Georg Simmel — the foreigner and money

Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze), untitled (time_money), 1988.


In his diagnosis of modernity, Georg Simmel sees it as the progressive replacement of proximity by distance


We often hear Georg Simmel characterized as a foreigner, using the very figure he inhabits in his Sociology. This is, for example, the characterization of Georg Simmel as “The Foreigner of the Academy” proposed by the American sociologist Lewis Coser in 1965, referring at the same time to the status of foreigner or stranger with which Simmel moved through the arenas of German academia. .

In turn, in American sociology, which in its beginnings was interested in Simmelian sociological studies, the importance of the figure of the foreigner was recreated by the Chicago sociologist Robert Ezra Park, who was a foreigner in Berlin, where he first received Georg Simmel's teachings. hand. And also, decades later, by the Austrian sociologist Alfred Schütz, who, as a foreigner in New York, returned to the figure that Georg Simmel had outlined.

The foreigner, the one who connects in a peculiar way with the society in which he lives and experiences distances in reverse: he is the one who “experiences the distant as close and the close as distant”.

Let us highlight the experiential condition of the foreigners who rehearse this figure proposed by Georg Simmel, because – we believe this – this is the only way to reflect on this motif. It is necessary, even if episodically – as in the trips we know that Georg Simmel made to Italy and France –, to be outside his homeland to intensely perceive these qualities attributed to the foreigner: “he experiences the near as the distant”.

Let us note that the experiential character, if you like, existential, and even confessional, is a component present in the elaboration of Georg Simmel's sociology, which reappears whenever he questions the meaning of the act of understanding. At the end of his work, in his most vitalist moment, he will maintain that every “interpretation […] will always be, whether we like it or not, a confession of the one who interprets”.[I]

This radical hermeneutic observation is expressive of Georg Simmel's thought. Simmel himself even boasted about his status as a foreigner, which allowed him to have easier access than a Frenchman – perhaps Henri Bergson – to contact with exceptional personalities like Rodin. According to Georg Simmel's recollections, Rodin “knew that he was less committed to foreigners, whom he might not meet a second time, and was therefore more open than with some of his fellow citizens.”[ii] Simmel himself, as a foreigner, was certainly capable of “displaying every kind of attraction and excellence…”.[iii]

Your book Sociology: studies on forms of socialization (1908) is a mosaic of different studies that, in each chapter, continue the methodological proposal outlined in the first. He presents sociology not as the study of society, but as the study of associations, of reciprocal actions that are recreated in different ways at different times. They are analyzed under a particular type of abstraction, which distinguishes between form and content.

In this view, society is observed as a space of permanent interactions between individuals, who move closer and further apart, attract and repel each other, in a continuous process of exchanging effects, with different levels of involvement in relationships. The social appears as a web of threads that connect everyone to everyone. This first chapter constitutes a kind of “manifesto of Simmelian sociology”.[iv] This is fundamental to understanding the scope of “The Stranger”, an essay that is included as a digression in the chapter “Space and Society”.

It is important to highlight this sociological inscription – at least from a sociology sui generis, with a strong personal brand, like that of Georg Simmel – in order to appreciate the double condition of the foreigner: both sociological form and social type. Simmel analyzes, on the one hand, different types of sociation, forms of interaction, of reciprocal actions in which an exchange of effects (interactions) develops constantly. And, on the other hand, social or psychosocial types.

These types are not ideals, as used methodologically by Max Weber, but express a specific position within the social structure or a general category of orientation in the world. Some of these types that Simmel uses in his works are: the foreigner, the poor, the miserable, the wanderer, the urbanite, the coquette, the fashion fanatic, the adventurer, the prostitute, the mountaineer, the gambler. But because of what has been said above, a distinction must be made here between Georg Simmel's sociological treatment of the foreigner or the poor, which are forms of socialization between these types and other members of society and which therefore constitute a sociologically positive form of reciprocal action, and Simmel's philosophical or psychological-philosophical treatment of types such as the adventurer or the coquette in his book Philosophical culture (1911)[v]

In his diagnosis of modernity, Georg Simmel sees it as the progressive replacement of proximity by distance. The signs of modern times are those of the privilege of distances to the detriment of proximity: “the artistic feeling of the present strongly emphasizes, in its essence, the stimulus of distance as opposed to the stimulus of proximity. […] This peculiar tendency to make things act […] at a distance is a sign of modern times common to many fields.” [vi]

Georg Simmel sees a tendency towards detachment that is characteristic of modern man and draws attention to the phenomenon of “fear of contact”, which he does not hesitate to characterize as a pathology of modern times, as “the fear of coming into excessively close contact ”, which is associated with the advancement of money in social relations.

