 1885, for which he also encountered some controversy, and after this his academic career began immediately as a Pri atdozent (external lecturer). An extraordinary (außerordentliche) professorship without salary followed in 1901, and indeed he had to wait until 1914 before he was offered a regular professorship at the University of Strasbourg, where he remained until his death on September 26, 1918, shortly before the end of the First World War.

During his lifetime, Simmel was a well-known figure in Berlin’s cultural world. He did not restrict himself merely to scientific or academic matters, but consistently showed great interest in the politics of his time, including contemporary social problems and the world of the arts. He sought to be in the presence of, and in contact with, the intellectuals and artists of his day. He married the painter Gertrud Kinel, with whom he had a son, Hans, and maintained friendships with Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, and Auguste Rodin, amongst many others. At his home in Berlin, he organized private meetings and seminars (Simmel’s pri atissimo), whose participants he would choose personally.

1. Georg Simmel And The Social Sciences

Simmel’s contributions to the social sciences are immeasurable. Nevertheless, most of them remain misunderstood, or have been separated from the intentions of their creator, and, thus, their origins have been forgotten. From system theory to symbolic interactionism, almost all sociological theories need to rediscover Simmel as one of their main founding parents.

Simmel’s interest in the social sciences, especially in sociology, can be traced to the very beginning of his academic career. After attending seminars offered by Moritz Lazarus and Heymann Steinthal (founders of The Volkerpsychologie) during his student years, he be- came a member of Gustav Schmoller’s circle, where he became acquainted with the debates concerning the national economy of the time, and for whom he held a conference on The Psychology of Money (GSG2 1989, pp. 49–65), which would later constitute the first pillar of one of his major works, The Philosophy of Money (Frisby and Kohnke 1989). In both of these circles Simmel became more aware of, and sensitized towards, social questions. Schmoller’s engagement with social questions, together with Lazarus’ and Steinthal’s emphasis on the level of ‘Uberindividualitat’ (supraindividuality), and their relativistic worldview and insistence that ethical principles are not of universal validity, as well as Simmel’s own interest in Spencer’s social theory, all helped to shape the contours of his sociological approach. These various influences were melded together with Simmel’s philosophical orientation, particularly his interest in Kant, which yielded a new and rather far-reaching sociological perspective that would evolve extensively throughout his life.

For example, Simmel’s first sociological work, On Social Differentiation (Uber Sociale Differenzierung: GSG2 1989), written at the very beginning of his academic career, was deeply influenced by Herbert Spencer and the ideas of Gustav Schmoller and his circle. Slowly, however, as the 1890s drew on, the admiration Simmel had felt for Spencer’s theories turned into rejection, and he distanced himself from an evolutionary-organicist approach to sociology. In this rejection of such theories, he brought his knowledge of Kant to his sociological thinking, and this would become the basis of his later contact and dialogue with the members of the southern-German neo-Kantian school, such as Rickert, Windelband, and with the sociologist who was closest to their ideas: Max Weber. This contact with neo-Kantianism influenced Simmel’s approach to the social sciences at the end of the nineteenth century and during the first years of the 1900s.

From contemporary testimonies we know that Simmel was in fact one of the greatest lecturers at the University of Berlin, and that his seminars were attended by a great number of students (Gassen and Landmann 1993). It is thus difficult to understand why Simmel did not have a more successful academic career. We know from his correspondences and from Gassen and Landmann’s attempts to reconstruct Simmel’s life and oeuvre that Georg Jellinek engaged himself, though with no positive results, in seeking to obtain an ordinary professorship for Simmel at the University of Heidelberg in 1908 (with, following Jellinek’s death, a further attempt by Alfred Weber in 1912, and another in 1915). His converted Jewish background (i.e., assimilated into German society) surely played a significant role in the lack of recognition Simmel received from the academic system; but also his peculiar and original understanding of science, which diverged greatly from established patterns, as well as his characteristic mode of writing, using essays instead of more ‘academic’ and standardized forms, contributed to his not being accepted into the rather formal and classical German academic milieu. Both attempts at obtaining a professorship for Simmel were blocked by the bureaucracy of the Grand Dukedom of Baden. In fact the letter of evaluation written by the Berlin historian Schafer regarding a possible professorship for Simmel in Heidelberg in 1908 has as the primary argument for denying Simmel’s potential ability to be a good professor his ‘Jewishness,’ which, according to Schafer, too obviously tinged Simmel’s character and intellectual efforts with a strong relativism and negativity, which could not be good for any student (Gassen and Landmann 1993, Kohnke 1996). Throughout his life Simmel had to fight against these kinds of accusation, and he endeavored to build a ‘positive relativism’ in an attempt to show that he did not question ‘absolute pillars’ and thus leave us with nothing, but sought instead to show that this sense of ‘absoluteness’ was also a product of human reciprocal actions and effects (Wechselwirkungen), and was not fundamentally absolute. Such an argument was too much for the society and scientific milieu of the time to accept and forgive, even when Simmel later radically rejected his Introduction to the Moral Science (Einleitung in die Moralwissenschaften: GSG3 1989 GSG4, 1991), referring to it as a sin of his youth. This was the work in which his relativism, in the critical, ‘negative’ sense, had been most fully in bloom (Kohnke 1996).