“A fundamental cause of this fear of contact […] is the ever deeper penetration of the monetary economy, which is increasingly destroying the natural economic relations of previous epochs (if this work of destruction has not yet been completely successful )”. [vii]

Georg Simmel attributes to money a mediating role between people and goods and between people and each other, which increases the distances of social experience: “…money, with the expansion of its role, places us at an increasingly distant distance. most essential of objects; the immediacy of impressions, of the feeling of value, of what is capable of provoking interest, is weakened. Our contact with objects is interrupted and we feel them, so to speak, only through a mediation that no longer allows us to fully express their full, proper and immediate being.”[viii]

Thus, Georg Simmel sees the tendency towards expanding distances as an aspect of societies in the age of money, in which the increasing replacement of immediate relationships by a set of mediations is associated with the multiplicity of fragments to the detriment of the unity of the whole. With these elements outlined, about space and distances, we can now return to the Sociology of 1908, to refer to the foreigner in relation to a crucial issue in Simmelian thought: freedom.


The chapter on “Space and society” in its great Sociology contains some of the most expressive pages we owe to Georg Simmel. It contains his reflections on space and domination, on the sociology of the senses, in which appear, among other famous motifs, his reflections on the communism of sensory impressions and his analyzes of metropolitan forms of life. All expressions of the importance of spatial structures for the analysis of the social. According to the idea that the sociological figure of the foreigner appears as a particular type of relationship with territories and societies (arrival and departure), he is distinguished from other traveler figures.

What Georg Simmel calls the foreigner here is a figure opposite to the sedentary man, but, at the same time, distinct, because he is intermediate, from the figures of the nomad and the emigrant. If the sedentary man is the one who fixes his territorial location once and for all, and the emigrant is the one who fixed his position after a displacement, the nomad is the opposite of the first two, he is the one for whom “migration is the substance of his life, and this manifests itself mainly in the limitlessness of his movement, in the circular shape he gives to migration, always returning to the same places.” [ix]

For Georg Simmel, on the other hand, the foreigner is a combination of the types of emigrant and nomad: “He is not the one who comes today and leaves tomorrow, but the one who comes today and stays tomorrow; he is, so to speak, the potential emigrant, who, although he has stopped, has not fully settled.”[X]

Its characteristic in the spatial circle of arrival is that “it does not always belong to it, that it brings to the circle qualities that do not and cannot come from the circle”. In relation to distances, if, in general, all human relationships contain the link between proximity and remoteness, what is particular to the form of the stranger is that “Distance, within the relationship, means that what is close is far away, but Being a foreigner means that what is far away is close.”[xi] This is the formal character of the foreigner: its peculiar synthesis between the distant and the near.

Georg Simmel emphasizes the positive character of the figure of the foreigner as a special form of reciprocal relationship that creates society, in this sense a figure analogous to the poor, who also appear as a positive factor for the social fabric, in terms of improving reciprocal relationships. Note that this is the most characteristic statement of Simmel's sociology, which radically differentiates it from previous versions of the discipline.

If what matters are the forms of sociation, the reciprocal relationships, the exchange of effects, then it is worth looking into these figures (the foreigner, the poor) previously considered as asocial. They constitute forms that sociology, until then, saw as disturbing to society, and in which Georg Simmel finds his positive element, forms such as struggle and conflict.

Finally, Georg Simmel lists a series of attributes of foreigners. First, he highlights that, in the history of the economy, the foreigner appears as a merchant. In several parts of Europe, Simmel points out, foreigners were not legally allowed to buy land and were engaged in trading everything else, including money. When an economy needs goods produced outside its circle, traders need to be foreigners, or else the “foreigners” leave their own circle and go in search of the goods.

Secondly, he points to the objectivity of the foreigner, who, not being radically united to the parts of the group or to their particular tendencies, has towards all these manifestations the peculiar attitude of the “objective”. And it is this condition that gives you a high degree of freedom.

To conclude, we will highlight three aspects of Georg Simmel's considerations about foreigners. First, that “foreignness” is an element of social interaction to some extent inherent in all social relations. It is possible to derive different degrees in the foreigner/family relationship. Secondly, foreigners are a perfectly positive form of relationship for society, as they bring qualities that enrich social life. And thirdly, that the absence of strong spatial ties gives the stranger a special form of individual freedom.

Here we can, for a moment, return to the experiential, existential character of Georg Simmel's sociology and ask ourselves about the travel experiences we had, when we arrived in an unknown city and with which we are also unfamiliar, how much truth there is in this feeling of freedom from abroad. The stranger, because of his particular position of distance and proximity to the members of the circle he arrives in and the one he leaves behind, experiences a type of individual freedom with a singular advantage.


Em Philosophy of money (1900), we read in its first pages that money is the symbol of modernity and also of movement. His chapter on “Individual Freedom” describes the role played by money when, in Europe, it replaced the payment in kind that peasants received when they were freed from their status as vassals. It was partly through money that workers freed themselves from the master's domination over their subjective spheres.

In this regard, he adds, also with regard to money, that “freedom increases with the objectification and depersonalization of the economic cosmos”.[xii] Simultaneously with monetization, peasants gained freedom of movement. If, guided by the liberating city air, they moved to cities, their most likely fate would, however, be alienation through proletarianization.