Notwithstanding these varying approaches to sociology, Simmel’s interest in the discipline persisted right through his career. When Simmel, in his letter to Celestin Bougle of March 2, 1908, wrote: ‘At the moment I am occupied with printing my Sociology, which has finally come to its end,’ and, sentences later, added that work on this book ‘had dragged on for fifteen years’ (Simmel Archive at the University of Bielefeld) he indicated that his engagement with sociology was a long-term project. Considering that Sociology (Sociologie)was first published in 1908 (and therefore his work on it must have begun around 1893), we can find its first seed in his article The Problem of Sociology (Das Problem der Sociologie) originally published in 1894. Simmel must have thought this research paper a significant contribution to sociology, since he endeavored to spread it abroad as much as possible. Hence, the French translation of The Problem of Sociology appeared, simultaneously with the original German version, in September 1894. The American translation appeared in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science a year later, and, by the end of the century, the Italian and Russian translations were also in print. The American translation is of particular significance, since Simmel emphasized therein, in a footnote, that sociology involved an empirical basis and research, and should not be thought of as an independent offshoot from philosophy, but as a science concerning the social problems of the nineteenth century. In the Italian translation he delivered an updated version of the text, wherein he introduced clear references to his theoretical polemic with Emile Durkheim. From his letter to Celestin Bougle of February 15, 1894, we know that Simmel was, after the completion of The Problem of Sociology, quite excited by this new discipline, and that he did not foresee a shift away to any other fields of inquiry in his immediate future. During those years he worked on most of the key sociological areas of research, thus articulating the key social problems of his time within a sociological framework: for example, workers’ and women’s movements, religion, the family, prostitution, medicine, and ethics, amongst many others. He seemed deeply interested in putting his new theoretical proposals and framework for the constitution of sociology into practice. He realised the institutionalisation of the new discipline would be reinforced by the establishment of journals for the discipline; hence his participation in: the ‘Institut Internationale de Sociologie,’ for whom he became vice-president; the American Journal of Sociology, and, although only briefly (due to differences with Emile Durkheim), l’Annee sociologique (Rammstedt 1992, p. 4). He also played with the idea of creating his own sociological magazine. Another means of solidifying the role of sociology within the scientific sphere was through the academia, and he engaged himself in organising sociological seminars, offering them uninterruptedly from 1893 until his death in 1918. On June 15, 1898, he wrote to Jellinek ‘I am absolutely convinced that the problem, which I have presented in the Sociology, opens a new and important field of knowledge, and the teaching of the forms of sociation as such, in abstraction from their contents, truly represents a promising synthesis, a fruitful and immense task and understanding’ (Simmel Archive at the University of Bielefeld) Despite his original intention, it is clear Simmel did not work continuously on the Sociology for 15 years as, from 1897 to 1900, he worked almost exclusively on The Philosophy of Money (Philosophie des Geldes), and also found time for the writing and publication of his Kant (1904), as well as a reprint of his Introduction to the Moral Sciences (1904), which he had intended to rewrite, for he no longer accepted most of the ideas he had presented therein when it was first published in 1892 (although he did not achieve this); the revised edition of The Problems of the Philosophy of History (Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie 1905), (The Philosophy of Fashion (Philosophie der Mode 1905), and Religion Die Religion 1906 1912) were all worked on by Simmel during this period too (Rammstedt 1992b). In The Problem of Sociology he questioned for the first time the lack of a theoretically well-defined object of study for the emerging discipline, and sought to develop a specific sociological approach, which would entail a distinct object of study, in order to bestow legitimacy and scientific concreteness to a discipline, under attack from different, and more settled, lines of fire. Fearing his call had not been heard, Simmel endeavored to prove his point by writing a broader work, within which he attempted to put into practice the main guidelines he had suggested as being central to the newly emerging discipline. In this way the Sociology, almost one thousand pages long, was cobbled together from various bits and pieces, taken from several essays he had written between the publication of The Problem of Sociology in 1894 and its final completion in 1908. Simmel, as can be understood from his letters, was aware of the incompleteness of this work, but rescued it by saying that it was an attempt to realise that which he had suggested almost 15 years earlier, for it had not been noticed enough by the scientific community. Simmel did not wish, by that time, to be thought of as only a sociologist. This was due to sociology not being an established discipline within the academic world, which therefore did not allow him to obtain a professorship in the field (i.e., offering very little recognition). Nevertheless he never quite abandoned the field of sociology and continued to write about religion, women’s issues, and the family. He merely broadened his scope to include Lebensphilosophie (the philosophy of life) and cultural studies in general, whilst participating at the same time in the founding of the German Sociological Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Soziologie), for whom he served as one of the chairmen until 1913.

Sociology marks the end of Simmel’s strongly Kantian period, and represents a turning point in his interests, for, from this moment onwards, he refused to be labeled as a sociologist, seeking instead to return to philosophy. Indeed, following the publication of the ‘big’ Sociology, as it is usually called by those who work in Simmel studies, he did not publish any sociological papers for nine years (although he continued, as has already been mentioned, to offer sociological seminars until his death), instead devoting his efforts to philosophy, history and the philosophy of art. Hence, as part of Simmel’s output from these years we find, amongst other works, Kant und Goethe (Kant und Goethe 1906 1916), Goethe (1913), Kant (1904 1913 1918), The Principal Problems of Philosophy (Hauptprobleme der Philosophie 1911), The Philosophical Culture (Philosophische Kultur 1911 1918), and Rembrandt (1916). This new direction was accompanied and partly motivated by Simmel’s acknowledgment of Henri Bergson’s hoeu re, and his inclination towards Lebensphilosophie (the philosophy of life; see Fitzi 1999, GSG16 1999). Thus, ‘life’ became the primary focus of Simmel’s theoretical work, and consequently ‘society’ was pushed into a secondary role. During these years Simmel occupied himself with the study of artists, of their production, and how the relation between life and its formal expression is crystallised in their work. It was as if Simmel had lost interest in sociology, as he did not write a single line concerning it for years. Yet, unexpectedly in 1917, a year before his death, he wrote Grundfragen der Soziologie (Main Questions of Sociology), the ‘small sociology,’ as it is called by Simmel scholars (i.e., in contrast to his 1908 work). The impetus for writing this book came from a publisher (Sammlung Goschen), who intended to print an introductory work to sociology, which he invited Simmel to write, because of the success other works of his had enjoyed for the same publisher. If Simmel had indeed distanced himself from all sociological questions, it is likely he would have merely reached for the shelf to his previous works and rewritten them in shorter form. But this was not the case, because, although he utilised older material, Simmel rewrote and redefined his perspective, and in the Main Questions of Sociology, scarcely 100 pages long, presented the final stage of his sociological reflections, which melded together his previous study of forms of sociation with a perspective from the philosophy of life. This approach to sociology fell into neglect after his death, awaiting revitalisation, harbouring a broad scope and original perspective for new generations of sociologists to rediscover (Simmel’s last work was a philosophical contribution to Lebensphilosophie, the Lebensanschauung—View of Life—1918, GSG16 1999).

2. The Object Of Sociology

At a time when sociology was still far from being an established discipline, instead seeking to stand up and open its eyes for the first time, Simmel sought to release it from the burden of being ‘the science of society.’ According to him this burden was an impossible one for the new-born discipline to carry, since being the science of society meant having to compete with already settled and established disciplines for the legitimacy of its object of study; law and history, psychology and ethnology, all could argue the case that society was their object, thus leaving sociology with the mere pretence of including elements from them all. Viewed from this perspective, as an object society was an all-encompassing matter but, at the same time, it eluded any scientific investigation, just like sand falling through our fingers. Simmel, as Max Weber two decades later, contributed to the demystification of ‘society’ as some kind of essential entity (as it appeared in nineteenth-century sociology, and remained as such in the sociology of Durkheim and Tonnies), instead explaining it as a dynamic process, a continuous happening, a continuous becoming, which is nothing more than the mere sum of the existing forms of sociation.