For Georg Simmel, as for Marx, the relationship between being and having is of paramount importance. For Marx, the possession or non-possession of the means of production determines being. For Marx, Simmel highlights, being “comprises the having of human beings”.[xiii] Discussing this idea, Georg Simmel states that “there is a chain that goes from being to having and, from having back to being”.[xiv]

To this end, investigating the meanings of possession, he offers the following examples: “the peculiarity of possession must also influence the quality and activity of the owner. He who owns a farm or a factory, insofar as he does not cede the business to another and becomes exclusively a rentier, just as he who owns an art gallery or a horse stable, is not completely free in his being, and This means not only that he has his time committed to a completely determined extent and in a completely determined way, but especially that a certain obligation is presupposed for him.”[xv]

In a sense, freedom “is to make being and having mutually independent,” and the possession of money has the virtue of relaxing and breaking the determination of one for the other.[xvi] Thus, the significance of money in dissolving the difference between being and having is positively valued. “Money makes having and being independent.”[xvii]Furthermore, in other passages of the Philosophy of money, freedom is conceived as the interregnum between two obligations. We are free when we free ourselves from an obligation, and only as we assume a new obligation. And, finally, for Georg Simmel, “freedom implies autonomy and self-expansion, in accordance only with one’s own vital law”.[xviii]

We will conclude by remembering the occasion when, referring to the well-known saying that money alone does not bring happiness, Georg Simmel makes a distinction between being and having: “Money, among all things and everything that is of its order , it is nothing to us unless we have it. But above are the stars and other stars and they make us happy, although we do not need to covet or possess them (…) But spiritual things and that which has its value in form are beyond the question of having or not having. A Böcklin landscape mocks the one who confines it to his possession and rejoices only the one who can enjoy it, even if he cannot “have” it. This is the immovable dividing line between plebeianism and the aristocracy of values: that some we can even have without making us happy, and others make us happy even if we don't have them”.[xx]

Among the analogies that, in conclusion, we can find this morning between the figures of foreigners and money, we can allude to three common issues. The first is the mobility that characterizes both. Money has its meaning in its “perpetual mobility”; the foreigner, on the other hand, “is not the one who comes today and leaves tomorrow, but the one who comes today and stays tomorrow; he is the potential migrant, who, although he has stopped, has not completely settled.”[xx] .

The second is common objectivity. That of money is that of the precision of the calculation. That of foreigners, relative, is the predilection that Georg Simmel describes for foreign judges, due to their possible greater neutrality of interests in relation to those who belong to their own circle. Finally, a third common treatment of money and foreign can be found in relation to trust, which is crucial to dealing with both. And this is one of Georg Simmel's most fruitful contributions to sociology.

*Esteban Vernik He is a full professor of sociology at the Facultad de Ciencias Sociales at the University of Buenos Aires. Author, among other books, of Georg Simmel, sociologist of life (Quadrata/National Library).

Adapted version of the master class given in the postgraduate program in social sciences at the Federal University of Bahia, on April 26, 2024.

Translation: Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri.


[I] Georg Simmel, Goethe, Buenos Aires, Nova, 1949, p. 10.

[ii] Georg Simmel, “Recuerdos de Rodin” (1917), in The individual and freedom. Cultural criticism essays, Barcelona, ​​Peninsula, 1986, p. 212.

[iii] Georg Simmel, Sociology. Studies on forms of socialization, t. 1, Buenos Aires, Espasa Calpe-Argentina, 1939, p. 275.

[iv] Chapter 1 includes the 1894 article, “El problema de la sociología”, which, with few modifications, will also pass as chapter 1, to the more vitalist version that Simmel published in 1917, under the title Fundamental sociology questions, Barcelona, ​​Gedisa, 2002.

[v] The original title of this collection of essays published by Simmel in 1911, Philosophische Kultur, was translated into Spanish first as Female culture and other essays (Madrid, Revista de Occidente, 1934) and later as About the adventure. Philosophical essays (Barcelona, ​​Península, 1988) – without clarifying which criteria the editors adopted in each case.

[vi] Ibid., P. 225.

[vii] Ibid., P. 227.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Georg Simmel, Sociology…, on. cit., P. 260.

[X] Ibid., P. 273.

[xi] Ibid., P. 274.

[xii] Georg Simmel, Philosophy of money. Madrid, Instituto de Estudios Políticos, 1977, p. 363.

[xiii] Ibid., P. 368.

[xiv] Ibid., P. 368.

[xv] Ibid., P. 368.

[xvi] Ibid., P. 388.

[xvii] Ibid., P. 385.

[xviii] Ibid., P. 377.

[xx] Georg Simmel, Momentary images sub specie aeternitais. Barcelona, ​​Gedisa, 2007, p. 41.

[xx] Simmel, Sociology…, P. 653-4.

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