Individuals as well as society/vies are not units in and of themselves, though they may appear as self-sufficient units depending on the distance the observer interposes between him/herself and them (as observed objects). However, Simmel argued in his Main Questions of Sociology (GSG16 1999, pp. 62–8) that if we merely take individuals and pretend, through adopting a significant distance, to approach ‘society,’ or a social phenomenon, we will not reach our goal. Therefore, when conducting a sociological inquiry, what we must seek to do is base ourselves on the forms of sociation, which are built in Wechselwirkung. Simmel used this concept when either addressing ‘interactions’ or following the Kantian definition as ‘reciprocal actions and effects’ (Simmel 1978). The difference between the two possible meanings of this concept, or, more precisely, the differentiation of the two different concepts hidden behind the same word, has been addressed in the English translation of The Philosophy of Money; so the usual mistake of translating Wechselwirkung as a direct synonym for interaction has been corrected. According to Simmel, what actually takes place between individuals will be seen to be that which constitutes the object of sociology, not merely the individuals by themselves, or society as a whole, for, as previously mentioned, society is nothing but the sum of forms of sociation, a continuous process in and for which these forms intertwine and combine themselves to form the whole (GSG11 1992, p. 19). Thus, Simmel defined society as the sum of the forms of reciprocal actions and effects.

3. The Concept Of ‘Form’

If we take reciprocal actions and effects as our starting point, we achieve only a perspective common to all social and human sciences: sociology as method. In order to construct sociology as an independent discipline, with a specific object of study, it is necessary to analytically differentiate between form and content, that is, ‘forms’ as means and patterns of interaction between individuals, social groups or institutions, and ‘contents’ as that which leads us to act, the emotions or goals of human beings. Thus, social forms were conceived as being the object of analysis for a scientific sociology, which would only be possible empirically. Contents, on the other hand, should be left to other disciplines, such as psychology or history, to analyze.

Simmel’s sociological theory is orientated towards these ‘forms of sociation’ (defined as such in the subtitle of Sociology). For individuals to become social, they need to rely on such forms in order to channel their contents, as forms represent their only means of participation in social interaction. Forms are independent from contents, and when analyzing them, it is necessary that they are abstracted from individual, particular participation in concrete interactions: the question of social forms does not include that regarding the specific relationships between the participants involved in concrete interactions; we are dealing only with that which is between them, as for an analysis of social forms the particular individuals involved in them are irrelevant. Human beings, with their particular ‘contents,’ only become social when they seek to realise these contents, and then acknowledge this is only possible in a social framework: via ‘exteriorising,’ via acting through forms. Hence forms are social objectivations, which impose themselves, with their norms, upon particular individuals, an imposition which could only be annulled by isolation. These impositions and constraints are part of what sociation is, a concept which plays a key role in Simmel’s theory, for he actually maintained that human beings are not social beings by nature. Simmel placed sociation, as a product of reciprocal actions and effects, at the centre of his formal, or pure (reine), sociology. The form of competition can be used as an example of what Simmel actually meant by ‘forms.’ Competition does not imply any specific contents, and remains the same, independent of those who are competing, or what they are competing for. Competition forms ‘contents’ (such as job seeking, or looking for the attention of a beloved person, amongst many others), limits the boundaries of actions, and actually brings them into being via giving them a framework and shape in which they can appear in the arena of actions and effects.

This situation of having the choice between multiple forms for channelling one content is stressed appreciatively in Simmel’s sociology, particularly in his Lebensphilosophie, when he no longer contrasted the concept of form with the concept of content, but with life. In this later period, forms are the crystallization of the unretainable flow of life, yet also the channels of expressing life, for life cannot be expressed as only itself. Simmel explained this apparent paradox by asserting that life is ‘more-life’ and also ‘more-thanlife.’ The concept of ‘more-life’ merely implies that this continuous flow connects every complete moment with the next; ‘more-than-life’ implies that life is not life if it does not transcend its boundaries, and becomes crystallized in a form. So life becomes art, or science, for example; life becomes externalised and crystallised and hence expressed and fulfilled. For instance, we should understand art as one form of expressing (aussern) life through (artistic, aesthetic) forms. Actually uncovering how this perspective can be applied to sociology may appear to be a difficult task; the first step towards clarifying this was made by Simmel himself in his Main Questions of Sociology.

4. ‘Me’ And ‘You’

Deliberately distancing himself from the concept of ‘alter ego,’ Simmel emphasized the signific1ance the concept of ‘you’ should have to all sociological theory. He articulated and embedded this concept within his—sociological—theory of knowledge. In parallel with Kant’s question on nature, Simmel formulated this question as ‘How is society possible?’ the first and well known digression of his Sociology. In order to answer this question he proposed three a priori. According to the first, ‘Me’ and ‘You’ would see each other as ‘to some extent generalised’ (GSG11 1992, p. 47), and he therefore assumed that each individual’s perception of the other (i.e., ‘you’) would also be generalized to a certain degree. The second a priori affirms that each individual as an ‘element of a group is not only a part of the society, but, on top of this, also something else’ (GSG11 1992, p. 51) that derives its own uniqueness, its individuality from the duality of being not being sociated. The third a priori is related to the assignment of each individual to a position within their society (in the sense of the sum of highly differentiated reciprocal actions and effects): ‘that each individual is assigned, according to his qualities, to a particular position within his social milieu: that this position, which is ideally suited to him, actually exists within the social whole—this is the supposition according to which every individual lives his social life’ (GSG11 1992, p. 59); this is what Simmel meant when he wrote about the ‘general value of individuality.’

These sociological a priori, orientated towards role, type, and individual society, also allow us to understand the central aspects of Simmel’s methodology, which can be framed together with the concepts of ‘differentiation,’ in the sense of division and difference, and of ‘dualism,’ in the sense of an irreconcilable, tragic opposition of the elements of a social whole.

5. A Proposal For Three Sociologies

According to Simmel sociology needed to stand as an autonomous science in close relationship with ‘the principal problem areas’ (GSG16 1999, pp. 76–84) of social life, even when these areas were distant from each other. Already in 1895 he asserted that just which name to give to any particular group was quite unimportant, since the real question was to state problems and to solve them, and not at all to discuss the names which we should give to any particular groups (1895, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 6: 420). He stressed this orientation into problem areas again in 1917, when he returned to theorizing on the Main Questions of Sociology. Thus, as an attempt to approach these main questions (i.e., which relationships exist between society and its elements, individuals) he concentrated on three different sets of problems with concrete examples, particularly in the third part of the first chapter. The first focuses on objectivity as a component of the social sphere of experience; the second includes the actual facts of life, in which, and through which, social groups are realised; and the third emphasises the significance of society (Fitzi and GSG16 1999, p. 84) for grasping and understanding attitudes towards the world and life. These three problem areas correspond to his three proposed sociologies: the ‘general sociology,’ which, wherever society exists, deals with the central relationships between the individuals and the social constructions resulting from them. The aim of general sociology is to show which reciprocally orientated values these social constructions and individuals possess. He gave an example for general sociology in the second chapter of the Main Questions of Sociology, by illustrating the relationships which exist between the ‘social and the individual level,’ a perspective which, at the same time, sociologizes the masses theory. The ‘pure or formal’ sociology focuses upon the multiple forms individuals use to embody contents, that is, emotions, impulses, and goals, in reciprocal actions and effects with others, be it with other people, social groups, or social organizations, and thus they constitute society. According to him, each form wins, entwined in these social processes, ‘an own life, a performance, which is free from all roots in contents’ (GSG16 1999, p. 106). The example Simmel chose for his formal sociology was the form of ‘sociability’ (Geselligkeit), which he presented in the third chapter of the Main Questions of Sociology. Finally, the ‘philosophical sociology’ circles the boundary of the ‘exact, orientated towards the immediate understanding of the factual’ (GSG16 1999, p. 84) empirical sociology: on the one hand the theory of knowledge (Erkenntnistheorie), on the other, the attempts to complement, through hypothesis and speculation, the unavoidably fragmentary character of factual, empirical phenomena (Empirie), in order to build a complete whole (GSG16 1999, p. 85). In the fourth chapter, entitled ‘The Individual and Society in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Views of Life’, Simmel illustrated the abstract necessity of individual freedom, which should be understood as a reaction to the contemporary, increasing, social constraints and obligations. Thus, reference is made to general conflicts between individual and society, which derive from the irreconcilable conflict between the idea of society as a whole, which ‘requires from its elements the onesidedness of a partial function,’ and the individual, who knows him herself to be only partially socialized, and ‘him herself who wants to be whole’ (GSG16 1999, p. 123).

6. Simmel And Modern Sociology

Simmel’s theoretical significance to contemporary sociology resides in the various theories, which built on his sociology. As examples, it will be sufficient to name symbolic interactionism, conflict theory, functionalism, the sociology of small groups, and theories of modernity. Simmel also introduced into sociology the essay as an academic form of analysis, whilst his digressions within Sociology should be mentioned as well, for they have become generally recognized as classical texts; see, for example, his digressions on ‘The Letter’ (Brief ), ‘Faithfulness’ (Treue), ‘Gratefulness’ (Dankbarkeit), and ‘The Stranger’ (Fremde). But above all sociology owes Simmel the freedom he gave it from the fixation on the ‘individual and society’ as an ontic object—in hindsight, a point of no return.


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